Helen Keller interests me. She really does. She died in 1968, and forty years later, she is still almost as famous and admired now as she was then.
There is no doubting that Helen was truly great. And thinking about the handicaps she had to overcome, and what she was able to accomplish, perhaps she should even be labeled a genius.
In her youth, one of her greatest friends and admirers, Mark Twain, called her one of the two outstanding characters of the nineteenth century (along with Napoleon, no less!). Twain also said that, “She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.”
But truth be told, it is the Helen Keller that most people are not aware of that I think is most fascinating, most admirable, and most meaningful for our world today. Our image of Helen through the decades, as a Mother Theresa like saint, has its limits in its accuracy and appeal. For the real Helen Keller—the complex, passionate, political, Helen Keller—will surprise you even more.
By the way, none of what I am calling the “secret side” of Helen is actually very secret. The information is there for all to see—if we want to see it. Many people choose to ignore it. Why? They want their Helen Keller to be the saint of elementary school picture books and Sunday school lessons. But that was not who Helen Keller really was. Who was she then?
Helen Keller and Politics
There is no getting around this, but Helen Keller was a communist or at the very least a hardcore socialist. She supported the demand for workers’ rights. She supported rights for women. She opposed U.S. entry into World War I. She also spoke out against nuclear bombs, poverty, and capitalism—very actively and very frequently. She published dozens of articles on these matters, and passionately spoke out in public against anything that bothered her morally, politically speaking. So much so that she was on a FBI list of prominent people they needed to keep an eye on.
Helen Keller and Religion
There is no getting around this one either: Helen Keller was not a Christian in the traditional sense of the word. She was an ardent follower of the Universalism of Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic born in 1688. She read the Bible, but accepted and denied its teachings as she saw fit. One of the doctrines that most revolted her was that of Hell. In her book My Religion, Helen says, “I had been told by narrow people that all who were not Christians would be punished, and naturally my soul revolted, since I knew of wonderful men who had lived and died for truth as they saw it in the pagan lands … ”
Helen traveled abroad quite frequently and understandably made friends with people of all nationalities and creeds. She was a free thinker and based her religious beliefs on her own readings and experiences.
Helen Keller and Vaudeville
As well known as Helen Keller was, she was not without financial difficulties. But she had gumption. Her solution to those financial woes? Vaudeville!
Her twenty-minute act, which continued for a few years until the sudden death of Helen’s mother in 1922, opened at the Palace Theatre in New York. The show featured events from Helen’s life and was an enormous success, resulting in a nationwide tour. The show was always well received, and in fact Helen was among the highest paid performers of her day, earning almost $2,000 a week for just a few shows!
Helen Keller and Romance
This one’s a bit tricky, and is one that many people might not like to think about. But the fact is, Helen Keller was a beautiful, passionate woman. It is not widely known that at the age of thirty six Helen Keller fell in love with her personal secretary, Peter Fagan, filled out an application for a marriage license together and—almost eloped—before her mother got wind of it and physically and violently forced him to “run for the hills” so to speak. Georgina Kleege, a lecturer at UC Berkeley, speculates in her very thought-provoking novel, Blind Rage, that the love affair went well beyond simple hand holding and—there is no delicate way of putting this—might have resulted in the loss of Helen’s virginity. Helen herself said that the single biggest regret of her life was that she never experienced the joy of marriage.
I think Mark Twain’s approach to Helen Keller was the best one. (Helen’s short piece on her visit to Twain’s home is hilarious and a joy to read.) Twain treated Helen like the strong and special human being she was; he told her saucy jokes, teased her a lot, took her on long difficult walks across the countryside, plied her with drinks, and even offered to teach her to smoke cigars.
Helen loved him. She loved him because she loved life and the passion that life stirred within her.