anne sullivan and helen keller

[Helen and Anne]

When I was younger I found the story of Helen Keller interesting, but she never really grab my attention. Anne Sullivan, on the other hand, did. There has always been something about her I was drawn too. Maybe the hardships she suffered and the fact that she didn’t give into it. She pushed and achieved more than those who suffered little and those who suffered greatly.

Anne’s personal story remains relatively unknown. Although some of her letters still exist, it is primarily through the the words of others, that we know of her life.

Anne grew up poorer than poor in Massachusetts. She was the eldest of five children, and one of the only two of whom reached adulthood. When Anne was 7 years old she developed trachoma, a bacterial infection in her eyes. This infection went untreated. She had almost no usable sight and after numerous operations on her eyes, at the age of 15, success, her vision was restored.

Her father, Thomas Sullivan, was an alcoholic and her mother, Alice Chloesy Sullivan, died from tuberculosis when Anne was 9 years old. At first, Anne’s siblings, Mary and Jimmie, were sent to live with their uncle, and Anne remained with her father. A few months later, Jimmie and Anne were sent to the Tewksbury Almshouse (February 22, 1876), an institution that housed the poor and needy. Anne was 10 years old at the time and any semblance of a childhood she might have had ended upon entering Tewsbury. Mary (whom she never saw again after being sent to Tewksbury), on the other hand, was sent to live with an aunt. Supposedly, she didn’t end up in the institution because she was easier to handle than Anne and Jimmie. Anne had strong opinions, and expressed them passionately and poor Jimmie suffered from a tubercular hip, both were too high maintenance for the aunt I suppose.

When Anne and Jimmie arrived at Tewksbury, Anne wanted them to remain together and made it known. As a result, both siblings were sent to the women’s ward, where inmates were physically and/or mentally ill. Jimmie’s condition resulting from a tubercular hip weakened him and he died a few months later. Anne was all alone in this horrible place and in life. Imprisoned in an institution where complaints were made to the state in regards to cruelty, sexually perverted practices, and even cannibalism.

Anne, during an investigation of Tewksbury by the head of the Perkins School for the Blind, pleaded with him to allow her to go to Perkins. He agreed, and Anne excelled in this new environment. It was because she did so well that a teacher at Perkins recommended she become a governess to the unruly deaf and blind six year old Helen Keller. Helen’s parents, Kate and Arthur Keller, had contacted the famous inventor and educator of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C. for help. He, in turn, had put them in touch with the Perkins School for the Blind, and so began the relationship between Anne and Helen, that lasted throughout Anne’s life.

Alexander Graham Bell once said about Anne’s teaching skills, “You were at least not hampered by preconceived notions of how to proceed with your little pupil and I think that an advantage. You did not take to your task standardized ideas, and your own individuality was so ingrained that you did not try to repress Helen’s. Being a minority of one is hard but stimulating. You must not lay so much stress on what you were not taught by others. What we learn from others is of less value than what we teach ourselves.”

In 1904, Anne and Helen bought a farm and seven acres of land in Wrentham, Massachusetts. In Helen’s 1955 biography, “Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy“, she wrote that these were probably some of the happiest days of their lives.

In 1905, she married John Albert Macy, a young Harvard teacher (11 years her junior) and literary critic at the magazine “A Youth’s Companion”. Not long after they married, she burned her private journals for fear of what her husband might think of her. I am curious what such a strong woman would have to hide for her husband… Their marriage lasted only a few years and seemed to be more of a business arrangement (he was Helen’s manager and editor) to aide in getting Helen published, than a marriage. In the end, it is thought that jealously of Anne and Helen’s relationship was the reason Macy eventually left. For years after they separated (they never officially divorced) Macy would contact Anne for money, until eventually he faded out of the picture.

This picture shows Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and Polly Thomson, with dogs Darky and Helga, circa 1931.

[Helen, Anne, and Polly]

In the fall of 1916, Anne stopped working for a period of time as a result of pleurisy and incorrectly diagnosed tuberculosis. On November 20, she and Polly Thomson (Polly started working for Anne in 1914 as her secretary) traveled to Lake Placid, New York without Helen in order for Anne to recover. While they were there Anne spotted an advertisement about traveling to Puerto Rico and immediately bought two boat tickets for her and Polly. Anne’s five months in the islands was one of the happiest times of her life.

Here is a letter from Puerto Rico she wrote to Helen in 1917,

Dear Helen:

I’m glad I didn’t inherit the New England conscience. If I did, I should be worrying about the state of sin I am now enjoying in Porto Rico. One can’t help being happy here, Helen—happy and idle and aimless and pagan—all the sins we are warned against. I go to bed every night soaked with sunshine and orange blossoms, and fall asleep to the soporific sound of oxen munching banana leaves.

We sit on the porch every evening and watch the sunset melt from one vivid color to another—rose asphodel (Do you know what color that is? I thought it was blue, but I have learned that it is golden yellow, the color of Scotch broom) to violet, then deep purple. Polly and I hold our breath as the stars come out in the sky—they hang low in the heavens like lamps of many colors—and myriads of fire-flies come out on the grass and twinkle in the dark trees! Harry Lake says that a beautiful Porto Rican girl went to a dance in a gown ablaze with fire-flies which she had imprisoned in black net.

Did you know that in tropical skies the stars appear much larger and nearer to the earth than farther north? I didn’t know it myself. Neither Polly nor I have ever seen such stars! It is no exaggeration to say they are lamps—ruby, emerald, amethyst, sapphire! It seems to Polly and me, if we could climb to the bamboo roof of our new garage, we could touch them. We lie on our cots and gaze up at them—the shack has no windows, only shutters and our view is unobstructed—we say over and over the names of stars we know, but that doesn’t help us to identify these. Is that long, swinging curve the Pleiades? We are ashamed to be so ignorant. If we could get hold of a book on astronomy, how we should study it here!

Do you remember the big globe in the rotunda at “Perkins?” Well, the moon looks as large as that sometimes, and often it is girdled with pearls as large as oranges, like the metal circle the globe hangs in. And several times we have seen it lighted as by lightning.

The place has cast a spell over me. Something that has slept in me is awake and watchful. Disembarking at San Juan was like stepping upon my native heath after a long, distressful absence. I will tell you more of these strange experiences anon.

Love to all,

Affectionately,

Teacher.

I really like that letter.

Anne, Polly, and Helen remained together, working and living until Anne’s death on October 20, 1936. Polly remained taking care of Helen after Anne’s death.

Anne some time before her death dictated the following excerpted message to Polly,

“I wanted to be loved, I was lonesome. Then Helen came into my life, I wanted her to love me and I loved her. Then later Polly came and I loved Polly and we were always so happy together, my Polly, my Helen. Dear children may we all meet to-gether [sic] in harmony.”

In Nella Braddy Henney’s book, “Anne Sullivan Macy“, Anne is quoted as saying, “How often I have been asked: “If you had your life to live over, would you follow the same path?” Would I be a teacher? If I had my life to live over I probably should have as little choice of a career as I had this time. We do not, I think, choose our destiny. It chooses us.”

Anne used her amazing abilities to bring the world to Helen and to bring Helen back into the world. In doing so it also opened up a world for Anne far from the place she began this life. It is true, we do not choose our destiny it chooses us, but I also think it is a person of strength who chooses to follow their destiny, instead of taking the simpler route.

That ended up being a few days of research and writing in between life, but more than worth it.

-Cara

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