Helen Keller – The Story of My Life
If you grew up in the United States, you very likely learned about Helen Keller in school. She was an American girl from Alabama who lost her sight and hearing as a baby and determinedly overcame these obstacles to become a writer, a social activist and an advocate for the blind and deaf.
With the help of her devoted teacher, Anne Sullivan, Keller learned to write and speak. She attended special schools for the blind and deaf and graduated from Radcliffe College as the first blind and deaf person to earn a bachelor’s degree. Keller wrote The Story of My Life in 1902. By then she was a young woman and was a student at Radcliffe.
Keller’s early life is also depicted on the stage and in film. William Gibson wrote The Miracle Worker, a three-act biographical play about Anne Sullivan which premiered on Broadway in 1959. Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke starred in the 1962 movie adaptation of the same name. Both actresses won Academy Awards for their performances. Many of you will remember the famous water pump scene from the movie in which Sullivan teaches Keller about water by showing her how it feels on her hand.
I knew all that before I read The Story of My Life. But I didn’t know about Helen’s many famous friends, including innovator and scientist Alexander Graham Bell, to whom her memoir is dedicated, poet John Greenleaf Whittier, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, First Lady Mrs. Grover Cleveland, and authors Mark Twain and Edward Everett Hale.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section is Keller’s personal story of how she learned to break free from the dark and silent world she inhabited. She had an intense desire to experience everything around her and was fortunate to have many opportunities to do so. She learned how to communicate, first through Sullivan’s system of spelling out words in Keller’s hand, and later by reading braille and writing letters first by hand and later with a braille typewriter. Being able to read and write made all things possible.
The second section of the book is a collection of letters Keller wrote to friends, family and dignitaries dating from 1887-1901. While I enjoyed reading her personal story, I think the letters show the real Helen Keller, a wonderful and loving little girl who was able to find joy in the smallest of things and who was interested in everything she came in contact with. I was amazed at how quickly she learned and how extensive her vocabulary was. The letters begin when she was seven years old and in just a short period, they show an explosion of knowledge and ability.
Keller’s early years had ups and downs like any normal childhood. She refers to one particular event in which she was accused of plagiarizing a story she wrote as a birthday present for Michael Anagnos, the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind where she was a student. When it was discovered that her story very closely resembled a previously published story, Keller could not imagine how she could have written one so similar. It was later believed that the original story had been read to her years before and Keller had simply absorbed it as she had many other stories, only to emerge later. Sadly, this marked the end of her friendship with Anagnos.
I also enjoyed reading about the rigorous preparation and enormous effort it took for Keller to be admitted into college. She had to pass exams to demonstrate proficiency in a wide variety of subjects. Keller struggled with math, especially algebra and geometry. Imagine having to learn these subjects without seeing! She had to take her math exams in a different version of braille, and the symbols were different from the ones she knew. In college, acquiring textbooks in braille, attending lectures and having Sullivan spell them out in Keller’s hand were just a few of the things she had to do. When a textbook was unavailable in braille, Sullivan would read and spell out the texts to Keller. Talk about perseverance and dedication!
Keller spent much of her adult life writing, traveling and campaigning for various social causes including women’s suffrage. She was a member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World. She died in 1968 at age eighty-seven and has since received many posthumous awards and commendations.
I highly recommend this memoir. I love reading about people who make things happen. It’s a great example of someone who never felt sorry for herself and expanded her world despite her limitations.
Are you wondering how Helen Keller learned to write letters like this?
Helen Keller wrote many letters to her friends and family members and she used a grooved writing board to learn how write them. The board helped her form each letter and keep the lines straight, a painstaking process which she learned with determination and cheer. She explains how it works in this letter to the children’s monthly, St. Nicholas:
It gives me very great pleasure to send you my autograph because I want the boys and girls who read St. Nicholas to know how blind children write. I suppose some of them wonder how we keep the lines so straight so I will try to tell them how it is done. We have a grooved board which we put between the pages when we wish to write. The parallel grooves correspond to lines and when we have pressed the paper into them by means of the blunt end of the pencil it is very easy to keep the words even. The small letters are all made in the grooves, while the long ones extend above and below them. We guide the pencil with the right hand, and feel carefully with the forefinger of the left hand to see that we shape and space the letters correctly. It is very difficult at first to form them plainly, but if we keep on trying it gradually becomes easier, and after a great deal of practice we can write legible letters to our friends. Then we are very, very happy.
Here are two additional Helen Keller books
Helen in Love: A Novel by Rosie Sultan Helen Keller reportedly fell in love with a man named Peter Fagan, who had been hired as a private secretary during Anne Sullivan’s absence. Published in 2013, Sultan tells the story of this relationship.
Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann – 1999 well-known and respected biography, now on hold for me at the library.
Want to learn more about Helen Keller? Check out these resources:
Looking for memoirs to read? Find out more here.
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