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The Life of Helen Keller, A Series - Part 1 Escaping The Darkness
A multi-part, in-depth series on the life of Helen Keller. Part 1: Escaping The Darkness
On June 27th, 1880, the young southern belle Kate Keller gave birth to a stary-eyed child named Helen Adams Keller. Kate’s husband, Captain Arthur Henley Keller, a staunch man, worked for the local newspaper. Little Helen was Kate Keller’s angel on earth, born healthy with lush curls of gold and deep, picturesque blue eyes.
While famous for being the world’s most recognizable deaf-blind individual, Helen’s early years were anything but dark and quiet. From birth, Helen possessed extraordinary eyesight, finding lost needles on the floor that others could not find. As she grew older, Helen even began uttering words like “wah-wah” for water, and yelling for “tea, tea, tea.”[i] When Helen was nineteen months old, however, her life inextricably changed forever.
In 1882, Helen came down with what doctors then called “brain fever,” but which was possibly scarlet fever or meningitis. This illness affected Helen’s brain and chest, causing intense fevers. At such a young age, Helen remarkably pulled through, but she was not untouched; pain began to afflict Helen’s eyes.
Noticing that Helen had been rubbing her eyes, Kate placed her palm in front of Helen’s face. To Kate’s alarm, Helen did not blink, jerk, or make any noise.[ii] Medical tests brought dreadful news: Helen could see no objects or light, nor could she hear. Helen Keller had become blind and deaf, entering into a realm of twilight and shadow. While Helen was left physically blind and deaf for the rest of her life, she would not, however, be left in dark, cold silence forever.
Social perceptions at this time framed those hindered through disability as monsters and outcasts, with their disorders believed to be a result of their sin. With her violent tantrums and outbursts - the result of the young girl’s inability to fully grasp her world - this view was no different with Helen. Many disabled children were sent away, becoming dysfunctional wards of the state. To Kate, Helen was still the porcelain-faced, curly-haired angel of of her youth.
At the pinnacle of Helen’s disfunction, Kate Keller remembered reading of Charles Dickens’ travels to America, in which the author had visited Laura Bridgman, a deaf-blind girl who had become well educated.[iii] Kate wondered if Helen could perhaps follow in Laura’s path. After searching tirelessly for medical remedies, Captain and Kate Keller became aquainted with Alexander Graham Bell, a deaf specialist (and future inventor of the telephone). Bell believed that the Perkins Institute for the Blind - the same institution that had proved miraculous for Laura Bridgman – would be ideal for Helen. It was through this school that the Kellers hired a young girl, herself nearly blind, to assist and educate the six year-old Helen Keller. This young teacher’s name was Anne Sullivan.[iv]
In March 1887, Anne Sullivan arrived in Tuscumbia, Alabama, hoping to open Helen’s eyes to the world around her. This proved more complicated than Anne had initially hoped. Attempting to teach Helen that every object had a corresponding word, Anne placed Helen’s favorite doll in her arms, spelling out the word “d-o-l-l” with Helen’s fingers.[v] Helen however, still could not grasp this idea. While Helen became increasingly discouraged, Anne was unremitting in teaching Helen.
One early April morning, Anne traveled with Helen to the family’s water pump. “We walked down the path to the well-house,” Helen later wrote, “attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered.”[vi] Anne then placed Helen’s hand under the cool, flowing water of the pump. “As the stream gushed over one hand Anne spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly, I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten - a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” [vii]
The glassy liquid paired with the concept of language awoke in Helen something beyond description. Important because it permitted Helen to grasp and reach the outside world, the day in which Helen placed her fingers under the chilly water was also the beginning in which others could now experience the astonishing mind of a child previously labeled a monster, and who would go on to encourage millions and transform the world forever. Anne taught Helen thirty more words that very day - a day Helen always viewed as her “soul’s birthday.”
[i]Helen Keller, The Story of My Life,
(New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1903), pg. 6.
[ii]Keller, The Story of My Life, pg. 11.
[iii]Keller, The Story of My Life, pg. 11.
[iv]Keller, The Story of My Life, pg. 26.
[v]Keller, The Story of My Life, pg. 42.
[vi]Keller, The Story of My Life, pg. 23.
[vii]Keller, The Story of My Life, pg. 23.
© Matthew Gordon, 2011