15. Anne Sullivan
Meet Anne Mansfield Sullivan Macy: poorhouse brat, misfit scholarship child, brilliant scholar and educator, pacifist, PWD, and all-around badass bookworm.
You probably know her as ‘Annie Sullivan’, aka ‘The Miracle Worker’, packaged in the standard-issue nicey-nice Helen Keller narrative (don’t get me started) as the sweet saintly teacher-figure whose naïve moment of inspiration allowed the infant Keller to figure out that W-A-T-E-R spelled ‘water’.
I’d like to introduce you to a slightly different version.
In 1880, fourteen-year-old Anne Sullivan (born ‘Johanna’, but usually called ‘Anne’ or ‘Annie’) had every right to be fucking pissed off with the world. And frequently, she was. Her parents were dirt-poor refugees who’d fled to Massachusetts from Ireland in an attempt to escape the colonialism-aggravated human-rights-and-economics clusterfuck that was the Great Famine. Between the ages of five and seven, Sullivan contracted trachoma, an eye disease that is often caused by poor sanitation and which can cause total blindness if left untreated — which it was in Sullivan’s case. In 1874, her mother died of tuberculosis. Anne and her brother James (who also had TB) were sent to the Tewksbury Almshouse because her father (who was also an alcoholic — the fun just didn’t seem to stop for the Sullivan family) was incapable of looking after them. Their sister Mary was taken by an aunt instead: there’s some suggestion that Anne and James were unwanted because they both had disabilities. James died only a few months later, while Anne’s vision continued to deteriorate in the institution. Charitable bodies funded several attempts at treating her eyes, all of which were unsuccessful (as was a brief attempt to send her out to work as a housemaid). By 1880, Sullivan had lost her entire family and most of her sight. She was fourteen years old.
In later years Sullivan described having suffered during this period from attacks of ‘temper’ and uncontrollable rage (to which I say: who the hell wouldn’t?). She also endured recurring ‘flashback’-type moments in later life. Kim Neilsen’s 2009 biography (see below) suggests that Sullivan suffered from depression as an adult: these ‘flashbacks’ sound a lot like PTSD to me. Sullivan herself described them as:
A word, an odd inflection, the way somebody crosses the street, brings all the past before me with such amazing clearness and completeness, my heart stops beating for a moment. Then everything around me seems as it was so many years ago. Even the ugly frame-buildings are revived… I shiver recalling how I looked upon scenes of vile exposure — the open heart of a derelict is not a pleasant thing. I doubt if life, or eternity for that matter, is long enough to erase the errors and ugly blots scored upon my brain by those dismal years.
Through self-advocacy – when Frank Sanborn, a member of the State Board of Charities, visited the institution she basically threw herself at him and demanded to be allowed to go to school – Sullivan managed to get herself a funded place at the Perkins School for the Blind. This must have been a period of severe culture shock for her: the School was, at the time, a very genteel place populated primarily by upper-middle-class students from WASP backgrounds who were no more prepared to mix with an Irish-American girl from the poorhouse than she was to meet them. Sullivan was mocked for not being able to read or spell simple words, and for using language and grammar that was very different to the way that the other students spoke. She wrote about her feelings of inadequacy eloquently later in her life:
The essence of poverty, is shame. Shame to have been overwhelmed by ugliness, shame to be the hole in the perfect pattern of the universe.
I don’t think that Sullivan was a ‘hole in the perfect pattern of the universe’, though. Once given access to education, she proved to be very intelligent and passionately interested in learning. At the School, she also received instruction in what was then called ‘the manual alphabet’: the one-handed alphabetical sign language that would later enable her to work with Keller. Crucially, she also met and made friends with Laura Dewey Bridgman, a permanent resident of the School and one of the first Deaf and blind people whose use of language is documented in detail. In 1881 and 1882, Sullivan underwent two operations which significantly improved her vision.
It’s worth pointing out here that although she excelled academically, Sullivan never developed into the sort of goody-two-shoes angel figure that the mainstream Keller narrative might lead you to expect: as the Perkins School profile on her says
Anne Sullivan learned to excel academically at Perkins but she did not conform. She frequently broke rules; her quick temper and sharp tongue brought her close to expulsion on more than one occasion. She might not have made it to graduation without the intercessions of those few teachers and staff who were close to her.
In 1886 she did graduate, though… as valedictorian of her class. Booyah! A few months later, she had moved to Alabama to embark on her first teaching job – working with a six-year-old girl named Helen Keller.
You can read and hear about Sullivan’s work with Kellerelsewhere (and you should, because it’s amazing). Just two things to note before we move on…
1) Sullivan was friends with Bridgman, and we know that before going to teach Keller, she conducted significant research into Samuel Gridley Howe’s work on teaching students who were Deaf and blind. This seems to suggest that her spelling of ‘W-A-T-E-R’ into Keller’s hand wasn’t an intuitive/lucky/God-given breakthrough moment as it’s sometimes portrayed, but the result of careful research and long-term thought and planning.
2)… Do you think possibly there’s a useful lesson there about the contributions that adults with disabilities can make to the teaching of children with disabilities that we can and should still be picking up on today?
Fourteen years, later while Keller was studying at Radcliffe College (with Sullivan reading to her for up to five hours a day – before university accessibility policies, there was no other way she could have completed her studies), Sullivan met John Macy, a Harvard lecturer and literary critic who was also a socialist. He fell passionately in love with her: she was more reserved about the idea of entering into a relationship, but eventually did so. They were married in 1905. Although Macy and Sullivan’s relationship broke up nine years later in 1914, Sullivan later wrote that ‘ …of the many friendships that have enriched my life, none is more interesting than that with John Macy’. Take that however you will!
While Sullivan’s politics don’t appear to have been as strongly left-wing as Keller’s and Macy’s, she was a pacifist, and joined with Keller in protesting the outbreak of World War I. In a letter from Sullivan to Keller, written in 1917, she says:
... it is unthinkable that anything so infamous should happen in the age we have been living in and calling enlightened and civilized… How easily the European nations have chucked their Christianity, their international friendships, their philosophy and humanity… Truly, “where are the great ones of the earth?” It seems to me, they are all active for evil.
In the 1920s, Sullivan worked for the newly-founded American Foundation for the Blind, and continued to work with Keller as a companion, aide and translator. However, her vision became markedly worse towards the end of the decade, and by 1930 she was once again almost completely blind. In 1932, she was honoured with an honorary degree from Temple University, Pennsylvania – after a lot of back-and-forth, as she was originally strongly against the idea. At the ceremony Sullivan gave a speech, from which the following quotations are taken:
Certain periods in history suddenly lift humanity to an observation point where a clear light falls upon a world previously dark. Everything seems strangely different…
The immediate future is going to be tragic for all of us, unless we find a way of making the vast educational resources of this country serve the true purpose of education, which is to open wide all the windows of the mind to knowledge, truth and justice.
Education — and the actions of a group of people in the 1880s (including Sullivan herself) who believed that an impoverished teenage girl with a disability had as much right to receive it as anyone else — is also, of course, what made it possible for both women to make their amazing contributions to the fields of advocacy, activism and letters. If that’s what ‘a hole in the pattern of the universe’ looks like, I think we could do with a few more of them.
Detailed bio at the website of the American Foundation for the Blind: http://www.afb.org/asm/
AFB Kids’ Page for Helen Keller: http://www.braillebug.org/hkmuseum.asp
Biography at the Anne Sullivan Foundation website: http://www.annesullivan.ie/helenkeller.html
Page on Sullivan hosted at the Perkins School: http://www.perkins.org/vision-loss/helen-keller/sullivan.html
Photograph collection at the Perkins School: http://www.perkinsarchives.org/helen-keller-photograph-collection.html
RNIB page on Helen Keller: http://www.rnib.org.uk/aboutus/aboutsightloss/famous/Pages/helenkeller.aspx
Wikipedia biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Sullivan
Google Books link: Kim Nielsen, Beyond the Miracle Worker: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=dM8GoxQvbc8C&dq=beyond+the+miracle+worker&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Much like Hellen Keller’s history, Sullivan’s is watered down. Helen Keller was an outspoken activist and socialist, but you’ll never hear that in school.