The Teacher and the Student
Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller
by Kim Neilsen
Boston: Beacon Press, 2009, 320 pp., $28.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Deborah Kent
Since the late nineteenth century, the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy has been etched on the popular imagination. William Gibson’s 1959 play , followed by the 1962 feature film of the same title, amplified and reinforced the familiar tale. The young teacher, Anne Sullivan, rescues the deaf and blind child, Helen Keller, from a life of silence and darkness. In a transformative moment at an outdoor pump, Sullivan spells “w-a-t-e-r” into Helen’s hand and for the first time the child comprehends that words have meaning.
The basic story seems clear and straightforward. Helen Keller (1880-1968) was born into a well-to-do family in Tuscumbia, Alabama. At the age of twenty months she lost her sight and hearing due to a severe illness. Unable to communicate verbally, indulged in every whim by her desperate parents, she ruled the household with violent tantrums. When Keller was seven years old, her father wrote to the Perkins School for the Blind, near Boston, asking for a teacher to work with his daughter. Several months later, 21-year-old Anne Sullivan (later Anne Sullivan Macy), a recent Perkins graduate, arrived. Sullivan taught Keller to form words using the manual alphabet. The child learned with amazing speed, and her achievements vaulted her to stardom. Keller grew up to be an inspiration to millions worldwide. She traveled, lectured, and wrote several books. Throughout her long life she worked to improve opportunities for the blind. Anne Sullivan Macy, the woman who worked the miracle at the pump, is usually seen in a supporting role. She remained at Keller’s side until her death in 1936. She was Keller’s devoted teacher, interpreter, and friend.
In Kim E. Nielsen’s 2004 book The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, she debunks the myth of Keller as the perennial wonder child and sweet messenger of hope for the blind. She shows that Keller’s family and philanthropic supporters suppressed her fierce socialist convictions and silenced her protests against sweatshops, poverty, and preventable disease. Work for the blind was the only channel Keller was permitted for her considerable energy and talent. Now, in follows the accidental and unexpected path an orphaned asylum child took to become a world-famous educator,” Nielsen explains in her introduction. Yet by no means is the book a Cinderella story, for Anne Sullivan Macy was never granted a happily ever after. She quarreled often and bitterly with the people around her, leaving a trail of ruptured friendships. Keller once wrote, “It was a point of honor with her to pound her arguments into those who differed from her instead of trying to win them over with tact.” During a bout of depression Sullivan once declared, “I find people hateful and I hate them!”
Ironically, the world-famous teacher of the deaf and blind superstar never integrated her own visual disability into her sense of self. In the public’s view Keller was the disabled one, and her rescuer was perceived to be free of impairments. As Nielsen explains, “The powerful social definition of disability, one that classified disabled people as markedly different from others, precluded the status of Teacher. Such sentiments assumed that one could not be disabled and be a prominent teacher.” Sullivan refused to learn touch typing or Braille, skills that would have made her life easier and would have accorded her greater independence. As the years went by and her sight faded, she struggled to read print despite agonizing headaches, and relied upon Keller to type her letters. Although she had taught Keller not to let blindness stop her from living fully, her own total blindness in her late sixties plunged Sullivan into a depression from which she never emerged.
Similar questions have haunted Randall’s work—especially Gathering Rage: The Failure of Twentieth-Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda (1992)—and she sees feminism’s critique of the overarching issue of power as part of the answer: “One of feminism’s great lessons is that by talking to one another, revealing the secrets and naming our oppressor, we gain the strength to empower ourselves.”
Yet there is another side to Sullivan’s story. She was a woman of unshakeable determination, biting wit, and insatiable hunger for learning. She lacked a higher education, yet she was known as an educator the world over. Despite her humble origins she was never intimidated by wealth or station. She met (and sometimes fought with) some of the most prominent women and men of her time, Julia Ward Howe, Alexander Graham Bell, and Mark Twain among them.
Gifted though she was, Sullivan had few connections that could help her advance in the world. Keller, on the other hand, had the means to earn a living. Her fame opened the way for her to travel the lecture circuit and publish her writings. Thus Sullivan, the teacher, became financially dependent on her student. She depended upon Keller for emotional sustenance, too. In Nielsen’s analysis, Keller was “the only one, since the death of her brother, who loved and adored her without question, who assuaged her fear of isolation, and who took away her self-doubt.” As a consequence, she “responded territorially” to any threat of separation. Most good teachers encourage their pupils to grow beyond their sphere of influence, to step away from them into the world. Sullivan, in contrast, clung tenaciously to her role in Keller’s life, and stayed with her for nearly fifty years.
Nielsen strongly suggests that Keller as well as Sullivan chose to maintain the unbreachable bond between them. Yet Keller had known nothing else since the age of seven. Did she really have a choice? The incident of Peter Fagan suggests that she may have yearned for something more. In 1916, at the age of 36, Keller accepted Fagan’s proposal of marriage. When Sullivan learned of the situation she was outraged. Like a parent reining in a rebellious child, she hastily persuaded Keller that the marriage was out of the question. “The story that my pupil of twenty-seven years is to marry her secretary or anyone else is an abominable falsehood,” she told a reporter. “She has scarcely been out of my sight.”
Sullivan’s own marriage to the writer and editor John Macy was complicated, troubled, and ultimately unsuccessful. For a time Keller, Sullivan Macy, and John Macy shared a home in Wrentham, Massachusetts. Both women regarded the early Wrentham years as some of the happiest of their lives. Nielsen attempts to untangle the skeins of the relationship between Sullivan Macy and her husband, although few documents pertaining to the marriage have survived. At times Nielsen is reduced to supposition:
I believe John did love Annie. However emotionally volatile and demandingly needy she could be, she also was engaging, witty, profoundly caring at times, and charming. Her undaunted response to all of life ... may have thrilled him.
Drawing lavishly upon letters, diaries, and other primary sources, Nielsen conveys the rich texture of Sullivan’s character. The noted teacher of Helen Keller was also a seeker. She once summed up her philosophy with the comment, “[w]e don’t know what’s good for us, and I’m spending my days in experimenting. The experiments are amusing and sometimes costly, but there’s no other way of getting knowledge.” Or, as she put it in a letter to Keller in 1916, “We have only to keep a stiff upper lip and do our damnedest.”
Deborah Kent has written numerous articles about blindness and disability, and has a special interest in representations of disability in literature. She is the author of more than one hundred fiction and nonfiction titles for young readers, and edits the quarterly magazine Future Reflections, directed to the parents and teachers of blind children.