The Truth About Helen Keller
Children's books about Helen Keller distort her life
Illustrator: Brown Brothers Photography
The “Helen Keller story” that is stamped in our collective consciousness freezes her in childhood; we remember her most vividly at age seven when her teacher, Annie Sullivan, connected her to language through a magical moment at the water pump. We learned little of her life beyond her teen years, except that she worked on behalf of the handicapped.
But there is much more to Helen Keller’s history than a brilliant deaf and blind woman who surmounted incredible obstacles. Helen Keller was a socialist who believed she was able to overcome many of the difficulties in her life because of her class privilege – a privilege not shared by most of her blind or deaf contemporaries. “I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment,” she said. ” I have learned that the power to rise is not within the reach of everyone.” More than an icon of American “can-do,” Helen Keller was a tireless advocate of the poor and disenfranchised.
Helen Keller was someone who worked throughout her long life to achieve social change; she was an integral part of many important social movements in the 20th century. Her life story could serve as a fascinating example for children, but most picture books about Helen Keller are woefully silent about her life’s work. It’s time to start telling the truth about Helen Keller.
COVERT CENSORSHIP: PROMOTING THE INDIVIDUAL
“The world is moved not only by the mighty stories of heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”
In the last decade, there has been a surge in literature for children that depicts people who have worked for social change. On a recent search for non-fiction picture books that tell the stories of those involved in social activism, I found scores of books – beautifully illustrated multicultural texts. Initially, I was delighted to be able to share these books with kids in my neighborhood and school. But as my collection grew, so did my frustration.
One problem with many of the books is that they stress the individual rather than the larger social movements in which they worked. In his critique of popular portrayals of the Rosa Parks story, educator and author Herb Kohl argues convincingly that her role in the Montgomery bus strike is framed again and again as that of a poor, tired seamstress acting out of personal frustration rather than as a community leader in an organized struggle against racism. [See “The Politics of Children’s Literature,” p. 37 in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. I]
Picture books frame the stories of many other key community leaders and social activists in similar ways. Activist and educator Patrick Shannon’s careful analysis of the underlying social message of books for young readers highlights this important finding: “Regardless of the genre type, the authors of these books promoted concern for self-development, personal emotions, self-reliance, privacy, and competition rather than concern for social development, service to community, cooperation toward shared goals, community, and mutual prosperity” (1988, p. 69).
I first became interested in the activist work of Helen Keller a few years ago when I read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995). Loewen concludes that the way that Helen Keller’s life story is turned into a “bland maxim” is lying by omission. When I turned to the many picture books written about her, I was discouraged to discover that books for young children retain that bland flavor, negating the power of her life work and the lessons she herself would hope people would take from it. Here is a woman who worked throughout her long life as a radical advocate for the poor, but she is depicted as a kind of saintly role model for people with handicaps.
THE IMAGE OF HELEN KELLER IN PICTURE BOOKS
For the purposes of this investigation, I chose six picture books published from 1965 through 1997, which are the most readily available from bookstores and websites. Four of the six covers depict the famous moment at the well where Annie, her teacher, spells “water” into Helen’s hand. This clichéd moment is the climax of each book, just as it is in the movies made about her life. To most people, Helen remains frozen in time in her childhood. According to these picture books, she is to be remembered for two things after she grew up: her “courage” and her “work with the blind and deaf.”
Young Helen Keller, Woman of Courage is typical. The first 29 pages bring us to Helen, age 12, who can read and write “and even speak.” The last page, page 30, sums up the remaining 66 years of her life:
When Helen was 20, she did something that many people thought was impossible. She went to college. Annie went with her to help her study. Helen spent her life helping blind and deaf people. She gave speeches and wrote many books. Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968. But people all over the world still remember her courageous, helpful life.
But courage to do what? The statements that sum up her “courageous accomplishments” are ambiguous and confusing. “She gave speeches and wrote books.” What were they about? What did she do that was so courageous?
None of the children’s books I reviewed mentioned that in 1909 Helen Keller became a socialist and a suffragist – movements that framed most of her writing. “I felt the tide of opportunity rising and longed for a voice that would be equal to the urge sweeping me out into the world,” she wrote.
Nor do those books tell readers that Helen Keller’s publishing options dwindled because she wrote passionately for women’s voting rights and against war and corporate domination. In order to promote the social justice she believed in, she decided she would take lessons to improve her speaking voice so that she could publicly speak out against injustice. This was true courage. Even after three years of daily work, her voice was uneven and difficult to control. Though she was embarrassed by her speaking voice and terrified of the crowds, Helen Keller boldly went on the lecture circuit. She later wrote that it felt as if she were going to her own hanging: “Terror invaded my flesh, my mind froze, my heart stopped beating. I kept repeating, ‘What shall I do? What shall I do to calm this tumult within me?'”
The picture books omit the courage that took Helen Keller farther away from her home to visit povertystricken neighborhoods in New York City, where she witnessed the horror of the crowded, unhealthy living conditions in tenement buildings. Outraged about the child labor practices she encountered, she began to educate herself about efforts to organize unions and the violence that organizers and strikers faced. She wrote angry articles about the Ludlow Massacre, where, in an attempt to break a miners’ strike, the Colorado National Guard shot 13 people and burned alive 11 children and two women. The Ludlow Mine belonged to the powerful millionaire John D. Rockefeller, and Rockefeller had paid the wages of the National Guard. When newspapers hesitated to publish her articles, Helen Keller spoke out publicly against Rockefeller: “I have followed, step by step, the developments in Colorado, where women and children have been ruthlessly slaughtered. Mr. Rockefeller is a monster of capitalism,” she declared. “He gives charity in the same breath he permits the helpless workmen, their wives and children to be shot down.”
Helen Keller was not afraid to ask tough, “impolite” questions: “Why in this land of great wealth is there great poverty?” she wrote in 1912. “Why [do] children toil in the mills while thousands of men cannot get work, why [do] women who do nothing have thousands of dollars a year to spend?”
This courage to speak out for what she believed in is also ignored in the picture book Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark. Here, her achievements are summed up on the final page:
Helen’s story has been retold over and over. She has been the subject of books, plays, films, and television programs. The United States Postal Service has dedicated a stamp to her. And an organization with her name works to help blind people. Helen Keller’s life was filled with silence and darkness. But she had the courage and determination to light her days. This is courage at its blandest – and most passive.
Notice that Helen herself is simply an icon – a “subject” of the media, the name behind an organization, and of course, best of all, an image on a stamp!
What a contrast to Helen Keller’s own commitment to an active, productive life. When she wrote her autobiography in 1929, Keller declared, “I resolved that whatever role I did play in life, it would not be a passive one.” Children don’t learn that Helen Keller not only supported organizations to support blind people, she supported radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, becoming a Wobbly herself. Nor do they learn of her support for civil-rights organizations like the NAACP and that W.E.B. DuBois printed news of her financial donations and the text of her letter of support in the organization’s publication. “Ashamed in my very soul, I behold in my beloved south-land the tears of those oppressed, those who must bring up their sons and daughters in bondage to be servants, because others have their fields and vineyards, and on the side of the oppressor is power.”
The two best-selling picture books on Helen Keller listed at amazon.com are: A Picture Book of Helen Keller (Adler) and A Girl Named Helen Keller (Lundell). The theme of passive courage is at the center of both these books as well. At least in Lundell’s book, Helen is credited with some action. After focusing on her childhood for 42 of the book’s 44 pages, the author sums up Helen Keller’s life with the following list:
In her life, Helen wrote 5 books. She traveled many places. She met kings and presidents. She spoke to groups of people around the world. Most of the work she did was to help people who were blind or deaf. She was a warm and caring person. People loved her in return. The life of Helen Keller brought hope to many.
Helen Keller herself would probably be horrified by this vague and misleading representation of her life’s work. She spoke to groups of people around the world – ah, but what did she say? Lundell doesn’t hint that she said things like, “The future of America rests on the leaders of 80 million working men and women and their children. To end the war and capitalism, all you need to do is straighten up and fold your arms.” Lundell is equally vague about the content of her books, neglecting to mention essays such as “How I Became a Socialist”or books such as Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (1913).
Lundell’s synopsis of Keller’s accomplishments focuses on the famous people – “kings and presidents” – who she met in her life. But at the core of her commitment was being part of work for political change with others, taking part in rallies, marches, meeting with friends to talk politics and to strategize. “I have never felt separated from my fellow men by the silent dark,” she wrote. “Any sense of isolation is impossible since the doors of my heart were thrown open and the world came in.” She showed that connection to her fellow workers in her actions again and again.
One fascinating example occurred in 1919, when Keller starred in Deliverance, a silent movie about her life. Helen supported the Actors Equity Union’s strike by refusing to cross the picket line to attend the opening – and by joining a protest march with the striking actors.
David Adler’s Picture Book of Helen Keller is the best-selling illustrated biography of Helen Keller for young readers. Like the other books I reviewed, this one focuses almost solely on her life before graduating from Radcliffe. The two important adult episodes Adler includes are her visits to blind soldiers during World War II and her work for the American Foundation for the Blind. The book ignores her phenomenal and productive life work as a writer and social activist. On the last page of the book, Adler sums up her life work: “Helen Keller couldn’t see or hear, but for more than eighty years, she had always been busy. She read and wrote books. She learned how to swim and even how to ride a bicycle. She did many things well. But most of all, Helen Keller brought hope and love to millions of handicapped people.”
Adler has space to note that Helen Keller learned to swim and ride a bicycle, but not to state that she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union or take on the medical establishment to change health care for infants. The inadequacy of the information in these books for children is staggering. Her life of hard work is reduced to the phrase “she had always been busy.”
Children could also learn from Helen Keller’s compassion and recommitment to pacifism after her visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1948. Deeply moved by the people she met and what they described to her, she wrote that the experience “scorched a deep scar” in her soul and that she was more than ever determined to fight against “the demons of atomic warfare … and for peace.”
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS STORY?
“So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘archpriestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and ‘a modern miracle,” Helen wrote to her friend Robert LaFollette, an early pacifist who ran for president as a third-party Progressive candidate in 1924. “But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics – that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world – that is a different matter!”
While she was alive, Helen Keller fought against the media’s tendency to put her on a pedestal as a “model” sweet, good-natured, handicapped person who overcame adversity. The American Foundation for the Blind depended on her as spokesperson, but some of its leaders were horrified by her activism. As Robert Irwin, the executive director of the foundation, wrote to one of the trustees, “Helen Keller’s habit of playing around with Communists and near-Communists has long been a source of embarrassment to her conservative friends. Please advise!”
In the years since her death, her lifelong work as a social justice activist has continued to be swept under the rug. As her biographer Dorothy Herrmann concludes:
“Missing from her curriculum vitae are her militant socialism and the fact that she once had to be protected by six policemen from an admiring crowd of 2,000 people in New York after delivering a fiery speech protesting America’s entry into World War I. The war, she told her audience, to thunderous applause, was a capitalist ploy to further enslave the workers. As in her lifetime, Helen Keller’s public image remains one of an angelic, sexless, deaf-blind woman who is smelling a rose as she holds a Braille book open on her lap.”
But why is her activism so consistently left out of her life stories? Stories such as this are perpetuated to fill a perceived need. The mythical Helen Keller creates a politically conservative moral lesson, one that stresses the ability of the individual to overcome personal adversity in a fair world. The lesson we are meant to learn seems to be: “Society is fine the way it is. Look at Helen Keller! Even though she was deaf and blind, she worked hard – with a smile on her face – and overcame her disabilities. She even met kings, queens, and presidents, and is remembered for helping other handicapped people. So what do you have to complain about in this great nation of ours?”
This demeaning view of Helen Keller celebrates her in a way that keeps her in her place. She never gets to be an adult; rather she is framed as a grown-up child who overcame her handicap. Like other people with disabilities, Helen Keller deserves to be known for herself and not defined by her blindness or her deafness. She saw herself as a free and self-reliant person – as she wrote, “a human being with a mind of my own.”
It’s time to move beyond the distorted and dangerous Helen Keller myth, repeated in picture book after picture book. It’s time to stop lying to children and go beyond Keller’s childhood drama and share the remarkable story of her adult life and work. What finer lesson could children learn than the rewards of the kind of engaged life that Helen Keller lived as she worked with others toward a vision of a more just world?
Ruth Shagoury Hubbard (email@example.com.) teaches language arts and literacy courses at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.
HELEN KELLER CHRONOLOGY
David Adler’s best-selling A Picture Book of Helen Keller includes an ending chronology, typical of the dates that other authors include about Helen Keller’s life:
1880 Born on June 27 in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
1882 As a result of illness, became deaf and blind.
1887 Met Anne Sullivan.
1900 Entered Radcliffe College.
1924 Began to work for the American Federation for the Blind.
1936 Ann Sullivan died on October 20.
1946 Visited injured soldiers.
1964 Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson.
1968 Died on June 1. There are a few dates I would add to this chronology that highlight her lifelong commitment to social justice:
1903 The Story of My Life is published – first in a series of articles in The Ladies’ Home Journal, and then as a book.
1907 Helen writes a groundbreaking article for The Ladies’ Home Journal in an effort to prevent blindness among infants caused by the mother’s venereal disease. (She rallies forces to convince the medical establishment to treat children’s eyes at birth with a cleansing solution as a regular procedure.)
1908 Publication of The World I Live In.
1909 Becomes a socialist and a suffragist.
1912 Publicly speaks out in favor of birth control, and in support of Margaret Sanger’s work
1914 Demonstrates with the Woman’s Peace Party to call for peace in Europe; after the demonstration, she makes an impassioned speech for pacifism and socialism in crowded Carnegie Hall.
1915 Writes articles publicly denouncing Rockefeller as a “monster of Capitalism,” responsible for the Ludlow Massacre, (at his coal mine in Ludlow, Colorado) where men, women, and children were killed in a bloody confrontation between strikers and the militia.
1916 Openly supports the Industrial Workers of the World.
1917 Donates money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and writes a supportive article in the NAACP Journal.
1918 Helps found the American Civil Liberties Union to fight for freedom of speech.
1919 Stars in Deliverance, a silent movie about her life; supports Actors Equity Union’s strike by refusing to cross the picket line to attend the opening.
1924 Campaigns for Robert LaFollette, a Progressive running for president as a third-party candidate.
1929 Publication of Midstream: My Later Life.
1948 Visits “the black silent hole” that had once been Hiroshima and Nagasaki and recommits herself to the anti-war movement.
1961 Suffers first stroke; retires from public life.
RESOURCES ON HELEN KELLER
Lawlor, Laurie. 2001. Helen Keller: Rebellious Spirit. (New York: Holiday House). A new biography for adolescents with excellent photographs to document Keller’s life.
Herrman, Dorothy. 1989. Helen Keller: A Life. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press). A fine recent biography that covers her adult life as well as her famous childhood.
Keller, Helen. 1929. Midstream: My Later Life. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday). Helen Keller’s fascinating autobiography as an adult gives readers a taste of her writing voice, her passionate beliefs, and her social convictions.