Helen Keller is a national icon with multiple books, plays, and movies depicting her struggle to learn after becoming both blind and deaf. However, you might not know that she was a suffragist, learned to actually speak, was once engaged to be married, and she did a 40,000-mile trek across Asia at the age of 75. Her story is as fascinating as her personal challenges.
Helen Keller's Early Life and Family
Helen Keller was born in 1880, and until 1882 she was a happy, healthy child in Tuscumbia, Alabama. When she was 19 months-old, she developed a brain fever that took away her ability to see and hear.
Navigating the World Without Hearing or Sight
Prior to meeting her teacher Anne Sullivan, Helen worked to feel and smell her world. Naturally, she became frustrated with her lack of communication, which would lead to tantrums. Not knowing rules of etiquette, Helen would eat from the plates of others and throw things to get her way.
Early Communication and Companions
While many think Helen was not able to communicate prior to studying under Anne, Helen did use a primitive communication technique. She used a simple sign language (that consisted of 60 signs) with her family members and her companion, Martha Washington, who was the child of her family's cook. In addition to her friend Martha, Helen's dog Belle, an old setter, was also a constant companion to her. She enjoyed Belle's presence because of the dog's excitement as well as her calm nature.
Parents: Arthur and Kate Keller
Helen was the first child to Arthur and Kate Keller. Her father, Arthur Keller, was not only a distant cousin to Robert E. Lee, but he served in the Confederate Army. After the war, he was an editor for the North Alabamian. Before meeting Helen's mother, he was married to Sarah E. Rosser, who had passed away. He later married Kate in 1877. A strong, loving man with an affinity for hunting and fishing, Arthur searched far and wide to help find Helen treatment during her younger years.
Siblings: Mildred, Simpson, Phillips and James Keller
In addition to a younger sister, Mildred Keller, Helen also had two stepbrothers, Simpson and James. Both Simpson and James Keller were Arthur's children from his first marriage. James was a teen as Helen was growing up, and it is noted that he attempted to control her prior to Anne's arrival. It is also documented in Anne's letters that he is the only one who tried to curb Helen's willfulness as a child. While Helen unintentionally terrorized her parents and siblings, James tried to stand his ground to get her to behave.
Helen also had a younger brother, Phillips, whom she helped name. While Helen didn't mention her brothers much in her writings, she did discuss walking hand-in-hand with her sister and attempting to talk to her with her primitive language. Once Helen learned to speak, Mildred became a close confidant.
Meeting Anne Sullivan
In 1886, Helen's mother contacted Alexander Graham Bell, who was working on a hearing device for the deaf. He led them to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston where Anne Sullivan was studying. With a visual impairment, Anne was a star student at Perkins Institute before she came to the Keller household in Alabama to teach Helen. She was able to develop an interpersonal connection with Helen. She taught her to communicate using sign language and to read braille by the time she was 10 years-old. Subsequently, Helen wanted to learn how to speak, so Anne took her to the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. After having eleven lessons there, Anne took over and Helen eventually learned to speak.
Anne never left Helen's side until her death. She was Helen's teacher and friend throughout her training at the Perkins School, Wight-Humason School in New York City, and even her studies in Radcliffe College, Harvard's annex for women, where she graduated cum laude at the age of 24.
Writer and Activist
Given her physical challenges, Helen didn't have a typical adult family life. She and Anne bought a home together in Wrentham, Massachusetts. Anne later married John A. Macy in 1905, and Helen continued to live with the couple even in her 30's. Macy, an editor of Keller's autobiography, was a great friend to her. Both also joined the Socialist Party and Helen became a suffragist.
Helen seemed happy in this home, and John created a system for her to be able to take regular walks. However, his and Anne's marriage didn't last. While the two never formally divorced, John and Anne parted ways in 1914 and became estranged. Helen stayed with Anne.
Helen was a humanitarian and co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union. She was also active in raising awareness and encouraging support for the blind. Additionally, Helen published four other books about her life, one on religion, one on social problems, and a biography of Anne Sullivan. Probably one of the most notable of her accomplishments is that at the age of 75, she did a five-month, 40,000-mile trek across Asia. During this trip, she touched millions of people with her inspiring speeches.
Peter Fagan: Her Boyfriend
Helen Keller never married or had children. However, she almost married Peter Fagan. When Anne became ill and had to take some time off, Peter, a 29 year-old reporter, became Helen's secretary. During this time, the two grew close and made plans to marry. However, Helen's extended family were against the match because they believed that marriage and motherhood were not options for a deaf and blind woman at the time. The two planned to elope nonetheless, but Peter never came. Helen said of the relationship, "His love was a bright sun that shone upon my helplessness and isolation." After the failed elopement, Helen never saw Peter again.
Polly Thomson: Her Companion
Polly Thomson was another companion in Helen's adult life. A housekeeper from Scotland who eventually became Keller's secretary, she worked with both Anne and Helen. Some say Anne, Polly, and Helen were called the three musketeers. After Anne was no longer able to travel with Helen due to failing health, Polly became Helen's best known companion. Polly and Helen remained companions until Polly's death in 1960.
An Inspiring Role Model
Disease took away Helen Keller's sight and hearing, and created turbulence in her family life. However, with the help of some dedicated friends and family members, Helen was able to learn, love, prosper and serve the less fortunate until she died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at the age of 88. She is a true role model for surmounting adversity and creating a rich life of purpose and meaning.