Helen Keller Tries To Tell You Her Story (Despite Your Helen Keller Jokes)

Star of happiness promotional shot: Godin with lamp on head and braille paper and Igor GuideDog, and three little girls in projected background.On to the black stage she steps. You believe you hear her cane tap tapping, then stop. Papers rustle. Suddenly you are blinded by a brilliant light. The light, emanating from a lamp on her head like that of a miner, creates dark smudges of her facial features. Under the brilliant light and shadow face, you see what appears to be an oversized pamphlet. Its pages glow eerily with the angel-sleeves of her pale robe or jacket. At first you think the pages are blank, then you recognize them as braille-dappled.

She begins reading, “I was not born blind. I was not born deaf. I was not born a joke.”

Something childish sparks in you. “If Helen Keller fell down in the woods, would she make a sound?”

“What?” she asks. She seems disconcerted, not angry, and this titillates you.

“How did Helen Keller burn the side of her face?”

Helen Keller answers, “I answered the iron.”

“How’d she burn the other side?”

“It rang again.”

“Hahaha!” You are having fun. “What’s Helen Keller’s favorite color?”

“Purple,” she says.

“No,” you tell her, “Corduroy! “You laugh. These jokes are hilarious! Isn’t she a sport playing this funny game with you.

It is impossible to say if that is a scowl on her face with the light in your eyes. You decide it’s a smile. She seems to wait to see if you’ve finished and, having temporarily run out of jokes, you let her continue. “I was born in 18 80 in Tuscumbia Alabama on a postbellum plantation called Ivy Green. The fair daughter of a southern belle and a confederate soldier, I had–”

“How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

It’s like the itch of a phantom limb. It must be scratched somehow, but she ignores you. “I had, they tell me, keen eyes. They were blue.”

On a screen behind her, the opening sickbed scene of the 1962 film The Miracle Worker projects silently. Your eyes drift to the moving black and white image, while   Helen continues her story.

“In the winter of 1882 when I was nineteen months old, just learning how to talk, I was struck by a fever. Some say it was meningitis. Others say scarlet fever. It raged through my little body for two weeks and when it broke my family rejoiced.”

Talk of her family reminds you of your unrequited joke, and, you can’t help it, there is a little meanness in your voice when you repeat, “How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

“Then the doctor told them the fever had left me deaf and blind, and they mourned.”

It’s like you’re not even there, like she’s forgotten you, sitting in the bright illumination of your personal, if somewhat erratic, spotlight. You raise your voice. “Come on, how did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

“They washed my hands out with soap,” she says, letting out an exasperated sigh, the sigh of a mother fed up with her little trickster.

“Nice,” you say, for this new attitude of hers does not bother you. You’re playing a part too. Besides, there are many punchlines to this joke. You ask again, “How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

This time Helen answers with conviction, “They moved the furniture around.”

“Let’s have another!” you say.

“No,” she says, “they really did move the furniture around.”

“What?” You’re confused.

Helen continues, “Two inlets of perception cut off from the world. Taste touch and smell were all I had to connect with others. So I invented signs, little imitations of the world in which I lived. I mimed the act of buttering bread if that was what I wanted, or crawled on the ground, hands doubled in a fist, to show my little black friend–this was after the emancipation proclamation, that it was time to go hunting for guinea fowl eggs in the grass.

As I wrote in my youthful autobiography, The Story of My Life, In those days, a little colored girl, Martha Washington, the child of our cook, and Belle, an old Setter, and a great hunter in her day, were my constant companions. Martha Washington understood my signs, and I seldom had any difficulty in making her do just as I wished. It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter.”

The projection on the wall shifts abruptly to the famous food fight scene of the Miracle Worker–eight minutes of struggle between Helen and Teacher–foot-stomping, hand-slapping, grappling, utensils clattering, inarticulate cries, and non-verbal reprimands.

“I was strong, active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and     always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it.

“They called me the Tyrant of Ivy Green. I snatched food off the plates of others at table and flew into violent tantrums when corrected or deterred.” She pauses, thoughtful. “They tell me it was suggested I be put in an asylum.”

“What a home for retards? Hey, I got one for yuh …What did Helen Keller name her dog?” You are dying. This is so funny. “Nymphdrumpherlmf! Hahaha!”

Silence greets your hilarity.

“Ok you didn’t like that one.”

She shakes her head emphatically, raking the light across your visionscape.

“You’re gonna love this one… Why can’t Helen Keller drive?”

She has her hand on her hip. She is not amused. You wait until you can’t wait any longer. You explode, “Because she’s a woman! Hahaha!”

You laugh uproariously. She remains looking at you, you think, with those eye pits under the light. You cover your mouth and sigh. What can you do with a person so totally devoid of a sense of humor?

“As a matter of fact,” says Helen, “I was a feminist, a suffragette.”

“A what?” Your jokes have made you dumb. Is she rolling her eyes at you?

I fought for a woman’s right to vote… I was quite the radical. A Socialist and anti-war activist. I was one of the founding members of the NAACP. I was very politically engaged.”

 

“So how’d you end up performing like a freak on vaudeville?”

“Indeed, people criticized me for ‘the deplorable theatrical exhibition into which I had allowed myself to be dragged,’ but we needed the money, and we were one of the highest paid acts on vaudeville.”

“Oh, I get it,” you say,

“you were a sellout.”

“You know,” she says testily, “it’s not easy to make a living as a deaf blind woman, even graduating from Radcliff, summa cum laude. I didn’t want to be a charity case. Andrew Carnegie Offered to give me a pension for the rest of my life… But of course I couldn’t possibly accept his money since he was a capitalist pig who, during our interview, threatened to take me over his knee and spank me for my pinko politics–can you imagine? I was a grown woman! Therefore, it was much more dignified to perform on vaudeville… Besides, being on stage gave me the opportunity to educate people about worker’s rights, and the injustices of our capitalist system.”

“Wow.” You say, allowing in a little snark, “that sounds like a fun show.”

I had jokes too.”

“Hey, did you hear about the Paralympics plane crash?”

“The what?”

“Three disabled guys, a blind man, an amputee and a guy in a wheelchair–”

“Oh no!” she says.

“Oh yes,” you say, and continue with gusto, “are flying back from the Paralympics games in the middle east when their plane crashes in the Sahara desert. They are the only three survivors…”

Helen Keller flips through her notes and then begins reading over you, “As I grew bigger and stronger, my parents began to fear that they might really have to send me to an asylum…”

Two can play this game, you think and raise your voice. “So they wait around for a while for someone to rescue them, but no one shows…”

She gets louder. “But then my mother read Charles dickens’ American Notes, in which he describes his encounter with Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind American to be educated.”

“They start to get real thirsty, so they decide to seek out water.”

“Now I’d like to introduce you to Charles, who will read the passage…”

“The amputee leads the way with the blind man pushing the guy in the wheelchair, and eventually they find an oasis.”

“…the passage that inspired my family to contact the Perkins School for the blind…”

“The amputee leader goes in first, cools himself off, drinks a load of water, and walks out the other side, and, it’s a miracle! He has a new leg!”

“…, where Laura had miraculously been taught to read, write and communicate using the manual alphabet.”

“The blind man offers to push the guy in the wheelchair, but he gets refused because the guy in the wheelchair wants to be mister independent and insists the blind man goes ahead first.”

Helen calls, “Dickens!” to someone over your shoulder, perhaps the guy up in the sound booth, but you don’t turn around to look. You want to finish your joke.

You talk faster, “So the blind man goes in, splashes around, drinks a load of water walks out the other side and, whoa, it’s a fucking miracle! He can see!”

“Dickens?” she calls again.

You are frantic to get to your punchline. “Now the guy in the wheelchair is getting really excited , starts pushing with all his might, goes into the water, cools off, drinks, goes out the other side and lo and behold…”

She shouts, “Dickens!” which forces you to scream out, “New tires!”

You laugh uproariously until the authoritative electronic English voice–a voice like Charles Dickens robot ghost–blares from the PA, “Long before I looked upon her, the help had come. her face was radiant with intelligence and pleasure. Her hair, braided by her own hands, was bound about a head, whose intellectual capacity and development were beautifully expressed in its graceful outline, and its broad open brow; her dress, arranged by herself–”

“You mean she dressed herself?” you interrupt, “Very impressive.”

“Be quiet,” she says to you and pulls out a flask from an inner pocket. “Go on Charles,” she says to the voice over your shoulder, and takes a giant swig.

You are stunned . Helen Keller drinks?

“…was a pattern of neatness and simplicity; the work she had knitted lay beside her; her writing-book was on the desk she leaned upon. – From the mournful ruin of such bereavement, there had slowly risen up this gentle, tender, guileless, grateful-hearted being.”

“Ugh,” you say. “dickens at his cheesiest.”

“Shh!” she rebukes.

Charles continues, “Like other inmates of that house, she had a green ribbon bound round her eyelids. A doll she had dressed lay near upon the ground. I took it up, and saw that she had made a green fillet such as she wore, and fastened it about its mimic eyes.”

“Ha!” you say, triumphant, “Even blind people don’t like to look at blind eyes! But what was Dickens doing visiting some deaf-blind chick anyway?”

“Laura was famous,” she tells you, as if you were a child. “Thousands of people visited her at the Perkins School.”

“You mean they put her on display!?”

She seems embarrassed, sensing a trap. “Sort of, but–”

“Like a freak show!”

“No. It wasn’t like that. It was about progress. About the possibilities of education and science. About enlightenment and humanitarianism.” She is regaining momentum.

“Uh huh. Did they charge money?”

“Not exactly,” she says softly, the pool of lamplight falling at her feet.

“But I bet she brought in lots of dough for that blind school.”

“Well yes, and is that so bad?” She perks up. “I mean, that helped the Perkins Institute educate Teacher and send her to me…” She grows fanatical. “to rescue me from an irrevocable descent into complete animalistic degeneracy!”

You’ve got nothing to say to that. She looks pleased. She returns her attention to her book. She shuffles her braille book one way, then the other. The oversized pages have been printed on perforated sheets, which suddenly cascade to the floor. She pulls the accordion back together and tries to find her place. This is painful to watch. You do the peeking out through fingers thing in your commiseration with her discomfort.

Suddenly she flings the pages over her shoulder and wings it. You’d suspected all along that she didn’t need them; it is her story after all.

Anne Sullivan Macy, Teacher, was blind as a child and, though a series of operations restored much of her sight, she always had trouble with her eyes.”

“Ha! The blind teaching the blind!”

She ignores you. She removes her jacket with the angel sleeves. At some point she has removed her miner’s lamp. How had you not noticed this or the fact that she is you suddenly see that she is quite attractive.

“Teacher’s life started out much worse than mine. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her mother died when she was a child and her father was an alcoholic who abused her and her siblings.”

“Hey,” you try lamely, “did you hear the one about the Irish guy who went to a private investigator because he’d lost his temper?”

She does not miss a beat. “When her mother died, Teacher was put into an orphanage, where she learned early to fight. She was uniquely qualified to tame the tyrant of Ivy Green. In fact, some people called her methods unsound.” Her voice has changed registers; now it is sultry, inviting.

“hmm,” you say, “this sounds interesting.”

“yes,” she says with flirty eyes, “I was impossible. Oftentimes Teacher had to resort to physical restraints and other extreme measures to dominate me.”

The food fight scene is back up and you glance at the black and white woman tackling the little girl. Your eyes return to Helen’s pretty face, then slip down to fixate on her boobs–how had you missed those? You are very glad the spotlight is not on you anymore. Reluctantly you look back up and realize with a little jolt that she is looking directly at you, or seems to be–for with the spotlight on her now, she must be quite blind to you sitting out here in the dark–and waiting for you to say something. “Mm,” you say, “go on.”

“Well, it was very hard for Teacher to do her work with my parents scrutinizing her every move.” Helen is fiddling with the black strap that dangles from the handle of her white cane. It is a little bit obscene the way she is fiddling with it. “Finally teacher convinced my parents that, in order to master me, she must remove me from their presence.” She bats her long lashes at you. “We were installed in a little cottage some distance from the main house…”

She trails off, allowing you to follow. It dawns on you where she might be going with this and you smile at her. She seems to see and smiles back.

“And, in order to make me believe I was in a new and unfamiliar environment…Far from my family and completely reliant on Teacher… They…”

You burst in and together gleefully say, “moved the furniture around!”

“Yes!” she says, and theatrically raises her arm to present the final joyful water pump scene where Teacher (Anne Bancroft) drags the impossible Helen (Patty Duke) to the water pump and spells w-a-t-e-r into her hand while the water splashes over them and the light dawns and Helen understands language. All is joyful and triumphant. Bells ring and the movie rushes to the end.

“That’s a lovely story,” you say, a little misty-eyed despite yourself.

She is pleased. She says, “And that’s just the beginning.”

“No,” you say, “That’s the end of the movie.”

“THE END” looms above her in all its Hollywood glory, and you are a satisfied spectator.

Helen Keller, on the other hand is not happy. “But I’m only 7 at the end of the movie. And I live to be 87.”

You feel mean again. You don’t understand what her problem is. “So? You were deaf dumb and blind. You learned how to quote talk–” you make air-quotes with your fingers, “what more do you want?”

She turns as if to leave, then turns back at the wall next to THE END. The spotlight constricts, haloing her.

THE END fades and a book entitled The World I Live In by Helen Keller opens with cinematic magic. There is music now and a page has its passage highlighted while Helen recites. “Every book is in a sense autobiographical. But while other self-recording creatures are permitted at least to seem to change the subject, apparently nobody cares what I think of the tariff, the conservation of our natural resources, or the conflicts which revolve about the name of Dreyfus. If I offer to reform the education system of the world, my editorial friends say, ‘That is interesting, but will you please tell us what idea you had of goodness and beauty when you were six years old?’ The editors are so kind that they are, no doubt, right in thinking that nothing I have to say about the affairs of the universe would be interesting. But until they give me opportunity to write about matters that are not-me, the world must go on uninstructed and unreformed, and I can only do my best with the one small subject upon which I am allowed to discourse.”

Star of Happiness promotional shot: Godin in white, sleeves hanging down. The End looms large in projection.

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The Play World: Helen Keller Writes About Vaudeville

[“The Play World” is Chapter 13 of Midstream: My Later Life, 1929, in which Keller describes her experience of vaudeville and the circumstances that led her to it. I lightly edited and hyperlinked it from a scan of the original.]

Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920. Helen is seated before a table, facing left. Behind her is a row of many robes and gowns. On the table appears to be makeup, and her left hand, resting on the edge of the table holds a brush. Her right hand is holding a powder puff to her right cheek. Her head is tossed back slightly and she is smiling broadly as though enjoying playing to the camera.
Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920

THE picture was not a financial success. My sense of pride mutinies against my confession; but we are the kind of people who come out of an enterprise poorer than we went into it, and I am sorry to say, this condition is not always confined to ourselves.

 

We returned to our home in Forest Hills and for two years lived quietly. But we were faced with the necessity of earning more money. The funds my friends had provided for my support would cease with my death, and if I died before my teacher, she would be left almost destitute. The income I had I could live on, but I could not save anything.

 

In the winter of 1920 we went into vaudeville and remained until the spring of 1924. That does not mean that we worked continually during all four years. We appeared for short periods in and around New York, in New England, and in Canada. In 1921 and 1922 we went from coast to coast on the Orpheum Circuit.

 

It had always been said that we went into public life only to attract attention, and I had letters from friends in Europe remonstrating with me about ”the deplorable theatrical exhibition” into which I had allowed myself to be dragged. Now the truth is, I went of my own free will and persuaded my teacher to go with me. Vaudeville offered us better pay than either literary work or lecturing. Besides, the work was easier in an essential respect-we usually stayed in one place a week, instead of having to travel constantly from town to town and speak so soon after our arrival that we had no time for rest or preparation. We were on the stage only twenty minutes in the afternoon and evening, and the rules of the theatre usually protected us against the friendly invasion of the crowds who used to swarm around to shake hands with us at the lectures.

In the nature of things a lecture tour exposes one to many unpleasant experiences. Our lecture contract required that we collect the money before we went on the platform, but that was seldom possible and we disliked to imply distrust by demanding payment. In Seattle we gave two lectures to appreciative Audiences, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. The local manager told us he would not be able to pay us our share, which was a thousand dollars, until after the evening performance. He did not appear in the theatre after the evening lecture, and we had no way of getting our money from him. Our manager was not interested in a lawsuit so far away, and we were obliged to pay him a percentage whether we were paid or not; so he suffered no loss on our account.

This happened many times-in Dunkirk, New York; Meadville, Pennsylvania; Ashtabula, Ohio; and San Diego and Santa Rosa, California. In no case was the town responsible; it was the fault of the local manager. Once when we did demand payment and refused to appear when it was not made, the audience became indignant, and the next morning the newspapers came out with a great headline, ”Helen Keller refused to speak unless she held the money in her hand.” We decided never to put ourselves in that position again. Once when we spoke at Allerton, Iowa, a crowd came to hear us, and our share of the proceeds-we were to go fifty-fifty with the manager-was over seven hundred dollars. It was amusing to see how reluctant the men in charge were to pay it. In Vancouver we had so much larger audience than the local manager expected that he paid us twice as much as the contract called for.

My teacher was not happy in vaudeville. She could never get used to the rush, glare, and noise of the theatre; but I enjoyed it keenly. At first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same ”bill” with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.

I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should relate ”the strength and riches of their state”-the powder, the patches and masks, the ribbons, jewels, and livery[]Abraham Cowley]; and if I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me. The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.

I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotion, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.

Some of the theatres where we went were beautiful, and most of them comfortable. Mr. Albee, who is at the head of the organization,   is a man of singular   ability   and   kindness   of   heart,   and he concerns himself earnestly with everything that promotes the welfare of the actors and the efficiency of their work. Very few of them are permitted to come into his presence, but his good will radiates through his staff from one end of the system to the other. We found most of our managers courteous, and some of them were beloved. I shall always be grateful to my personal manager, Mr. Harry Weber, who never failed us in service and loyalty. Mr. Albee is interested not only in the functioning of his mammoth machine, but also in the human cogs and wheels that make it go. Not one of these small ceaselessly moving parts gets out of order but he knows it, and makes every effort to repair it, whatever the cause or the cost. He has kept individuals in shows who are blind or deaf or crippled, but whose handicap is cleverly concealed from the public. An important branch   of   his   humanitarian   work   is the National Vaudeville Association [National Vaudeville Artists], which has ten thousand members. Each membership carries with it a paid-up insurance policy of a thousand dollars, and in Cases of illness, idleness, or other misfortune, everyone is sure to receive financial aid, no matter in what Part of the world he may be. The Association, maintains a sanitarium for tubercular members, and there are health camps in California, Arizona, Colorado and other places.

The audiences always made us feel their interest and friendliness. Sometimes many of them were foreigners, and could not understand what we said, but their applause and sympathy were gratifying. After my teacher had explained how I was taught, I made my entrance and gave a brief talk, at the end of which the audience was allowed to ask questions. Some of them were very funny. Can you tell the time of day without a watch? Have you ever thought of getting married? Have you ever used a Ouija board? Do you think business is looking up? Am I going on a trip? Why has a cow two stomachs? How much is too many? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think it is a blessing to be poor? Do you dream? There were hundreds of them.

I am always intensely conscious of my audience. Before I say a word I feel its breath as it comes in little pulsations to my face. I sense its appreciation or indifference. I found vaudeville audiences especially easy to speak before. They were much more demonstrative than most others, and showed instantly when they were pleased. One of the queerest experiences I ever had was the first time I spoke from a pulpit. The audience seemed so quiet and the reading desk was so high I felt as if I were speaking to them over a wall. A similar experience came when I spoke over the radio. I felt as if I were speaking to ghosts. There were no life vibrations-no shuffling feet, no sound of applause, no odour of tobacco or cosmetics, only a blankness into which my words floated. I never had that bewildered feeling before a vaudeville audience.

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