The Helen Keller Myth

kellerThere are many videos of Helen Keller on YouTube. They have a myriad of inane titles – “HELEN KELLER SPEAKS OUT.”“HELEN KELLER IN HER KITCHEN”  – “HELEN KELLER VISITS INDIA” – “HELEN KELLER AND HER DOGS”. It is almost as if our Helen was the original reality TV queen. What is cringe-worthy is that they all seem so staged to inspire. If they were made today I wonder what disability activist would make of them. Stella Young would weep in frustration.

I was sent a link for an old Helen Keller video that is on YouTube. I watched about 20 other similar videos and ironically only one of them was captioned. Some had the YouTube voice generated captions which are no access at all. I encourage you to watch, not for the accessibility of the captioning, but for the fun translations. Like the one below.

Keller
Screen shot of Helen Keller showing YouTube absurd voice generated captioning which reads, ” Million cannot forty  years we really have been in June”

For those that do not know, Helen Keller is a famous woman who was deafblind. Born in 1880 she became deafblind through illness at just 18 months old. It is said that she went languageless until she was six or seven years old. Around this age her mother heard of the work of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and famous for his work educating the deaf. Bell introduced Helen’s mother to Anne Sullivan who set about teaching Keller to communicate with great success.

Apparently Sullivan struggled for a time to get Keller to communicate. Keller, apparently, had a few rudimentary home signs but that was all. As the legend goes, one day Sullivan held young Keller’s hand under running water and spelled the letters water into her hand. The penny dropped. Any one who has watched the movie, The Miracle Worker, will remember the awakening scene when Keller suddenly associates the symbols in her hand with the running water and screams WAH WAH!!!! The rest is history.

Anyway, as I was saying someone sent me a link to a video. In this video our Helen is meeting dancer, Martha Graham. Being the miracle that she is Helen is enjoying the music. She places her hand over Martha’s face and feels the vibrations of her singing, even singing out loud the last line. She puts her hands over the drums while the drummer is playing and feels the beat in the very air. There is a dancer moving his legs  and body gracefully as Helen feels him up.  Its actually quite creepy. Watch for yourself below.

The interesting thing is that Keller spoke using her voice. This is interesting because Keller lost her hearing at 18 months old, this would have been well before she had mastered any speech. Being blind she would not have been able to lipread and she did not get any formal education or therapy until she was six years of age. In one of the videos Keller’s teacher, Sullivan, explains how she taught her to speak.

Apparently Keller’s thumb was placed on the speakers throat where she felt the vibrations. One finger is placed on the mouth to feel how the words are shaped by the lips and another is placed on the nose, presumably to feel the nasal sounds.

There is a wonderful video where Sullivan demonstrates how this was done with Keller. The last line of the video – I AM NOT DUMB NOW, spoken by Keller, has to be one of the first ever examples  of inspiration porn. Watch it below.

One wonders with Keller what is the myth and what is the reality. With her speech she clearly is deaf. Being deaf myself I really can not assess the clarity of her speech so I asked two hearing people to listen to her speaking. It is apparent that Keller’s voice was not easy to understand. When she spoke a person would translate her speech for the audience. Fascinatingly, one of my hearing friends said that even though Keller was hard to understand, she had an accent. My friend said it made her think that she was a person that had been previously hearing and therefore had developed an accent. For myself, watching the video and seeing how the interpreter just translates Keller’s voice with ease, I wonder just how much is actually contrived.

Eerily, some Helen Keller fanatic put together a video of her speaking. It was an animated video that had been put together using computer software called Crazy Talk.  I have no idea what she said and can only assume that the maker of the video wanted to inspire us by showing us how Helen Keller would look if she spoke. I tried using the voice generated captioning feature to get some sense of what Keller was saying but gave up when the caption read – “WANT WONT BOO BOO BOO OF MOO” No I am not joking, that is an actual voice generated caption. You can watch this really CREEPY video below.

I have always been a skeptic of claims about Helen Keller. For me she was a travelling side show. I have no doubt that her minders ensured that she had the best life possible and that as a result Keller enjoyed a very fruitful life. But there is always this cynic in me that says that Keller’s minders were in it as much for themselves as they were for her. In other words their motives were not altogether altruistic.

It seems that I am not the only one. Calvin Klavan claims that Keller was a fraud. Klavan wrote a 675 page book in 2010 titled the Keller Fraud. In his book Klavan claims that Keller had an, “alternate existence” in which she was neither Blind nor Deaf and where she, “..was a con-woman exploiting American sympathies.” Bizarrely Klavan actually claims that Keller’s real name is Kelly Heller and that she was actually a jazz musician and African-American. ( http://glossynews.com/top-stories/201004011105/historian-casts-doubt-on-helen-keller-legacy/ )

Me thinks Calvin may have had a screw loose. But what is actually fact and what is actually myth about Keller we will probably never know. She was clearly very stage managed and probably the motives that some of her minders had were far from pure. Indeed she had her eyes removed because one bulged and was a bit unsightly. The operation was purely cosmetic and after the operation she appeared in public with glass eyes. The decision was made because she was apparently a very attractive woman and the removal of her eyes enhanced her appearance.  Perhaps there was a lot more show than people are willing to let on.

In the interest of balance I urge the reader to read Ozick’s essay – WHAT HELEN KELLER SAW – Ozick is far kinder than I to Keller’s legacy.

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3 thoughts on “The Helen Keller Myth

  1. I have no doubt that Hellen Keller’s minders were exploiting her, pretty common then. Women were surrendered to mental institutions for far less, like no longer being desirable to their husbands. So given the times, she was a success. Terrible to learn that about her eyes being removed, ugh!

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