Author: Georgina Kleege
Date Released: 2006
Page Count: 224
Isbn10 Code: 1563682958
Isbn13 Code: 9781563683718
About the Author Georgina Kleege is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, CA. Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. from Part One: Consciousness on Trial February 3 Dear Helen Keller: Allow me to introduce myself. I am a writer and part-time English professor. I am American, married, middle-aged, middle class. Like you, I am blind, though not deaf. But the most important thing you need to know about me, and the reason for my letter, is that I grew up hating you. Sorry to be so blunt, especially on such short acquaintance, but one of the advantages of writing to a dead person is there’s no need to stand on ceremony. And you should know the truth from the start. I hated you because you were always held up to me as a role model, and one who set such an impossibly high standard of cheerfulness in the face of adversity. “Why can’t you be more like Helen Keller?” people always said to me. Or that’s what it felt like whenever your name came up. “Count your blessings,” they told me. “Yes, you’re blind, but poor little Helen Keller was blind and deaf, and no one ever heard her complain.” I am not alone in this. Many disabled people think you did our cause a lot of harm. Your life story inscribes the idea that disability is a personal tragedy to be overcome through an individual’s fortitude and pluck, rather than a set of cultural practices and assumptions, affecting many individuals that could be changed through collective action. Lately, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, my feelings about you have mellowed. It occurred to me that I should not hold you responsible for the use others made of your life story. This led me to dip into your autobiographical writing for the first time. Even more surprising, it led me to take a road trip to visit your childhood home, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. And I thought you’d like to know what I found there. I went with my husband Nick who is almost always up for a road trip. We took the house tour, which was standard fare for a local-hero museum. The guide was a woman pushing sixty, probably a volunteer, apparently reciting a script. She rattled off a number of facts about the town, the region, and antebellum architecture—all the predictable stuff. Then, in one of the downstairs rooms, she pointed out a carpet on the floor that had been woven especially for you by I forget whom. She explained all this, then said, “Isn’t it lovely?” We murmured agreement. Then she said, “Too bad Helen Keller never saw it.” Her voice had a throaty throb as she delivered the line. I realized that the statement was supposed to catch us up short, jar us out of our complacency, remind us that you were deaf and blind. We were supposed to feel grateful and lucky, and intone a private prayer of gratitude: “I wake each day and thank the Lord I was not born Helen Keller.” I should have expected nothing less. Where better to deliver the “Why can’t you be more like Helen Keller” message than in your childhood home? I should have steeled myself against it, but the resentment I feel about the message is so old and deep, it’s like a knee-jerk reflex. And on this occasion, I turned my resentment on the woman pointing out the carpet that poor little you never saw. I said, “But she could touch it.” “What?” the guide said. “She what?” “She could touch it,” I said. “She had the sense of touch. One of the pleasures of a nice carpet is texture. She could feel it. She could walk on it barefoot. She had an imagination. Someone could describe it to her, and she could imagine it.” I was talking like a crank. There’s a certain vibration that comes into a person’s voice when they’re going off the deep end, and I had it. I could feel the guide eyeing me askance. Was this how I was going to be? I was spoiling her spiel. I could feel the rest of the tour group—a van load of Baptists from Tennessee—looking away. In any case, I quieted down and we moved on. I felt the guide was leery of me. As she pointed out the pump organ in the parlor, she paused briefly. I sensed she was supposed to say something about how you never heard its beautiful music, but since she had a crank in the crowd today, she dropped the line. As we surveyed each room from the doorway, our guide was at pains to tell us which pieces of furniture actually belonged to your family, which were of the period, and which were merely reproductions. I’ve been on enough such house tours to know authenticity is always an issue. I wished she would let me walk around the rooms and touch something. This was not the most blind-friendly museum I’ve ever visited. At Louis Braille’s house in France, they let you put your hands on anything that’s not in a case. But perhaps fewer blind people visit your house. As if to confirm this, our guide spent a lot of time talking about the photographs on the walls of the central hallway. Although I have some residual vision, I don’t see photographs well. Nick told me what I was looking at and read me the labels. There was one of you at about age seven, around the time Anne Sullivan, your teacher, came into your life. The guide said, “Wasn’t she a lovely child?” Then she shook her head. To be accurate, I don’t know if she shook her head or not. But her tone was that of someone shaking her head at the waste of it all. As if it would be less tragic if you had been homely. I swallowed the urge to make this comment aloud. I am so used to this attitude, it hardly even registers anymore. “What a pretty girl,” people say. “Too bad she’s blind.” Apparently, beauty is wasted on us because we can’t see the reflection in the mirror, can’t see men’s heads turn when we enter a room. In this picture, you’re wearing a dress with a lot of ruffles, and your hair is an elaborate arrangement of ringlets. Do you look pretty? Nick told me that there’s a certain set to your lower lip, which makes it sound like your expression must be at odds with the prettiness of your dress and hair. He said you look posed and a bit uncertain about it. What could a photograph mean to you at that age? Later, you got the hang of it. In other photographs around the place, you’re always wearing a big smile and have your eyes aimed directly at the lens. Next to this photo, there was one of Anne Sullivan—“Teacher,” as you always called her—taken at about the same time. The guide said, “Wasn’t she pretty?” with that same “such a pity” tone. Only the pity in her case is not that she was blind or deaf or anything else. The pity in her case is that she sacrificed her life to be your companion and helpmate, when she was pretty enough to get herself a man and have a normal life. Again, I could have argued otherwise. But I didn’t. “Is she pretty?” I asked Nick. He told me she was intense looking, at once frail and fiery. I have no idea what that looks like, but the description fits what I know about her personality, so I took him at his word. Up until this point, the house tour followed the predictable course. Yes, there was that crack about the carpet, but I admit most people probably wouldn’t have noticed it. But once we got to the dining room, things got strange. The guide called it the “famous dining room” where all your “famous battles took place.” She called you “a regular little hellion,” and narrated the struggle Teacher had getting you to eat with a fork and fold your napkin. As she was talking, I realized suddenly that she took The Miracle Worker as gospel. Outside the house, we found “the famous pump house,” a sort of fenced-in gazebo around the famous pump that is the central prop in the climatic scene of that play. But the ultimate weirdness was farther back, behind some outbuildings, where there was a permanent stage set and bleachers. There, in the summer, they stage nightly performances of The Miracle Worker. Here is where I began to articulate something, Helen. Mind if I call you Helen? My problem with all this, Helen, is not that the play is inaccurate. The playwright William Gibson drew those scenes from the letters and journals Teacher kept during her first few weeks at Ivy Green. In fact, as the play depicts, one day at the end of March 1887, Teacher pumped water over one of your hands while spelling the word water into your other, and you suddenly, miraculously, discovered language. You dropped the mug you’d been holding, said “wa-wa,” a baby-talk word you’d retained from before the illness that left you deaf and blind. Then you went on to learn to communicate with the manual alphabet, to read, to write, to speak, and generally to triumph over adversity in all the laudable ways that made you famous. Part of what disturbed me was not that this event was enshrined in your home, but that it is re-enacted there. Where else in the world are events from a person’s life ritualistically recreated in this way? Jerusalem springs to mind, The Way of the Cross. And while you may find the impulse to beatify, even deify you, flattering, it comes at such a high cost, Helen, particularly for the generations of disabled people who follow you. But the main thing that disturbed me as I walked around the stage in your backyard was that The Miracle Worker is Teacher’s story, not yours. She was the one wh...
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