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 naïve 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.

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