The Miracle Worker: Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan
What we do know is that young Annie endured grim conditions which, sadly, were familiar to the children of the Irish immigrants flocking to the northeastern United States in the years after the Great Famine struck Ireland.
Annie was the oldest of five children, born to parents who had left Limerick at the height of the Great Hunger. Thomas and Alice Sullivan baptized their children in a heavily Irish Massachusetts parish, but the traumas of their journey from Ireland followed them to America. Thomas Sullivan was a farmhand but he was also an alcoholic who eventually abandoned the family. Worse still, Alice died when Annie was just eight.
In the 1962 film version of The Miracle Worker, Annie looks back on her youth with almost gothic horror, as she and her brother are separated from their parents and sent to an orphanage.
Helen Keller, meanwhile, was born in southern United States in 1880, to a family with strong ties to the former Confederacy. Keller’s mother was a cousin of General Robert E. Lee, while her father was a Confederate officer. Keller was not born deaf and blind. When she was nineteen months old, she became severely ill with what was most likely meningitis or scarlet fever. Keller not only lost her sight and hearing, she also became a violent, uncontrollable child.
Keller’s mother was always seeking possible cures for her daughter, a quest which, at one point, led to her to telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with deaf children. Bell suggested that the Kellers visit Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, a school which happened to have a precocious student – nearly blind herself – named Annie Sullivan.
Like Helen Keller, Sullivan was a difficult student. She, too, suffered from severe eye problems, which nearly blinded her. Nevertheless, after living in an orphanage with her brother, Jimmie (who was born with tuberculosis and died young), Sullivan excelled at Perkins, graduating at the top of her class.
Subsequent eye operations improved her vision, allowing Sullivan to read and write. She also learned to communicate with deaf and blind friends at Perkins, a skill that would come in handy when, in 1886, she graduated from Perkins and was hired by the Kellers to care for Helen in Alabama.
The struggles which followed have been well-documented. Keller was a profoundly challenging student. But Annie was determined, to the point of obsession, and finally managed to help Helen communicate, though historians have come to question the veracity of the famous “water” breakthrough scene depicted in Gibson’s play.
Either way, Annie Sullivan served as Keller’s educator for over a decade. In 1900, Annie went to Radcliffe College with Helen, who eventually earned a degree from that prestigious institution.
It was at Radcliffe that Sullivan met John Albert Macy, who helped Helen write her autobiography, The Story of My Life. Macy married Annie Sullivan in 1905.
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