Welcome to Maoist Orange Cake. Each week one of our Divas posts a thoughtful (but not necessarily serious) essay on whatever calls forth her Voice or strikes her Fancy. We invite you to join us wherever the discussion leads.
Motto of the MOC: Sincere, yes. Serious? Never!

"I would also like to add that ‘Maoist Orange Cake is possibly the best name for a blog ever. Just my twopence." -- The Sixth Carnival of Radical Feminists, 1 October 2007

The Twelfth Carnival of Radical Feminists is up at The Burning Times blog and mentions one of our posts, Helen 'Wheels' Keller, for recommendation. Orangeists spreading our zest!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

HELEN 'WHEELS' KELLER -- by Maggie Jochild

(July 1888 in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, showing eight-year-old Helen Keller seated next to her teacher, Anne Sullivan, as they hold hands)

A new photograph of Helen Keller has been discovered showing her (in 1888) at age eight with Annie Sullivan. It's the earliest known photo of the two of them together -- Annie Sullivan came to work with Helen in 1887. Much is also being made of the fact that it shows Helen with her "beloved doll", an item which did play a role in her breaking through the language barrier. I'm glad to see a previously unknown image of her, but I am also struck by the persistently inaccurate portrayal of Helen Keller.

When I was around nine, I saw The Miracle Worker on television, and besides getting a severe crush on Patty Duke, it spurred me to check out Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life, from our school library. It was a dense read; English, after all, was not her first language. Over the next few years, I read a couple more of her books. I felt a strong empathy with her, because as a child I was an invalid much of the time and language was my only doorway to the rest of the world. I could not imagine existence without the ability to communicate.

(Helen Keller with her pet terrier Phiz, 1902)

I was also intrigued because I had an uncle who had been rendered deaf by a fever at around the same age as Helen Keller, but our family did not have the money to hire help for him. Born in 1913 in rural North Texas, 33 years after Helen Keller, Uncle Joe had suffered tremendously as a child from not being able to connect with his family (my mother's side). At the age of seven, he was shipped off to board at the Texas State School for the Deaf (a campus only a few blocks from where I live now). He came home on holidays if there was money for a train ticket. Otherwise, the state school was his entire existence.

He was forced to learn lip-reading and speech, as was the custom in those days, and he was terrible at both. He picked up rudimentary sign language from the other students, not ASL or anything well-constructed because they were forbidden to sign, so it was an underground language. He was taught a trade -- shoe repair -- and when he graduated at age eighteen, he married another deaf woman ten years his senior and they moved to Brownwood, away from both their families, where Joe set up a shoe repair shop and Era gave birth to their only child, our cousin Florence Lou -- a child who was not deaf.

Uncle Joe felt abandoned by his family, at least the older members of it. He did stay in touch with his siblings, adopted and biological, including my mother. At least once a year, he and Era would arrive in a battered old car and spend a day or two with us. Uncle Joe was loud, monstrously atonal but also furious most of the time. Tall, lanky, dark-eyed and grimly determined to be understood, he would pound on the table and walls, stomp his feet, wave his hands and write pidgin scrawls on endless sheets of note paper to get meaning across. I was mortified by his inability to spell or even form letters correctly, at least at first. But I watched my mother's patience with him, how often both my parents laughed out loud at something he said, sending him into loony exuberant laughter as well when they got his jokes, and I relaxed around him.

I have a small photo of him at around age eight, sent home from the State School to his parents. He looks absolutely terrified.

By the time I was in high school, I was aware that Helen Keller was not any more subdued than Uncle Joe, although her language skills were infinitely better. Most people don't know she was a Socialist, a member of the Wobblies, and that the FBI had a file on her. She spoke out whenever she could about how class and race privilege were the only reason she was assisted from silence and darkness into connection with the rest of the world. She was also a suffragist, a fierce advocate for the rights of women and for birth control. And she had three passionately intimate relationships with women, "companions" who lived with her in what appear to be some version of Boston marriages: Annie Sullivan, Polly Thompson, and Winnie Corbally.

(Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan)

But the public portrayal and image of Helen Keller is her as a child, being rescued by Annie Sullivan with water cascading over her small palm and the word "wah-wah" bursting like a bottle rocket into her feral brain. We may know she went to Radcliffe, and that she wrote books, traveled around and spoke here and there as an adult (although the content of her speeches are seldom relayed to us, especially the political content). We hear she was brave, extraordinary, strong-willed -- but that's not a picture of a human being, that's the crip caricature, how disabled people are always reduced to an inspirational null. The same way Native Americans are viewed as either tribes before white contact or dwindling wretches hidden away on reservations, a dead or dying people. And women are identified by their appearance, their marital status, and whether they are mothers before all else.

(Helen Keller holding the Oscar she won for the documentary "In Her Story), 1954)

So, while I'm glad our knowledge about Helen Keller has been added to by this newly-discovered photograph, I want to balance it out with a picture of her as she lived the vast majority of her life: A woman deeply connected to other women, radical and vocal, using every means at her disposal to correct injustice. Here's an excerpt from a speech she made on television in June 1962, in connection to being awarded a medal of honor by President Kennedy:

"If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life that all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

"We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home; but are we to say to the world and, much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race except with respect to Negroes?"

There's a part of the Helen Keller story that seems to be all but buried: Annie Sullivan was not her first teacher. Before Annie's arrival when Helen was seven, she had 60 home signs to communicate with her family, apparently invented and taught to Helen by the African-American child of the family cook, a six-year-old girl named Martha Washington. In 1887 in North Alabama, Helen's family home (Ivy Green) was nominally no longer a plantation and its black workers were free, but Reconstruction had been sold down the river and nobody knew it better than the former slaves of that region. Yet it was one of their children who deserves at least part of the credit for keeping a doorway open in Helen Keller's hungry mind.

(Helen Keller reading in her home, 1956)

It is also important to remember that Annie Sullivan grew up an abandoned child, in dire poverty and hardship, and she was not much older than Helen herself. She was ill-equipped to manage life at Ivy Green, even without Helen as a pupil. It seems likely that she and Helen grew up together, in a sense. It also seems likely that she is the source of Helen's class consciousness education.

(Terry Galloway)

One of the chief mentors of my creative life has been Terry Galloway, an internationally-known writer, playwright and performer who was born hearing-impaired and also forced into lip-reading and speech rather than being given sign language. She founded Actual Lives, and like so many politicized disability activists, she has a love-hate relationship with Helen Keller. In 2002, Terry and her partner Donna Marie Nudd created a video comedy short, Annie Dearest, which has been shown around the globe. This is a black-and-white parody of the classic film The Miracle Worker, followed by a mock apologia by Terry. Annie Dearest has won major awards at International Festivals, was very favorably reviewed by BBC online and selected as one of the world’s 25 most “outstanding disability-themed films” produced in “the last five years” by Disability World.

One review of the video stated "Conceived by 'performance artist and playwright' Terry Galloway, it satirised the conventional view of the relationship between Helen Keller and her mentor Annie Sullivan, by portraying the Sullivan character as a brutal and cruel woman fiendishly obsessed with persuading Helen to say the word 'water'. A psychologist would probably conclude that our collective laughter at the young Helen having her head flushed down the loo was an important cathartic experience for us all. Others would say it was a clever dig at conventional notions of healing. Some would just say it was hysterical."

(Scene from "Annie Dearest")

Another review says "the video features gallons and gallons of wah-wah. The two-minute apologia that follows is a satire of another sort. Featuring the lip-reading video creator and her signing stand-in, it offers a critique under the guise of contriteness – addressing the outrage the video frequently inspires."

Outrage and hysteria -- I'd agree with both assessments. Do see Annie Dearest if you ever get the chance. It will act as antidote to the demure photographs and sanitized narrative of Helen Keller that have been pushed on us.

I'll leave you with a joke popular in the crip queer community:
Q: Why does Helen Keller masturbate with only one hand?
A: So she can moan with the other.

(Helen Keller, circa 1955)


Who's Helen Keller?, by Ruth Shagoury Hubbard, article in Teaching Tolerance magazine, Fall 2003

Helen Keller: Rethinking the Problematic Icon

How I Became A Socialist, from the Helen Keller Reference Archive

Works by Helen Keller at the Project Gutenberg, including The Story of My Life and The Song of the Stone Wall


letsdance said...

So much of Helen Keller's life was unknown to me before this post, Maggie. Thank you. And, thank you for pointing out that she may have been "one of us".
blessings, Jan

Maggie Jochild said...

{ }

That was me signing "Thank YOU" above.

I just saw an ad for Dancing With The Stars -- the next round will have Marlee Matlin as a contestant. I don't watch those types of shows, but I might have to check in on that one. I trust her not to let herself be an object of ridicule or pity. I miss her from The West Wing. And since Terry Galloway was able to teach me a thing or two about dancing and performing musical numbers, I'm willing to bet Marlee will do the same.

kat said...

Maggie, Dancing with the stars can be really fun to watch. It's really silly and totally superficial, but apart from some snarky comments from the judges, it's really positive. You can tell that the "celebrities" are really just there to have fun.

Get ready for more sequins and gold sparkles than you've ever seen before, though.....oh yeah, and teensy tiny outfits on the women (at least the professional dancer women. The celebrity women are usually a little more toned down).

2 seasons ago, Heather Mills was on, and there wasn't any pity/ridicule/belittling of her situation. They did show a segment about her getting a new prosthetic leg because the old one was too heavy to dance in.

I'm with letsdance. I read a biography of Helen Keller when I was in 2nd grade, but it focused on her childhood. I'm interested to read more about her political side.

kat said...


I need to type slower and think faster....
what I meant to say was that like Letsdance, I didn't know much about Helen Keller.

I didn't mean to say "like letsdance, I read a biography in 2nd grade"

gah, I say.

Jana C.H. said...

Hey, check our map! Our friend from Baffin Island is back again. As I said before, Baffin-freakin’-Island! And there’s our friend on Hudson Bay. And someone new in Iceland. Iceland! Wow! When are we going to get somebody from Greenland?

And for those folks who are not Arctic buffs, we seem to have a reader in Madeira. Also one in the Maldives, and another is what appears to be Vanuatu or New Caledonia.

Hanoi! Cambodia! The middle of the Australian Outback! The middle of the Amazon Rainforest! Two in Siberia! Two in Romania! Orangeism conquers the world!

Except for China. We seem to be kind of thin on the ground there. You think they’re still trying to suppress the recipe?

Jana C.H.
Saith Simone Andrus: Geographers make the world go ‘round.