The National Catholic Review

Cultural icons are often more complex than they appear. Kim Nielsen’s engaging and excellently researched new biography of Anne Sullivan Macy and her relationship with Helen Keller reveals unknown shadows and contradictory facets of their lives. Annie is, of course, firmly embedded in our collective consciousness as the 21-year-old teacher of the deaf and blind mute Helen Keller. She is “The Miracle Worker” depicted on stage and screen. As a feisty but inexperienced star graduate of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, she bravely ventured to the alien territory of post-Civil-War Alabama to tutor a 7-year-old deaf and blind pupil who was completely undisciplined. After an epic struggle between two strong-willed personalities, Annie succeeds in her innovative teaching methods. She initiates Helen into the miracle of language. In the process an unbreakable lifelong bond of love and affection is forged.

Sullivan and Keller’s amazing achievement was immediately publicized. Helen and her teacher became nationally and internationally celebrated. Philanthropists and rich patrons, like Alexander Graham Bell, ensured Helen’s future education. With Annie’s help she went on to graduate from Radcliffe College and became a prolific author and lecturer. As adult women Helen and Annie were able to earn their living by writing, speaking and even performing on the stage in vaudeville. The two women traveled widely and met everyone worth knowing—from presidents to literary lions like Mark Twain to Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin. To the end of their lives Helen and Annie also garnered financial support from sponsors and through their positions at the American Foundation of the Blind.

While they were at Radcliffe, a young Harvard intellectual, John Albert Macy, joined in their collaborative work. He became a close friend of both women and eventually the beloved husband of Anne Sullivan. Since Annie would never desert Helen, a joint household was formed in which the married couple and Helen lived and worked amiably. John was a radical socialist reformer as well as a literary critic and initiated Helen into progressive movements. She became a pacifist, a feminist, a suffragist, a socialist, an advocate of labor and even joined the Industrial Workers of the World. Her lifelong struggles against American wars and social inequality are often overlooked in popular history.

Annie, too, was sympathetic to the struggle for the poor and oppressed but was less politically active than Helen and less religious. Sullivan renounced her immigrant identity as a baptized Roman Catholic during her youth, but her allegiance to her Irish heritage remained strong. For her, being Irish meant championing the downtrodden.

Because Anne Sullivan possessed a contradictory nature, she could be intensely optimistic and high spirited but also deeply pessimistic and depressed. This mercurial temperament combined with the bull-headed determination that overcame obstacles could make her difficult to live with. These qualities may be what caused John and Annie’s marriage to founder eventually. Was it her independence? Her commitment to Helen? His drinking? Their childlessness or separate career obligations? Little can be gleaned from the public record.

Marital failure was one more grievous suffering in Anne Macy’s life. Over the years her worsening eyesight, painful eye operations and chronic illnesses often made her miserable. Nielsen makes the case that in adulthood Annie’s increasing debility gradually reversed the roles of Helen and Annie as caretaker and dependent. Helen was the star, the author, the activist—and the breadwinner. She became the head of the household. But Helen’s loving gratitude and affection for Teacher never wavered. Keller spent her later years trying to care for Annie. She arranged medical treatments and repeatedly took Annie abroad to lift her spirits.

Nielsen shows how tragic Annie’s “secret” and “shameful” past had been—a drama worthy of Dickens. She was born to impoverished, illiterate Irish immigrants, whose family fell apart when Annie’s mother died of tuberculosis and her father lapsed into alcoholism. By that time Annie had lost two siblings to death and contracted the painful, permanent eye infection called trachoma. As her 4-year-old brother Jimmy was also disabled by a hip injury, he and 10-year old Annie were deposited at Tewksbury Almshouse and abandoned.

Conditions in the women’s section of the huge overcrowded state institution were chaotic, rat-infested and dangerous. The indigent, the deformed and the mentally ill, along with destitute women and their foundlings were lodged together in a daily struggle for survival. When her beloved little brother Jimmy died, Annie despaired. Fortunately, certain good-hearted and intelligent inmates consoled the little girl and encouraged her ambitions to escape. Annie’s incredible drive for an education actually became her rescue. She literally pulled at the sleeve of the visiting trustees and begged to be sent to the newly founded school for the blind.

In another Dickensian twist, several philanthropists connected to the influential New England progressive establishment arranged and supported the illiterate girl’s entry to the prestigious Perkins School for the Blind. Thrown into the center of Boston’s high culture, Sullivan struggled to catch up. She succeeded brilliantly. Although academically successful, Anne remained prickly and rebellious. A disabled young woman without family or connections, she desperately needed the tutoring job offered by the Kellers. As a beautiful, high-spirited girl, she was able to charm the powerful older men who could decide her chances of employment.

The dramatic story of Sullivan and Keller is fascinating in itself, but it also points to similar issues unresolved in our day. Women, in particular those with disabilities, still have difficulties becoming financially and socially independent. They continue to find strength in mutual support. The reader follows Anne’s struggle to overcome poverty and virulent anti-immigrant prejudices. Health care and support for the poor have not been secured while scandals plague public institutions for children and youth. Most horribly, child abuse continues to be uncovered in both secular and religious institutions.

America’s path toward achieving equal human rights and social justice remains a rocky one. But the extraordinary story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller is an exemplary reminder that perseverance in the face of obstacles can yield miracles.

Sidney Callahan is the author, most recently, of Created for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering (Crossroad).