Helen Keller’s Shadow: Why We Need to Stop Making Movies about Helen Keller
I had my first run-in with Helen Keller when I was 11. My mother had told me that I was losing my sight and would become DeafBlind someday. My response was nerdy to the extreme: I went to the library and borrowed the thickest and densest biography on Helen Keller. She was the only DeafBlind person I knew, and I figured that her life would tell me something—precisely what, I didn’t know.
It took me over a month to finish the book. I read about her struggle to learn language, her ascent to fame, her advocacy for the disfranchised, and her international travels. Amid the impressive facts, I found little to which I could relate. I grew up speaking ASL and thought of the deaf community as my second family. Keller spoke as well as used fingerspelling and had little contact with the ASL deaf community. I came from a Brazilian immigrant family with few connections in this country. Luminaries like Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain sponsored Keller. I did well enough at school but was no prodigy. She was in a different league intellectually yet had little control over her life and faced persistent skepticism about her abilities.
Instead of feeling inspired, I was terrified. Our society had reduced this brilliant and complicated woman into an inspirational parable and jokes. If America could trivialize someone like Keller, what would become of me?
Almost 25 years after I read that biography, a friend texted about an upcoming Helen Keller movie called “Helen & Teacher.” It would focus on the tensions between Keller and her teacher/interpreter Anne Sullivan during their time at Radcliffe College of Harvard University. The director Wash Westmoreland proclaims that “Today, when some TikTok threads dispute Helen Keller’s achievements and even her existence, it is time for a film that shows her relevance, her brilliance and her unbreakable spirit.”
As I read the words in enlarged white-on-black text, I thought, “Relevant to whom? It’s sure not us.” The DeafBlind community is, and always has been, more than Helen Keller.
After decades of hiding from Helen Keller’s legacy and my progressive vision loss, I tip-toed into the DeafBlind community and discovered a whole world beyond Helen Keller. If anyone deserves the Hollywood treatment, it is Geraldine “Jerrie” Lawhorn. After a long career of teaching and theater performances, Jerrie became the first Black DeafBlind college graduate at age 67. I also bumped into Marjorie McGuffin Wood in John Lee Clark’s poem “Line of Descent.” Clark writes: “She insisted she was no saint,” and I was immediately enamored. Since her tongue-in-cheek memoir Trudging Up Life’s Three-Sensed Highway has fallen out of print, I had to pester Clark for juicy tidbits about Wood, which he happily supplied. (Her maiden name was Dick, and she joked that she was ‘Baby Dick.’) I am still learning about my own community—a diverse one full of people from all backgrounds, cultures, communication styles, and opinions. There turns out to be many ways to be DeafBlind.
One such way comes from the emerging Protactile movement that is redefining what it means to be DeafBlind. As Clark, a DeafBlind poet and Protactile educator, describes in his essay, “Against Access,” Protactile establishes tactile-centric norms for language, interactions, and life. Protactile is our first truly tactile language, one born of touch—unlike the usual adaptations of visual or auditory languages into the tactile format. DeafBlind people are encouraged to feel their way through their environments and conversations, upending the status quo of being guided and interpreted for.
I am still feeling my way around the new landscape and figuring out what being DeafBlind means to me. As I listen to others in Protactile—a finger drawing a line on my upper chest, a hand sliding up my arm—Helen Keller feels far away. She was flanked by intermediaries who managed her interactions with the world, a reality of her time. What it means to be DeafBlind is changing, and Helen Keller is becoming simply one historical figure among many. America has yet to catch up to this realization.
On October 15, 2021, controversy erupted about the casting for “Helen & Teacher.” Millicent Simmonds, a young Deaf actress who broke into Hollywood with Wonderstruck and A Quiet Place, would play Helen Keller. People, including many from the DeafBlind community, protested the casting as inauthentic and called for the role to go to a DeafBlind actress. They have a point: being a sighted deaf person is very different from being DeafBlind, and Simmonds comes from a position of privilege as a sighted actress. Simmonds and the studio can and should address these issues by working meaningfully with the DeafBlind community. If we focus on the casting, however, we are overlooking the real problem.
“Helen & Teacher” seems to be part of an effort to modernize Helen Keller and make her more palatable to today’s audiences. Rejecting the traditional inspirational storyline, “Helen & Teacher” showcases Keller as a budding radical whose politics strained her relationship with the more conservative Sullivan. In Westmoreland’s words, the movie will “reintroduce one of the most famous teacher-student relationships in modern history.” Then PBS got in on the act with its recent documentary, “Becoming Helen Keller,” which examines her life and legacy through a contemporary lens.
A part of me loves that we are finally acknowledging Keller’s complexity and humanity. The other, and deeper, part of me senses the danger underneath the surface. If we focus on Keller and only on Keller, there is no room for other voices. Keller remains at the center of attention as Geraldine Lawhorn, Marjorie McGuffin Wood, and many others fade into obscurity. Only one example, one life, one perspective on deafness, blindness, and DeafBlindness occupies the public imagination. Little wonder Helen Keller conspiracy theories go viral: Keller is too singular, too exceptional to be believed. By fixating on Keller, the media is whitewashing and silencing the DeafBlind community. The hearing-sighted seem unable and perhaps unwilling to see or hear anyone else.
In her New York Times essay, hearing blind author M. Leona Godin asks, “Why is it that America can’t seem to quit its infatuation with Keller?” It’s a good question. Is it laziness that prevents us from seeking out new voices, especially those from different backgrounds and perspectives? Or are we more comfortable with a familiar historical figure who doesn’t challenge us too much? Maybe we prefer success stories rather than those that push us to examine the systematic failures in our education, health care, and support systems for the disabled?
It is time to give her a rest. Not because anything is wrong with her—she was a remarkable woman who touched many lives—but she has been in the public eye for over a century. She has yet to get a break from the scrutiny, even decades after her death. Let’s allow other stories to emerge. We can start with traditional biopics of Geraldine Lawhorn touching Carnegie Hall and Marjorie McGuffin Wood showing us how far she is from sainthood. That’s just a start. What we all need are extraordinary stories about ordinary DeafBlind people falling in love, picking fights, tangling with midlife crises, and having torrid affairs with traveling photojournalists. We are not so different, so neither should our stories be. With these stories, children like me can imagine a future outside of Helen Keller’s shadow.
Cristina Hartmann is a DeafBlind Brazilian-American writer living in Pittsburgh. She explores relationships and identity through disability and immigrant experiences in her writing. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s and Peatsmoke, and is forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Mighty Kind, and the Stillhouse Press. She loves scarves, cheap port, and first-person narratives. Twitter: @cmmhartmann
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