‘The Radical Lives of Helen Keller’ by Kim E. Nielsen


2004, 194 p.

I’m plunging into some reading about Helen Keller, in preparation for a talk that I’m giving this week at my UU Fellowship. I remember reading the story of Helen Keller standing by the water pump in one of my school readers in primary school, and of course, I saw Patty Duke in ‘The Miracle Worker’. But I hadn’t realized that Helen Keller had such a rich intellectual, political and spiritual life after water flowed over her hands prompting her ‘aha!’ moment and once she became an adult woman- and that’s what I’m exploring at the moment.

I hadn’t realized just how much had been written about Helen Keller. Children’s books, in particular, abound. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller is a relatively recent book, published in 2004, and I’m a little sorry that I hadn’t read Dorothy Herrman’s more conventional biography Helen Keller: A Life prior to reading Nielsen’s book, which is more overtly rooted in a theoretical stance than a ‘straight’ narrative biography.

Nielsen’s book comes from a Disability Studies perspective, which challenges the idea of disability as something to be ‘overcome’ and instead focuses on the social, political, economic and cultural factors that define ‘disability’. As she says, this perspective

”  reveals to historians, such as myself, the depth to which those definitions of disability and normality are ever-changing, are historically bound, and have immense consequence. Using disability as a tool of analysis necessitates a profound rethinking of power and the dynamics which create social power.” (p.13)

While not at all discounting the effects of blindness and deafness on Helen Keller, Nielsen argues that:

As the world’s most famous person with an acknowledged disability in the twentieth century, whatever Keller wrote, spoke or did mattered. The policies and attitudes she espoused regarding people with disabilities had political, legal, medical, financial, cultural and educational consequences.  Her public persona was held up as a standard for other people with disabilities and shaped their personal and political options, whether or not she or they desired it. She understood the political implications of class She also actively involved herself in advocating for people with disabilities. But she rarely explored the political implications of disability. For most of the her life, the disability politics she adopted were frequently conservative, consistently patronizing, and occasionally repugnant.” (p. 9)

It is because of this reframing of Keller’s life through a Disability Studies lens that I wish I had been more familiar with the entirety of her story, before critiquing it through this very late 20th-early21st century lens. Taking a contemporary intellectual stance and revisiting a well-trodden story is valuable and enlightening, but I am a little uncomfortable with the suggestion of blame that sometimes attaches to the project –  “why didn’t she act in a certain way?”

In particular, Nielsen is critical of Keller’s deliberate distancing from other people with disabilities throughout most of her life, most particularly the Deaf community. Keller’s education was recommended by Alexander Graham Bell, an oralist who was fiercely opposed to the use of American Sign Language. Possibly without being aware of it, she was aligned with one side of the cultural and political debates about signing and orality that still run through the Deaf community today. Moreover, she appears to have had little contact with other networks of blind professionals, intellectuals or activists of her own generation. She became a mythologized individual rather than part of an oppressed minority.

Nonetheless, Nielsen admits:

Given the limited practical or theoretical options perceptible to her, her isolation from other people with disabilities, and her inability to politicize disability, her career can be explained as a pragmatic choice. Few viable alternative choices existed. (p.12)

Nielsen explains why she titled her book in the plural:

This political biography is not simply entitled The Radical Lives of Helen Keller because of Keller’s interest in radical politics. She also lived radically different lives at different points in her life. Internal and hard wrought personal decisions effected these changes. External factors…also prompted these changes. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller seeks to recognize the various political lives Keller lived and the reasons for those political and personal revolutions. (p.14)

The book is divided into four chronological chapters, and a concluding chapter. The first chapter ‘I Do Not Like This World As It Is’ covers 1900-1924, thus starting with Keller’s entry to Radcliffe College, rather than the more common opening scene of the pump in the garden. It describes her spiritual conversion to Swedenborgianism and her involvement in socialist politics, something that was encouraged by John Macy, who was originally engaged as an editor/secretary, and ended up marrying Annie Sullivan

Chapter 2 ‘The Call of the Sightless’ covers the years 1924-1937 when she and Annie (now separated from her husband John Macy) focussed on the fundraising activities of the American Foundation for the Blind, a position which required Keller to suppress her socialist activities so as not to spoil ‘the brand’. At the end of this period, Annie Sullivan died, leaving Keller bereft.

Chapter 3 ‘Manna in my Desert Places’ 1937-1948 covers her first visit to Japan, a deathbed promise to Annie Sullivan, and her increasing concern over the rise of Hitler in Germany. She increasingly came under the purview of the FBI, especially for her support of the American Rescue Ship Mission, which planned to take European refugees to Latin America, but the project was scuppered because it attracted communist support. She became friends with the sculptor Jo Davidson who introduced her to many progressive, engaged people.  She returned to Japan in 1948 as part of a tour that planned to visit Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the Middle East, but it was cut short because of the illness of her travelling companion Polly Thomson. She did, however, visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was appalled by the dropping of the bomb.

Chapter 4 ‘I will not allow Polly to Climb a Pyramid’ takes the last 20 years of her life (1948-1968) and her work as a goodwill ambassador for the United States, representing the United States “as a courageous, interesting, vibrant but quirky country that could accomplish virtually anything.”

The political  implications of her actions were implicit, her political opinions left private. Her message was inherently political but her image was of a living miracle. This seemingly placed her above the squalor of international and partisan politics” (p. 106)

The final chapter ‘One of the Least Free People on Earth: The Making and Remaking of Helen Keller’ examines the project to curate the Helen Keller image, both at the time, and since. It was a project that depended on her exceptionality, and it demanded the suppression of political solidarity with both disability activists, and with the progressive politics that might offend donors to the American Foundation  for the Blind.

I enjoyed this book, even though I recognize that I should have read it later, rather than sooner. I am now reading Hermman’s biography, and find myself reading the two books against each other. And I find myself astounded by Keller’s preternatural intelligence, her political involvement and deep spirituality.  Nielsen is right-

Keller is a complicated icon, just as she was a complicated individual, who lived a complicated life. She thrived, however, on complication, on debate, on excitement and on constant movement. She liked Scotch, not tea (p. 131)

Sourced from:  ebook through State Library of Victoria

One response to “‘The Radical Lives of Helen Keller’ by Kim E. Nielsen

  1. Pingback: ‘Helen Keller: A Life’ by Dorothy Herrmann | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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