February 7, 2023

There is far worse than becoming deaf. Far, far worse, believe me.

By John Guy LaPlante

Being born deaf, for instance.

In my last post, I told you about becoming partly deaf as I was becoming older.

I entitled it, “Oh, the woes of becoming deaf!”

And I talked about how awful it must be to be born deaf. That happens to some people.

And that made me think of a little girl who was afflicted much, much more seriously than that.

She was born not only deaf but blind.

She lost her hearing, her sight, and even the power of speech.

Can you imagine that?!

Her name was Helen Keller. She was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

A beautiful photo from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Keller

Her parents were a solid, highly regarded couple. Later Helen had two siblings who were totally normal. How ironic!

Little Helen was born normal but was bowled over by this tragedy when she was less than two years old. After an illness of some kind. Maybe scarlet fever. Maybe rubella.

And it’s entirely possible that she could have lived with that long tragedy for the rest of her long life. She died in 1968 at age 87.

She did have one great blessing. It was the good fortune of having a young woman named Ann Sullivan constantly at her side. In time she became known as Annie Sullivan.

Annie became totally devoted to Helen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, week in and week out, till the end of her own life.

And so Helen became a highly educated, well-adjusted, widely admired, influential, famous lady who wrote books, traveled the world, met presidents, scientists, kings, famous people of many kinds.

She became famous to people not only in our country but around the world.

Hers was a tragedy so extreme that when she was a little child nobody could do anything to alleviate it or do anything at all to make her life even a wee bit better.

Surely some well-intentioned parents would have wished this little girl dead for her very own sake. Sounds awful, but true.

So little Helen never became able to see the sun or hear the outbursts of a mighty thunderstorm, or even say “Thank you!” to someone trying to help her.

Out of overpowering frustration, she would explode in a humongous tantrum time and again.

Everybody understood that. Who so afflicted would not explode like that?!

But miracle of miracles. Slowly, a little bit at a time, little Helen became able to transform those violent panic attacks and slowly develop into a happy person.

Would spend hours and hours spelling out the words of ordinary things into Helen’s palm. Words like cup and comb and milk.

The big moment came when Annie was washing Helen’s hands with water and Helen made the connection between the word water and the actual water. That was the great, great breakthrough!

Yes, it was miraculous.

Helen learned to write, became widely educated, and in fact graduated from college with honors. She began to travel and earn money to support herself.

She became an author whose books found a wide market. She was able to communicate with and impress people in audiences small and very large.

She learned braille and then to type with a braille typewriter, and later with an ordinary typewriter.

Always with Annie’s essential assistance, of course.

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1888
Photo: Thaxter P. Spencer Family, New England Historic Genealogical Society [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Traveled all over the country and abroad, even to places like India and Japan to meet people of all kinds.

Of course, she could not see or hear any of the people she got to meet. Often she would run a hand over a person’s face to get an idea of what that person looked like.

She would book passage on trains and planes.

She amazed everybody who got to see her. They cheered for her, hugged her, blew kisses to her, prayed for her, remembered her as a heroine in her own right.

She made it a point to meet wounded soldiers and anyone young or old severely afflicted in any way through no fault of their own.

She did not hesitate to express strong opinions and take strong positions.

For instance, that most people everywhere are good people.

And that we should not go to war.

And that there is much, much good to be said about socialism.

She inspired them. Cheered them on.

She lived a long life of personal success and a positive influence on people beyond number.

You can read a lot more here: https://www.biography.com/activist/helen-keller

Yes, she died in 1968, a few months after suffering a stroke.

Ironically, Annie had gone blind in both eyes. Would you believe it?!

They were holding hands when Annie died.

You can get to know Helen in many videos on YouTube.

I was in my forties back then.

I never had the pleasure of seeing her but I became very familiar with her amazing achievements. Who didn’t?

As a young woman, Helen had one piece of amazing good luck that ran on for years and years.

That good luck was meeting and teaming up with Anne Sullivan. Who was also known to many as Annie.

Annie could not claim to come from a higher-up family like Helen’s.

Hers were just ordinary, hard-working Irish stock. Which made her more knowledgeable in the ways of the world, and far more sympathetic to what Helen was going through.

Annie was very smart. Extremely clever. Patient beyond words. Possessed of iron determination.

She was Helen’s teacher, mentor, archangel.

Slowly, one tiny bit after another, she was able to free Helen from the mental prison she seemed locked into for the rest of her days.

Many fine and determined and gifted teachers and trainers would have given up after a few months or a few years. Because what was expected of them was impossible to achieve.

Much of the time the job required she work at Helen’s side from morning till night. All week long, weekdays and holidays.

At Helen’s home in Massachusetts and at her side in all the school and college classes she took, and all the speeches and interviews she gave, and all her meetings with famous people, and whenever she was hospitalized and dealing with doctors and dentists and other specialists and wherever Helen happened to be, at home or in Chicago or Paris or Timbuktu.

Helen was Annie’s only pupil for decades. She served Helen for 49 years, until Annie herself died.

Helen became a movie star in a film about herself. It was called “The Miracle Worker!”

And also the prize-winning play by the same title.

Helen became Miracle Worker Number 1, and Annie Miracle Worker Number 2.

I was so fascinated by Helen Keller’s story that I decided to write about her for you. I was sure you too would be fascinated.

I wanted all the details I could get. So I went to our Morro Bay Public Library. And asked Librarian Nicole what the library might have about Helen, and Nicole went searching.

She reported to me that the library had two books, but they were children’s books. Which surprised me.

Nicole thought I might not be interested in seeing them, for that same reason, being children’s books.

But what the heck! I asked to see them.

I found them both to be fine books. Very interesting. Rich in detail, with a wealth of photos and illustrations.

And I understood why publishers would find books about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan such good and important reading for children.

Of course, there are adult books about them in the San Luis Obispo County Library system, in which ours is a member library.

The two books Nicole lent me were “Helen Keller, Her Life in Pictures” with text by George Sullivan. A wide assortment of photos. Published by Scholastic Nonfiction, an imprint of Scholastic. 2007

Learn more on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Helen-Keller-Their-Own-Words/dp/0439095557

The other is ” Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller,” a fine text written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares.” Beautiful paintings, no photos. Published by Disney / Hyperion Books, New York, 2012.

Learn more on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Helens-Big-World-Helen-Keller/dp/078680890X

By coincidence, both books have an extra-large format, being eleven inches high and ten inches wide.

I highly recommend both books to you.

Again, both books are rich with photos or illustrations. I hope to include a few for you.

But I was miffed by the publishers’ legalese warning that the photos / illustrations could not be used without permission.

Well, both books were published years ago. It would take me forever to get permission.

And if they squawked, I would argue that my blog would be wonderful publicity for them.

How about that?!


  1. Hi John~

    Thanks for sharing info about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Very interesting. Is George Sullivan, who wrote the text to “Helen Keller–Her Life in Pictures,” any relation to Annie Sullivan?

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