Mon August 31, 2009
"Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy
We may know Annie Sullivan mainly from the play and the movie "The Miracle Worker," but she was famous long before those. She and Keller were national, even international, celebrities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, performing on the lecture circuit, in vaudeville, even in a movie.
By Don Noble
The world knows Annie Sullivan as "Teacher," the patient nanny/instructress to Helen Keller who signed "water" in the deaf/blind girl's palm at the pump in the garden at Ivy Green in Tuscumbia on April 5, 1887, thus connecting, in Helen's mind, the word and the thing. Within hours after this breakthrough, Keller had learned 30 new words.
We may know Sullivan mainly from the play and the movie "The Miracle Worker," but she was famous long before those. She and Keller were national, even international, celebrities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, performing on the lecture circuit, in vaudeville, even in a movie.
At the time of the "miracle" Keller was 7 and Sullivan was 21 so, of course, she had a life before Keller and Alabama and a rather tempestuous one from that day forward.
Building on previous biographies--the last was 48 years ago--Nielsen does her best to tell Sullivan's story, although there are still several stretches of time about which we know little. First, her life prior to meeting Helen Keller: it is not a pretty story.
Johanna Sullivan was born to very poor Irish immigrants on April 14, 1866. Annie's mother, Alice, would die when Annie was only eight. Annie had two live siblings and two dead ones. Thomas, her father, illiterate and probably alcoholic, couldn't cope, and put Annie and her brother Jimmie in the orphanage, then called an almshouse, in Tewksbury, Mass.
This almshouse was a horror show, right out of Dickens, complete with rats. It sheltered 800 of "the vilest, the most degraded, the most abandoned human beings."Annie and Jimmie played in the death house, where bodies and coffins were kept. Jimmie died in May of 1876 and Annie never saw her father again. The trauma suffered at the almshouse injured her forever.
Annie, while not quite legally blind, suffered from trachoma, a painful eye disease, and had as a child and as an adult numerous surgeries to remove scar tissue. Because of her near blindness, Annie was sent to the Perkins Institution for the Blind and there learned Braille and finger signing, which upon graduation qualified her to become Helen Keller's teacher. Laura Bridgman, not so famous now, was a celebrity at that time because, although deaf and blind, she had been taught to communicate at Perkins by its famous Director, Samuel Gridley Howe. Because of Bridgman, Sullivan would have to fight to get credit for her own accomplishments with Keller. Was Sullivan an innovative educator, or was she merely following the procedures she had learned at Perkins? The answer is, it seems now, that she was a remarkable, creative educator herself, and after Keller had finished prep school in NYC and then graduated from Radcliffe, achievements never approached by Bridgman, no one could doubt. That had certainly not been done before.
In May of 1905 Annie Sullivan married a literary critic named John Macy. Nielsen devotes a fair amount of attention to the marriage, because although Annie and Helen were not literally joined at the hip like Eng and Chang, the real Siamese twins, Annie's marriage did make an awkward household of three. There was even speculation that Macy would have preferred being married to the famous Keller. Macy, a skilled editor, helped Keller with her writings, but his marriage to Annie was stormy and failed after just a few years.
Life for Sullivan was mixed. Annie was often ill, in pain, defensive and bad-tempered. She and Keller were famous, but a good deal of the time, quite poor. Many praised Annie, but some saw her as a parasite, with Keller as her meal ticket. In fact, those two interdependent women became, in many ways, one person. Sullivan's eyesight went; she became extremely depressed and died in 1936. Keller nevertheless carried on alone, was politically active, wrote, even lectured until her death in 1968.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."