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What We Can Learn from a Biography of Hellen Keller's Teacher

Few of us leave instructions for our future biographers. Anne Sullivan Macy did so. The woman best known as the teacher of Helen Keller wanted to be remembered as a skilled and innovative educator—but without the idolization that came along with working miracles. In “Foolish Remarks of a Foolish Woman,” a self-compiled collection of short reflections, she directed future biographers to avoid such veneration. “I have met a number of famous men uneventfully,” she wrote, “but I have learned something about them. They are Human like the rest of us, they are not gods or even sacred cows as their biographers would have us believe.”

Few of us, however, get to successfully dictate how we will be remembered---and historians, of course, rightly and stubbornly resist letting their subjects define themselves. As I have reconsidered Macy in my new biography, Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller, I became convinced that I, and nearly everyone else, had shortchanged the woman known only as the teacher of Helen Keller. Even immediately after her 1936 death, newspaper headline writers developed limited characterizations. The labels she posthumously earned ranged from “Lifelong Friend and Teacher” to “Mentor,” “Companion,” and “Instructor,” all the way down to “Aide”—varying, but all labels that defined her only in relationship to the famous deaf-blind activist Helen Keller.

Telling the life story of Anne Sullivan Macy with her as the central figure is a markedly new strategy, and creates a new story. Macy’s life was personally dramatic and intersects with major themes and questions of U.S. history in revealing and important ways. Following the life of Macy leads one through the starkness of nineteenth-century immigrant life, the horrors of a mid-nineteenth-century asylum and the development of U.S. social welfare systems, turn-of-the-century medical care for conditions as disparate as trachoma and rabies, regional differences in the post-Civil War decades, and the tumultuous marriage of a smart and ambitious woman trying to make a professional life in a patriarchal society. Furthermore, she was a chronically ill, disabled woman whose public identity excluded nearly all acknowledgment of her disability—and through her I have learned more about the complexities and variations of the U.S. disability experience than I did studying Helen Keller.

Turning to examine Macy’s life raises questions about the opportunities available to women to reinvent themselves in turn-of-the-century America. She is contemporary with the first generation of female college students who embraced pivotal and important roles in U.S. social reform, education, and civic life. She is a contemporary of those who—like Jane Addams, Julia Lathrop, and Florence Kelley—developed and energized the settlement house movement. She is, however, dramatically different. Though an extremely brilliant woman, she lacked any educational training or advanced degree, came from a family with no connections to wealth or prestige, was deeply ashamed of her past, and had little involvement in broad social reform. Other than her relationship to Keller, she had few opportunities to build on for personal advancement. Those she had came from flirtatious relationships with older men. From the time of Keller’s Radcliffe graduation in 1904 until the early 1920s the two constantly sought new economic opportunities and stability as various money-making attempts failed. While she and Keller clearly valued one another, Macy clung to the relationship with such tenacity partially because of the narrow options available for a woman of her class and background, let alone one with a disability.

The relationship between Keller and Macy is both more and less significant to Macy’s life than historians have recognized. It’s more significant because it’s a vastly more complex and profound relationship than the common teacher–student story of the miraculous water pump at which Macy taught Keller. It’s less significant, because as one recasts the story with Macy herself as the focal point, the biography becomes a much broader and wide-ranging story than that of just one relationship. Macy leaned on Keller, juggling her uneasy combination of emotional vulnerability and a fierce desire for independence. Keller provided love, acceptance, daily assistance, an income, and a home. Their deep friendship, and Macy’s willingness to allow herself to be dependent on Keller, gave meaning to Macy’s life. And by the mid-1920s Helen Keller, the world’s most famous disabled person, had become her former teacher’s personal assistant.

Macy’s relationship to her disability is difficult to entangle. I’m convinced that she often experienced her partial blindness, and the physical pain that accompanied it, as more debilitating than Keller experienced her deaf-blindness. Near constant pain combined with the waves of melancholy that confronted her throughout her life. And because of Keller’s star status, Keller got to be the disabled one, indeed a disabled superstar. Accompanying such a person left Macy little social space in which to claim her own disability and the accommodations it required. Finally, her status as Teacher made claiming disability difficult. The powerful social definition of disability, one that classified disabled people as markedly different from others, precluded the status of Teacher. Such sentiments assumed that one could not be disabled and be a prominent teacher. Just as the public defined Keller by her disability, so was Macy defined in opposition to disability. The necessary accompaniment to Keller, as the public understood her, was the able-bodied savior who had freed her from the chains of her disability. The general public always assumed Macy to be sighted—even when told the opposite. The overwhelming cultural belief that disability debilitated, that only an able-bodied person could teach and assist someone with a disability, trumped the reality of Macy’s limited vision and chronic illnesses.

In another subtle directive to a future biographer, Anne Sullivan Macy reflected near the end of her life that “Any book about me must be full of contradictions.” Beyond the Miracle Worker reflects these contradictions—the contradictions of a delightful, gloomy, charismatically fascinating, and annoying woman who was neither blind nor sighted. Though she was born in 1866, her life is a surprisingly contemporary tale. It is the story of a caring, fiercely proud, and intelligent woman trying to forge meaningful human relationships despite her own ingrained flaws and wounds. It is the story of a woman deeply frightened of depending upon anyone else for emotional, economic, or social sustenance. And yet—in one of those contradictions that Macy warned us about—she made one notable exception: she did not hesitate to lean on her famous student, and later friend, Helen Keller.