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Letters to Helen Keller|
from Part One:
Dear Helen Keller:
Allow me to introduce myself. I am a writer and part-time English professor. I am American, married, middle-aged, middle class. Like you, I am blind, though not deaf. But the most important thing you need to know about me, and the reason for my letter, is that I grew up hating you. Sorry to be so blunt, especially on such short acquaintance, but one of the advantages of writing to a dead person is there’s no need to stand on ceremony. And you should know the truth from the start. I hated you because you were always held up to me as a role model, and one who set such an impossibly high standard of cheerfulness in the face of adversity. “Why can’t you be more like Helen Keller?” people always said to me. Or that’s what it felt like whenever your name came up. “Count your blessings,” they told me. “Yes, you’re blind, but poor little Helen Keller was blind and deaf, and no one ever heard her complain.”
I am not alone in this. Many disabled people think you did our cause a lot of harm. Your life story inscribes the idea that disability is a personal tragedy to be overcome through an individual’s fortitude and pluck, rather than a set of cultural practices and assumptions, affecting many individuals that could be changed through collective action. Lately, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, my feelings about you have mellowed. It occurred to me that I should not hold you responsible for the use others made of your life story. This led me to dip into your autobiographical writing for the first time. Even more surprising, it led me to take a road trip to visit your childhood home, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. And I thought you’d like to know what I found there.
I went with my husband Nick who is almost always up for a road trip. We took the house tour, which was standard fare for a local-hero museum. The guide was a woman pushing sixty, probably a volunteer, apparently reciting a script. She rattled off a number of facts about the town, the region, and antebellum architecture—all the predictable stuff.
Then, in one of the downstairs rooms, she pointed out a carpet on the floor that had been woven especially for you by I forget whom. She explained all this, then said, “Isn’t it lovely?” We murmured agreement. Then she said, “Too bad Helen Keller never saw it.” Her voice had a throaty throb as she delivered the line. I realized that the statement was supposed to catch us up short, jar us out of our complacency, remind us that you were deaf and blind. We were supposed to feel grateful and lucky, and intone a private prayer of gratitude: “I wake each day and thank the Lord I was not born Helen Keller.”