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Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan – My Fascination Goes On

Posted on: February 24, 2013

English: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 189...
English: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1898. On the left Helen Keller and on the right Anne Sullivan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Twaine said “The two greatest characters of the nineteenth century are Helen Keller and Napoleon Bonaparte“. I would modify this quote as such: “The two greatest characters of the nineteenth & twentyth century are Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan”.

I have been fascinated by these two women since ever I heard their names. However, my own “fascinating” life experience seemed to keep me busy for more than a decade and I had not been able to get into many subjects of my interest until very recent years. These days I had leisure to be totally drowned into the story of Helen Keller and Sullivan, especially the latter. After I read a short autobiography of Helen Keller, I went on read a biography of her teacher – “Beyond Miracle Worker: the Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary relationship with Helen Keller“. It was a joy read, though the content is quite “heavy”.

Contrary to what I learned superficially before, both Helen and her teacher lived very difficult lives. First by reading Helen’s autobiography I learned about Helen’s controversial trial of her story “Frost King”, when she was only 11 year-old, which tormented her heart and shadowed all her life (How could those “educated” people from Perkins Institute treated a 11 year-old blind-deaf girl so harshly with alleged plagiarism was beyond my understanding). Then I read about her going on Vaudeville circuit during her middle age for almost 10 years, together with her teacher of course. She had to do that simply for making living. However, based on books I read she seemed enjoyed it, which made me relieved a little.

Anne Sullivan, who later became Anne Sullivan Macy, was an even more complicated character than Helen Keller. Her life process was extreme undulate and her personality was contradictory. Born in an Irish immigrant family, Sullivan’s childhood was spent in the darkness of poverty, death, ignorance and violence. She lost her mother when she was only eight, and when she was ten, she was abandoned by her father and was sent to almshouse together with her brother by her relatives. After 4 years living in almshouse, during which her brother died, Annie somehow got a chance to go to Perkins Institute. Her life turned! In Perkins, she appeared to be an extremely intelligent but also belligerent student. Six years later, she graduated  as a valedictorian. Soon after she graduated, when she seemed to face an unknown future, she got a job to be governess of Keller’s family. Hence the legend started.

Beyond Miracle Worker” is an excellent biography with some tediously chronicled details, but these boring details was tolerable to me, simple because of the extremely interesting characters. The book focuses on Sullivan’s complicated psychological state, creates an impression about her that cannot be summarized in a few words. Sullivan came from the bottom of society, strove to a place “beyond her dream”, yet to a cultural circle that did not suit her past. She seemed to have extremely ambivalent emotion toward her past – she tried so hard to forget, but the ghost of darkness in the past never left her alone, it tangled all her life through every bit of depression and perplexed  her profound view about the value of her own existence.

Another “fact” this book reveals to me, is that Sullivan Macy started from Helen’s teacher, assistant, a role that Helen depended on by all means, gradually transformed into a person who had to depended on Helen. She refused several chances to work for others, and relied on Helen’s fame to make continuing success, though it was herself initially turned on Helen’s intelligence. Sullivan also had eye disease since her childhood, carried this disease all the way to the end of her live, when she became completely blind. The constant pain of her eyes, tortured her since beginning, also tormented her mental state. When her eye condition worsened, she became more irritated, capricious and depressed, and relied on totally on Helen, who seemed to forever embraced her as her own savior.

Sullivan’s achievement was underrated by society and she had always been furious about it. She hated to be thought as a teacher who enlightened Helen simply by adopting the teaching technique that was “invented” by the founder of Perkins, but she was always viewed by public as so. The fact was that she was very creative when she started to teach Helen. However, in her late years, when she was recognized for her individual achievement as a renovated educator, she rejected some honors that were bestowed on her. She was too sick, too weak, too confused and depressed for herself, that she simply did not care what society did to her anymore.

The two women’s lives were not easy. Both of them were disabled (though Sullivan was pictured in public as “normal”), but they did not have any stable financial support, except intermittent helps from philanthropists. I thought Helen’s family was rich, but the fact was her parents’ (mostly her father’s) financial situation soon declined after Sullivan came to them. As matter of fact, Helen’s family started to depend (partially, I suppose) on Helen soon after she became famous. In her middle age Sullivan married to John Macy, but she made herself financial connection lawfully only to Helen Keller. Also, though 3 of them lived together, Sullivan’s husband was never be able to be a source of their family financial provider. It was always Helen, who seemed most unable, was willingly to be the “breadwinner” of the “family”.

Another “bewitching” factor is their relationship. Sullivan married to John Macy, but they soon separated (though their legal marriage stayed until John Macy died), it is Helen with whom Sullivan lived most of her life. Helen Keller was proposed by a man named Peter Fagan, but she concerned about her teacher’s reaction, eventually yield to her mother’s objection and gave up marriage. Why did Helen give up her own happiness? Was she completely happy with her teacher? Did she stay with her teacher by her own willingness or by obligation? Was their relationship more than “teacher and student”?

Nonetheless, I found the lives of these two extremely intelligent women intriguing. I personally believe their staying together was destined and their attraction to each other was both mental and physical. In whatever way, it is beautiful in my eyes. Their lives, their struggle, their success and conquest of darkness, disability and adversity of life, truly embodied the greatest strength of human intelligence, passion, love and willpower. Simply put, I just cannot imagine anything more extraordinary than the real “story” of these two women. Comparing with them, Napoleon fell into mediocrity.

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8 Responses to "Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan – My Fascination Goes On"

From childhood, Helen's story captured my imagination. Annie was a huge inspiration to me as I sought to become a teacher. I'm glad you have gained so much enjoyment from exploring their stories!

Thanks Melody! What strikes me is, as such an intelligent woman, Annnie could not get rid of her past. I just cannot imagine what she had been through. I could understand every bit of her mental struggle. I believe her story also demonstrates the huge impact our childhood make to us.

from the poor house to an educated strong woman!!! I have never heard Anne/s story..a sign of hope..she rose from death, darkness and the ashes of her childhood

Very interesting indeed. My mom met Helen Keller. my mom was amazed by both women.
I have not investigated Anne S. Thanks to you, my curiosity will take me there!

Thanks melanie!

@Rachel stephenson, thanks for visiting! Great! I hope you find her inspiring:-)

@Rachel Stepenson, how great your mother met her in person. I wish I could have chance:-)

Annie Sullivan had to have had the patience of a saint. I love the story of how she helped Helen Keller find her voice and vision.

Kris, thanks for stopping by:-)
I am always amazed by the story of “miracle worker”. However, knowing more about these two women, it seems that for life long it was Helen Keller who possessed the mighty patience to Annie.

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