Saturday, June 19, 2010

[Helen Keller Mythbusting Blogswarm] "Where do I live again?" Orientation

Some time ago I discussed with a fellow blogger about Accessibility and Universal Design.

This happens to be a big focus on the Second Life Helen Keller Mythbusting Day, from which it has sprung. Last week (the 11th June 2010) Anna of FWD/Feminists with Disabilities thought that a blogswarm might be the way to go.

The American Foundation for the Blind's Helen Selsdon wrote about her visit to Helen Keller's first home, Ivy Green.

Shortly after Anne Sullivan became Helen Keller's instruction, she felt it instructive to do some mythbusting, as we would now call it.

When she and Helen moved into the first house, she created an environment which was focused on learning: both academic and social.

On the 11th March 1887, Sullivan wrote a letter to Sophia Hopkins, her own mentor and housemother at Perkins.

Sullivan would say later: "Crocheting and sewing are arts of the devil".

Here is the section of the letter describing Sullivan's decision - in consultation with Kate Keller - and its consequences:

"I had a good, frank talk with Mrs. Keller, and explained to her how difficult it was going to be to do anything with Helen under the existing circumstances. I told her that in my opinion the child ought to be separated from the family for a few weeks at least–that she must learn to depend on and obey me before I could make any headway. After a long time Mrs. Keller said that she would think the matter over and see what Captain Keller thought of sending Helen away with me. Captain Keller fell in with the scheme most readily and suggested that the little garden-house at the "old place" be got ready for us. He said that Helen might recognize the place, as she had often been there; but she would have no idea of her surroundings, and they could come every day to see that all was going well, with the understanding, of course, that she was to know nothing of their visits. I hurried the preparations for our departure as much as possible, and here we are.

The little house is a genuine bit of paradise. It consists of one large square room with a great fireplace, a spacious bay-window, and a small room where our servant, a little negro boy, sleeps. There is a piazza in front, covered with vines that grow so luxuriantly that you have to part them to see the garden beyond. Our meals are brought from the house, and we usually eat on the piazza. The little negro boy takes care of the fire when we need one; so I can give my whole attention to Helen. " (Sullivan 1887)
The new arrangement would seem to have satisified both Keller and Sullivan's needs. It was their first experience of living together as teacher and student, and the first time Keller was separated from her family.

There are probably a lot of myths about this. The way I was introduced to it was some time back in 1989, when I first read Margaret Davidson's HELEN KELLER'S TEACHER. There are reconstructed conversations (I don't know how accurate they are or were, or how far they were constructed to tell the story to the readers) in which Helen is referred to as a "tin god".

The myth this may or may not be alluded to is that people with disabilities might make their families into slaves: something particularly relevant given Keller's Southern childhood. The "negro boy" is Percy, and he, like Martha Washington, was one of Keller's acquaintances.

Joseph P Lash (HELEN AND TEACHER: 1980) said: "It is doubtful how aware Helen was at the time [the mid-1880s, some years before Sullivan came] of these clashes.

One big Helen Keller myth I would like to deal with is the nature and extent of her wildness and how much that may or may not have been tempered by language and communication.

Even John Macy fell for it, when he said Keller was "the lucky victim, fortunately, of the good phrase". And he himself a writer. Many of his conclusions post-hoc in regard to Keller's style in general...

As a journalist and activist, Keller made the written word her home. After she went to Radcliffe College, and while she was writing her autobiography, she worked from home, whether that was Wrentham in New York; Forest Hills several years later; and her last home Arcan Ridge. Arcan Ridge was burnt down, and that was a loss to the archives.

Equally as structured as the indoors was the outdoors. There were, for instance, walks made by smell - through the flowers - and there were many statues to enjoy.

One of the big myths - and a feature of many jokes - is the one about moving the furniture, and Keller would not know where she was.

At the start of 2010, I finally read a book I had wanted to read for a very long time (since I discovered it in December 1997): Deaf-Blind Infants and Children: a developmental guide.

There are several books about independence, and also there are blogs. One is Pipecleaner Dreams. Ashley, a woman in her mid-teens, contributes a great deal to her household. She first became well-known for her pipecleaner creations. Over the years, her mother has done a great deal to make the house accessible to all its members. Another blog I have read is A Place among the Stones, the writing of a Dutch woman who is deaf-blind.

One of the most interesting points of Keller's life was also in her teens. When I read Lash's biography for the first time in 1995, many of her diaries struck out, especially in the chapter My Teacher, My Self and the ones afterwards.

Lash talks about how she melded with her times - which was the end of the Victorian era (1837-1901).

Someone said and I paraphrase: "She is just 16, and this is a sweet time in her life. Now is not the time to push her into serious academic work..."

Keller's social conscience is one of the features of her life, and was very active.

Coverage of it through the years has created various mythic imports.

For instance, that she was pushed into it by Sullivan or Macy.

It is probably as important to talk about the failures as much as the successes.

In the 1890s, Ida Chamberlain suggested to Keller that they and several of her benefactors create a school for the deaf-blind and train people as much as Annie Sullivan was trained, with similar techniques.

This may or may not have been encouraged by Anagnos, who had an ambigious position in Keller and Sullivan's lives. Again, HELEN AND TEACHER has some information. The second chapter, in particular, is titled BOSTON, PERKINS AND SAMUEL GRIDLEY HOWE. Anagnos' early life and motivations are described, personally and professionally.

One important thing that Howe did and Anagnos continued was to try to make books accessible to the blind.

Some fifty years later, when Miguel tried to make talking books, Keller opposed it. Some people think that was because she could not enjoy them herself without assistance.

Many times while Keller was studying and before she became famous, she would have trouble trying to get important texts, especially the ones with mathematics and science, and other not very common books.

A Keller house would often be a library.

One of her poems explicitly talks about the built environment. "Song of the Stone Wall" is an experimental poem which combines influences from literature and legend with her observations. It is an emotionally moving poem.

Macy said: "The greater the medium the greater the writing".

One of my favourite stories of Keller reading is probably the one about water.

One of the books she really loved when she was coming into her teenage years was Frances Hodgson Burnett's LITTLE LORD FAUNTERLOY, which I am reading just now.

By the time of MIDSTREAM, Keller was a traveller. Some of the trips I remember reading about were to Japan, Australia, South Africa and Israel. In South Africa it was said, "You have aroused the conscience of many".

One instance in which Keller's conscience was aroused was when some Israeli people wanted to make a special village.

The issues of separatism versus inclusion are widely argued today.

In Keller's last years - well into her 80s - she wanted to have fun. Over time, her household companions had changed. One of them was Katherine Corbally, who talked about how Keller liked hotdogs.

A biographical friend was Nella Braddy Henney. Many of her observations were reported in The Dupe of Words, the HELEN AND TEACHER chapter which perhaps has had a lot of impact on my thinking. It covers issues which were brought up in discussion of THE WORLD I LIVE IN (I have read one extract of that book, and it is THE SEEING HAND), of how Keller described her world, especially concepts like "horse" and "pink".

Several other books talked about this too, especially the ones by Thomas Cutsforth and Pierre Villey-Desmerets.

One of the first books which did some myth-busting was probably Selma Fraiberg's INSIGHTS FROM THE BLIND.

One of the basic concepts of home is having a place and a space which is yours, and which you are able to share with others.

Home can be on the margins or the centre of a life.