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.
The marriage did not last, but, for Keller and Sullivan, it was just the beginning. The duo would go on to travel the U.S., offering inspiration and calls for reform.
Indeed, Keller was an unabashed political activist who traveled in controversial circles. In the 1910s, she fought for the women’s vote and birth control, opposed Woodrow Wilson and World War I, and even joined the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical union better known as the Wobblies.
Along the way, Keller and Sullivan rubbed elbows with fellow activists and intellectuals, such as Mark Twain. The famed American author is said to be the man who bestowed the title “miracle worker” on Annie Sullivan.
On to Ireland
It was in 1930 that Keller decided that she, Annie and some friends should go to, among other places, Ireland. Keller’s motivation behind the trip had little to do with activism or the search for Sullivan’s roots. Keller was turning 50 that year and had no interest in “wear(ing) a company smile and mak(ing) a silly speech about feeling fifty years young,” according to Kim E. Nielsen’s biography of Sullivan.
Annie, however, did not want to go, until Keller essentially made her teacher feel guilty. They visited England and then, in June, set off for Ireland. In Limerick, Annie searched in desperation for details about her parents.
Sullivan, however, “learned nothing,” as Nielsen puts it.
Sullivan later wrote: “I have not enjoyed myself. . . In imagination I saw my forebears working in those hills . . . trudging barefoot to their comfortless thatched cottages or, driven by extreme poverty, trekking toward a port from which they would sail to distant lands.”
Sullivan ultimately experienced Ireland “through a lens, a curtain, of her unresolved past and her current expectation of death,” Nielsen writes.
Annie Sullivan died six years later at the age of 70.
New Life on Stage and Screen
The Keller-Sullivan saga received new life in the late 1950s, when William Gibson wrote a TV drama called The Miracle Worker. In 1959, The Miracle Worker made its debut on Broadway, starring Anne Bancroft (born Ann Marie Louisa Italiano) as Sullivan and a young actress by the name of Patty Duke as Keller.
In 1962, Duke and Bancroft revived their roles on screen, in a film directed by Arthur Penn, who would go on to direct the classic film Bonnie and Clyde as well as Little Big Man and Alice’s Restaurant.
The Miracle Worker was a cinematic smash. Bancroft and Duke (who was just 16) both won Academy Awards. (This was possible because Duke was categorized as a supporting actress.) In the film, Sullivan’s Irish heritage is noted in her accent, though some viewers might note that the accent tends to come and go, and seems more a strange blend of Irish, English and Bostonian.
Interestingly, the Queens-born Patty Duke was, herself, the daughter of a troubled Irish American whose background was somewhat similar to Sullivan’s own. Fittingly, in a 1970s TV version of The Miracle Worker, Patty Duke played the role of Annie Sullivan.
This March, another New York-born Irish American, Abigail Breslin, will play Helen Keller on Broadway.
Over a century after she rescued Helen Keller from a life of emptiness, Annie Sullivan is still performing miracles. Twenty years ago, The Annie Sullivan Foundation for Deaf/Blind People was founded in Dublin. Organizers chose the name, in part, because Annie and her great works were “almost unknown” in Ireland. Today, visitors to the Stillorgan-based foundation’s center can see Annie Sullivan’s legacy in action.