Helen Keller, one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century, so completely transcended the double limitations of blindness and deafness that she is often referred to as the “First Lady of Courage.” Her story, however, though widely known, is usually told with little reference to the deep spirituality that illumined her dark and silent world.
Yet Helen was a truthseeker at an early age, troubled by questions left unanswered by her family’s religion. She found answers in the teachings of an 18th century Christian mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, whose insights guided and sustained her many through the many trials of her life.
“An unconscious clod of earth”
Helen’s deprivation of sight and hearing followed a mysterious illness when she was nineteen months old. Without words, she was incapable of true thought. Helen would later describe herself as “like an unconscious clod of earth.”
Isolated from others, Helen reacted with violent outbursts and tantrums. By the time she was six-years-old, her parents had become desperate, for their firstborn seemed increasingly more animal than human. Their search for a teacher trained in teaching the blind led them to the 20-year-old Anne Sullivan, whose first challenge was to tame her young charge. That achieved, Anne set about to teach her.
Awakening to language and hope
“That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.”
So Helen described her famous breakthrough on April 5, 1887 at the water pump in the back yard when she realized that the finger movements Anne Sullivan pressed into one of her hands: W-A-T-E-R–were connected to the coolness spilling over the other. Once Helen grasped the word’s meaning, her inquisitive spirit knew no bounds.
That first day alone she learned thirty words. By her seventh birthday two months later, her vocabulary had grown exponentially. It was often the adventurous little girl who led her teacher by the hand to explore and define her newly opened world.
Trained in education of the blind, (though not the deaf), Anne Sullivan’s success was due mainly to perseverance and an intuitive “feel” for what would work. She later described Helen’s eager response to her approach:
As I look back, it seems as if Helen were always on the jump when I was teaching her. We were generally in the open air doing something. Words were learned as they were needed. She rarely forgot a word that was given her when the action called it forth, and she learned a phrase or even a sentence as readily as a single word when it was needed to describe the action.” *
Throughout her nearly 88 years, Helen Keller would regard the arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, as her greatest gift. Their remarkable instructional relationship blossomed into a life-long friendship, with Anne serving as Helen’s main companion and interpreter for nearly 50 years, until her death October 20, 1936.
A loving, joyous spirit
News of Helen’s successes spread from her home in rural northern Alabama, initially to a small group interested in the education of the deaf-blind, but soon to all of America. Endowed with physical beauty, grace, charm, high intelligence and a near-photographic memory, Helen attracted many supporters, including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell, who had married a deaf woman and was dedicated to helping the handicapped, had assisted Helen’s parents in finding a teacher. Upon getting to know the seven-year-old Helen, he was won over by her loving, joyous spirit and became one of her dearest friends and supporters, frequently taking both Helen and Anne on nature excursions.
Continuing the educational climb
Helen’s formal education began at age eight when she and her teacher left Alabama for the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. By then, Helen had been introduced to the classics, including Shakespeare’s plays, the Iliad, and the Bible, through Anne’s finger spelling.
In addition to mastering finger spelling and several versions of Braille, Helen learned to speak, though never perfectly; became an excellent typist; and also became proficient in German, French, Latin, and Greek. She was the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college, earning her degree cum laude in 1904.
Though Helen had longed to go college, her years at Radcliffe College were difficult and lonely. Not only was she cut off from meaningful contact with her classmates, the educational process was unusually laborious. Anne had to spell all the lectures into her hand. Books had to be translated into Braille. Tests were a special nightmare, as directions were not always clear and Anne could not be present.
Nonetheless, before graduation, with the help of a Harvard friend, Helen wrote her first book, The Story of My Life. Thirteen more books would follow.
From wonders of nature to wonders of Spirit
Helen describes her early love of nature as a”precious a part of the music in my silence and the light in my darkness.” With her functioning senses, she drank in the beauties of creation. She writes: “It was but a step for me from the wonders of nature to the wonders of Spirit.” **
In her early teens, Helen became attracted to Swedenborg’s mystical Christian teachings. She was introduced to them by John Hitz, an elderly friend who headed an organization for the deaf endowed by Alexander Graham Bell. Hitz copied excerpts of Swedenborg’s writings into Braille and mailed them to her piecemeal.
Helen thrilled with new hope on reading Swedenborg’s expansive concepts—love as the essence of God and creation; universal brotherhood; freedom of will; and service to others as love in action. She later wrote:
As I realized the meaning of what I read, my soul seemed to expand and gain confidence amid the difficulties which beset me….
Those truths have been to my faculties what light, color, and music are to the eye and the ear. They have lifted my wistful longing for a fuller sense-life into a vivid consciousness of the complete being within me. Each day comes to me with both hands full of possibilities, and in its brief course I discern all the verities and realities of my existence, the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the spirit of beauty….
It was mainly through Swedenborg’s teachings that Helen came see life’s trials and difficulties as opportunities. Limitations, she explained, are necessary to bring before us “the greatness of inner life offered us in the circumstances of our lives…The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valley to traverse.”
By nature loving and sensitive, Helen experienced her share of grief with the loss of loved ones—her parents and later, Anne Sullivan. It was her deep faith that sustained her during such times. Helen shared her Swedenborgian faith in a book originally called My Religion but later recast as Light in My Darkness.
“My mystic world is lovely”
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda describes Helen as one of those “rare beings on this earth” who by “sheer intuitional feeling…see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.”
Helen was able to read the character of a person simply by holding his or her hands. she could recognize objects in her surroundings—and their color—without touching them. And she could “hear” music being played and follow the beat by tapping her foot or swaying her body.
Writing about her deeper intuitive perceptions, she says:
The more I understand of my sense experience, the more I perceive its shortcomings and inadequacy as a basis of life…The inner, or “mystic” sense, if you like, gives me the vision of the unseen. My mystic world is lovely with trees and clouds and stars and eddying streams I have never “seen”….
A lifetime of service to others
In 1918, Helen began her lifelong work to improve the quality of life for the blind and deaf-blind, who were then usually shuttled into asylums, sometimes in subhuman existence, and poorly educated.
She and Anne (and Anne’s replacement after her illness) toured both nationally and internationally to raise funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. Because Helen was often hard to understand, her talks had to be interpreted sentence by sentence, followed by question and answer sessions.
A tireless advocate, Helen traveled to 39 countries. Her personal example helped people overcome their fear of disabilities and the tendency to avoid or discriminate against the disabled. Helen’s efforts were a major factor in changing these conditions through programs for job training and placement, and for the prevention of blindness.
Helen’s compassionate nature led her to support numerous causes, some of which were quite controversial: racial equality; women’s suffrage; workers rights; abolishment of child labor; pacifism; and socialism. Despite opposition from her conservative, southern family and a few friends, Helen stood firm in her belief in the rightness of her position.
“Death is life eternal”
In later years, Helen’s health became increasingly fragile. She retired from pubic life following a stroke in 1961 and died quietly in her sleep at her Connecticut home on June 1, 1968, at age 88. Her ashes are interred in the National Cathedral, Washington, D. C., alongside Anne Sullivan’s, mute testimony to their enduring bond.
Death held no fear for Helen. She writes:
I cannot understand why anyone should fear death. Life here is more cruel than death—life divides and estranges, while death, which at the heart is life eternal, reunites and reconciles….
A bright beacon in a grey world, Helen’s life continues on in many film and stage portrayals, and in classroom projects for children, inspiring them to transmute tragedy into triumph.
* Courtesy of the Helen Keller Archives, American Foundation for the Blind.
** All quotes by Helen Keller are from her book, My Religion.