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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13 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!

    • It sounds terrible, but it may not have only been for cosmetic reasons. If her eye was protruding she might have had a tumor or glaucoma, and not known it because she couldn’t see to begin with. It may have saved her life.

      • I think Herrmann [a recent biographer of Keller] may have considered that [the eye diseases].

        Sullivan herself had glaucoma or macular degeneration at the end of her life.

        As for the tumour…

        Keller, as we know, was up with many of the preventions of blindness and “saving sight” through the Lions Clubs and their mission.

        Or it could have been something entirely different like hypothyroidism or Graves.

        [I am not sure if that were in Keller’s medical history].

        I hope it was a lifesaving operation if that were the case.

        The protruding eye thing does not seem to have been covered as much in the Lash biography [1980 – Herrmann was published in 1998 – and there are probably no more magisterial biographies of Keller and/or Sullivan].

        If there had been changes in the socket…

        And a lot of people press their eyes – which may be an early sign of changes in pressure.

    • No I am pragmatic and can see exploitation for what it is .. as for you …. I’m sorry your mind is not capable on analysing things for what they are …I suggest you crawl back into the ignorant hole that you asked me to go …

    • Hi Joshua,

      In the Disability Visibility Project a few months ago there was an article called Stop making movies of Helen Keller

      which showed the diversity of the Deaf-Blind communities around the world and in the USA.

      It was written by a Colombian-American student.

      My fear is that if Helen Keller were a little girl in the 21st century her meltdowns and tempers would be recorded for the world to see.

  2. This ignores Helen Keller’s agency in a way that doesn’t really sit well with me. She had her own beliefs and ambitions, and she was very outspoken about them. She was a co-founder of the ACLU, she advocated for women’s suffrage and birth control access, she was an outspoken socialist and anti-war activist, she supported the NAACP almost from its founding (and she was also into eugenics, which has not aged as well as her other beliefs). She herself wrote about how people chose to only see her as inspiration porn and ignored/ downplayed her political views. She learned to speak so that she could do speeches herself and wouldn’t have to rely on anyone (basically, so that no one could twist/ filter her words). Especially when she was middle-aged, she was very outspoken and was far from the universally beloved media darling you’d expect if she was being controlled/ manipulated by her companions.

    I do think a lot of the ~inspirational moments~ and corny old-timey shorts were patronizing at the time (and are gross now), but I also think it’s very likely she knew exactly what was happening and chose to play into the inspirational story aspect to gain exposure for the issues she cared about. The more fame and sympathy she had, the more chances she got to influence people on socialism and feminism and accommodating Deaf and/or blind people. I don’t know if that was exactly the right decision, but she might’ve thought it was the only way people would listen to her in the time and place she lived.

    Anyway, sorry for how long this is, but I don’t want to make it seem like I’m just criticizing you for being “mean” the way some people here are. Calling out the patronizing toxic positivity around Helen Keller IS important, but ignoring/ downplaying her intelligence and agency just plays into the patronizing narrative in a different way.

    • Generic Username:

      I know – the opportunity is the point!

      Intelligence must have an outlet; agency must have a purpose

      Yes – she wrote about this in MIDSTREAM and in TEACHER.

      True about her motive in learning to speak [that was part of it – so was communicating with her friends and family in the medium they best understood].

      This would have enabled hearing-sighted people to better access that intelligence and agency and include it on an equal basis.

      So often naked speech is filtered and twisted.

      Many of the communication methods Keller had access to are not so easily filtered and twisted without destroying or maligning their integrity.

      Patronising then; gross now – I get you on this one.

      [Fortunately I was able to form my own image of Keller based on things my mother and paternal grandmother had told me – and from her own writings].

  3. In the films they explain that Anne Sullivan communicates with Helen by Signing into/against Helen’s hand. Isn’t it odd that Helen NEVER Signs back the same way, even though she would be fully capable of doing so.

    Isn’t it also amazing that she ” She was a co-founder of the ACLU, she advocated for women’s suffrage and birth control access, she was an outspoken socialist and anti-war activist, she supported the NAACP almost from its founding.”… hmmm… you know a suspicious person would have to wonder if Helen supported all of that or her handler Anne Sullivan.

    • We know that Sullivan was conservative.

      It was John Macy who facilitated much of Keller’s more radical positions.

      He was just about her age.

      And Keller had lived experience of what was called anti-Negro sentiment after the Civil War.

      The only time/degree that Sullivan would have influenced those views – was about birth control. I mean, eugenics.

      And this was done through Michael Anagnos [the director of Perkins until 1909].

      [whether blind people should marry was a hotly contested issue at the time].

      There is a difference between the ACCESS TO birth control and the USE OF birth control.

      And Annie Sullivan wanted to go to at least one war to serve there.

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