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The Story of My Life

Published 1903
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, the daughter of
Captain Arthur Keller, a former Confederate officer, and his second wife, Kate Adams Keller.
She lived as a normal, healthy child for the first eighteen months of her life. In February 1882,
however, she became ill with what doctors called 'acute congestion of the stomach and brain.' A
conclusive diagnosis of the exact disease has never been made, but her family discovered shortly
after her recovery that she had lost both her sight and her hearing.
She spent the next five years unable to communicate by using language but showing a lively
intelligence in her use of signs to make her wishes known. Her parents refused to institutionalize
her, as many of their friends recommended, and instead kept her as an active member of the
household. But their pity for Helen caused them to spoil her badly, and by the time she was
seven she was becoming a formidable adversary. Realizing that something must be done before
she grew absolutely uncontrollable, her parents consulted eye and ear specialists in the hope of
finding a cure. None of the doctors could heal the damage the illness had caused, but Dr.
Alexander Graham Bell suggested that the Kellers contact the Perkins Institution for the Blind to
see if Helen could be educated. The director of the institute, Mr. Michael Anagnos, offered one
of its recent graduates as a teacher for the child, and Helen Keller's life and success are linked
inextricably to the life of her famous teacher.
Anne Mansfield Sullivan was born in 1866 into an Irish-American family that lived in extreme
poverty, and after her mother's early death, her father abandoned his three children. Anne,
already partially blinded by an eye disease that thrived in the poor living conditions of her
family's home, was sent with her younger brother, Jimmie, to the Massachusetts State Infirmary.
Her brother died shortly afterwards, but Anne remained in the infirmary for four years, her eyes
growing worse until she was almost completely blind. Finally, during a state investigation of the
infirmary, she begged one of the commissioners to send her to a school for the blind. Soon after,
in October 1880, at age fourteen, she was transferred to Perkins Institution for the Blind. Anne
had a difficult time at Perkins, for she had received almost no formal education until then, and
she had an ungovernable temper that almost got her expelled from the school several times. But
she was keen to learn and made good academic progress. After two eye operations, she
recovered her sight, although it remained weak for the rest of her life. So when she arrived in
Tuscumbia, on March 3, 1887, 'Teacher' (as Helen would later call her) had poor eyesight and
only six years of formal education behind her.
In spite of her handicaps, Sullivan possessed qualities that helped her relate to Helen. She knew
what it was like to be blind. At Perkins she had known Laura Bridgman, the only deaf-blind
person who had ever been taught to communicate, and she had studied the notes of Bridgman's
teacher. Sullivan's infinite drive, determination, and a passion for excellence also contributed to
her success. During her first month, she instilled the discipline Helen needed to enable her to
learn, and on April 5, 1887, Helen finally made the connection between the words that Sullivan
had been teaching her to finger spell and the objects that they named. Once she broke through
this barrier to communication, Sullivan based her teaching on the principle that Helen should
acquire language and knowledge like any hearing and seeing child, and she turned all Helen's
experiences into opportunities for learning.
Helen Keller's success was largely a result of Anne Sullivan's unflagging teaching. Both were
eager for Helen to interact and compete with seeing and hearing children. Interacting with other

a subject that she felt she had exhausted. and although she learned how to talk. Helen Keller died on June 1. but Keller was finally earning enough to support herself and Sullivan. of being the originators of Keller's ideas. but she continued her speechmaking with the interpretation of Polly Thomson. Her efforts on behalf of the blind. such as the need for doctors to put nitrate of silver in the eyes of newborns to prevent the blindness that venereal disease often caused. . widely acknowledged as one of the twentieth century's leading humanitarians. She graduated cum laude in 1904. Helen Keller's Journal (1938).children required speech. and her speech was almost unintelligible to those who did not know her well. It is important to remember that Keller wrote this book while still in college. Covering only her childhood and young womanhood. when she was about twenty-two years old.C. Still plagued by a lack of money. sixteen-year-old Helen entered a regular preparatory school for college: the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. her vocal chords had never been properly developed. was a great blow to Helen. crisscrossing the country and eventually the world. and handicapped people in general heavily influenced reforms that improved social and educational opportunities for the physically disabled. for she had over sixty years yet to live. deaf. and Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy (1955). She actually had to write Teacher twice. John Macy. It was while she was attending Radcliffe that Keller wrote The Story of My Life. presenting a short act with Teacher on how she had been taught and advocating the right of the handicapped to a normal life. D. Readers gain a sense of what it would be like to be both deaf and blind. and of how a normal human being faced extraordinary difficulties with courage and grace. 1936. II OVERVIEW Keller's ability to communicate despite her handicaps has always fascinated people. For the rest of her life Keller campaigned for the foundation. She is buried beside Anne Sullivan and Polly Thomson in the National Cathedral in Washington. her speech improved. Keller tried to support herself and Sullivan through her writing. For several years after her graduation. for the first manuscript was burned. Keller began working in vaudeville. four years at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Unable to earn enough money by writing. but she needed an interpreter when speaking to strangers. she wrote essays expressing Socialist views on issues that many people felt were not proper for her to discuss. making speeches and visiting the blind. a diary she had kept for the first six months following Teacher's death. the indispensable secretary and friend who had lived with Keller and Sullivan since 1914. She worked on and off in vaudeville for several years until she finally found her real vocation in 1923 as a spokesperson for the American Foundation for the Blind. Instead. the public most wanted to hear Keller talk about herself. As an adult. mute. Here and at Radcliffe College. this 'story of her life' is an incomplete one. Some people even accused Sullivan and her husband. Keller turned to lecturing in 1913 and continued on the lecture circuit for three years. After studying for two years at Perkins. Sullivan kept up the herculean effort of spelling all the lectures and much of the required reading into her student's hand. Unfortunately. along with all her letters from Anne and her notes. To read her autobiography is to experience that communication as closely as possible. and two more years at the Wright Humason School for the Deaf. which Helen entered four years later. in a fire that destroyed her home in 1946. and the greatest ambition of teacher and pupil was for Helen to learn to speak aloud properly. Sullivan's death on October 20. Keller wrote two more books. 1968. This drew a storm of criticism that she was exhibiting her handicap for profit. She began taking speech lessons when she was ten.

Although loosely organized and episodic in structure. Anne Sullivan. IV THEMES AND CHARACTERS In one sense. But Keller was fortunate enough to have parents who refused to institutionalize her. Coming to language later and with more difficulty than most people sharpens her conscious awareness and enjoyment of learning. it tends to be episodic and anecdotal rather than tightly plotted. through a succession of schools for the handicapped. an individual's life seldom takes the form of a well-plotted novel. especially biblical references. Alabama. so that the reader shares her discoveries with joy rather than pity. following her from her parents' home in Tuscumbia. is the only other character that develops somewhat in the course of the narrative. They failed to understand . but it also communicates her enthusiasm for her studies. Yet even she remains shadowy. Her imagery is so vivid and extraordinarily visual that many of her contemporary readers refused to believe that she had written the book. as the person who makes it possible for Helen to communicate with other people and who serves as the primary mediator between Helen and the world. and it emphasizes her constant striving to lead as normal a life as possible. Physically disabled people were routinely institutionalized and often assumed to be mentally disabled as well. and it conveys the curiosity and joy with which Helen explores her new world. and concluding when she is a student at Radcliffe College. Keller continually focuses on her abilities. particularly through her critiques of the books she reads and their impact on her. for she describes her experiences and feelings with sentimental Victorian language. Her writing is full of literary allusions. the book follows Helen's gradual growth from a helpless blind and deaf girl to an intellectually independent woman. Modern readers may find Keller's style old-fashioned. Keller wrote many of the chapters as themes for the English composition course she took while attending Radcliffe. Consequently. This structure also partly results from the circumstances of its composition. not her disabilities. and a burning desire to learn. Helen's excitement about learning is one of her most appealing characteristics. there is little connection between chapters. Keller's account of her formal education at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies and at Radcliffe College does not make light of the difficulties she faces in competing with seeing and hearing women in regular classes. an extraordinary teacher. after all. and her fight is both the focus and theme of her autobiography. Keller is really the only character in The Story of My Life. The first chapters deal with Helen's life before the arrival of Sullivan and show how the absence of language skills imprisons her alert mind. Keller's narrative reveals how Sullivan uses all their daily experiences for educational purposes.III SETTING The story of Keller's early life takes place during the late 1800s. Efforts to teach them to overcome their disabilities and lead normal lives were extremely limited. Keller interests people because she overcame great handicaps. Her autobiography traces her progress over the first two decades of her life. Later chapters describe how she explores the world in the months after she acquires language. V LITERARY QUALITIES Because The Story of My Life is an autobiography. a time when people's understanding of the physically disabled was much more limited than it is today. They also illustrate how capable she is of participating in all the activities of other girls her age. The other people are secondary to her story except as their actions affect her life. Her accomplishments led to a greater public understanding of the handicapped. although Keller's progress towards leading a normal life provides a thematic framework for her story.

Many editions of The Story of My Life include the letters Sullivan wrote to people at Perkins Institution for the Blind during the first years she worked with Keller.' a message that was particularly relevant in her era. How does it portray Helen Keller? Anne Sullivan? What are some differences between the movie account and the account Keller gives in The Story of My Life? IX ADAPTATIONS . that attitude has decreased considerably. Her story shows readers that the physically handicapped are not 'different. What were her methods? Why were they successful? 5. so these elements in her writing are not unnatural. she could use these words to describe her experience. 3. Keller worked to make the world more accessible to physically disabled people.' Helen often uses words that suggest visual images she is incapable of actually seeing. Compare it with American sign language. She stresses her normalcy— she enjoys the same activities that seeing and hearing people do. 5. explain her philosophy of education. as a blind or deaf person. Furthermore. Helen learns that the word 'w-a-t-e-r' means what comes out of the pump in the wellhouse. The Story of My Life serves as a model for what the physically disabled can accomplish. and modern society is more accepting of both physically and mentally disabled people. such as heat. When Helen writes 'The Frost King' she genuinely believes she is making up her own story. Find some instances of this and explain how. Why is Helen so frustrated by her desire to communicate before Anne Sullivan arrives? 2. Explain why it is not actually her story and how she plagiarizes it. What do you think about how the adults react? 6. when people often assumed that the physically disabled were also mentally disabled. Sullivan was as remarkable a woman as her student Helen. Watch the film The Miracle Worker. Learn the manual alphabet. In part because of Keller's remarkable career. Why is this such a significant discovery? 3.that language is inherently visual and that Keller's style was formed by reading the works of seeing authors. VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION 1. What are their similarities and differences? What advantages and disadvantages does each one have? 4. and The Story of My Life provides a firsthand account. she could grasp visual concepts such as color and even intensities in color. What programs does your community have that carry on her work? What are their purposes and accomplishments? 2. What difficulties does Helen encounter when she goes to schools for seeing and hearing students? 7. After reading these. Young adults are often curious about the lives of the disabled. VI SOCIAL SENSITIVITY Because Keller focuses on her abilities rather than on her deprivations. by using tactile analogies. Read a biography about her and discuss how her background affected her work with Helen. Does the number of activities in which Helen participates surprise you? Why or why not? VIII IDEAS FOR REPORTS AND PAPERS 1. or sounds she cannot hear. In her descriptions of what she has 'seen. Why is learning to speak with her mouth important to Helen? Why does her joy in speaking make her family respond to her accomplishment in silence? 4.

Helen makes connections between water and the letters 'w-a-t-e-r' that Anne spells out in her hand. this was her first major appearance as an actress. The 107-minute film obviously embellishes and dramatizes Keller's account. Bancroft and Duke again played the leads. after Helen deliberately spills a pitcher of water at the dinner table and Anne drags her outside to the water pump to refill it. After reading The Story of My Life. For Duke. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. With public interest aroused through this production. Finally. While the book traces Keller's life through her college years. and this breakthrough marks the beginning of Helen's new life. breaks china. When the play was adapted back to film in 1962. Keller is portrayed as a spoiled terror who dominates her weak father and indulgent mother. and the two push each other to their limits. Anne Bancroft played Anne. William Gibson wrote a ballet with vocal accompaniment based on the book. which opened in October 1959 as The Miracle Worker. believes that Helen must be tamed before she can be taught. as well as Oscars for their emotionally charged portrayals of teacher and student. Patty Duke played Helen. But for whatever liberties they take with the autobiography. who is tough yet empathetic. she throws tantrums.Although several biographies had been written about Keller since her emergence into the public eye. All rights reserved. and the drama is as much Anne's story as Helen's. the play and film galvanize the audience with the power of these women's commitments and the bonds that make it possible for Helen to escape her isolated world.' Starring in the television production were Teresa Wright as Anne Sullivan and Patty McCormack as Helen. . Sullivan. it was the first important role she had been given in a decade. The Miracle Worker focuses only on the first month of her life after Sullivan becomes her teacher. winning enormous critical acclaim. Uncontrollable because no one knows how to communicate with her. Although the ballet was never produced. Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. Gibson revised the film into a Broadway drama. director Arthur Penn commissioned Gibson to use the subject matter for a television production for the drama series 'Playhouse 90. it was not until 1953 that anyone attempted serious adaptations to other media. and fights with people. for Bancroft.

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