The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan has a well-known beginning that's been dramatized in the movie and play The Miracle Worker: Due to an illness, Keller lost her sight and hearing before the age of two, then struggled to find her place in the world. In 1887, a 20-year-old Sullivan, a recent graduate of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, arrived at Keller's Alabama home to become the young girl's teacher. Keller was initially combative with Sullivan but eventually associated water flowing over her hand with Sullivan using her fingers to spell the word "water" on her palm. This breakthrough provided a means for Keller to communicate with others and unlocked her abilities. However, Sullivan and Keller's story extends far beyond this moment.
Keller looked out for Sullivan the same way Sullivan watched over her
With Sullivan's assistance, Keller was able to pursue educational opportunities in New York and Massachusetts. Keller passed the entrance exams for Harvard's Radcliffe College in 1899 and enrolled there in 1900. Sullivan remained at Keller's side, using finger spelling to convey lectures and conversations to the younger woman. Though it hurt her own eyesight, Sullivan also reviewed textbooks to deliver the information inside to Keller (the dearth of Braille textbooks meant Keller couldn't read most coursework on her own).
However, Keller helped Sullivan in turn. The opportunity to teach a young Keller came at a time when Sullivan, whose sight was limited due to a childhood infection, desperately needed a way to earn her living. While at Radcliffe, Keller could tell her teacher's eyes were hurting due to the amount of reading she was doing. Keller later stated that at times "when she asked if I did not want certain passages reread, I lied and declared that I could recall them," so as to spare Sullivan further eyestrain.
Through their time together, Sullivan, who was always haunted by a horrific childhood stay in a poorhouse, knew she could depend on Keller for support. When Sullivan's health failed and she became blind in the 1930s, Keller aided her teacher with tasks such as writing letters. And her work with Keller offered Sullivan a feeling of accomplishment. In a manuscript she called "Foolish Remarks of a Foolish Woman," Sullivan wrote, "Only in Helen have I kept the fire of a purpose alive. Every other dream flame has been blown out by some interfering fool."
Keller and Sullivan teamed up to earn a living
At a time when women, especially disabled women, had few paths to live independently, Keller and Sullivan supported themselves in a myriad of ways. Sullivan helped Keller with her successful autobiography, The Story of My Life, which was published in 1903. Sullivan didn't claim credit for Keller's ideas, but once explained in a letter, "Some one must always be at her side to read to her, to keep her typewriter in order, to read over her manuscript, make corrections and look up words for her, and to do the many things which she would do for herself if she had her sight."
After World War I, Keller's writing no longer supported the two. They headed to Hollywood and both appeared in the 1919 movie Deliverance, a docudrama about Keller's life. The film wasn't successful, so in 1920 they headed out on the vaudeville circuit to earn needed income. Their popular act included a segment in which Keller delivered planned answers to audience questions. This allowed her to share humorous and pointed opinions, as when Keller was asked, "What is the slowest thing in the world?" and noted in response, "Congress."
When Sullivan became ill and had to take a break from the vaudeville stage in 1922, Keller, who loved performing, continued to appear with another woman who translated audience questions and her responses. But by 1924, Keller had left the stage to serve as a spokesperson for the American Foundation for the Blind. She raised funds for the organization and advocated for more opportunities for the blind.
Though close, Keller and Sullivan had separate lives
Keller's political beliefs were much more radical than Sullivan's. She became a member of the Socialist party in 1909 (and would later be a subject of FBI surveillance), spoke out for women's suffrage and demanded better access to birth control — steps Sullivan never would have taken. And in contrast to Sullivan's agnosticism, Keller was a believer in Christianity. Sullivan once wrote, "It pains me deeply, Helen, not to be able to believe as you do. It hurts not to share the religious part of your life" (however, she was proud of her pupil's independence of thought).
The women's intertwined lives didn't prevent Sullivan from marrying John Macy in 1905. She'd hesitated about an engagement, in part due to fears about how it would affect her relationship with Keller. But Keller had insisted, "Oh, Teacher, if you love John, and let him go, I shall feel like a hideous accident!" After the wedding, the couple continued to live with Keller.
Sullivan's marriage didn't last, yet her teacher's experience didn't scare Keller away from matrimony. When Sullivan was ill in 1916, reporter Peter Fagan served as a replacement secretary. He and Keller fell in love and wanted to marry. It was only interference from Keller's family, who believed the deafblind Keller could not be a wife and possible mother, that ended the relationship.
READ MORE: Helen Keller and Mark Twain Had an Unlikely Friendship That Spanned More Than a Decade
Keller lived many years after Sullivan's death and continued to honor her
Before Sullivan died in 1936, she said of Keller, "Thank God I gave of my life that Helen might live. God help her to live without me when I go." Keller survived and even thrived after Sullivan was gone. With the help of other companions, she continued to write. She offered her support to soldiers blinded during World War II. She urged governments and institutions across the globe to provide more resources for educating the blind. In 1953, she received a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. This life of accomplishment lasted until Keller's own death in 1968.
Keller once said of Sullivan, "By the vitalizing power of her beautiful friendship she has stirred and enlarged my faculties. She has held me up to the ideals of the great and the good. She has opened my eyes to find my fellow men that need help, and it is the dearest joy of her life to have me do the most that lies in my power for them." Though Keller spent decades without Sullivan, her actions always shared a link to lessons learned many years earlier.