Helen Keller

Born - Jun 27, 1880   |   Died - Jun 1, 1968   |   Genres - Drama

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The daughter of an Alabama newspaper editor, Helen Keller came into this world a perfectly normal, healthy child in 1880. At age two, she contracted a fever which left her blind and deaf. Contrary to popular belief, she adjusted quite well to her affliction at first, developing her own form of single-word sign language, differentianting people, places and things by touch and smell, and even learning to perform simple household chores. It was only around the age of five when -- upon discovering that others around her were able to hear and communicate verbally -- Helen became surly, combative, and withdrawn. On her seventh birthday, she was introduced to a new teacher, a sight-impaired young woman named Annie Sullivan. A graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, Annie had developed a reputation for being a rude, stubborn malcontent -- character traits that in any other case would have rendered her unemployable, but which proved to be invaluable as she set upon the task of teaching the equally contentious Helen. Finally breaking through the little girl's shell by teaching her to "sign" the word WATER, letter by letter, Annie was able to instruct Helen in the accepted form of sign language (entire phrases and sentences, rather than one word at a time), and also taught Helen how to read braille. In addition, the girl was soon able to lip-read utilizing the vibrations of the human voice, and she ultimately developed the power of speech. With her new friend Annie by her side, Helen attended the Perkins School and the Wright-Humason school for the deaf, and in 1904 graduated with honors from Radcliffe college. The myth that Helen Keller was a totally unteachable and thoroughly unmanageable "wild child" before meeting Annie Sullivan was largely perpetuated by Helen herself, who in her autobiography The Story of My Life (written while she attended Radcliffe) and her subsequent vaudeville and lecture tours credited Annie not only with being her instructor, but also her savior. No matter what the cause of Helen's "rebirth," she devoted the rest of her life to helping others with debilitating handicaps, and she also embraced such underdog-oriented political causes as the Women's Suffrage movement and Socialism. Though twice on the verge of marriage, once to her literary collaborator John Macy (who later married Annie Sullivan) and then to Peter Fagan, Helen remained unattached until her death in 1968. Helen Keller's life story was first brought to the screen in a remarkable 1919 docudrama titled Deliverance, with Edna Ross playing Helen as a child and Ann Mason appearing as the adult Helen. This film served as one of the inspirations for William Gibson's 1957 TV drama The Miracle Worker, in which Patty McCormick starred as Helen and Teresa Wright portrayed Annie Sullivan. Two years later, Gibson adapted his 60-minute drama into a Broadway play, with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft as Helen and Annie; the actresses repeated their roles in the 1962 film version, both winning Academy Awards in the process. The Miracle Worker was remade as a TV movie in 1979, with Patty Duke "graduating" to the role of Annie and Melissa Gilbert as Helen. Other Helen Keller dramatizations have included Gibson's own theatrical sequel Monday After the Miracle, filmed in 1998 with Moira Kelly as Helen; and the 1984 made-for-TV drama Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues, with Mare Winningham in the title role.