Hellen Keller: yearning for an ordinary life

August 09, 1998|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

"Hellen Keller: A Life," by Dorothy Herrmann. Knopf. 394 pages. $30. In the dark Alabama night, the young woman waited on the porch, holding her packed bag. Twice before, her attempts to marry her boyfriend, Peter Fagan, had been thwarted by teachers and family. This was the couple's third try. But Helen Keller would wait all night for a man who never came.

Later, Keller would describe her days with Fagan, the only boyfriend she ever had, as "a little island of joy surrounded by dark waters." Her complete dependence on people may have scared Fagan away. But another theme in her complex life was also a factor.

As a new biography reveals, Keller's desires for ordinary happiness - for her own door key, for a husband and children - were cut off by prejudice and people who wanted to mold her into a pure, saintly image.

In "Helen Keller: A Life," Dorothy Herrmann taps an impressive array of letters, journals, books and even Keller's FBI file, to find the human being behind the "institution" that Keller became. She was an outspoken political activist, but she found few wanted to listen unless she was discussing being blind and deaf.

It is a rare and profound disability. From the time Keller was a child working with teacher Annie Sullivan, though, public reports often exaggerated and sensationalized her ability to overcome her handicaps.

She quickly became a symbol of the disabled, and this book makes a convincing case that her handlers wanted her to appear virtuous and happy, and therefore acceptable to the public. Luminaries of her time, including Alexander Graham Bell, came to see Keller as proof of the existence of God.

But as this compelling biography shows, Helen Keller was a person, with her own hopes and needs, just like the unafflicted. She wanted to be with ordinary people, but her teachers kept her in circles of the affluent and the elite. Sullivan and others pushed her, and she achieved far more than anyone expected: earning a degree from Radcliffe, writing several books, and keeping a grueling schedule lecturing around the world.

The price of those accomplishments, of being the perfect symbol, was Keller's private life, and the lives of two longtime teacher/interpreters, Sullivan and Polly Thomson. Both stayed with her around the clock, helping with basic tasks and spelling into Keller's hand for hours.

Along the way, the book explores tantalizing questions. Was Annie Sullivan the brilliance behind Keller's success? Did Sullivan and Keller essentially become two parts of one person? Was Keller a genuinely good person, or did she behave sweetly because that was how she got what she wanted? And to what extent did Sullivan and Thomson control Keller's contact with others, cutting her off from people she loved, but who threatened them?

"Helen Keller" doesn't, and perhaps can't, answer some key questions, especially about how Keller felt about some of those close to her. The biography also leaves this reader frustrated, wanting a better description of how it felt to be Keller, to experience the world through just three senses: touch, taste and smell.

But this important, often sad story should be read by advocates and families of the disabled, as well as those who would dictate the terms of their lives. It is a painful reminder of the condescending attitude that society still has toward people with handicaps.

In her later years, Keller finally found some freedom, enjoying hot dogs and martinis whenever she wanted. But when she died in 1968, at the age of 87, her wishes weren't followed.

Somebody else always thought they knew better.

Diana K. Sugg covers health and medicine for The Sun. Her 34-year-old sister, Stephanie, is autistic.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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