A 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
"While saying among themselves it cannot be done, it was done." Helen Keller
Helen and Teacher is Annie Sullivan's and Helen Keller's superb memorial, all 800 pages of it, as author Lash cuts through the treacle, the myth, the sensationalism of their famous relationship and presents the players on this stage as the human beings they are. Annie was rather like a scrappy terrier, Helen as gentle as a golden retriever, but together they were a team that achieved wondrous things. As the author remarks, "[Annie] approached the world with a chip on her shoulder...the other reached out to the world with a heart full of love..." This biography is huge but I'm just going to discuss a few of the highlights in this tremendous undertaking.
Another Amazon reviewer quite aptly refers to Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller as having a symbiotic relationship. I think that observation is very sound, but it is also more than that, much more than that, it was a great love between two people. Annie Sullivan may have freed Helen from a prison of darkness and eerie silence, but in many ways, Helen saved the bitter and emotion wrought Teacher and liberated her from memories of a ghastly childhood spent in a poor house, an experience that reads like something right out of Dickens. Annie through Helen was no longer chained to those memories, salvaging Helen became her life's work and she found both love and companionship in her long stewardship of the woman who became a worldwide icon. Helen had a brilliant mind when it was finally released from the shackles of deafness and blindness but so did the vision- impaired Annie who graduated from the Perkins Institute as valedictorian. Annie delivered a valedictorian address that is astoundingly mature for a girl of twenty.
Perhaps the biggest miracle in the Annie -Helen relationship is that they were brought together in the first place. Their union seems almost providential. Annie came to Helen when she was twenty one years old, half-blind herself. Her first task was to subdue the out of control little girl and teach her to obey. Helen had been spoiled by her parents and was not corrected when she grabbed handfuls of food from peoples' plates and screamed and kicked and created mayhem at the dinner table when she was thwarted in any way.
Helen finally understood that everything had a name during the famous eureka scene at the water pump, and Annie said, after Helen for the first time kissed her and hugged her, "I thought my heart would burst it was so full of joy." Helen morphed into an entirely different child because her active brain found room to fly. How high Helen flew is almost more than a miracle, it is a devastating achievement that provokes wonder. As a child she could read Braille with one hand and simultaneously transfer the words with her other hand into Annie's palm. At twelve years old she was a celebrity but Annie was the king maker.
Author Lash goes into great detail about the famous episode of "The Frost King." Annie allowed Helen to publish that story but it was obviously a plagiarism and Annie must have known that. Helen should not have been faulted as the plagiarized story had been read to her years before and she simply filed the images away in her mind and resurrected them later thinking the images were her own. There was a huge flap and Annie's credibility was doubted for the rest of her life. Helen's reputation was hurt by the allegations, too. It is odd that a woman as astute as Annie could make a mistake that serious, but perhaps her ambition for Helen clouded her judgment.
Annie tried through her mission of salvaging the mind of Helen to shake herself free of her background and the hurtful memories but she was always touchy and quick to take offense. Because of her belligerence she made enemies and she somewhat heartlessly spurred Helen on as she demanded the best performance possible. Annie accompanied Helen through Radcliffe, sitting next to her at lectures, transcribing the lectures into Helen's hand. Helen read a great many books in Braille as well covering a very wide curriculum that would stagger most of today's college students. She received her degree cum laude.
Helen did not have to attach herself to anyone's coattails, but people, many of them, attached themselves to hers. John Macy, Annie's husband, made use of the money Helen and Teacher earned in the vaudeville circuit where they performed right beside the acrobats, trained seals midgets and horses. Helen's father was heavily in debt and could not support his daughter so the women had to work. Macy was also a heavy drinker and was resentful for the ménage a trois of himself, Annie and Helen. He surely knew that Annie would never leave Helen and he was spiteful behind Annie's back
There are many other examples in the book of individuals jealous of Annie and Helen even had her jailers- her own mother had tried to separate Helen and Annie as she felt her role as mother was being usurped. She prevented Helen from marrying Peter Fagan, a young journalist with whom Helen was in love. Helen's brother-in-law on the instigation of Mrs. Keller ran poor Peter off the premises with a shot gun.
Annie and Helen traveled the world and Helen was a household name wherever they went and they were frequently mobbed. Eventually Polly Thomson, a level headed, kindly and non-flappable Scottish lady, joined Helen and Annie which allowed Annie some time off. Annie's health deteriorated badly as she aged and one of her eyes had to be removed. Typically, Helen agonized over Annie's eye troubles when she rarely thought about her own blindness. Helen never acquired the deep love for Polly that she felt for Teacher but Polly served her faithfully for twenty years. However, like so many people in Helen's life, Polly was very jealous of anyone but herself helping Helen.
Annie and Helen were both very strong women who knew what they wanted and frequently got it. Their story, their mutual triumph will endure. Author Lash died in 1987, but his book will endure, too, the definitive story of Annie Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller.
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