Helen Keller in Love
by Rosie Sultan
Yeah, that’s right. Helen Keller was once in love.
And let’s cut right to the chase: there are a few steamy scenes in this book.
If you have an issue with that (the idea of Helen Keller being intimate with someone), read another book. (Hell, read another blog while you’re at it.)
Apparently the notion of Helen Keller in a compromising position bothers a few folks, judging from several reviews I’ve read.
Which is exactly why this historical fiction novel is so important.
Well, one of the reasons, anyway.
“The blind are idolized for the wrong things. It’s strange. The praise I got for being ‘Helen Keller the miracle.’ Everyone loved that. Some people even praised me for becoming a Socialist – a Wobbly, even – supporting the Lawrence strikers, working to wipe out slums in New York City, and rallying against wars around the world. I believed that plutocrat President Taft when, at a speech for the New York Association for the Blind, he asked, ‘What must the blind think about the Declaration of Independence, since they are not granted the same rights as others in our society?’ In my blindness and deafness I proved I was equal – more than equal – in my intellect. But no one, from the time I was a young woman, would accept my having a lover. It was unseemly, somehow, a blind girl in a love affair. Torrid, almost. So I didn’t speak my desire, I hid it. While I marched for birth control, stood up for Margaret Sanger when she gave out leaflets in Brooklyn saying women could limit the number of children they would have, I wasn’t allowed to even marry, or consider having children of my own.
I couldn’t accept that fate. That wasn’t enough for me.” (pg. 34)
Our image of Helen Keller is the one that she spent most of her life talking about (but could not actually remember): that of being a seven year old blind and deaf girl, standing at the well as her teacher Annie Sullivan spells W-A-T-E-R into her hand. It’s a moment captured frequently in print and in film, so much a part of the American canon that it feels like we were right there with her.
In our collective minds, Helen Keller never grew up, never went to college at Radcliffe, never met with presidents, never established friendships with Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell, never traveled across the country delivering passionate speeches about the war.
Never was kissed. Never made love to. Never was secretly engaged to be married.
Helen Keller in Love is debut novelist Rosie Sultan’s “highly inventive telling of a story Keller herself would not tell,” according to the book jacket. The book explains those reasons and is very clear (at the end) that Helen Keller absolutely, definitely did have a love affair with her “private secretary,” Peter Fagan in the fall of 1916. And at one point during that time (when Annie Sullivan was sick with what was thought to be tuberculosis), Helen and Peter were engaged to be married.
Nobody seems to dispute any of that.
What appears to be at question are the exact details of their relationship, the “did they or didn’t they?” question that everyone wants to know. Why we care about their private business is another issue, but more on that in a moment.
Let’s start with something simpler. The what’s true and what’s made-up has always been my issue with historical fiction. I love the idea of it and I want to embrace this genre more – and this year I’ve read a little more of it than usual – but it becomes frustrating to me, this not knowing what is truth and what is fiction. It does have the benefit of making me want to learn more.
There was so much I learned about Helen Keller from this little book. I knew that she gave speeches, but I had no idea what a demanding schedule she kept. I also didn’t realize how poor she and Annie Sullivan were, despite Helen’s many awards and her giving generously to charitable causes and individuals in need. (This part I did know.) I didn’t know Andrew Carnegie (among others) supported her financially. I had no idea how controlling Helen’s mother and Annie Sullivan were, and I never knew how outspoken and passionate Helen was about Socialist issues.
(She was criticized for that, too.)
“The Brooklyn Eagle said that as blind woman I had no right to speak about politics, but Peter’s hand warmed mine and I heated up in rage. ‘President Wilson,’ I said, ‘is as blind as I am. Fifty-seven thousand soldiers killed in one day in France? For what?’ The battle in Europe raged. And even though the United States remained neutral, daily President Wilson called for our entry into the war. Weekly my desk was piled high with desperate letters from German, French, and English soldiers blinded in battle, letters pleading for help.
Peter laughed at my comment about President Wilson.
‘Why, Miss Keller,’ he spelled, ‘you’re calling the president blind?’
‘Why not?'” (pg. 13)
I loved getting to know this spirited, grown up Helen Keller, who echoes several times in this novel that “[t]here are so many ways to be blind.” (pg. 87)
We can allow our own fears and insecurities to prevent those we love from living their own lives and making their own mistakes. We can be blinded by another’s fame. (“They say love is blind. But fame can blind a person, too.” pg. 11). There’s fear of the unknown and of a future we can’t see.
“I felt a bit of fear. Could I really know Peter without seeing? A blind man once said he didn’t want sight. He wanted longer arms. Arms so long that if he wanted to understand the moon, he would simply reach up and touch it: he would rather feel the moon than see it. So no, I didn’t need to see Peter: the hot skin of his neck, his mouth on mine, said all I needed to know.” (pg. 125)
To me, Helen and Peter’s presumed sexual relationship wasn’t the disturbing factor of this book. It’s how she was supposedly treated by those closest to her for having the audacity to want to marry him. Because of their own issues (unresolved grief over having a child with a disability, betrayal of a husband, being needed by Helen 24/7 in such a dependent way), it was impossible for Mrs. Keller and Annie Sullivan to see Helen as a separate, independent individual with the same desires and needs as any other woman.
I realize that much of this mindset was part and parcel of the times. But, in many ways, this still permeates our society today. Too many people view people with disabilities as not having sexual feelings – or, if they are thought of in that regard, they are often automatically, wrongfully, and hurtfully labeled as horrific monsters and predators.
We can debate whether it was Rosie Sultan’s place – or any author’s place – to tell this “highly inventive” story, whether Helen Keller herself would have wanted it to be told. After reading this – and admittedly, I haven’t read her autobiographies or other works (but I am curious to do so now) – I’d like to think that she would have approved. She was outspoken, she was a feminist, she wanted the same things (marriage, children) that others had.
She knew that the reason she was being denied was because of her disability.
That’s why Helen Keller In Love is such an important book.
That seven year old girl at the well taught us so much.
We can learn even more from the 36 year old woman we never knew existed.