Helen Keller: A Life

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9780679443544: Helen Keller: A Life

Helen Keller couldn't hear, couldn't see, and, at first, couldn't speak. Three decades after her death in 1968, she has become a symbol of the indomitable human spirit, and she remains a legendary figure. With her zest for life and learning--and her strength and courage--she was able to transcend her severe disabilities. In a society fearful of limitation and mortality, she is an enduring icon, a woman who, by her inspiring example, made disability seem less horrifying.

William Gibson's play The Miracle Worker, which portrayed Helen Keller's childhood relationship with her teacher Annie Sullivan, was so compelling that most people are only familiar with this early part of Helen's life. But the real Helen Keller did grow up, and her adult life was more problematic than her inspiring childhood. The existence she shared with the complicated, half-blind Annie Sullivan was turbulent--with its intrigues, doomed marriages and love affairs, and battles against physical and mental infirmity, as well as the constant struggles to earn a living.

Dorothy Herrmann's biography of Helen Keller takes us through Helen's long, eventful life, a life that would have crushed a woman less stoic and adaptable--and less protected. She was either venerated as a saint or damned as a fraud. And one of the most persistent controversies surrounding her had to do with her relationship to the fiercely devoted Annie, through whom she largely expressed herself. Dorothy Herrmann explores these questions: Was Annie Sullivan a "miracle worker" or a domineering, emotionally troubled woman who shrewdly realized that making a deaf-blind girl of average intelligence appear extraordinary was her ticket to fame and fortune? Was she merely an instrument through which Helen's "brilliance" could manifest itself? Or was Annie herself the genius, the exceptionally gifted and sensitive one?

Herrmann describes the nature of Helen's strange, sensorily deprived world. (Was it a black and silent tomb?) And she shows how Helen was so cheerful about her disabilities, often appearing in public as the soul of radiance and
altruism. (Was it Helen's real self that emerged at age seven, when she was transformed by language from a savage,
animal-like creature into a human being? Or was it a false persona manufactured by the driven Annie Sullivan?)
Dorothy Herrmann tells why, despite her romantic involvements, Helen was never permitted to marry. She shows us the woman who, to communicate with the outside world, relied totally on those who knew the manual finger language. For almost her entire life, these people, some of whom were jealous or dogmatic, were the key to Helen's world.

Reading Dorothy Herrmann's engrossing book, we come to know the real Helen Keller, a complex and enigmatic person--beautiful, intelligent, high-strung, and passionate--a woman who might have lived the life of a spoiled, willful, and highly sexed Southern belle had her disabilities not forced her into a radically different existence.

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Review:

William Gibson's The Miracle Worker is justly celebrated for its dramatic depiction of the innovative techniques by which Annie Sullivan taught Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, to communicate with the outside world. Now, Dorothy Herrmann's solid, readable biography of Keller reveals that the 7-year-old, who was liberated from her isolation in 1887, grew up to be a strong-willed, tough-minded, intellectually independent woman--not at all the "plaster saint" her teacher liked to present to the public. Throughout her long life (1880-1968), Keller worked tirelessly to promote the interests of the handicapped, but she was also an avowed socialist who believed that working-class people deserved a larger share of America's wealth and a racial egalitarian whose support of civil rights horrified her genteel Southern family. Veteran biographer Herrmann paints a nuanced portrait of Keller's complex relationship with Sullivan, which included anger and resentment as well as devoted affection, and she vividly depicts the maddening constraints imposed by society's image of Keller as a perfect Victorian maiden, virginal and selfless, when in fact she had an ego and a sex drive no different from those of hearing and sighted people. The book abounds in colorful touches such as Keller's delight in performing on the vaudeville circuit--her admirers were scandalized by this vulgar display to earn money. She adored "the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me." Candidly acknowledging Keller's frustrations and some of her less-than-sterling qualities, Herrmann gives readers a flesh-and-blood woman whose achievements are all the more remarkable. --Wendy Smith

About the Author:

Dorothy Herrmann is the author of several biographies, including Anne Morrow Lindbergh: A Gift for Life and S. J. Perelman: A Life. She lives with her husband in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

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