In the introduction to her new biography of Anne Sullivan, Beyond the Miracle Worker, Kim Nielsen admits that after publishing two books about Helen Keller, she intended never again to write anything else that remotely touched on Keller's life. Nielsen's previous two books do a great deal to illuminate facets of Keller's life that have been ignored or downplayed by other biographers. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (2004) discusses Keller's political activism, and Helen Keller: Selected Writings (2005) assembles letters and articles, many of which have never appeared in print before. But as for anyone who becomes interested in Keller's history, it is her teacher and long-time companion, Anne Sullivan, who becomes in many ways the more intriguing character.
William Gibson's well-known stage and screen play, which Nielsen references in her title, depicts Sullivan as a feisty Irish-American who strives against all odds to tame the feral and rebellious deaf-blind six-year-old with the civilizing effects of language and love. Through her heroic efforts, often in opposition to Keller's parents, Annie finds fulfillment in the culturally approved alternative female role of surrogate mother and teacher. In the final, tear-jerking scene at the water pump, as the young Helen gropes around the stage demanding to know the words for all the objects she touches, she comes at last to Annie. Overcome with her own emotion at the miracle she has wrought, Annie identifies herself neither as Miss Sullivan nor Annie, but simply as Teacher. This depiction is historically accurate, as far as it goes. Gibson based his script on Sullivan's own accounts of her first weeks at the Keller home in 1887. And "Teacher" was the nickname Keller always used for Sullivan, and one adopted by everyone in their circle for the rest of Sullivan's life. But of course, The Miracle Worker gives no real sense of what became of the two women during the nearly fifty years that they continued to live and work together. And it gives little sense of Sullivan's life prior to taking the job with the Kellers.
The story of Sullivan's early life has the drama and bleakness worthy of a novel by Charles Dickens. She was born in 1866 in Feeding Hills, near Springfield Massachusetts, the first child of two recent immigrants from Ireland. Her father was a day laborer and her mother died of tuberculosis when Sullivan was eight. Sullivan contracted trachoma in early childhood, an eye infection causing inflammation and scarring of the eyelids, which significantly impaired her vision and caused her chronic pain throughout her life. When Sullivan was ten, it became clear that neither her alcoholic father nor other relatives were able or willing to care for the difficult nearly blind girl and her sickly younger brother Jimmy, so the two children were abandoned to the care of the state almshouse at Tewksbury. The institution was an under-funded and over-crowded warehouse for the indigent of all ages, many of whom had physical and mental disabilities. Conditions there were harsh: rats and other vermin were plentiful, diseases of all sorts ravaged the inmates, food was meager, and sanitation nearly nonexistent. There were no special facilities for or supervision of children, and abuse of all sorts was common. After a few months, Jimmy died, as the majority of children there did. It was the event Sullivan considered the most tragic in her life. Even fifty years later, she could recall the agony of his final hours in complete detail.
Whatever other traumas Sullivan may have experienced at Tewksbury, she learned a great deal there. In her own fictionalized account of those years, she writes with affection of other inmates who took her under their wing, reading aloud whatever material came to hand, and schooling her in the harsh realities of their world. From these women many of whom had been seduced and abandoned to give birth to illegitimate babies in the institution, she acquired a graphic understanding of sexuality and its consequences, and a general mistrust and disdain for men. But she also gained an inkling of a world beyond the almshouse walls. For instance she heard of a school in Boston where blind children were trained to read and write and prepare for independent lives. So when a group of philanthropists arrived on the scene to inspect the appalling conditions, she threw herself into their midst and pleaded with them to send her to school.
The School was the Perkins School for the Blind, founded in 1829 — the first institution of its kind in America. Sullivan arrived at Perkins as a charity student at the age of fourteen. With no previous education, she suffered the humiliation of being placed in the elementary grade with much younger pupils. Through her native intelligence she advanced quickly, but did not get along with many of the teachers or form lasting friendships with other students. Always wary of class prejudice, she did the best she could to keep her past in the almshouse a secret from her peers, and she readily adopted the manners and values of the highly respectable institution. She developed a kind of flirtatious relationship with the school's director, Michael Anagnos, a childless widower, who dubbed her "Miss Spitfire," and intervened in her many conflicts. Later he selected her for the Keller job, even though there were other graduates and established teachers who were infinitely more qualified.
Sullivan was meant to follow the teaching methods used by Perkins' founder Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-76) in his work with deaf-blind Laura Bridgmen (1829-89). Howe trained Bridgman to communicate using finger spelling and to read embossed print — accomplishments that were celebrated around the world. But Bridgman never achieved true independence. She lived at Perkins throughout her life as a kind of ward of the institution, occasionally helping girls with their needlework. She was reclusive and crotchety, and while Sullivan practiced finger-spelling with her in preparation for her work with Keller, the two women did not form a particular bond. Sullivan deviated from Howe's teaching method where the child was meant to pick up language by rote memorization. Sullivan's innovation was drawn from the simple observation that hearing children learn language because they are constantly hearing it spoken around them, so they naturally and unconsciously absorb vocabulary, idioms and grammatical structures. Sullivan abandoned formal lessons and spent her days conversing into Keller's hand and reading her books even though she knew Keller was not catching every word. Sullivan's innovation proved successful; within a few years Keller's fluency far surpassed Bridgman's. She went on to earn a degree at Radcliffe, to publish half a dozen books and many articles and essays, and to become an internationally recognized advocate for the blind.
Sullivan always chaffed at the hyperbolic accounts that cast her in the role of saintly self-sacrificing savior. As she pointed out to friends, the job with the Keller family was the only one offered to her at the time, so she had to be successful in it. Keller's triumphs were a way for Sullivan to demonstrate her own intellect and drive. Still, it is clear that Sullivan felt a profound connection to her pupil. For one thing, she seems to have identified with Keller's rebellious energy, even while she strove to master it. A more passive child probably would not have interested her as much. It is possible to understand Sullivan's deep and passionate attachment to the young Helen Keller as an attempt to repair the damage of her early life. The new child could replace the brother she had lost, or else serve as a surrogate child of her own. Or else, in cherishing this child she could heal her own feelings of abandonment.
Whatever the explanation, Sullivan's unwavering loyalty and fierce protection of what she determined to be Keller's best interests dominated both their lives. During the years of Keller's education, Sullivan put herself at odds with many prominent and powerful men, from Keller's own father to the directors of the various schools that gained publicity from their association with the miracle child. During Keller's professional life as a lecturer, vaudeville and film performer, and spokesperson for the American Foundation for the Blind, it was Sullivan who did the hard-nosed negotiating over salaries and scheduling. Along the way, she ruffled many feathers and made a lot of enemies. But in some sense, she gave Keller a strong personality by which she could define herself. Because Sullivan was so aggressive, Keller could be so sweet. Because Sullivan had such a sharp sense of the evils of the world, Keller could nurture a belief in the basic goodness of humanity. While Sullivan's world view was dark with pessimism, Keller developed a philosophy of perpetual cheerfulness and optimism.
Although Sullivan liked to be identified as an educational innovator, it is clear that she was not particularly interested in teaching anybody besides Helen Keller. Once Keller graduated from Radcliffe, many friends suggested that Sullivan should offer her skills to another deaf-blind child, or else found a school or teacher training program. She never seriously entertained any of these suggestions. Perhaps she knew that she could not achieve the same results with a pupil whose intelligence and energy did not match her own as Keller's did. In any case, work with Keller had become more than a job. Keller's life had become Sullivan's life work.
In 1905, with Keller's Radcliffe degree in hand and her first book on the shelf, Sullivan took on a more traditional role for a woman of her time, marrying John Albert Macy (1877-1932). He was a lecturer in literature at Harvard and had helped edit Keller's first book. He had also convinced Sullivan to include letters and other writings from her early days with Keller as a kind of appendix to Keller's text. As with most of Sullivan's life, the marriage was far from conventional. Macy was eleven years her junior, closer in age and in interest to Keller. Press accounts at the time depicted the arrangement as a kind of nuclear family, with Keller as the adult child of the newlyweds. But many speculated — then, as now — that Macy's attraction was for Keller rather than Sullivan. Certainly, Keller and Macy had a very close friendship. He introduced her to contemporary literature and political writing an encouraged her to join the socialist party and the suffrage movement — political activity from which Sullivan remained aloof. Whatever the realities of the arrangement, the marriage did not last long. But Sullivan never divorced Macy and insisted on the honorific "Mrs. Macy" until her death in 1936.
Anyone who has read one of Keller's recent biographies will find few new facts in Nielsen's book. The difference is in the focus and attitude. For example, in response to the perennial question about these two women who lived together in such close intimacy for fifty years, Nielsen states: "There is no evidence that the two women shared a sexual relationship, nor is there evidence that they did not" (223). Even this circumspect acknowledgement is refreshing compared to the near hysteria of other biographers as they scuttle away from any suspicion of lesbianism.
What Nielsen's biography adds to this story is an awareness of the role Sullivan's own disability played in the lives of both women. Other accounts give the impression that Sullivan's sight was restored after a series of operations she underwent while at Perkins. Nielsen clarifies that these surgeries alleviated some of the pain and improved her vision somewhat, but in fact her vision was severely impaired for most of her life. All the reading she had to do during the course of Keller's education and to proofread Keller's writing was arduous and painful for her. But Sullivan did a good deal to conceal or downplay her impaired vision. She was aware that her credentials as teacher would be questioned if the full extent of her impairment were known. Late in life, when her sight became even more impaired, she declined public appearances so as not to reveal that she could not walk independently across a stage. In her mind, her vision impairment was associated with her impoverished past and was a source of shame for her. It caused her to call on Keller to act as her assistant, typing letters she dictated when her eyes gave her too much trouble to write herself. Even Keller perceived the irony that her teacher, who had striven to train her to function despite her own disabilities, was unable to do so herself.
In addition, Sullivan suffered from what she called "melancholy" or "nerves" which Nielsen suggests might today be diagnosed as clinical depression. This condition was perhaps even more debilitating than the vision impairment. There were many occasions when she isolated herself in her room for hours, even days, at a time.
In fact, Sullivan's impairment has an impact on the work of her biographer. Nielsen points out the many periods in her life where she left no written record because her eyes or her depression kept her from communicating. For instance, most of what we know about the break-up of the Macy marriage comes from letters written by Keller. This suggests not only the degree of the loss Keller felt, but also emphasizes how the two women's roles reversed over the course of their life together. The disabled pupil grew up to become her teacher's care-giver, personal assistant and advocate.
The other debilitating factor for Sullivan's biographer is her hyper-consciousness of her own legacy. From an early age, Sullivan worked to control others' perceptions of her; she is someone who found ways to make and remake her own image. The former workhouse inmate did a convincing job passing as a sighted and credentialed teacher. Throughout her life, her friends urged her to publish her own autobiography, and she began and abandoned many versions. This may have been due to writer's block or insecurity. But more than either of these she was deeply dissatisfied with the available interpretations of her life and character. Also she was conscious of the written record she left behind. On at least one recorded occasion she burned her diary and other documents, explaining that she wanted to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands after her death. And she instilled the same anxiety in her former pupil. It took Keller almost two decades to complete her memoir of Sullivan, and one senses in its pages an extreme reluctance to reveal too much, or present Sullivan in anything but the most flattering light.
Kim Nielsen overcomes all the obstacles her recalcitrant subject throws in her path, and creates a portrait of Sullivan's life that is complex with all its contradictions and inconsistencies. Beyond the Miracle Worker also serves as an example to other historians of disability to mine the records of institutions like Tewksbury for other untold stories of disabled lives. Even while Sullivan's was a singular life, Nielsen puts it in the context of nineteenth and early twentieth century American culture, highlighting the intricate interplay between gender, class and disability that shaped it.