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Letters to Helen Keller|
“Is she pretty?” I asked Nick. He told me she was intense looking, at once frail and fiery. I have no idea what that looks like, but the description fits what I know about her personality, so I took him at his word.
Up until this point, the house tour followed the predictable course. Yes, there was that crack about the carpet, but I admit most people probably wouldn’t have noticed it. But once we got to the dining room, things got strange. The guide called it the “famous dining room” where all your “famous battles took place.” She called you “a regular little hellion,” and narrated the struggle Teacher had getting you to eat with a fork and fold your napkin. As she was talking, I realized suddenly that she took The Miracle Worker as gospel. Outside the house, we found “the famous pump house,” a sort of fenced-in gazebo around the famous pump that is the central prop in the climatic scene of that play. But the ultimate weirdness was farther back, behind some outbuildings, where there was a permanent stage set and bleachers. There, in the summer, they stage nightly performances of The Miracle Worker.
Here is where I began to articulate something, Helen. Mind if I call you Helen? My problem with all this, Helen, is not that the play is inaccurate. The playwright William Gibson drew those scenes from the letters and journals Teacher kept during her first few weeks at Ivy Green. In fact, as the play depicts, one day at the end of March 1887, Teacher pumped water over one of your hands while spelling the word water into your other, and you suddenly, miraculously, discovered language. You dropped the mug you’d been holding, said “wa-wa,” a baby-talk word you’d retained from before the illness that left you deaf and blind. Then you went on to learn to communicate with the manual alphabet, to read, to write, to speak, and generally to triumph over adversity in all the laudable ways that made you famous.
Part of what disturbed me was not that this event was enshrined in your home, but that it is re-enacted there. Where else in the world are events from a person’s life ritualistically recreated in this way? Jerusalem springs to mind, The Way of the Cross. And while you may find the impulse to beatify, even deify you, flattering, it comes at such a high cost, Helen, particularly for the generations of disabled people who follow you.
But the main thing that disturbed me as I walked around the stage in your backyard was that The Miracle Worker is Teacher’s story, not yours. She was the one who worked the miracle and triumphed over adversity. You were the adversity she overcame. You were the site of miracles. And while I admire Teacher’s accomplishment, the play distorts things a little.
You were, in part, responsible for this. Throughout your life, you were always quick to give Teacher the lion’s share of credit for your education. And you narrated the same events—the dining room battles, the pump scene—in your own memoirs.
But I went to your house to find something else, another story. As we walked around the stage and back to the house, I scuffed the ground to raise a dust. I inhaled it. I guess I was hoping there might still be a few molecules of you left there, the you before language, the pre-Teacher you. I wanted to feel you there somewhere. I imagined you, age five or six, crouching in the shadows under the back steps. Your hair was a wad of tangles. Your face and hands were sticky with some sweet you filched from the pantry. Your pinafore was crumpled and stained. Your feet were shoeless, caked with mud. As I conjured your presence, I felt energy emanating from you which was both curious and hostile. But not fearful, never fearful. I knew that if I bent down to touch you, you would catch hold of my hand. Your touch would not be gentle. You would smear your hand around my face to check if I was someone you knew. You would pat my pockets, looking for candy. Finding none, you might thrust my hand away, slapping at me, kicking at my legs with your calloused heels. Then you would scramble away from me, scoot backward into the darkness.