“Miracle Teacher” or Master Manipulator?

Column by J1 Reporter Gigi Salerno

Were Helen Keller’s accomplishments exaggerated to further her teacher, Anne Sullivan’s, progressive ideals? At just 19 months, Keller fell ill, leaving her both blind and deaf. At the age of 6, Anne Sullivan, a teacher for the blind, began to work with Helen and the two became lifelong companions. Keller was able to learn to communicate with others under Sullivan’s guidance, eventually becoming an author, lecturer, as well as a political and social activist. But is it possible that Sullivan was using Keller’s unique situation to gain more attention towards her own beliefs? 

In our world, full of biases, we take precautions to ensure that we get numerous sources of information. At school, our teachers cannot share their political biases, so as not to create conflict. We have unlimited resources through the internet and are really only ever one click away from millions of unique perspectives. But, we still succumb to certain beliefs: our parents’ political viewpoints, possibly the religion we were born into, even our social class and race places instant biases within us. Still, we try our hardest to break out of our own bubbles to understand other perspectives.

Graphic by Anna Rasgorshek

But what if we only received information from one person? This is the situation of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. The power dynamic between Keller and Sullivan made it so that Sullivan had to explain words, concepts, and ideals to Keller. When explaining causes that we are passionate about to impressionable people, does that not make us responsible for their viewpoints, especially if we offer the only perspective they have ever understood? Anne Sullivan was exploiting her student and using the power dynamic between the two as leverage to spread her own opinions. 

Helen Keller published 12 books and an autobiography throughout her lifetime. Her first short story, The Frost King, was published when Keller was only 11 years old. In the story, Keller describes the leaves as “painted ruby, emerald, gold, crimson, and brown.” It’s hard to believe that an 11 year old who did not learn to communicate until she was 6 and lost her sense of sight before she was 2 years old, would be able to describe an autumn scene so accurately. This leads many, including myself, to believe that Keller was not the sole author of this work.

It is entirely possible that after Keller came up with the concept, Sullivan added details, and then subsequently passed the work off as solely Helen Keller’s. After this book was published, Helen Keller became a widely known name, setting the stage for the influence she has obtained in the generations that followed her. This also boosted Sullivan to the spotlight, as the “miracle teacher” who did the impossible—taught a deaf blind girl how to communicate and write!

In most of her other books, Keller writes on subjects such as feminism, socialism, antimilitarism and Georgism. These are complex and intricate social, political, and economic structures that are still under heavy debate today. If Helen Keller was taught by feeling objects and being taught their names, how would Sullivan have been able to portray such complex ideals to her? 

Even if she did this successfully, there is no way that Sullivan would have been able to take her own biases out of these explanations. Considering that Keller talked adamantly about these topics, it can only be assumed that she acquired all of these opinions from Sullivan herself. The biases that we all have, whether intentional or not, slip themselves into our everyday speech. There is no exception for this, including Sullivan informing Keller on these topics. 

Activists, especially female, were often overlooked and underappreciated in the early to mid 1900s. However, for Helen Keller, people were almost more willing to listen to her perspective because of her incredible feats in life. She spoke on several rights issues such as birth control, suffrage, supported the NAACP and co-founded the ACLU, claiming that “there are no such things as divine, immutable, or inalienable rights.” Sullivan supported all of these, and who wouldn’t support their own beliefs? It also seems like it would take an unimaginable amount of time to translate every word into 12 different books back and forth between the two women. Similar to The Frost King, Sullivan must have been writing parts of these novels.  

The power dynamic between Keller and Sullivan, combined with Keller having disabilities, leads to the conclusion that Sullivan was exploiting Keller in order to push her own beliefs to a much larger audience than Sullivan would ever have been able to attain by herself. While she did do incredible things throughout her lifetime, and helped to accomplish what initially seemed impossible, we must ask ourselves if this was completely selfless with pure intentions.

XOXO, GIGI SALERNO

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