“It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist. The task of writing an autobiography is a difficult one. When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy.”
This is an opening passage from “The Story of My Life”, by Helen Keller who was born on today’s date, June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. I was prepared to do my normal biographical posting about this remarkable woman, this magnificent ambassador and crusader for the rights of and respect for the disabled, not just for the blind but for all the disabled. But then I discovered her amazing auto-biography. And it became obvious that in order to do justice to any part of this woman’s life, I needed to let her speak for herself. I only have the space here to cover the early portion of Ms. Keller’s life up until she made a major breakthrough with her amazing teacher and lifelong friend, Anne Sullivan. So….
The Fever Which Robbed Helen Keller of Her Sight and Hearing
“Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby. They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought I could not live. Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. There was great rejoicing in the family that morning, but no one, not even the doctor, knew that I should never see or hear again.”
The exact nature of the “fever” which overtook Helen Keller at this young age is unknown, although medical historians think that it may have been either meningitis, or scarlet fever.
“I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my waling hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half sleep, and turned my eyes , so dry and hot, to the wall away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day. But, except for these fleeting memories, if, indeed, they be memories, it all seems very unreal, like a nightmare. Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different….”
As a Little Girl, Growing Up…. (above – Helen at age 7)
“In those days a little coloured girl, Martha Washington, the child of our cook, and Belle, an old setter, and a great hunter in her day, were my constant companions. Martha Washington understood my signs, and I seldom had any difficulty in making her do just as I wished. It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter. I was strong , active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it.”
Her Teacher, Anne Sullivan
March 3, 1887, meeting Anne for the first time…
(Above: Helen and Anne, 1888)
“I felt approaching footsteps , I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me. The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while , Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride.”
“Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she 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! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”
Helen Keller would go on that day to learn some sixty new words. From there with Anne always at her side, she would earn several college degrees, and write the auto-biography from which these excerpts are taken, in 1903. Anne Sullivan died in 1932, but the story of her amazing work with Helen was dramatized and in 1962 was made into the Academy Award winning film, “The Miracle Worker”, from which the above picture was taken. Helen Keller died in 1968, having brought light, and color into the lives of blind people, as well as life, hope and dignity to disabled people all over the world.
“The Story of My Life” by Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan and John Macy, 1903