Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

It is Warm      (1880)

Nov 01, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


    If anyone were ever entitled to indulge in a pity party, it would have been the woman who fate had locked in a world of silence and darkness. Yet, instead of dwelling on her misery, she dedicated her life to the spreading of light. She remains a testament to what a possessor of courage can overcome.

     Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, a woman would have remained as unknown as her hometown had she not contracted a mysterious illness at nineteen months. Although she survived, the affliction left her blind and deaf; unable to hear, she was also denied the power of speech. The toddler, who had just been learning to talk, behaved like a feral child.  Her devastated parents grieved the world was lost to her. Unable to communicate, she grew up giving vent to uncontrollable rages: she locked her mother in a closet, overturned her baby sister’s cradle. Relatives suggested the girl be sent to an institution. Although saddled with two younger children, this is something the Kellers refused to countenance. In the nineteenth century, homes for the disabled were not geared for fostering. The staff viewed the unfortunate residents as useless feeders and death delivered the only reprieve. 

      Serendipity stepped in when Kate Keller read an article by Charles Dickens about Laura Bridgman, a deaf-blind girl he had met at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. At age two, scarlet fever had also rendered her blind and deaf; she had also lost the sense of smell and touch. Through its teacher, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the husband of the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Laura had made significant strides. Kate was also in contact with Alexander Graham Bell. By then, the invention of the telephone was well behind him, and he was working to teach the deaf to speak in an intelligible fashion. He had been inspired in this endeavor as both his mother and wife were unable to hear. When he met the six-year-old Helen, he took her on his lap and calmed her by letting her feel the vibrations of his pocket-watch as it struck the hour. Locked in her isolated world, she did not respond. He advised her father to contact his son-in-law, the director of the Perkins Institute, for a teacher to come to Tuscumbia.

      The woman selected for the daunting task was twenty-year old Anne Sullivan. She was visually impaired and hailed from a far different background than her young charge. Helen’s paternal grandmother was the second cousin of Robert E. Lee and her father, who had fought as a captain for the Confederacy, was a gentleman farmer and newspaper editor. The Kellers lived in a stately country home “Ivy Green” where they lavished love on their children. Anne had suffered bouts of blindness and had been raised in a poorhouse after the death of her mother and abandonment by her alcoholic, abusive father. Their meeting was to prove the defining moment of their lives and was to bestow on Anne Sullivan the moniker ‘the miracle worker.’

     The new teacher, hired for the sum of $25.00 a month, arrived in a household which the disabled child had rendered chaotic. Helen used cutlery as projectiles, pinched, grabbed food off dinner plates, and sent chairs tumbling when she did not get her way. The child rummaged in the stranger’s bag for candy and when she found none flew into a rage. Her parents, who walked on eggshells, were unable to impose any control. This was a situation Anne knew she had to change if she were to make headway, but Helen was not a willing participant. Her first act upon meeting her teacher was to knock out one of her front teeth. Anne moved into a guest cottage with Helen in order to separate the child from a mother and father who could not bear to see their disabled daughter disciplined.

       Anne tirelessly made Helen feel objects and then placed her fingers on the child’s palm in the hope she would make the connection that the gestures represented words. This endeavor bore no results until a revelatory moment in 1887. Helen stood at a pump while her teacher poured water and immediately afterwards signed. Helen’s epiphany was the remembered word ‘wa.’ She suddenly realized that everything has a name; the pump had become her version of the Tree of Knowledge. Helen later recalled of the magical moment, “I knew that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool thing that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free. There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that in time could be swept away.” In a month, Helen transformed from the family despot into a docile and affectionate child with an unquenchable thirst to learn the names of everything. The young girl pointed to Anne who spelled ‘teacher’ and ‘teacher’ she remained till the end.

     News of her remarkable achievement spread, and Helen became a child celebrity in both the United States and Europe. At age eight, she visited President Cleveland at the White House and in Boston met many of the luminaries of the period such as Oliver Wendell Holmes. Journalists and photographers gathered in droves when she took trips to Niagara Falls and to the World’s Fair in the company of Dr. Bell. People with five senses were in awe of the remarkable child who could accomplish so much with only three.

      If Helen had been less far-reaching, she would have spent her life in Tuscumbia, eventually becoming the maiden aunt for the children of her brother Phillips and sister Mildred. However, as a teen, her quest for knowledge remained unabated and she entered Radcliff, (Harvard at the time did not admit woman.) Through Mark Twain, Helen met Standard Oil magnet Henry Huttleston Rogers. who paid her tuition. In college she distinguished herself as the only blind deaf student in the school’s history as well as its only published author. At age twenty-one, she wrote on her Braille Hammond typewriter the Story of My Life which she hoped would prove a beacon for those struggling with their own demons. Translation of the autobiography appeared in fifty languages. She graduated cum laude with honors in German and English, an accomplishment made possible by steely determination and Anne’s selfless assistance. What set Helen apart was that no similarly afflicted person had done more than acquire the simplest skills. Helen reminisced of her college years, “I slip back many times. I fall, I stand still. I run against the edge of hidden obstacles. I lose my temper and find it again, and keep it better. I trudge on, I gain a little. I feel encouraged. I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see widening horizons.”  

       Post- graduation, the two women toured the world where Helen served as a distinguished lecturer, advocating the rights of the disabled. Although her high-pitched voice was not easily understood, everywhere she went there was an outpouring of praise. After her formal talks-interpreted sentence by sentence by her teacher-Helen answered questions, even when they were inane: “Do you close your eyes when you go to sleep?” to which she answered, “I never stayed awake to see.” She took great pride in her appearance and was always impeccably dressed. Due to her protruding left eye, she was generally photographed in profile. Surgeons eventually replaced both her eyes with glass replicas for both medical and cosmetic reasons. She went on to pen thirteen other books as well as countless articles; her passport listed her occupation as “author.” Winston Churchill called her “the greatest woman of our age.” Mark Twain compared her to Napoleon and Shakespeare. The Tom Sawyer author described her as “quick and bright’ and “almost certain to send back as good as she gets, and almost as certainly with an improvement added.” She was no flash in the pan: Helen’s hold on the public imagination continued unabated throughout her life. Gallup polls consistently showed her to be one of the world’s most admired women, edging out such notables as Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace, and Golda Meir. Despite her fame and acclaim, Helen remained unaffected and believed to the end her optimism was justified. “I believe that all through these dark and silent years, God has been using my life for a purpose I do not know. But one day I shall understand and then I will be satisfied.”

      The world views Helen Keller as one of its guardian angels, but under the icon was a woman who longed for romance. In 1916, she fell in love with Peter Fagan, a committed socialist who had served as Helen’s secretary when Anne had taken ill. Fearing the disapproval of both her teacher and mother, the couple planned an elopement. However, when a Boston reporter discovered a newspaper entry regarding the marriage license his article on the romance alerted Kate Keller who ordered Fagan out of the house and ended the love affair. This may have because she believed there had to be an ulterior motif for a younger man to wed her blind-deaf daughter. Another reason was the prevailing belief that a wife’s job was to be caregiver to her husband and child and Kate assumed this was a role her daughter could not fulfill. Helen wrote of her loss, “The love which had come, unseen and unexpected, departed with tempest on his wings. A little island of joy surrounded by dark waters.” Years later her enforced spinsterhood remained a painful wound and she said that if she could see, “I would marry first of all.”

     Rather than dwell on what she had been cruelly cheated, Helen lived life to the fullest. In this way she had no time to dwell on her misfortunes and steadfastly shunned pity. None was needed. She performed improbable feats, such as riding horseback and became an example of unquenchable will. She stated, “My life has been happy because I have had wonderful friends and plenty of interesting work to do. I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times, but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers. The wind passes, and the flowers are content.”

    What brought her the most satisfaction was her advocacy of social issues, even when they brought umbrage in its wake. She criticized fellow Southerner Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind for overlooking the brutality of slavery and cheered protestors for better conditions for workers. She was a suffragette and birth-control advocate, a supporter of the NAACP and co-founder of the ACLU.  In the 1950s, she made an enemy of Senator Joseph McCarthy as an ardent advocate of the right to practice whatever ideology one chose.

     Helen was an ardent opponent of fascism prior to World War II and worked with soldiers who had been blinded, her life a testament of hope despite disability. Her remarkable achievements flew in the face of Adolph Hitler’s Aktion T4, a Nazi run program of involuntary euthanasia for those afflicted with physical or mental handicaps. Her outspoken denunciation of the dictator was why his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, included Keller’s works in his book-burnings which Time Magazine termed a ‘bibliocaust.’ 

       One of Helen’s darkest days came in 1936 when her beloved teacher passed away at their shared home in Forest Hills, Queens. After a half century, she had to say goodbye to the woman whose hands had been her bridge to the world. The depth of her devotion was apparent with her tribute, “Teacher is free at least from pain and blindness. I pray for strength to endure the silent dark until she smiles upon me again.” The many who loved Helen feared with her beloved teacher’s loss she would fall apart, but Anne had taught her well-she determined to still rise.   

     Helen’s prayer was answered as she persevered after Anne’s passing. She continued to lecture and travel, helped by her secretary Polly Thompson, touching the faces of kings, presidents, and world leaders such as Winston Churchill and Golda Meir. In 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honoring her as a model of courage and determination. But most important to her was her campaigns devoted to improving the lives of the handicapped.

   Helen’s life ended just before her eighty-eighth birthday in 1968 at her Connecticut home, Arcan Ridge. A service was held in her honor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C. where her ashes were laid to rest next to her constant companion, Anne Sullivan. Her home state of Alabama honored their distinguished daughter by putting her likeness on their state quarter, the only circulating U.S. coin to feature Braille. She is portrayed sitting on a chair, book in lap, with a ribbon that held the words: Spirit of Courage.

    From a childhood that seemed destined to cage her forever in a sightless and soundless world, Helen’s indomitable dedication to the spirit of still I rise made her one of the world’s most respected and revered of women. She remains an enduring symbol of triumph over crushing adversity. Perhaps her biography can be encapsulated by her first spoken sentence, “It is warm.”