by Chancey Fleet
Editors' Introduction: Chancey Fleet graduated from The College of William and Mary in 2005, where she obtained a degree in Psychology. She currently does freelance work in the field of assistive technology. Chancey is also the former president of the Virginia Association of Blind Students. Below, Chancey sheds a new light on a familiar historical figure and describes the relevance this woman has on the lives of blind youth today.
Sometimes, sitting in an audience is harder than being part of the show. This thought came to me in 1998 as the curtain came up on a high school production of The Miracle Worker. I clasped my hands tightly together, letting my fingernails bite into my skin to relieve a nervous discomfort that I thought was prickly and mean-spirited; I knew that my mother, glancing to her left to gauge my reaction to the pivotal scenes, would judge it no differently. When the famous, disciplinary dinnertime brawl between a deaf, blind and defiant Helen Keller and her new teacher Annie Sullivan erupted onstage, I composed my face in an attitude of attentive understanding that I hoped would spare me any narrative descriptions of the action. When the blind actress playing the helpless Helen took her bows beside the sighted actress playing her savior and teacher, I joined in the standing ovation. I watched Helen Keller's life end that night. Although most American children know that Helen spoke her first word, "water," rendered touchingly as "wa-wa" in the countless biographies of page and screen, not many know that she traveled to South Africa at the beginning of apartheid to argue for the civil rights of the indigenous blind. She ardently read Marx, hung a red flag in her study and as a young woman, and planned to elope--only to have her handlers and family sabotage the plan on the grounds that she shouldn't undertake the job of being a wife and mother.
To anyone who would rather be asked whether they have seen Helen Keller's new car than sit through one more amputated story of her life, I recommend The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, by Kim Nielsen, to cure what ails you. Nielsen observes that Helen Keller jokes are so appealing because they lampoon the flawless, sexless sanitized version of Keller that mainstream history has handed us. Nielsen offers a careful biography that replaces the image of Helen as saint, symbol and perennial child. It is a complicated picture of a woman caught between a fervent commitment to Socialism and the need to cajole gifts from wealthy businessmen; a woman who devoted much of her life to advocacy for the blind but would never join the movement of organized blind consumers. She stated plainly that her ambition was to wipe blindness and deafness from the face of the planet.
Early in Radical Lives, Nielsen gives the reader a whirlwind tour of the activism often missed by chroniclers of Helen Keller's work: Joining the Socialist Party of America, in 1909, Keller became an advocate of female suffrage, a defender of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, and a supporter of birth control and the unemployed. She criticized World War I as a profit-making venture for industrialists and urged working-class men to resist the war. Later she expressed alarm at the violence and weapons of World War II. She supported striking workers and jailed dissidents. She expressed passionate views about the need for a just and economically equitable society. She also blamed industrialization and poverty for causing disability among a disproportionately large number of working-class people.
The book is long on details, describing trips Keller made with Anne Sullivan and other companions to Japan, India, and dozens of other countries under the auspices of the American Foundation for the Blind. Nielsen also reveals the uneasy relationship that the AFB's board of directors had with Keller's politics, fearing that her least mainstream positions would isolate potential benefactors to the Foundation and dilute her crusade for education and employment for the blind. Keller saved her harshest criticism for a press that paid scant attention to her whenever she was off-message: "So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me 'arch priestess of the sightless', 'wonder woman' and 'a modern miracle'. When it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics ... that is a different matter!"
While faithfully portraying the broad range of Keller's activism, Nielsen is straightforward in pointing out flaws and contradictions in Keller's philosophy of disability. In the 1920's, Keller wrote a public letter defending a doctor's right to withhold treatment from a "defective" infant, on the grounds that that infant's life would have little worth. In later years, she seems to have distanced herself from eugenics, at one point writing an equally passionate public letter to the parents of a deaf-blind child ensuring them that their daughter's life was worth preserving. "Blindness," she wrote, "is not the greatest evil. It is only a physical handicap which Helaine's mind can overcome. That is life."
Keller's complicated adjustment to her blindness showed itself in her care to appear non-disabled in public; her unwillingness to address groups of the organized blind, even as she fought racism by addressing meetings of South African blacks; and her ardent approval of Franklin Roosevelt's success in hiding his disability. This antipathy toward showing signs of disability, even as she advocated vocally for the blind, may have had its roots, according to Nielsen, in Anne Sullivan's ambivalence about blindness. Sullivan, during her mentorship of Keller, sought to limit discussion of her own blindness in the press; later as her own degenerative eye condition progressed, she became fretful that she could no longer adequately assist Keller in communicating with the public and managing at home. There is no record, in this thorough biography, of either of the pair using a cane to travel independently. Under Sullivan's tutelage, Keller may have learned the attitude that, while it is courageous to overcome a disability, it is not respectable to be publicly blind.
This life of Helen Keller, unlike so many other depictions, delivers no easy,
inspiring message. Keller was a capable, brave woman with a lively intelligence
and a boundless interest in international politics; she was a thwarted lover,
a threader of needles in the dark, a friend of sculptors and political leaders
and a drinker of scotch. A large part of her legacy has been buried, and in
that legacy we can find a disturbing ambivalence about disability. We can also
find the conflicts that arise when an idealist must forge a philosophy in a
world filled with double standards and mixed messages. That world is our world,
and as blind youth we should interrogate the legacy of our heroes (and the heroes
designated for our use by the public). These lessons, as untidy as they are,
are ours to claim and are one block in the foundation of our own emerging philosophies
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