Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The REAL Adventures of Helen Keller

The above image reads in bold black print 'The Adventures of Helen Keller" and beneath this heading there are four black rectangles arranged in a square two by two grid. I personally deem the above image a "F-A-I-L".
The reason this image above which is an internet meme is a fail is Helen Keller was a badass. Excuse my language but she had a dynamic life beyond the 7-year old girl most people are familiar with from the Miracle Worker.

Now I'm assuming the original creator of this meme might have been confusing their life experiences with Ms. Keller's. The four black rectangles are supposed to represent nothing right? Oh wait they're supposed to be a crude attempt at making a lame joke about Ms. Keller's abilities, ok. So since she was blind, deaf and mute her life consisted of nothing.... yeah I don't get the logic in that.

Unfortunately this is the limited perception of many in society. We too often look at an individual's or even a group's perceived deficits at the expense of not seeing their strengths and paint them into that narrative. Painting someone into a limited narrative might temporarily satisfy our ego's sense of security but does it really need to be at the cost of acknowledging the beautiful complexity of one's life. This was done to Ms. Keller in the public sphere where her "child wonder" narrative might of been an economic benefit to some but denied access to the prolific woman she became. In today's world we know the importance of giving a fuller narrative of life and Ms. Keller's story is no exception.

My curiosity in Ms. Keller's story was reignited from my own diagnosis of vision loss. I remember the story of the Miracle Worker as a child where it was almost told like a fairy tale. Helen was struggling with her difficulties and then Annie Sullivan helped her speak and they all lived happily ever after. This fairy tale narrative is unrealistic because it only showcases that Helen's problem being able to communicate was solved but it doesn't show how she lived her life thereafter. When I was a child it was inspiring to hear about this other child's story overcoming adversity but now I'm an adult. Now I want to know the answers to questions like "Did she go to college?" "What else did she do in her life?" "Did she ever fall in love?" Doing some research I found the answers to the questions and more. 

Helen was involved in so many activities in her adult life so much that I can't cover them all here. She was a political activist, a speaker, writer, world traveler, co-founder of Helen Keller International and the American Civil Liberties Union and then some. She had detractors who questioned her ability to succeed still judging her impairments. She had difficulty in college, some administrators believed she wouldn't succeed and when she was found to be a socialist her disabilities were deemed to be the cause of her political leanings. The following is a response from her to a detractor: 
Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! What an ungallant bird it is! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent. The Eagle is willing to help us prevent misery provided, always provided, that we do not attack the industrial tyranny which supports it and stops its ears and clouds its vision. The Eagle and I are at war. I hate the system which it represents, apologizes for and upholds. When it fights back, let it fight fair. Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of Socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that i cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper. If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book that I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness. (Helen Keller Reference Archive)
I think the above quote reinforces my thesis that Helen Keller was a badass. It also addresses the issues that we as a society still face in negatively judging those who have some type of limitation while denying their strengths. Below are some links to more information about Ms. Keller's life. What things were you surprised to learn about her adult life?

A Q&A with Helen Selsdon, Helen Keller Archivist 

Helen Keller: Rethinking the Problematic Icon

Helen Keller Reference Archive: How I Became a Socialist
Helen Keller's Wedding and Engagement (Video)


Anonymous said...

Helen Keller was a socialist? How did she ever get her hands on communist propaganda in braille?

Sharina Julien said...

Yes she was a socialist. Her good friend Charlie Chaplin was one too. A few of his movies weren't released in the US because he was. The media at the time downplayed their political activities.
Back then many people were socialists and manual braille transcription was more common so I'm not surprised she was able to get access to it.