October 20, 2021

Revisioning Helen Keller III: From Seer To Sight

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up.

Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there's a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.

Another man who would come to exert a profound influence on Helen’s life was a curious character named John Hitz who was the secretary to Alexander Graham Bell to whom Helen had already become devoted. At the time Helen first met Hitz she was twelve years old. Hitz himself was a rather theatrical-looking elderly gentleman with a flowing white beard whose usual costume included a sweeping cape and whose head was crowned by a stove pipe hat. Hitz was another person whom Annie had cultivated and with whom she exchanged flirtatious letters. However, it was only several years later after Helen had turned sixteen that Hitz made a life-changing contribution to Helen’s spiritual world by introducing her to the religious teachings of one of the most extraordinary minds of the 18th century, Emanuel Swedenborg.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the life and work of Swedenborg and his significance as a religious prophet and reformer of the teachings of Christianity, I should perhaps take a moment to say something about this remarkable man. Until his fifties, he had distinguished himself in many branches of science including paleontology, physics, anatomy and physiology, several of which he had pioneered. He was famous and celebrated for these achievements and many others, but in April, 1744, when he was in his mid-fifties, he underwent a spiritual crisis during which he was taken into the spiritual world and came to know many things about what happens to us after death. After that he wrote many books about what he was shown through his visionary revelations having to do with heaven and hell, about the how the Bible should really be understood and about divine love and wisdom. His best known work was called Heaven and its Wonders, and Hell, and is still read. Today, Swedenborg is honored as a religious mystic and revelator of towering importance for the understanding of Christianity and a seer.

As a result of these heavenly visitations, Swedenborg also became very psychic, and there are any number of documented instances during which he knew things that he could not have known by normal means. One of the most famous concerned a fire that broke out in Stockholm where Swedenborg’s home was. At the time he was in Gothenberg, about 250 miles away. I first read about this incident in a book I no longer have, so I will just avail myself of the account given in Wikipedia:

When the fire broke out Swedenborg was at a dinner with friends in Gothenburg, about 400 km from Stockholm. He became agitated and told the party at six o'clock that there was a fire in Stockholm, that it had consumed his neighbor's home and was threatening his own. Two hours later, he exclaimed with relief that the fire had stopped three doors from his home.

Days later, two separate reports about the fire finally reached Swedenborg. Both of these reports confirmed every statement to the precise hour that Swedenborg first expressed the information.

One of my favorite stories about Swedenborg, which I first read about in one of the books in my library I once had, concerned the prospective visit that the famous 18th century English theologian, John Wesley hoped to pay Swedenborg. Wesley had come to hear about Swedenborg’s teachings and was eager to meet him. At that time, Wesley was on one of his extensive speaking tours, but sometime in 1771 he wrote Swedenborg to propose that they meet after his return on March 29, 1772. As I no longer have the exact quote of Swedenborg’s answer, I will have to rely on my memory. As I recall, Swedenborg replied with something like these words, “Dear esteemed sir, I very much regret I will not be able to meet you on that day for I am to die on the date.” And he did. 

None of this, of course, was important to Helen; she probably didn’t even know about these stories. What mattered to her was what Swedenborg taught about life after death. For Helen, her discovery of the Swedish seer was a revelation, and she was enthralled by his teachings. His view of Christianity and the afterlife was, as she put it, “the light in my darkness, the voice in my silence.” And what did Swedenborg proclaim? Death, he said, is simply a transition into a new and wonderful world, and from what he taught, Helen understood that when she entered that world she would not only be able to see and hear but would enjoy the kind of conjugal love that her earthly life had denied her.

As she wrote to John Hitz:

Swedenborgianism is more satisfying to me than the creeds about which I have read… I feel weary of groping, always groping along the darkened path that seems endless… But when I remember the truths you have brought within my reach, I am strong again and full of joy. I am no longer deaf and blind for with my spirit I see the glory of the all-perfect that lies beyond the physical light and hear the triumphant song of love which transcends the tumult of this world.

Helen would become a devoted follower of Swedenborg’s teachings for the rest of her life. She studied his religious philosophy by immersing herself in his writings, read the Bible every morning, usually the Psalms, and every Sunday celebrated her religion privately in her home. Just as socialism had become her secular truth, so when she had found Swedenborg, she discovered her life-sustaining spiritual truth and would later write about its importance to her in her 1927 book, My Religion.

All this is really prelude to where I want to take this essay, and for that, I need to make some personal comments about my own connection to Swedenborg.

I first learned about Swedenborg when I read Raymond Moody’s book, Life after Life, in 1975, the book that introduced the world to the term, “near-death experience.” Toward the end of that little book, in a section called “parallels,” Moody spends a few pages on Swedenborg to show something astonishing: In virtually all important respects Swedenborg’s writings describe exactly what near-experiencers report about the experience of dying. How did he know this? Simple: His “angels” had guided him through death’s door so he could know what it was like to die as well as what would happen afterward.

That naturally intrigued me, too, so in the early years of my own research into NDEs, I began to read some books about Swedenborg as well as relevant sections of his masterpiece, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell. (A personal aside: Some years ago, when I had to downsize my own professional library, I gave away about 400 of my books, including those by and about Swedenborg.) I could see that Moody was right, so I began teaching a little bit about Swedenborg in my NDE course at the University of Connecticut and in some of my public lectures. 

Meanwhile, modern-day Swedenborgians, having also read or heard about Moody’s book, latched onto NDE studies, too, as they felt this work also provided independent verification of Swedenborg’s teachings. (After Swedenborg’s death, various churches were established to promulgate his teachings.) And soon enough, they latched onto me as well once they learned I was partial to Swedenborg. At the time, I was heading up The International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and one venerable and wealthy Swedenborgian gentleman eventually became a good friend of mine and joined the board of directors at IANDS. After that, I often visited him and his community in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, which is the home of one of the branches of the Swedenborg church, The General Church of the New Jerusalem. And although I am very far from an authority on Swedenborg – hardly! – but because of my familiarity with his writings pertaining to life after death, I was sometimes asked to write introductions to books about Swedenborg and also contributed an article on Swedenborg and NDEs to a beautifully produced volume published in 1988 by the Swedenborg Foundation in New York commemorating the tri-centennial anniversary of his birth.

Now to relate all this to Helen Keller, I must draw on some material of mine in my book, Waiting to Die, in which I wrote about my own difficulties with my vision and how, like Helen, I took comfort, not just from what Swedenborg had taught about life after death, but what I had learned from my many years of studying and researching NDEs.

After describing the various ocular maladies that I have had to endure ever since I was born, I continued in a whimsical mode:

Are you beginning to get an idea of my visual world? Unfortunately, my vision has deteriorated quite a bit since I started writing these essays. Nowadays, I don’t see as much as I infer the existence of what we were once pleased to call the external world. I mean, if the street where I walk was there yesterday, I assume it must still be there today. But my vision is getting to be a joke. For example, the other day, as I was completing my warm-down after my stint on my stationary bike, I happened to pass by my next door neighbor, who was walking her dog. I did recognize that a dog was coming toward me, but I failed to recognize my neighbor. Just call me Mr. Magoo of Marin.

But then I turned to what I had learned from my studies of NDEs:

Well, you can see – no pun intended since that verb is largely conjectural for me now – that I have my reasons for hoping that I won’t have to wait too much longer to have better vision. No, there is no operation that can help me. 

The only thing that can – is death! And now I will tell you why I have cause to think that one day, perhaps before too long, I will have perfect vision. 

One of things that first struck me so forcibly when I was starting out on my life as an NDE researcher was how often my respondents would comment on how well they could see (and hear) during their NDEs. Here are some of those remarks from my first book on NDEs, Life at Death.

I could see very clearly, yeh, yeh. I recognized it [her body] as being me.

My ears were very sensitive at that point… Vision also.

I heard everything clearly and distinctly.

Seems like everything was clear. My hearing was clear… I felt like I could hear a pin drop. My sight – everything was clear.

It was as if my whole body had eyes and ears.

Years later, one of my students, who had had an NDE, and who had previously lost most of the hearing in one of his ears, told me he could hear perfectly during his NDE.

And it’s a similar story for people who are poorly sighted, but not during their NDE. Consider the following case of a 48-year-old woman who reported this experience following post-surgical complications. All of a sudden:

Bang. I left. The next thing I was aware of was floating on the ceiling. And seeing down there, with his hat on his head [she is referring to her anesthesiologist]… it was so vivid. I’m very near-sighted, too, by the way, which was another one of the startling things that happened when I left my body. I see at fifteen feet what most people see at 400… They were hooking me up to a machine behind my head. And my first thought was, “Jesus, I can see! I can’t believe it, I can see!” I could read the numbers on the machine behind my head and I was just so thrilled. And I thought, “They gave me back my glasses.”

Things were enormously clear and bright… From where I was looking, I could look down on this enormous fluorescent light… and it was so dirty on top of the light. [Could you see the top of the light fixture, then? I asked.] I was floating above the light fixture. [Could you see the top of the light fixture?] Yes [sounding a little impatient with my question], and it was filthy. And I remember thinking, “Got to tell the nurses about that.”

Even more astonishing than the fact that those with defective vision seem to see perfectly during their NDE is the finding from my own research on the blind (he said modestly) that clearly shows that even persons who are congenitally blind -- people who obviously have never seen in their lives – can and do see during their NDEs. As one of these persons whom I interviewed for my book, Mindsight, where I present about thirty of these cases, and who had had two NDEs, said: “Those experiences were the only time I could ever relate to seeing, and to what light was, because I experienced it. I was able to see.”

This testimony comes from a woman named Vicki who was 43 when I first met and interviewed her in Seattle. In the course of her interview she told me that during her (second) NDE, when she was 22, which took place in a hospital, she found herself up by the ceiling and could clearly see her body below (she recognized it from seeing her hair and also her wedding ring). She continued to ascend and eventually came to be above the hospital, where she saw streets, buildings and the lights of the city. She also told me that she saw different intensities of brightness and wondered if that was what people meant when they referred to colors.

Vicki was only one such case of the congenitally blind who reported some kind of vision during their NDE; as I’ve mentioned, there were others. How such eyeless vision, which I called mindsight, can occur is something I speculate about in my book, but the fact that it occurs is incontestable, however inexplicable it appears.

What does all this research have to tell us about the kind of body we may find ourselves in after death? Of course, no one can say with certainty, but the implication is that it will be one in which all of the senses we have in our earthly body are somehow able to function with perfect clarity. And if that’s so, it stands to reason that whatever infirmities or physical limitations we have here will be absent there.

Think of it this way. When we dream, we are usually not aware of any bodily limitations. Indeed, we may not even be aware of having a “dream body.” I know that in my own dreams, I am aware of myself, but not my body. Now, don’t misunderstand: An NDE is in no way like a dream; it is far more real. From the standpoint of an NDE, it is more real than what we call life, and certainly more real than even the most vivid dream. Nevertheless, our dreams are perhaps the best intimation of the wonders that await us after we die. And in that state, the one that we can anticipate when we die, all bodily malfunctions appear to be transcended.

When I contemplate such possibilities, I know it makes it a lot easier for me to deal with the signs of my own creeping decrepitude and my increasingly poor vision. I know that they are only the temporary impediments of my aging body.

In any case, you can now understand that I am not just waiting to die. I’m waiting to see. Perfectly.


Helen Keller died gently in her sleep in 1968, a few weeks before her 88th birthday. That was before the modern study of NDEs began with the publication of Moody’s book in 1975. So Helen would never had been able to learn about this work, but if she had, she would, I’m sure, have found it credible and confirmatory of what she had long believed. And deeply comforting.

When she was an old woman, she was visited by the actress, Lilli Palmer, who later recounted her conversation with Helen:

Her face, although an old lady’s face, had something of a school girl’s innocence… It was a saintly face.

“There’s so much I’d like to see,” she said, “so much to learn. And death is just around the corner. Not that that worries me. On the contrary.”

“Do you believe in life after death?” I asked.

“Most certainly,” she said emphatically. “It is no more than passing from one room into another.”

Suddenly, Helen spoke again. Slowly and very distinctly she said, “But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other -- room – I shall be able to see.”

I have every reason – and now you know why – to believe that when Helen passed into the next world, she would indeed finally have been given sight, the wonders to behold.

October 13, 2021

Revisioning Helen Keller II: Her Years as a Flaming Radical and Moral Crusader

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

In her twenties Helen Keller, whom the world had come to know and admire for her incredible triumph over her devastating childhood condition of total blindness and deafness, became a fervid and militant socialist. This astonishing transformation in her character shocked many of her followers and appalled her family. Those who had worked so hard, including her teacher, Annie Sullivan, to portray Helen as kind of a secular saint of almost angelic goodness, felt betrayed. It was as if a virgin had been discovered to be a whore.

How on earth did this happen? What had led Helen to begin to espouse and become actively involved in radical causes so at variance with the genteel southern social and political world in which she had been raised?

Here we come to another important man in her life by the name of John Albert Macy.

A few years older than Helen, Macy was a writer, literary critic, poet – and ardent socialist, the author of a staunch defense of socialism, Socialism in America, in which he also strongly endorsed the militant labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), generally and dismissively labeled, the “Wobblies,” who did not eschew violence in pursuit of their vision of social justice.

Macy, a Harvard graduate who had compiled a brilliant academic record with a Phi Beta Kappa key as a token of his achievement and scholastic promise, had entered the world of Annie and Helen while the latter was still enrolled in Radcliffe. At that time, Annie was suffering a great deal from poor eyesight and was very fearful that she would lose her vision altogether. And Helen, who was also under a great deal of emotional stress, was trying to work on a series of articles about her life that had been commissioned by the Ladies Home Journal. Helen actually found writing taxing and difficult, and with Annie unavailable to assist her, a friend suggested Macy might be able to help Helen by serving as her editor. His help was warmly welcomed by both Annie and Helen; he was seemingly a godsend.

In short order, he became an important and indeed vital part of Annie’s and Helen’s world, and he was of enormous help to Helen as an editor, working with her to develop her style as a writer. And more – he appointed himself Helen’s literary agent and before long had negotiated a very good contract with Doubleday for a book based on the articles she was writing for the magazine.

The Story of My Life was published in 1903 and is now regarded as a classic and is still in print. Indeed, in 1996 it was named one of the hundred most important books of the twentieth century by the New York Public Library. Helen did the writing, but much of the success of this book belongs to John Macy. Without his able assistance and agency for the book, it would probably never have attained the status it continues to enjoy.

Needless to say, both Annie and Helen were deeply indebted to Macy, who now became even more closely connected with the two women. He came to spend a good deal of time with Helen, escorting her on walks during which they had many stimulating conversations. And with Annie, there was more than friendship. They found themselves strongly attracted to each other and soon became lovers. They would eventually marry, even though John was twenty-seven at the time while Annie was eleven years older. No matter, they were in love! Helen was thrilled for them both.

The seed of Helen’s interest in socialism was actually first planted by Annie (who was not a socialist herself) when she recommended a book by the then very popular author, H. G. Wells, called New Worlds for Old. Wells was a socialist and was a prominent member of the Fabian Society, which was then a very influential organization advocating for socialism (and still exists) with a number of celebrities, including George Bernard Shaw, among its members. It was that book which in effect figuratively opened Helen’s blind eyes to the plight of workers under capitalism and to the oppression from which they suffered. Helen was immediately hooked and resolved to look into this further.

She already knew of course that John Macy was a committed socialist who was also a good friend of the well known socialist writer, Upton Sinclair, and who openly consorted with other socialist and radical thinkers. When Helen asked him what else she should read, he recommended some socialist tracts, but, more importantly, suggested that she read Marx and Engels in German Braille (by then Helen, who had a gift for languages, could read German fluently), including The Communist Manifesto, which concludes with these now famous stirring lines:

[Communists] openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries unite!

Helen was deeply moved by these words and by what she was reading in the socialist literature. All this spoke to her passion for justice. She saw immediately that this could be the vehicle for her to engage politically as an activist. But first she needed to learn more. Macy would be happy to show her the way, and he did.

Although Helen would later claim that Macy did not attempt to “convert” her to socialism or to foist the books he suggested upon her, he did quickly educate her about the goals of socialism and the Socialist party in America, which were then essentially to wrest control from the capitalists and institute democratic and collective control over private enterprises, such as railroads, telegraphs and telephones, and other forms of transportation and communication, the banks, mines, oil wells, etc. The socialists also wanted there to be equal suffrage for men and women. Furthermore, Macy informed her that many distinguished figures were already a part of a growing socialist movement whose motto became “Socialism is not a theory – it is a destiny.” Among these worthies were such celebrities of the day as William Dean Howells, Alfred Russel Wallace, Anatole France and Maurice Maeterlinck. [He might also have mentioned the recently deceased and disgraced Oscar Wilde, the author of the famous essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” but probably thought better of it.]

All this lit a flame of passion inside Helen. Socialism was her truth, too, and would be her destiny. She would soon become a fiery radical on behalf of socialism – and women’s suffrage.

Perhaps many people today are not aware of how vital and widespread the socialist movement was in America during the years when Helen became involved in it. This was a time of tremendous strife in the field of labor, with many strikes and much violence, all of which Helen now followed closely and was sickened by. It was also a period of often crushing exploitation of workers and the continuing use of child labor and “sweat shops” for immigrant women – all of which was grist for the socialist mill. Socialists, naturally, were on the side of the working class and opposed to the oppressive rule of the capitalist bosses and magnates. If you were to read such works as The Iron Heel by Jack London, another rabid socialist, you would find a novelistic reconstruction of this period. (Frankly, I could never quite get through it, as it is essentially a socialist tract masquerading as a novel.)

But the socialist movement, both in the United States and in Great Britain, was surprisingly strong and effective in countering these trends. During this period in America socialists held something like 1200 political positions, including 79 mayoral offices. And Eugene Debs, the Bernie Sanders of his day, captured almost a million votes when he ran for President in 1912, about 6% of the total. There were many progressive people, and not just workers or radicals, who were either socialists themselves and sympathetic to them.

Into this turbulent current of unrest and agitation Helen jumped with both feet, figuratively speaking of course, as she could hardly march in the many protests of that time. But she could speak, with Annie’s help, and she did with great effectiveness, often to very large, boisterous and appreciative audiences. Once she had to be protected by six policemen from an admiring crowd after delivering a fiery speech to two thousand people in New York, which was met with “thunderous applause.” On another occasion, one of her fervent fans started to rip off her dress (I suppose as a souvenir) while another snatched roses from her hat before she could be rescued from the crush of well wishers.

As a personal aside, I confess I had had no idea about Helen’s involvement in radical causes until I happened to see a documentary about her in which a number of her speeches were excerpted. It was then I learned how powerful a figure she was in those days and what a large following she had. Some people said that she was even more influential than Teddy Roosevelt who was President during that period. Many years later, four years before Helen died, then President Johnson conferred on her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor. And the following year, Helen was elected to the Women’s Hall of Fame. She and Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Helen enjoyed a warm friendship, received the most votes. She was indeed a mighty force for the many causes to which she had devoted her life.

But with that digression behind us, we must now return to the young Helen during the years when she was such an indomitable presence in socialist and radical circles. During that time, she was also a fierce supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and in her mind, it was intimately linked to her socialist views. “I am a militant suffragette, “ she asserted, “because I believe suffrage will lead to socialism and to me socialism is the ideal cause.” And she was an ardent champion of militant suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst who advocated such tactics of hunger strikes and window smashing. Of course, some, perhaps many, of Helen’s devoted admirers were shocked that she would endorse such actions, but, according to Dorothy Herrmann, her biographer, she seems to have relished her notoriety, saying that it would make people think about socialism and the women’s movement.

She was also meeting and becoming personal friends with many anarchists and radical leaders of the period. The famed journalist, John Reed, who would soon become an active supporter of the Bolsheviks as the author of the bestseller, Ten Days That Shook the World, was one. Another was one of the most prominent and fearsome anarchists of the time, Emma Goldman, who would eventually be deported. And here we must pause to say a little bit about another of Helen’s anarchist friends, Arturo Giovannitti, whose poetry Helen loved. All these people were welcome guests in the home that Annie and Helen shared at the time.

During the period when America was becoming embroiled in WW I, many people who had been involved with such organizations as the Wobblies were arrested, not because they had committed any crime, but because of the notorious Espionage Act of 1917, they were considered a danger to the republic. Giovannitti was just one of Helen’s anarchist friends who was rounded up and jailed. Moreover, virtually every prominent socialist leader including the party’s perennial Presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, was prosecuted and imprisoned. As were Emma Goldman and her lover, Alexander Berkman, who were eventually deported.

Helen was furious. Like other socialists, she was adamantly opposed to America’s entry into the war, not because she was a pacifist, but because she believed that the war was really an imperialistic enterprise that would further damage the interests and well being of the working class. And she was outraged at the injustice being done to many of her friends.

So she took action. Not being able to wield a pen, she sat down at her Braille typewriter and wrote a long letter to President Wilson with whom she had previously communicated, and with some success, to get him to intercede in cases she felt were unjust.

The letter is too long to quote in its entirely, but in order to give you some sense of the way Helen was able to marshal her eloquence in the service of her friends and to protest the abrogation of their civil rights, I will excerpt a few paragraphs from it. The preamble, which I will quote here, eventually leads to a plea for justice for her friend, the poet, Arturo Giovannitti, and several other of her anarchist colleagues. It will also reveal something I will discuss later, which made Helen even more controversial – her sympathy for the Russian revolution. Dated December 17. 1917, the letter begins:

The danger from Prussian militarism is as clear, as intolerable to my friends and myself as it is to you or to any one fighting in France. It is because we think a similar despotism is beginning here that we are troubled. Rights we had thought ours forever -- rights hallowed by the blood and fortunes of our fathers -- rights we had been taught were the very bulwarks of our liberties -- rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution of the United States, are being openly violated every day. The voice of authority commanding silence has downed the voice of justice. Meetings of protest are forcibly broken up; newspapers expressing the opinions of radicals are debarred from the mails; individuals are threatened and clubbed for speaking their minds; many of them have been imprisoned, and excessive bails demanded. The intolerance of the newspapers amounts to fanaticism. Ministers of the gospel of Christ find humor in the flogging of Herbert Bigelow. A high government official condones the murder of Frank Little by a mob, thereby upholding mob rule and lynching. If such a state of affairs continues, our prisons will become holy shrines where thoughtful men will go and pray.

When they hung John Brown, Emerson said, "They have made the gallows as holy as the cross." Beware, lest the avenging hand of remorse be laid upon our generation for the persecution of those who uphold their downtrodden brethren.

Because the Kaiser is destroying freedom in Europe to preserve autocracy, must we destroy it here to preserve democracy? Is there no democratic way of accomplishing the noble enterprise we have undertaken? We want America safe for democracy, no matter what happens in Europe. We want peace and freedom for the world, and we believe that this can be attained only by substituting an industrial democracy for the present economic system. When we emphasize this phase of the world-struggle, we meet with opposition, intolerance and persecution.

It takes courage to uphold opinions opposed by all the forces of a strong government. It may require a Bolsheviki mind to do that. Perhaps you think that is the sort of mind I have. I have. For to me the Russian Revolution [which had taken place just two months earlier] seems the most wonderful thing that has happened in two thousand years. It is like a conscious sun bursting upon a gloomy, disastrous world -- a sun which shall heal the nations. Yet the New York Times characterizes it as "a wreck and ruin, not ameliorated by anything admirable, but attended with every circumstance of shame and disgrace from cowardice to treachery." What shall bridge the gulf between a Bolsheviki mind and a capitalist mind?

We hope that some day mankind will be free and wise and happy in a world where there shall be no want or fear, but bread and work and joy for every human being; and even if that wondrous day should never dawn, to have hoped and worked for it cannot be wrong. We believe in the oneness of humanity. We believe in peace and brotherhood. We believe in the elimination of poverty, ignorance and oppression by one or by many. We believe in industrial democracy as a solution of the economic problem. We grope for the wall -- the wall that shall support our weakness; we grope as those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon-day as in the night; therefore is understanding far from us, and justice doth not overtake us.

Helen was indeed a forceful advocate for righteousness at a time, like our own time now, when the safeguards of democracy were imperiled. But, like others, she was prepared to pay a heavy price for her courage and outspokenness.

A few years earlier, she had brought out a book of essays under the title of Out of the Dark. The book was her effort to explain what had caused her to turn to socialism and its values. As Herrmann notes that book nearly destroyed her angelic image:

No longer was she viewed by the public as a virginal young woman with a Braille book on her lap as she savored the sweet smell of a rose, but as a fierce revolutionary who kept a large red flag in her study.

And this altered view of Helen, which so damaged her reputation in the eyes of others, was not really unfair. For example, in addition to her vehement support of the Wobblies, she was ecstatic about the Russian revolution. In an impassioned speech in 1920 at New York’s Madison Square garden, she cried:

In the East a new star has risen! With pain and anguish the Old Order has given birth to the New… Onward, comrades, all together! Onward to the campfires of Russia! Onward to the Coming Dawn!

Of course, during those years many people on the left held romantic views about the promise of the Russian Revolution, influenced by such well known endorsements as that of the muckraking American journalist, Lincoln Steffens, who after a visit to Russia in 1919 famously proclaimed “I have been over into the future, and it works.”

Disillusionment for him and Helen would come later.

But at the time Helen plunged on with her vigorous advocacy of women’s suffrage, birth control, the reform of laws governing child labor and other policies that most socialists of her stripe favored.

Her family of course was completely dismayed at this turn in Helen’s life. They could neither understand nor countenance it. This simply was not their Helen. She did not make things any better when she spoke about racial injustice.

The outrages against the colored people are a denial of Christ. The central fire of his teaching is inequality. His gospel proclaims in unequivocal words that the souls of all men are alike before God. Yet there are persons calling themselves Christian who profit from the economic degradation of their colored fellow-countrymen. Ashamed in my very soul I behold in my own beloved southland the tears of those who are oppressed, those who must bring up their sons and daughters in bondage to be servants because others have their fields and vineyards, and on the side of oppression is power.

Her family may have been mortified to hear of Helen’s views about racial injustice, but one who was impressed by them was W.E.B. DuBois, one of the co-founders of the NAACP and for many years one of the most prominent spokesmen for the rights of what were then called “colored people.” He eventually befriended Helen and included the statement I have quoted in an NAACP publication.

And then there was vaudeville.

Yes! After her days of fierce and often strident support of radical causes had subsided, she and Annie took to the vaudeville stage. And they were stars! In fact, they were among the highest paid performers on the stage, earning two thousand dollars a week at the Palace and other theaters. Helen loved the theater and performing, and the money was really necessary for them since they were often strapped for cash. She was delighted finally to be earning her own living. She and Annie spent four years, beginning in 1920, on “their act.”

Typically, Helen, dressed up in a sequined evening gown “and looking mighty fine,” would tell her life story, with Annie actually doing the speaking, and afterward Helen would answer questions from the audience. Some of these answers have been preserved (I first saw them on the documentary I mentioned earlier), and Herrmann quotes some in her book.

You might be surprised to learn that Helen had a really good sense of humor and was quick on the quip.

Does Miss Keller think of marriage?
Yes, are you proposing to me?

Does talking tire you?
Did you ever hear of a woman who tired of talking?

What do you think of President Harding?
I have a fellow feeling for him. He seems as blind as I am. 

What do you think of the League of Nations?
It looks like a league of bandits to me.

I like to imagine Helen, with Annie by her side, sitting opposite Johnny Carson and causing him to guffaw with laughter at her clever witticisms.

What a woman was this Helen Keller!

And there’s more to come.

October 6, 2021

Revisioning Helen Keller I: The Sex Life of a Saint

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Helen Keller is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals… She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today. 

-- Mark Twain

Well, a little more than a hundred years after Mark Twain prophesied Helen Keller’s destiny to remain in the pantheon of the immortals of history, his judgment seems more than a trifle suspect. Indeed, it probably strikes most of us as hyperbolic. How many people remember Helen Keller today or, if they do, would agree that her stature is really such as to be counted among humanity’s most notable figures?

If most people of my generation remember her, as they surely must, many younger people, those born in the waning decades of the 20th century, may never have heard of her, or, if they have, may know only the rudiments of her story.

In case you are among those who are not familiar with Helen Keller’s amazing life or have only a hazy impression of it, all you really need to know is that at the age of 19 months, as a result of either scarlet fever or meningitis, she was rendered completely blind and deaf. And after that, she was little more than a savage, uncontrollably violent animal. 

She remained that way until April of 1887 when with the help of a remarkable young woman named Annie Sullivan, her soul, as she later put it, “was set free.” And the key that opened the cage of her darkness was language. Somehow Annie Sullivan was able to teach Helen the meaning of words which made it possible for young Helen to communicate – and to become a human being.

Some of you who are old enough may remember that many years ago – 1962, to be exact – there was a famous film about this incident of Helen’s emancipation from her dark world called “The Miracle Worker.” It starred Anne Bancroft (not yet Mrs. Robinson) as Annie and the young Patty Duke as Helen. (Both actresses won Academy Awards for their performances.)  I had seen the film when it was first released but recently watched it again. Based on an original stage play by William Gibson, it is a reasonably faithful recreation of Helen’s early life, which culminated in her epiphany when she understood the word, “water.” You might want to check it out on Netflix. It is a very powerful film.

But that’s not the story I am interested to tell here. Instead, I want to tell you about the kind of woman Helen Keller turned out to be. She was by the age of ten indeed world famous, but during her long life as a celebrity most people only knew her as a kind of “plastic saint,” and as a spokesperson for the blind. But Helen Keller was so much more. She was sexy, a rebel, a troublemaker and as controversial during her lifetime as she was revered. This is the Helen Keller that most people never learned about, but you will.

Many people remember Helen as she was in her middle and later years as a kind of paragon of wisdom, possessed of a deep spirituality and devoted to worthy causes. In a way, sort of a female Dalai Lama. In appearance, she seemed to be a somewhat matronly woman who dressed nicely and, especially when she was older, looked like the gentle grandmother everyone would love to have.

Don’t you believe it! Remember, appearances can be deceiving!

It may surprise you to learn that Helen was beautiful as a child and retained her beauty as a woman for many years, even into her fifties. In short, to resort to a vulgarism, she was a dish. And she was always very attractive to men and much preferred the company of men to that of women. She often kissed men, but rarely women.

Here are just a few representative references to her appearance, which will give you a sense of her beauty and feminine ways.

In her youth…

she was…considered fetching. Her porcelain complexion was clear and smooth, and she had a luxuriant mane of chestnut hair that cascaded down her back. Her figure was voluptuous; she had large breasts, small hips, and lovely shapely legs.

Early in life, she had already developed an aesthetic sense about her appearance, being very fond of beautiful dresses and finery and becoming upset if there was a hole in her attire or anything to blemish it. And, remember, this was a girl who would never be able to look into a mirror to check her appearance or primp.

At sixteen….

she was at the height of a beauty of which she was completely unaware… She was handsome and well formed, with an expressive countenance, short brown hair that curled around her shoulders, and beautiful hands. “The whiteness and delicacy and beauty of shape are delights to the eye,” wrote a reporter who interviewed Helen when she was seventeen, “and the extraordinary sensitiveness of their finger-tips cannot be imagined by one who has only the usual sense of touch.”

As one of her biographers, Dorothy Herrmann, astutely observed:

Her comely face, as well as her sensual body, might have attracted any number of men [and did –KR], especially men who were aroused by dependent, helpless females. But any contact with boys her own age was strictly forbidden by [her mother] who was revolted by the idea of her daughter marrying and becoming sexually active…. so it was clear that despite her considerable beauty, charm and intelligence, Helen would never enjoy the life of most women of her period with a husband who took her to Niagara Falls on their honeymoon….

This was to be the secret sorrow and paradox of Helen’s life, for indeed many men were attracted to her and some fell deeply in love with her, but for virtually all her life she was in effect cossetted and controlled by a series of women, beginning with Annie Sullivan, on whom she was forced to depend. Thus, she lived with women, but as we will see, she longed for a man who would love her. For all her stupendous intellectual attainments and worldwide celebrity, Helen was in some respects a normal woman who desired a husband and children. 

Although she was forced to remain largely in the company of women who escorted her everywhere, she was always strongly drawn to men, and apart from Annie Sullivan whose influence on Helen was almost total and who was really the only person that Helen truly loved, it was the men in her life who had the deepest impact on her thinking, as we shall see.

During the course of her lifetime, she met and was befriended by many prominent and often wealthy men who were happy to provide much needed financial support to Helen and Annie, the latter of whom often making a special effort to cultivate such men. And she had many admirers, too, such as Alexander Graham Bell (who did not, as most people believe, invent the telephone) who during his lifetime was devoted to teaching the deaf. He became a very dear friend and supporter of Helen who was deeply fond of him.  

But perhaps her greatest champion among the celebrities of her day was Mark Twain who absolutely adored her, and the feeling was definitely mutual. They were able to spend a lot of time together, and after one such meeting, Helen wrote:

More than anyone else I have ever known except Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and my teacher, he aroused in me the feeling of mingled tenderness and awe. To one hampered and circumscribed as I am it was a wonderful experience to have a friend like Mr. Clemens…. He never made me feel my opinions were worthless, as so many people do…. He always kept me in mind while he talked, and he treated me like a competent human being. That is why I loved him.

And Twain often extolled Helen, once stating that she was “the most marvelous creature of her sex since Joan of Arc.” When Helen was sixteen and preparing herself for Harvard’s examination for Radcliffe College [Harvard did not accept women then], where she was to distinguish herself, Twain wrote a letter of recommendation full of the greatest praise for her, ending with “she will make a fame that will endure in history for centuries…. She is the most extraordinary product of all the ages.”

But as much as the loving friendships and steadfast support of people like Twain and Bell meant to Helen, they could not of course satisfy her desire for intimate sexual contact, which as a highly sexed woman, Helen covertly coveted. A number of younger men who were attracted to her did arouse such feelings in her, but her circumstances made it impossible for her to act on them or even to acknowledge them. 

Until Peter Fagan entered her life.

Fagan was then a 29-year-old secretary to Annie Sullivan. When Helen was introduced to him, she assumed that he was just going to be another of those young men that she would never be permitted to date, but, as her biographer, Dorothy Herrmann, remarked, Helen “was like any other normal woman who enjoyed pretty clothes and dancing.” She goes on to introduce Helen’s forthcoming amatory adventure with Peter Fagan with this tantalizing paragraph:

For years [Helen] appears to have been resigned to her monastic lifestyle and to have taken refuge in the image she helped to create of a deaf-blind woman as a sightless high priestess, a messianic figure who was both a social reformer and a seer who had penetrated the mysteries of the universe in her dark silence. But then the ailing, despondent Annie [who had her own romantic troubles at the time] became ill again, and Helen seized the opportunity.

A few evenings later, Fagan entered Helen’s room, took her hand in order to communicate with her – and then, to Helen’s astonishment, declared his love for her, saying if she would marry him, he would always be near and would help her. Helen later wrote that Fagan’s ardent love for her caused her to tremble with excitement. At last! “His love was a bright sun that shone upon my helplessness and isolation. The sweetness of being loved enchanted me, and I yielded to an imperious longing to be a part of a man’s life.” Helen was then in her mid-thirties.

They soon began an affair. Helen wanted to share her joy with Annie and her mother, but knew they would both strenuously object and force her to renounce the relationship, so Helen felt obliged to keep it a secret and clandestine. Meanwhile, however, they traveled to Boston to obtain a marriage license. 

Helen was then prepared to tell her mother, only to find out that she had already heard about the affair and was furious. She absolutely forbad Helen to see Fagan again and banished him from the house. Helen was not even permitted to say good-bye to her lover, although he found a way to communicate his whereabouts in Braille.

However, Helen was now in love, and she would not be denied her chance for sexual and marital fulfillment. She would have to find a way. They would elope!

Helen seemed to have hatched a seemingly dotty plan. She and her mother would soon be returning on a boat for Alabama and when they would have to transfer to a train at Savannah, Fagan would then intercept them and abduct Helen and flee with her to Florida where Fagan knew a minister who would marry them.

Crazy, no?

Unfortunately for the lovers, Helen’s mother, who must have had her spies, had somehow got wind of this scheme and changed her plans so the abduction could never take place. Helen then had to return to Montgomery with her mother and without Fagan. God knows what the mother and daughter must have talked about the rest of their journey.

But the lovers would not be foiled – and Fagan would not be stymied. The final act of this absurd drama was about to take place.

Fagan then showed up at the home in Montgomery where he was able for a few moments to meet Helen on the porch. But soon Helen’s sister’s husband appeared, brandishing a gun! Fagan, undeterred and perhaps even unafraid, said he loved Helen and wanted to marry her. No dice, they ran him off, and that seemed to be the end of it.

But it wasn’t.

Somehow, Helen had been able to communicate to Fagan to come back a few days later to take her away. She had actually packed her bags and had gone down to the porch to wait for him. She waited for him all night. He never came. 

Perhaps he had decided it was too dangerous for him to pursue Helen and perhaps foolish. Who knows? But once he failed to show up, the romance was over and he was out of her life for good.

This episode haunted Helen for the rest of her life. She felt foolish and ashamed. She later wrote, “I cannot account for my behavior. As I look back and try to understand, I am completely bewildered. I seem to have acted exactly against my nature.”

In a long coda, Herrmann, from whose book I have drawn this account of Helen’s love affair, rightly raises the question, “But what was her nature,” and then goes on to answer it. Her commentary deserves to be quoted at length.

Writing in Midstream [a book Helen wrote in 1929] about romance, Helen strongly suggested that she was no longer na├»ve about love and sex. “The brief love will remain in my life, a little island of joy surrounded by dark waters,” she confided. “I am glad that I have had the experience of being loved and desired. The fault was not in the loving, but in the circumstances.”

By “loving,” Helen, who was unusually frank in her writing about many aspects of her life, did not mean a few chaste kisses. As a militant socialist [we will get to that in my next blog], she would not have hesitated to consummate her love for Peter Fagan. The circles in which she and her young lover [who was also a committed socialist] moved were in rebellion against the sexual mores of the Victorian age. Many of their friends – John Macy, John Reed and his bohemian wife, Louise Bryant, as well as Emma Goldman – were ardent champions of free love.

Finally, what would Annie Sullivan have thought about this whole sorry affair? Herrmann is convinced that she would never have permitted Helen to marry. As Herrmann ruefully concedes:

Not only was Helen her creation, but she derived her identity as well as her own celebrity and livelihood from their association. Over the years she had systematically destroyed men’s relationships with Helen when they tried to usurp her role in Helen’s life.

Helen was still a captive. Isolated by her blindness and deafness, she would remain imprisoned by women for the rest of her life, never free to find fulfillment in the loving arms of a man.

She once commented that had she been given sight, she surely would have married. 

Peter Fagan, however, was not the last man to want to marry her. A few years later, another man began a lengthy correspondence with Helen. He, too, even without meeting her, had fallen in love with her and proposed marriage. Of course, she had to decline, but she did write him candidly about her unquenched longing for love.

Since my youth I have desired the love of a man. Sometimes I have wondered rebelliously why Fate has trifled with me so strangely, why I was a tantalized with bodily capabilities I could not fulfill…. I have come to feel that it was intended for me to live and die unmated, and I have become reconciled to my fate.

One hides as much as possible one’s awkwardness and helplessness under a fine philosophy and a smiling face. What I have printed gives no knowledge of my actual life…. In some respects my life has been a very lonely one. Books have been my most intimate companions…. Your willingness to marry me under the circumstances fills me with amazement. I tremble to think what an inescapable burden I should be to a husband…. [But] I faced consciously the strong sex-urge of my nature and turned that life-energy into channels of satisfying sympathy and work.

However, toward the end of her life, Helen was clearly tired of being endlessly described as “a secular saint.” Her handlers, however, were always vigilant lest Helen act in public in any way that could tarnish the image the pubic had of her, an image that had been so carefully and artfully curated for her – largely for their benefit and not for Helen’s.

One of these persons who kept a strict watch over Helen was a literary woman named Nella Braddy Henney, a biographer of Annie Sullivan. 

Nella was one of Helen’s keepers, as much her jailer as Annie [and several others had been]. A prim elitist, Nella spent her life in constant dread that someone would say or do something to sully Helen’s virtuous public image…. More important, Nella feared that Helen herself would do something inadvertently that would make people doubt her saintlessness.

For example, she insisted that Helen not wear a sapphire ring in public because she thought it would look utterly out of place on her finger, as it suggested a love of material things that would be incompatible with Helen’s reputation. 

But Helen, as we know, loved fine things, even when she couldn’t see them, and in her later years, she was determined to throw off the confining yoke of her saintly image. She finally had had it with Nella and gave her the gate. 

At the age of eighty, she was ready to indulge her pleasures and she no longer seemed to care to conceal them. As Herrmann almost joyfully concludes:

In the short time left to her, Helen must have longed to shed the trappings of her saintlike image. She wanted to wear mink coats, to throw away her itchy uncomfortable wig, and drink martinis.

Helen was finally free to be herself.