Mar 11, 2022

The Helen Keller Exorcism

Fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson has been haunted by Helen Keller for nearly her entire life. Like Helen, Elsa is Deafblind, and growing up she was constantly compared to her. But for a million different reasons she hated that, because she felt different from her in a million different ways. Then, a year ago, an online conspiracy theory claiming Helen was a fraud exploded on TikTok, and suddenly Elsa found herself drawing her sword and jumping to Helen’s defense, setting off a chain of events that would bring her closer to the disability icon than she ever dreamt. For over a year, Elsa, Lulu and the Radiolab team dug through primary sources, talked to experts, even visited Helen’s birthplace Ivy Green, and discovered the real story of Helen Keller is far more complicated, mysterious and confounding than the simple myth of a young Deafblind girl rescued by her teacher Annie Sullivan. It’s a story of ghosts, surprises, a few tears, a bit of romance, some hard conversations, and a possibly psychic dog.

This episode was reported by Elsa Sjunneson and Lulu Miller. It was produced by Sindhu Gnanasambandan and Rachel Cusick, with help from Sarah Qari, Tanya Chawla, and Carolyn McClusker. Jeremy Bloom contributed music and sound design. Additional Mixing by Arianne Wack.

Special thanks to Georgina Kleege, Julia Bascom, Desiree Kocis, Peter C. Kunze, Andrew Leland, Sara Luterman, Alexander Richey, Will Healy, Nate Jones, Nate Peereboom, and Pamela Sabaugh (who was our voice of Helen Keller).

ASL TRANSCRIPTION


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Citations in this episode

Books:
Elsa Sjunneson, Being Seen
Kim Nielsen, The Radical Lives of Helen Keller
Georgina Kleege, Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller
Katie Booth, The Invention of Miracles: language, power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to end deafness
Haben Girma, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law

Articles:

Susan Crutchfield, “
Play[ing] her part correctly: Helen Keller as Vaudevillian Freak,” Disability Studies Quarterly.
Desiree Kocis, “Did Helen Keller Fly A Plane?” (she did), Plane & Pilot Magazine.
Peter C. Kunze, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Helen Keller,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly
The archives of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)

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DOWNLOAD BRAILLE READY FILE HERE

[clacking]

JAD ABUMRAD: Here I am, here I am.

[singing to a jokey improvised tune]

JAD: Lulu Miller, she's a killer. [now confused]

JAD: Do you not hear me, Lulu? I hear you typing.

JAD: [singsong] Lulu, Lulu!

[clacking stops]

LULU MILLER: Oh, oh, oh, oh. I'm just—hold on. [laughs]

JAD: [laughs] I was like, I can hear your deep breathing and typing. And I was like ...

LULU: [laughs] Oh my God, I'm sorry.

JAD: No, it's okay. It's okay.

LULU: Was I, like, mouth breathing?

JAD: No, it was fine. I just—it wasn't mouthy, so much as I could hear you very close by.

LULU: Okay. Well, now that I've figured out how to operate my headphones, should I just jump in?

JAD: Yes.

LULU: I'm Lulu Miller.

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

LULU: This is Radiolab. And the journey I want to take you on today? First of all, quick warning, it does involve a fair amount of explicit language. There's some swears, so maybe not the right one for kids. And it all really kicks off ...

LULU: [singsong] Elsa can you hear me?

LULU: With a woman named Elsa Sjunneson.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Hello.

LULU: How are you doing?

ELSA SJUNNESON: I'm doing well but it's like, this is an insane couple of weeks.

LULU: Elsa is a busy woman. She is a fencer, a swing dancer, a teacher, an activist.

JAD: Uh-huh.

LULU: But her day job is ...

LULU: Do you identify as a sci-fi writer?

ELSA SJUNNESON: I identify as a speculative fiction writer.

LULU: Speculative fiction writer. Okay, so what does that mean for a day?

ELSA SJUNNESON: I get up in the morning and I feed my cat and I make tea. and I sit down at my desk. And then I will kind of [deep tones descend] periscope down for the afternoon to work in my own fantasy world.

[music: slow subtle start, drama brewing]

LULU: She's written stuff for Marvel, published books.

JAD: Cool!

ELSA SJUNNESON: I'm currently working on a novella that is about a blind assassin that involves service dragons.

 

[drama and excitement of the music stirs, ramps up sharply]

 

LULU: Oh hell, yes! Okay, so take me back ...

LULU: And anyway, about a year ago ...

LULU: ... and any memories about, like, where you were, what you were doing.

LULU: Elsa got in touch with me to tell me about something that had just happened to her.

ELSA SJUNNESON: So I was in my kitchen in my house that I was living in in Seattle, and I was making shrimp. And because I have ADHD, I was looking at Twitter while also cooking. Not exactly advisable. And I saw this tweet.

[music: fast paced orchestra builds intrigue.]

LULU: A tweet that led her …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: [Voice trembling with emotion] I just wanted to say Helen Keller is not fucking real.]

LULU: ... to a video.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: I don't care who you are, but she's not fucking real.]

LULU: And then to a whole world of videos.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: It just doesn't make sense. Wrap your mind around it, 'cause it's pretty fucking simple to understand.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: [shouts] Helen Keller is not real!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: Helen Keller was not real.]

ELSA SJUNNESON: People on TikTok saying Helen Keller was a fraud.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: I don't think Helen Keller was real.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: I think she was fake.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: She was a hoax.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: The joke is out the bag.]

[orchestral music stops]

JAD: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.

LULU: Okay. [laughs]

JAD: What does that mean? What does that mean? So—are you—well, she was a real lady.

LULU: She was definitely a real lady, but the TikTokers were questioning that story we all know about her. You know, the story that she was both deaf and blind.

JAD: Uh-huh.

LULU: Totally cut off from the world. Until this lady, the quote-unquote "miracle worker," Anne Sullivan, showed up, and then using a technique called finger spelling, taught her language culminating in this dramatic moment by a water pump where Helen Keller finally understood the word "water," and then went on to write a dozen books, tons of articles and travel the world. And the people in these TikTok videos were like …

[Music reprises. Dramatic, orchestral.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: There's no way that you can be taught how to talk words when you are deaf and blind.]

LULU: ... not having it.

[Music mellows. the feeling of intrigue remains]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: I know there's like a story, like, her caretaker, like, she puts—she grabs Helen Keller's hand and, like, poured water over it. And then Helen Keller was like, "Water."]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: She'll feel the water with her hand, and she'll think it's something, but how could you—you know what I mean?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: It could have been milk, you know? Like, it could have just been any liquid. It could have been Kool Aid for all I know.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: Like, she wrote books?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: 12 books.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: No she fucking didn't.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: That's not even a realistic number for somebody that has all of their senses.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: You just can't fucking do that. Like, what the fuck?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: It's almost like Anne Sullivan lied to everybody.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TikTok video: That monster Anne Sullivan, she's a fuckin' fraud too!]

[Crescendo as orchestral music concludes]

LULU: So back in her kitchen in Seattle, Elsa is watching all these videos just so angry.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Honestly yeah, it was rage.

LULU: So she fires off this tweet.

ELSA SJUNNESON: If you think that Deafblind people can't write books you can bite me because I have one coming out in October.

LULU: So yeah. Elsa ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: I was born partially deaf and partially blind.

LULU: ... herself is Deafblind.

JAD: Okay.

LULU: She has Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids and glasses and reads using a magnifier. That's how she's able to tweet and talk with us today.

JAD: Got it.

LULU: And so her tweet promptly goes viral.

JAD: Uh-huh.

LULU: So then Elsa's kind of watching, like, thousands of likes and reshares. She's suddenly realizing she has thrust herself into the limelight as Helen Keller's bodyguard and defender.

JAD: Yeah. Yeah.

LULU: Which is …

ELSA SJUNNESON: Oh God. Oh no. Just ...

LULU: ... the last thing that she wants to be.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I want nothing to do with this person.

JAD: She felt not good about Helen Keller?

LULU: Yes.

JAD: Wait. So wait. Why would—why would you not have good ...

LULU: Well …

ELSA SJUNNESON: I spent most of my life feeling constricted by Helen Keller's ghost.

[music: gentle and exploratory. shuffling drums and resonant mallets.]

LULU: Elsa said that the ghost of Helen Keller has messed with her life in such tangible, real ways that it's affected how her life played out. And she's come to see that it's not just her life but all of our lives, our brains that are haunted by Helen Keller in a pretty surprising and insidious way. 

 

[music fades out with echo]

 

LULU: So allow me to just take you back where the haunting all began for Elsa.

JAD: Yeah!

 

LULU: Okay, so we're going to the mid-'90's Seattle. Nirvana's on the air. Elsa, little Elsa is on the—she's on the floor in her third grade classroom.

JAD: [laughs]

LULU: Sitting next to her classmates.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I had giant coke bottle glasses. Like, the 1990s were not kind to low-vision children.

LULU: And her teacher pulls out a picture book about Helen Keller.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I distinctly remember seeing the illustration that sort of everybody sees, which is where she's standing there with her hand underneath the faucet at the pump, signing the word "water" into Annie Sullivan's hand. And, like, I just sort of remember being like, "Well, I know I can't see and I can't really hear that well but, like, this isn't me."

LULU: Huh.

LULU: She said she knew, of course, that she had some trouble seeing.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I ran into things a lot [laughs].

LULU: And some trouble hearing, which became particularly apparent during verbal spelling tests.

ELSA SJUNNESON: The words that I was hearing my classmates say weren't the words that I was supposed to be writing down.

LULU: Oh, so like, they'd say, "Fly," and you'd spell "Thigh" or something.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Yeah.

[music: light, ethereal tones floating in space]

LULU: But whenever someone would compare her to Helen Keller, which she said happened a lot ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: It was always, "But I'm not like that." And I think that's because I was always told, like, "But you're not really Blind. But you're not really Deaf." Like ...

LULU: Elsa says her family had always told her that there was nothing really different about her. You know, "Your glasses are just a little thicker than other kids."

ELSA SJUNNESON: The hearing aids were just, you know, to help me a little bit.

LULU: And so …

[music stops]

ELSA SJUNNESON: I consistently would try things that were probably not a good idea.

LULU: Things like downhill skiing, horseback riding.

LULU: Oh, you're moving.

LULU: Or …

LULU: Oh, I'm looking at the screen. You've got an awesome sword.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Yeah. This is an early 20th-century German dress sword.

[sound of metal on metal]

LULU: That's so cool!

ELSA SJUNNESON: I have been fencing since I was 9.

JAD: How does—how does that work? Wouldn't it be scary if you can't really see the swords and things?

ELSA SJUNNESON: Fencing is actually not about seeing a sword. You're dealing with the fact that you actually can feel tension in somebody else's blade.

JAD: I see. Okay.

LULU: Yeah. So anyway, Elsa as a kid was doing all this really rad stuff including, you know, the everyday adventures that any kid has in childhood, like climbing trees.

[music: classical guitar plucks here and there, slow, nostalgic]

ELSA SJUNNESON: There was this one tree in Ravenna Park in Seattle. [crickets, rustling leaves, bird chirps] It's enormous. Because of how big this tree was, a lot of light didn't filter through, so it was kind of a dark, hide-y place.

LULU: Hmm.

ELSA SJUNNESON: And I remember being able to sort of use one spot to kind of lift myself up.

LULU: She knew this tree really well, and knew every branch.

ELSA SJUNNESON: There was sort of a sloping tree bit.

LULU: And she would just go higher …

ELSA SJUNNESON: And I remember it was a lot of sliding.

LULU: ... and higher.

ELSA SJUNNESON: More like whole body contact with the tree.

LULU: And …

ELSA SJUNNESON: Eventually, I could get all the way up to the top of the tree.

LULU: How did you feel there?

ELSA SJUNNESON: I felt safe there. It felt like an escape. So one day I was up in the tree, and then the sky opened.

[A rumble. The music swells, reminiscent of rain drops hitting a hard surface]

LULU: There was a huge rainstorm.

ELSA SJUNNESON: The tree had changed. The environment of the tree had changed.

[ominous shift in the music. deep groaning tones]

ELSA SJUNNESON:  What if I slipped and now I can't figure out how to grab onto a different spot? And it was kind of like, "Well, how do I get down safely?"

LULU: And suddenly she got lost.

ELSA SJUNNESON: But the texture of the tree had changed. And everything about how I act with my space is about texture.

JAD: Oh. Whoa.

LULU: She did feel like she knew the world, but then you add rain, and then she's suddenly lost in this tree she knows so well.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I literally couldn't get out of the tree. There were things that I definitely didn't know the limits of until they sort of, smacked me in the face.

 [Music builds to a single high-pitched string tone. Then cuts out]

LULU: She said her childhood was scattered with moments like these, moments no one else could really relate to, moments where she wished there was someone who got it. And she said this sense of frustration and loneliness with those frustrations really came to a head when her family moved to New York City ...

[bustling subway turnstiles, footsteps]

LULU: ... when she was in the ninth grade.

[bucket drumming. An increasingly cacophonous mix of pedestrians, trains, and a garbled PA announcement]

ELSA SJUNNESON: You know, in Seattle, my family drove me to school. But in New York, I was getting up every morning at 6:45 and getting on the subway.

[bucket drumming grows louder. Then stops.]

ELSA SJUNNESON: I would just stare at the ground.

[The soundscape blurs as a deep drone. Footsteps.]

LULU: Hmm.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Because otherwise I would trip and fall.

LULU: And so one morning, it's taking forever for her to get to school.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Like, with stairs I would stop at each step and shuffle my feet out and then I would take a step down.

LULU: And she arrives late to her classroom.

ELSA SJUNNESON: My English teacher stopped me at the door and she was like… 

 [music abruptly stops] 

ELSA SJUNNESON: …[mocking] "Elsa, I'd like to talk to you for a second about your classmate's essay. He wrote his essay about you and how he admires you, and I would like him to read it out loud in front of the class this morning."

LULU: Whoa!

ELSA SJUNNESON: And I'm just like, "Um, what?" [laughs]

LULU: She says, "Okay." Goes and takes her seat.

ELSA SJUNNESON: And he stands up in front of our class and reads his essay. And the first line of the essay is, "I admire Elsa because she's like Helen Keller."

LULU: Mmm.

ELSA SJUNNESON: And I just wanted to, like, sink several thousand feet below the surface of the Earth.

LULU: Hmm. Why?

ELSA SJUNNESON: I mean, I think—I think I would have been embarrassed. Like, why are you making a big deal of me doing things that everybody else does? Like, everybody else goes on the subway, everybody else goes up and down the stairs at school. Why do you admire me for doing them?

LULU: Did you again have the, like, "And I'm nothing like her." Like, was there also that part of it? He's wrong?

ELSA SJUNNESON: I think it was even more like, "Oh, maybe I am a little bit like her."

[music: piano notes descend repetitively, off-balance.] 

ELSA SJUNNESON:Like, I think it might have been the first time I started to realize that there could be something.

LULU: And for Elsa that thought was …

ELSA SJUNNESON: Terrifying.

[music: deep foreboding bells layer in]

LULU: Because when she thought about what became of Helen Keller as an adult …

ELSA SJUNNESON: She lives with her teacher and her teacher's husband. Was I just supposed to live with my parents and my grandparents? Like, what was I supposed to do?

[music: somber strings layer in]

LULU: The images Elsa had of Helen Keller's adult life painted a kind of nightmare for her. There was Helen Keller wearing pearls and smiling.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Holding a flower.

LULU: There she was, holding a book. There she was …

ELSA SJUNNESON: Holding Anne Sullivan's hand. Sitting on Anne Sulivan's lap. As a grown up!

LULU: Slowly growing grayer and grayer.

ELSA SJUNNESON: It seems through the photos ...

LULU: Her smile getting wider and wider.

[Music grows in intensity]

ELSA SJUNNESON: She just becomes more and more of this very, like, staid artifact. Would you want to be compared to somebody whose entire monolithic mythology is about how she had to be taught how to conform?

[music fades out]

LULU: But at the same time, Elsa said that Helen Keller was basically the only role model that she could find for how to be Deafblind. And so she figured to finally free herself from this ghost, from the possibility of ending up with a life like hers is she would run in exactly the opposite direction—doing things that did not conform.

ELSA SJUNNESON: You know, in high school, my PE was stage combat and Lindy Hop, which uses a lot of aerials.

LULU: Things she figured Helen Keller would never do.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I marched. I learned how to be on the front line during the Iraq war protests. Even though I like swords.

LULU: Oh my God, you cannot get away from the nerdery in your story. [laughs]

ELSA SJUNNESON: [laughs] I don't believe governments should be blowing each other up.

LULU: She got deep into activism, anti-war stuff, giving speeches in her high school classes about how the government was failing folks with AIDS, secretly handing out condoms on the campus of a Catholic university.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Like, "I'm sorry, you have a bunch of horny undergrads. You cannot actually control them."

LULU: Speaking of which …

ELSA SJUNNESON: Um, I have a "Mad-Eye" Moody routine that I wrote for a Harry Potter burlesque show.

LULU: No! Really?

LULU: In her 20s, she started performing burlesque.

JAD: Oh!

LULU: Wait what was the routine?

ELSA SJUNNESON: It's to the Florence and the Machine song, "Girl With One Eye."

LULU: Hold on. I don't know if I know this song, so I'm just gonna play it really quick to get a quick sense, so I can get in the zone.

[“Girl with one Eye” plays. A yearning indie rock guitar strums.]

LULU: Okay.

SONG: [Soulfully] “I took a knife and cut out her eye”... [fades down]

LULU: Oh! Okay, cool. All right, so I'm there. Okay, so like …

ELSA SJUNNESON: I come out on stage in a gray-silver wig and my actual master's robes. They're black, and then they have purple sparkly doctoral stripes, which I bedazzled the hell out of.

SONG: “...Girl with one eye.”

ELSA SJUNNESON: And I take off the master's robes and I'm wearing an evening gown underneath. I pour myself a glass of champagne, I take off the rest of my clothes, and the end of the act is not actually taking off my bra or my underwear, the end of the act is when I take out my prosthetic eye, dropping the plastic shell into a glass of champagne and then drinking the champagne.

[music builds, cymbals crashing]

LULU: Oh my God! Did people just …

ELSA SJUNNESON: They lost it.

[song swells and stops]

LULU: All right. I'm gonna just leave you there with that for a moment, and when we come back ...

JAD: Okay. That's quite an image.

LULU: [laughs] Yeah. Just take that in. When we come back, just at this moment where Elsa believes she has finally stamped out the ghost of Helen Keller from her life, the real Helen Keller comes a-knockin'.

JAD: Ooh. The real Helen Keller.

LULU: Yeah.

 

***

 

LULU: Okay, so boop! Back from break.

JAD: I am Jad.

LULU: Lulu.

JAD: And yeah, I guess, take us forward, Lulu.

LULU: All right. So picking back up with Elsa, she's now living in New Jersey, she's married. She's been married for how long, Elsa?

ELSA SJUNNESON: We've been married for seven years.

LULU: She's teaching college writing classes by day.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Humanities 101 and 102.

LULU: Okay.

LULU: Dancing swing and tango by night. You know, living her anti-Helen Keller dream life. When one morning in the fall of 2019, Helen Keller reappears in her life in the strangest way.

ELSA SJUNNESON: My routine was that every morning I would walk into the student center with my guide dog and pick up a coffee or a tea at the school cafe.

LULU: And there was one of those little bookshelves with free books on it that you can grab underneath the bar while you're ordering your coffee.

ELSA SJUNNESON: And I remember very clearly my guide dog was, [chuckles fondly] like, nosing at the shelf.

LULU: Hmm.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I was waiting for my chai latte and I'm like, "What are you doing? Can you please stop trying to eat books?"

LULU: And then according to her, he noses this one book off the shelf.

ELSA SJUNNESON: It's a bright teal cover, it's very 1970s.

LULU: And when she brings it up closer to her eyes, she realizes it's The Miracle Worker! [music: gentle, twinkling metallic swell]

LULU: Which is ...

JAD: Come on!

LULU: Yeah. Of course, the famous play based on Helen Keller's life. Not written by her, but based on her life.

JAD: [laughs]

LULU: I know, man!

JAD: Come on!

LULU: But that's what she's ...

JAD: All right. All right.

LULU: So—so yeah, so the dog noses this book off the shelf, and Elsa looks at it.

ELSA SJUNNESON: The back cover reads: "The wild animal. Deaf, blind and mute, 12-year-old Helen Keller was like a wild animal, scared out of her wits, but still murderously strong. She clawed and struggled against all who tried to help her." I was like, what is this? This is horrifying!

LULU: And she's like "Ugh!" This description is so extreme.

ELSA SJUNNESON: It was like looking at a train crash. I couldn't put it down.

LULU: And so she didn't. She takes it with her because she basically wants to go hate read it.

JAD: Okay.

LULU: So once she's done with her classes, she goes to a bar.

ELSA SJUNNESON: So it was me and a copy of The Miracle Worker and a guide dog sleeping on my feet.

LULU: She's got a drink by her side, and she's, like, hunched over this book with her thick glasses and the magnifier up to her eyes.

ELSA SJUNNESON: And I just started, like, reading the script.

[music: soft, cascading classic movie strings]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: [shrieking] Look at her eyes! She can't see! When I screamed, she didn't blink!]

LULU: And so she reads through these over-the-top scenes of first, Helen's parents discovering their little baby has gotten sick and gone deaf and blind.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: screaming]

LULU: And then little Helen growing up into just this wild animal.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: screaming]

JAD: So I remember this from the movie, yeah.

LULU: Totally. She charges at her friend with scissors.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: Helen! Helen! ]

LULU: And she overturns her little sister's crib. And when Anne Sullivan arrives, she's ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: grunting, scrambling ]

LULU: ... totally resistant.

ELSA SJUNNESON: And kicking things over and breaking plates and throwing food, and trying to run away from Annie, and trying to unlock the door.

LULU: Elsa says the stage directions for how the actress was supposed to play Helen had her literally acting ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: Like a dog.

LULU: This goes on for pages and pages and pages, until finally ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: Pump! Pump!]

LULU: The climatic scene at the water pump.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: W-A-T-E-R. Water. It has a name.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: Oh my dear!]

LULU: And then guess what?

[music: classic movie strings, building sincerity and drama]

LULU: More screaming.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: She knows!]

[movie music crescendos and stops abruptly]

ELSA SJUNNESON: I was, like, taking pictures of the script and sending it to my crib partner being like, "What the F is this? I never did this. No Deafblind person I know has ever done this."

LULU: And as she's sitting there, she's thinking …

[music: slow pulsing chimes]

ELSA SJUNNESON: This just doesn't seem right to me.

LULU: And suddenly it hits her that she's never actually read anything that Helen Keller herself has written.

[music: shimmering develops into a soft, forward-moving beat.]

ELSA SJUNNESON: I kind of was like, "Well, if I'm pissed about this book, I probably need to really go back and reframe how I feel about her."

LULU: So what did you do? Like, what—how did you research her?

LULU: So fast forward a few months ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: That was such a weird fall.

[music builds]

LULU: Elsa's marriage had been going through a rough patch that fall. So by early winter ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: I was like, "Well, okay. I'm moving to Seattle." And like two months later, there was a pandemic and I was in a 250-square-foot cottage with a dog and my mother.

LULU: And looking around at how her adult life was suddenly unfolding, she was like ...

[music: wispy strings come in, gentle tension]

ELSA SJUNNESON: This is exactly what I was afraid of.

LULU: And so not exactly sure the path forward, one day ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: I ended up just sort of—I remember I picked up Helen Keller's autobiography, finally. Like ...

[music starts to soar]

LULU: Ready to learn more about who she was, according to her.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: The beginning of my life was simple and much like every other little life.]

LULU: These are Helen's words, which are gonna be read by a voice actress for the rest of the piece.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: At five, I learned to fold and put away the clean clothes.]

LULU: And a couple things struck Elsa almost immediately.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: I understood a good deal of what was going on about me.]

LULU: First of all, the idea of Helen Keller being totally cut off from the world before Anne showed up? Not true.

[music cuts out]

ELSA SJUNNESON: She had her own signs before Annie Sullivan showed up.

JAD: Really?

LULU: Yeah. So she had a sign for "Mom," and she had a sign for "Dad." The sign for her dad was just to put, like, imaginary glasses onto her face. And the sign for her favorite aunt was bonnet strings. Like, she would tie imaginary bonnet strings if she wanted her aunt.

JAD: Oh wow!

LULU: And she had a sign for ice cream!

ELSA SJUNNESON: Yeah. I want ice cream. So I shiver.

LULU: Shiver her shoulders like this?

ELSA SJUNNESON: Uh-huh.

LULU: [laughs] That's so good.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Yeah.

LULU: As Elsa reads it, Helen was reaching out all along, trying to connect. And, you know, the wild animal thing, the Helen Keller of her own words was a girl who wandered the world, apologizing to dogs when she tripped over their tails. And, like, the scissor thing? She was just cutting her friend's hair.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Like, she wasn't a monster. She was, like, out there being a child.

LULU: Hmm.

LULU: And as Elsa keeps reading, she starts noticing these odd similarities.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Her first short story that she writes is actually science fiction.

LULU: It is?

JAD: Wow.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Yeah. It's about fairies. Like, it's fantasy.

LULU: And Elsa, very early in reading this autobiography, stumbles across this very eerie scene.

ELSA SJUNNESON: A moment when she was climbing a tree.

LULU: Which I'm gonna read you a part of. Okay? Okay. She is describing this one particular tree, a cherry tree, not far from her house. All right. "The tree was so easy to climb that with my teacher's assistance, I was able to scramble to a seat in the branches."

 

[music: gentle airey tones] 

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: [Read with vigor and emotion] It was so cool up in the tree that Miss Sullivan proposed that we have our lunch in there. I promised to keep still while she went to the house to fetch it. Suddenly, a change passed over the tree. All the sun's warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black because all the heat—which meant light to me—had died out of the atmosphere. A strange odor came up from the Earth. I knew it. It was the odor that always precedes a thunderstorm. And a nameless fear clutched at my heart. I felt absolutely alone, cut off from my friends and the firm Earth. The immense, the unknown enfolded me. [whispers] I remained still and expectant. A chilling terror crept over me. I longed for my teacher's return, but above all things I wanted to get down from the tree."]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: "There was a moment of sinister silence, and then a multitudinous stirring of the leaves. A shiver ran through the tree, and the wind sent forth a blast that would have knocked me off had I not clung to the branch with might and main. The tree swayed and strained. The small twigs snapped and fell about me in showers. A wild impulse to jump seized me, but terror held fast. I crouched down in the fork of the tree. The branches lashed about me. I felt the intermittent jarring that came now and then, as if something heavy had fallen and the shock traveled up 'til it reached the limb I sat on. It worked my suspense up to the highest point, and just as I was thinking the tree and I should fall together, [a breath] my teacher seized my hand and helped me down."]

[music concludes]

JAD: Whoa! It's like a pre-echo.

ELSA SJUNNESON: It was basically a mirror image to my own experience of climbing trees.

LULU: And this is really her through-the-rabbit-hole moment ...

[music: spirited orchestral waltz]

LULU: ... where she just starts wanting to find out everything she can about Helen Keller's life. So she gets these scholarly biographies, she reads letters and essays that Helen Keller published. And pretty quickly starts to realize the real Helen Keller led a very different life than Elsa could have ever imagined.

LULU: So we're now in early 1900s. Helen gets into Radcliffe College, which is like the womens' college at Harvard. And as she's there, she kind of gets in with these young academic progressives. She talks about these evenings where they're popping popcorn and drinking cider and talking about ideas and philosophers.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: Our worst foes are ignorance, poverty and the unconscious cruelty of our commercial society.]

LULU: And so Elsa's reading all this, and she's like, "Wait a second!"

ELSA SJUNNESON: This is where my dislike of her does start to break down.

[music: dramatic solo violin waltz]

LULU: She gets so into socialism that she starts corresponding with socialist party leaders and writing all of these socialist texts. She hangs a big red flag in her office.

ELSA SJUNNESON: As a self-identified socialist, it made me pretty happy. [laughs]

LULU: And she starts writing about disability in all these super radical ways, saying that society is what causes disability and therefore society must change. And even though her dad was a former slaveowner, she is a huge public supporter of the NAACP, donates money. 

[music concludes]

And wait, what was I just gonna tell you? What was I just gonna tell you? Brain? Brain?

JAD: And?

LULU: Oh, yeah. At a certain point, the FBI starts keeping this big case file on her. Like, we looked through her case file. I mean, they were tracking letters she was writing to jailed dissidents.

JAD: [delighted] Oh my God!

[music resumes]

LULU: And then she helps to form the ACLU. And right around this time, Andrew Carnegie—famous industrialist—offers to pay her this fat pension. And she writes him back.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: My joys and sorrows are bound up indissolubly with the joys and sorrows of my fellow men.]

LULU: Totally turning down the offer.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I really, really admired the fact that, at a time when that was not popular, she said what she believed anyway.

LULU: And then she makes this weird movie that's called Deliverance that she stars in. And the day it comes out, the actors go on strike and so she boycotts her own premiere. [laughs]

JAD: [laughs]

[music trills out]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: [with grit] I am the determined foe of the capitalist system!]

LULU: And she even gets a taste for the bright lights of the stage.

[music: “Star of Happiness” instrumental. Soft, romantic piano.]

LULU: In her early 40s, she begins performing on vaudeville. The song playing behind us is a song that was written just for her act, which partially involved her and Anne Sullivan telling the story about how she learned language—the kind of mythic, sanitized version you know.

[music fades out]

LULU: But then, toward the end of the act, Helen Keller would step forward and take questions from the audience. I'll just read you a transcript of a couple of them. Okay?

JAD: Okay.

LULU: "What is your age?" "Between 16 and 60."

JAD: [laughs]

LULU: [mimics old-timey vocal intonation] "What do you think is the most important question before the country today?" 

LULU: [continues to ham it up] "How to get a drink."

JAD: [laughs]

LULU: "Can you see any way out of our troubles?" [jokey voice] "Have you thought of divorce?" [laughs]

LULU: So she's like, kinda funny. And then—okay, and then it kind of dips into political things. So question: "Do you believe that spiritualism is the cure for the world's troubles?" Keller: "No, I think the world's troubles are caused chiefly by wrong economic conditions, and the only cure for them is in social reorganization."

JAD: Whoa.

LULU: And there was one more pretty significant detail about Helen's life that Elsa came across in a book by historian Kim Nielsen.

KIM NIELSEN: Keller fell in love.

LULU: This is Nielsen, who found unpublished journal entries and essays that helped her piece together this handsome figure that strode into Helen's life when she was in her 30s.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: I was surprised that he cared so much about me.]

[music: longing electric guitar, mellow and soft, with a little bit of rock and roll]

KIM NIELSEN: And he was a young man who knew how to finger spell, so they could communicate directly, right? There were not a lot of—what—dating eligible men who knew how to finger spell.

LULU: So he is one of the few people who doesn't have to go through Anne Sullivan.

ELSA SJUNNESON: That just fills me with so much glee that she had that. [laughs]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: The sweetness of being loved enchanted me, and I yielded to an imperious longing.]

LULU: And just think about that. Like, think about how hot it would be after a lifetime of being excluded from people talking to be in this way that excluded everybody else.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: [sultry] For a long time, he held my hand in silence. [Long pause] But then he began talking to me tenderly.]

LULU: Like, imagine sitting at, like, a conference table at some formal event and then just like ...

[Bluesy electric guitar melody cries out]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: [giggles]]

LULU: ... saying whatever you want in your silent language that uses touch.

[music: mellow bluesy melody cries out again, ends on a long note]

ELSA SJUNNESON: I was so sad that I hadn't read this earlier. I felt this ache because I could see myself in the pages of this book, and I was seeing—I saw more as I read more of it, but just, I felt a profound loss that I hadn't been able to access this before.

LULU: Why would knowing all that about her when you were a little girl have helped? Or what would that have given you?

ELSA SJUNNESON: It would have given me an actual role model.

LULU: So I know we need to stop for today, but let's just imagine this is a stop in a Radiolab episode. What's coming up after the break?

ELSA SJUNNESON: What's coming after the break is how Helen Keller is not all bright and shiny. Once I started doing research, I discovered that there was a dark side to Helen Keller that I was gonna have to deal with too.

 

***

 

LULU: Lulu.

JAD: Jad.

LULU: Helen Keller is the topic of today's Radiolab. So picking back up ...

JAD: Yeah, let's do it.

LULU: We left off when Elsa, a Deafblind woman, was just starting to really fall in love with Helen Keller, have all this kind of admiration and connection with her. But then she stumbles across something that Helen Keller wrote in 1915.

JAD: Hmm.

LULU: So at this point, Helen is in her mid-30s. And the backdrop is that there is this very famous medical case going on.

ELSA SJUNNESON: The Bollinger Baby case, which happened in Chicago. Basically, an infant was born with severe physical disabilities, and the doctor allowed the baby to die, and basically convinced the parents that that was the best choice because that child couldn't possibly live a good life.

LULU: And it became a huge national controversy.

ELSA SJUNNESON: People were calling the hospital. Like, people were involved.

LULU: So Helen Keller enters the fray. And she is now a super famous person, and everyone's kind of wondering what she's gonna say.

ELSA SJUNNESON: So Helen Keller weighs in like a month after the baby died. We have a letter that she wrote for The New Republic, and I'm going to read you part of her letter.

LULU: Okay.

ELSA SJUNNESON: "It seems to me that the simplest, wisest thing to do ..."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: "... would be to submit cases like that, of the malformed idiot baby, to a jury of expert physicians."]

LULU: This public letter goes on to suggest in this very flowery, erudite language ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: "A mental defective, on the other hand is almost sure to be a potential criminal."]

LULU: That when a baby is born with disabilities, a jury of doctors should be called in, and if the baby doesn't measure up to their standards ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: "The evidence before a jury of physicians considering the case of an idiot would be exact and scientific."]

LULU: They should vote to let that baby die.

JAD: Wow.

[music: gentle airey tones]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: "Their findings would be free from the prejudice and the inaccuracy of untrained observation."]

ELSA SJUNNESON: "They would act only in the cases of true idiocy, where there could be no hope of mental development." [voice breaks]

LULU: Were you just thirsty there? What was happening with your voice?

ELSA SJUNNESON: Uh, no. I was angry. Like, did you really have to write that letter? Like, why—why?

LULU: Elsa was just at a complete loss, wondering how is this same Helen Keller who was just years before saying society has to do better for disabled people, now publically—and in private writing around the same time—making a case for eugenics?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: "Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world."]

[music concludes]

ELSA SJUNNESON: I was horrified. I actually had one of those moments when your blood kind of runs cold. [laughs]

LULU: And it was shortly after reading that that the whole TikTok conspiracy theory bubbled up into her world.

 

JAD: Oh.

LULU: And so she found herself newly resistant to defend Helen Keller.

JAD: Hmm. I see.

LULU: But also wanting to call out the TikTokers for saying things that were not true. And so she came to us authentically lost, wanting to use reporting to figure out both how to feel about Helen Keller in her own heart, but also to just legitimately understand how Helen Keller came to want to remove disability from the world.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Well I just—I want to understand why.

[music: Orchestral pizzicato and piano. Cyclical. Suggests discovery.]

ELSA SJUNNESON: So I'm going to go find some people and see if I can get any of them to talk to me on the record.

LULU: So Elsa and I set out on a months'-long journey.

[phone ringing]

SUE PILKILTON: Hello?

GEORGINA KLEEGE: Hi, I'm Georgina Kleege.

HABEN GIRMA: My name's Haben Girma.

JAIPREET VIRDI: I'm Jaipreet Virdi.

KATIE BOOTH: Katie Booth.

KIM NIELSEN: Kim Neilsen.

LYDIA X. Z. BROWN: Lydia X. Z. Brown.

LULU: Come with us on our adventure!

KATIE BOOTH: [Laughs] Okay.

LULU: We talked to people who have spent years with Helen Keller's words.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Helen Keller was never a hero of mine. Even as a child, it was like, "Cool story. Good for her."

LULU: People who swim through her archives.

KIM NIELSEN: I'm a historian at the University of Toledo.

SUE PILKILTON: Sue Pilkilton. Executive director of the Helen Keller birthplace.

LULU: People who wander the rooms in Helen Keller's childhood home.

SUE PILKILTON: Located in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

LULU: How long have you been working there?

SUE PILKILTON: 50 years.

LULU: 50? 5-0?

SUE PILKILTON: Yes.

LYDIA X. Z. BROWN: Just say it. She advocated eugenics. That's fucked up.

LULU: We talked to people who hate her.

SUE PILKILTON: We don't focus on that.

LULU: Who really love her.

SUE PILKILTON: We try to focus on the positive.

LULU: And those in between who are just trying to understand why ...

[Music shifts, more probing]

JULIA BASCONE: It's messy.

LULU: ... Helen Keller, arguably the most famous disabled person in the history of the world, advocated for eugenics.

LYDIA X. Z. BROWN: Am I allowed to just scream into the void right now?

ELSA SJUNNESON: Yes.

LULU: Yes.

LYDIA X. Z. BROWN: Ahh!

[music stops with echo]

LULU: Okay, so ...

HABEN GIRMA: It's not the full story.

LULU: Somewhere along the way, Elsa and I had this conversation with Haben Girma.

HABEN GIRMA: I'm a human rights lawyer, speaker and author. So I am known as the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.

LULU: Elsa had known Haben online for a while, but this was the first time they'd ever talked directly.

HABEN GIRMA: To know what's being said, to know what Elsa is saying, I have a typist who's typing what Elsa says. I'm reading it in braille and then responding by voice.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Great. All right.

LULU: And Haben told us that, after the Bollinger case, later in Helen's life ...

HABEN GIRMA: She did change her mind and come out against eugenics.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Did she, though?

[Clacking of Haben’s typist in background] 

ELSA SJUNNESON: I still haven't found hard proof of that, other than comments that I've seen where people have said that she changed her mind. And I want to see more.

HABEN GIRMA: Understandable.

LULU: So we dug and dug and dug and dug, and eventually we did find two different documents that both come about 20 years later, so when Helen Keller's in her late 50s. And the first one was that she wrote a letter to the former editor of the New York Times saying America needed to change its eugenicist immigration policies so that disabled people could escape the Nazis and find safe harbor in the US.

JAD: Hmm.

LULU: And then that same year, 1938, there was another huge case involving a baby. And this time it was a little girl named Helaine Colan, who in order to live, the doctors were gonna have to remove her eyes. And her parents weren't sure what to do. And this time, when Helen Keller weighed in, she said …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: Blindness is not the greatest evil. It is only a physical handicap which Helaine's mind can overcome.]

JAD: Wow. Okay. So your sense from those two documents is that she did change her mind?

LULU: Well, that was like—that was kinda my sense, but then Elsa ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: So it definitely sounds like she changed her mind, but we also see her with more empathy toward Blind kids than we do toward physically disabled kids or Deaf kids or toward people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

LULU: Yeah. Like it's only worth it ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: It's only worth it if they're smart.

LULU: She said that this is one of the ways that Helen Keller haunts all of us today, because those beliefs that certain lives are worth less than others are still with us in our laws, our policies, and that could have been a moment where an influential, beloved celebrity challenged the thinking enough to set society off on a different course.

HABEN GIRMA: I don't blame Helen Keller. It's complicated.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I see you being very protective of Helen. And I know that in our community, there are people who don't like her. Have you ever been asked if you're being too soft on her?

HABEN GIRMA: [laughs] No, I don't think so. Do you think I'm too soft on Helen?

ELSA SJUNNESON: I don't—I don't know. I mean, I think eugenics is a pretty hard line for me.

HABEN GIRMA: So Helen supported eugenics, then realized it was wrong and advocated against it. Are you saying you've never made a mistake in your life? You've never supported the wrong thing and then realized, "Wait a minute, that's terrible. I'm not supporting that anymore?"

ELSA SJUNNESON: No, I'm not. I'm saying I wish she hadn't, which I think is a little different.

LULU: Haben says she shares Elsa's disappointment.

HABEN GIRMA: She supported eugenics, which is horrible and terrible. But one thing I do have to point out is this was back in around 1915. A different world.

LULU: But she couldn't not consider the time during which Helen wrote some of these things. As Haben pointed out, this was the height of the eugenics movement. Universities were teaching pro-eugenics courses. More and more states were passing sterilization laws. This was just the backdrop to Helen’s life. And it was also in the foreground.

HABEN GIRMA: She was in deeply ableist circles. If you're in certain circles and you hear things over and over again, you start to believe it.

LULU: And the person with maybe the biggest influence on her in this regard was her very, very close friend ...

[Analog telephone bell ringing]

LULU: ... Alexander Graham Bell.

ELSA SJUNNESON: Yeah, who most non-disabled people know of as the man who invented the telephone, but Deaf people know him as the man who tried to erase us.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Bell denounced this idea of interdeaf marriages because he believed it would create a deaf variety of the human race.

LULU: That's Jaipreet Virdi.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Historian of medicine, technology and disability.

LULU: And ...

KATIE BOOTH: He's advocating for fewer Deaf children to be born.

LULU: Writer Katie Booth.

KATIE BOOTH: And he is not listening to the pushback where people are saying, "What? Like, so what if we have Deaf babies? What's wrong with Deaf babies?"

LULU: The two of them explained just how intimate a part of Helen's life Bell was.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Alexander Graham Bell had a tremendous influence on Helen Keller.

LULU: They first met when she was just six years old, when he helped her get in touch with Anne Sullivan. And then they stayed really close. He became almost like a grandpa to her.

KATIE BOOTH: He was a mentor to her. She dedicated The Story of My Life to him.

LULU: But all the while, he's coaching her on these ideas, sometimes literally finger spelling them into her palm, that people born deaf are inferior in some way unless they could learn to speak using their mouths.

JAIPREET VIRDI: For Bell, speech was the ultimate marker for assimilation. Bell really suppressed sign language acquisition for a lot of Deaf people.

LULU: And Helen didn't really challenge him on that. She tried for years to succeed by his standard of speaking with her oral voice.

KATIE BOOTH: She did. She wanted to learn to speak. Other people did not want her to.

LULU: And there's also evidence of her ignoring requests from Deaf organizations to collaborate.

JAIPREET VIRDI: The Deaf community in 20th century did feel abandoned by Helen Keller.

JAD: Oh, wow. I did not know that.

LULU: Yeah, I didn't either. And the more we kept learning about her life, the more we saw the ways that her beliefs about disability would circle back onto her.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: I had happy hours with him. We walked in the autumn splendor of the woods.]

LULU: So do you remember Helen's boyfriend, Peter?

JAD: Mm-hmm.

LULU: Things got so serious that they got engaged.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: He was full of plans for my happiness.]

LULU: And they went and took out their marriage license.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: For a brief space, I danced in and out of the gates of heaven wrapped up in a web of bright imaginings.]

LULU: And then, when Helen's family heard the news, everything exploded. They questioned Peter's intentions and they chased him off—at one point with a gun.

JAD: Really?

LULU: Yeah. And Helen, after resisting a little bit, never really pushed back.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: The brief love will remain in my life, a little island of joy surrounded by dark waters.]

JAD: That's sad.

LULU: Yeah. And writer Katie Booth made sense of why she didn't fight harder to be with him by pointing us to something Helen wrote a few years later.

KATIE BOOTH: She writes about it in Midstream, her book.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: I can't imagine a man wanting to marry me.]

LULU: A piece of writing that Elsa had never seen before.

[music slowly fades in: Gentle harp, ethereal, aching, floating in fog.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: I would think it would seem like marrying a statue. It would be a severe handicap for any man to straddle upon him the dead weight of my infirmities. I know I have nothing to give a man that would make up for such an unnatural burden.]

ELSA SJUNNESON: Hearing that just punches me in the chest. It is like a direct hit to the chest. I don't know any other way of putting it. Because she clearly had been told that no one would want her.

LULU: And this was actually the first moment that Elsa said, "And I get that." Because she was like, "Because I, in some deep, hard place in me, feel that too."

ELSA SJUNNESON: Being a burden is the thing that I struggle with the most. It started for me as just being scared that I was gonna be too much for people. But as I learned more about the world—and I think as Helen Keller learned more about the world—I learned more about the ways that I was viewed as a burden. And maybe it's not said about you directly, but people talk about disabled people being burdens on society all the time. Social security is a burden. Medicare is a burden. And those things stack up in your mind.

LULU: Elsa said this moment in our reporting journey was a huge turning point for her because she finally realized just how badly Helen Keller thought about herself. And once she could see that, it became clear to Elsa how that view of herself drove one of the biggest decisions in her life.

[music transitions to ‘The Star of Happiness’ soft, romantic piano] 

LULU: A decision that may be the key to why we were all left with a mythic, sanitized version of the Helen Keller story.

JAD: Huh.

LULU: And to explain, for our final stop on this journey, we are gonna head back to Helen's vaudeville stage show that she did. [noise from a crowd] She's become kind of a legend on the stage. Her shows are selling out. She was making so much money that her family would rib her about it. And by many accounts, she was loving it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [scratchy announcer voice] The Monday afternoon audience at the Palace, one of the most critical and cynical in the world, was hers. In her happiness ...]

[distant applause]

LULU: She loved the huge audiences, the travel, the other performers, who included jugglers and frog-eaters and stand-up comedians and singers.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: The very difference between ourselves and the other actors gave novelty and interest to our work.]

[applause]

LULU: And then quite abruptly she quits.

[Music and applause cut out]

LULU: Even though vaudeville begs her to say, she takes a job with the AFB.

KIM NIELSEN: The American Foundation for the Blind. And they ask Keller to work for them.

LULU: Kim Nielsen says that it's an organization that's done incredible work raising money for people who are Blind, but Helen Keller's role in many ways, was to be a spokesperson for them, and to tell her story of overcoming disability.

[music: lilting harp]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: [slowly, word by word] I'm not dumb now.]

LULU: Again and again.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: I ...]

LULU: This is her actual oral voice.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: I'm not dumb now.]

LULU: And that version of her made dollar bills roll in.

KIM NIELSEN: She became a really effective political lobbyist and fundraiser.

LULU: But what wasn't a great fundraising technique was her talking about her socialist beliefs.

SUSAN CRUTCHFIELD: She was the darling of the American masses as long as she played her part correctly and, you know, didn't bring too many of her politics into her public engagements.

LULU: And in that way, Susan Crutchfield, a disability researcher, said that Helen Keller had to muzzle herself.

SUSAN CRUTCHFIELD: And she always had to have that persona that would appeal to the folks who would donate money to the cause.

[Harp music becomes more prominent]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: The grateful smile I wear on all occasions is becoming fixed on my face and won't come off when I go to bed.]

LULU: And in time ...

SUE PILKILTON: Oh, here's the pump. You gotta have a photo of that.

MAN: Oh yeah.

LULU: She even allowed for others to take over her childhood home in Alabama.

SUE PILKILTON: Can you imagine? Now this is the pump where Helen learned her first word: "Water."

LULU: And turn it into a sort of museum of the miracle story.

SUE PILKILTON: This pump speaks many languages.

LULU: Where they lead tour groups to the water pump, and perform The Miracle Worker every summer, and pump out this sanitized version of her story.

SUE PILKILTON: You know, our story here is about her young life and the things that she accomplished. So, you know, that's about all we can say.

[music concludes: uneasy pang]

LULU: What Kim Nielsen and Sue Crutchfield helped us realize was that, in this weird way, Helen Keller herself created the Helen Keller myth. The day that she walked away from vaudeville was the day that she began hiding away all the colorful, complicated sides of herself: the radical political views and the romance and the wisecracks, and left us with a lie.

SUE PILKILTON: We have the miniature statues of Helen Keller. We have a great magnet that has one of her sayings on it. That's a big seller for us. And of course we have a DVD, The Miracle Worker, the original black and white version.

JAD: Why would she tell—why would she do that when she had such a funner, more interesting life?

LULU: Well, we can't ever really know for sure, but Sue Crutchfield found a pretty good clue.

SUSAN CRUTCHFIELD: This is from a letter that she wrote to her mother in the '20s where Helen said, "The truth is, mother ..."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: "... she was not happy in that sort of work."]

SUSAN CRUTCHFIELD: "She" meaning Anne was not happy in vaudeville. And then Helen goes on to say, "I ..."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: I didn't mind so much. I rather enjoyed the excitement.]

SUSAN CRUTCHFIELD: But Anne Sullivan's health at that point in 1924 is just declining.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Helen Keller voice actress: "Teacher suddenly said, 'I can't do it.'"]

SUSAN CRUTCHFIELD: And they had to arrive at some kind of compromise.

LULU: And the compromise they came to was Helen Keller walking away.

JAD: That doesn't feel like a compromise, that feels like a—wow. You feel like Helen Keller, at this point, should just have her career. I mean ...

LULU: Yeah.

JAD: You know?

LULU: Yeah. [laughs] I think when I first heard about this decision I was thinking about how close Helen and Anne had become in their later years. I mean, Helen writes all these beautiful things about the value and power of friendship. And so when I was talking to Elsa about it ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: When you have a disability, casting off the people who are the most supportive of you and who help take care of you is a really dangerous thing to do. It's even more dangerous in the time period that Helen Keller lived in. And I think that's what happened with Helen, is that she couldn't bear to lose this person.

LULU: Hmm.

ELSA SJUNNESON: And so she did feel obliged, even though it wasn't right for her. And I think that that was the choice that Helen had to make over and over again in her life. She didn't get married. And that was something that I think, reading between the lines, she wanted. And that was taken away from her. And vaudeville it sounds like was another thing that she didn't get to do because of the same people.

LULU: So where I'm la-de-da-ing on friendship, you see a kind of gnarly and unappealing obligation.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I think that Helen Keller really had to sacrifice a lot of her happiness for the people that she said she loved.

LULU: Which was something Elsa knew a little bit about too.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I had been thinking about leaving my marriage for a long time. And I couldn't do it. I kept thinking, "But what about the insurance?" I had all these "but what abouts" because I felt like I was too vulnerable to leave the safety net.

LULU: So she kept not doing it until one morning, after a string of bad months.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I'd been really, really frustrated with feeling like I was a burden all the time on my partner.

[music: gentle, long notes]

LULU: Elsa decides to just ignore the voice telling her she wouldn't be able to make it on her own.

ELSA SJUNNESON: It is four o'clock in the morning, and my alarm goes off. And my guide dog, Astra, is wagging his tail at me. He's like, "We're ready to go!" And I pick up my suitcase and I walk down the stairs. [a double-bass gently plays] And I ordered my Uber, and I can feel my heart pounding in my chest because I'm leaving.

LULU: She gets to the airport.

ELSA SJUNNESON: And I check my bag, and I walk with my dog through security. I hate TSA with the fiery passion of someone who has no sight in one eye and can't hear very well. And I remember that they had to pat me and the dog down. And I'm fumbling my ID. Like, I can't find things. They're talking at me, I can't hear them. And I can feel all of the fears in my body about whether or not people will be able to support me or whether I'll be able to support myself. And ...

LULU: She keeps walking through the blurry airport onto the plane, trying to push down that voice, the one that Helen Keller had too.

ELSA SJUNNESON: It does sneak in. It does show up in certain places. It's really hard.

LULU: She bumped into it as she began to build her new life in Seattle. It could come up when she was job hunting or when she was inviting a new love interest over to her apartment for a home-cooked meal. She said that voice can ...

ELSA SJUNNESON: Lurk in the kitchen with me and tell me that, like, I'm not good at cooking. And ...

LULU: And every time that voice comes up, she has to choose to ignore it.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I'm still working through it. It's a daily practice. It takes time to undo it.

[music: upbeat shuffling percussion and resonant mallets]

LULU: All right, so where does things stand with Helen Keller now that you can see her clearly? Like, did this work? Do you feel like you've reconciled or that you're able to move past her? Or do you feel like you're just tethered, or—I don't know.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I really wish that I could get a Oujia board and make her go away.

LULU: [laughs]

ELSA SJUNNESON: But I don't think I can. I think that that's one of the curses of being a Deafblind woman is that I do have this ghost hanging over my shoulder. And she is a complicated ghost. She is not gonna let go of her unfinished business.

LULU: Hmm.

ELSA SJUNNESON: I don't think that there's ever going to be a clean or easy way to exorcize.

LULU: Hey, what are you—before—I mean, it's been a year since we first sat down together. I mean, what are you working on now, just in your own writing?

ELSA SJUNNESON: I've been working on a project for a while. It's early stages right now, but it is a horror story based on The Miracle Worker.

LULU: [laughs] No way! Why horror?

ELSA SJUNNESON: When people thrust their perception of how you should be onto you, that is horror.

[music becomes more suspenseful]

LULU: So is this just kind of like, if you can't beat 'em, haunt 'em? Like, are you just haunting her back?

ELSA SJUNNESON: [laughs] Maybe.

LULU: Is anyone gonna get murdered?

ELSA SJUNNESON: Oh, probably. [laughs]

[snippet of Ludacris rapping: “Move bitch, get out the way, get out the…”]

[music shifts suddenly, jazzy and smooth: “Ohh…. ya don’t know somebody until they’re gone.”] 

[music shift again, touch of suspense]

ELSA SJUNNESON: If you're coming to me with the source material that's saying that somebody's murderously strong, and you want to make that person conform to your reality, someone's gonna die.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Miracle Worker: screaming]

 

[music shifts again: jazz clarinet with dissonant tones and growls]

LULU: That'll do it. This episode was reported by Elsa Sjunneson and me. It was produced by Sindu Gnanasambandan and Rachael Cusick with help from Sarah Qari, Tanya Chawla and Carolyn McCusker, with sound and music from Jeremy Bloom and mixing help from Arianne Wack.

LULU: A very special thanks to the talented Pamela Saba, who was the voice of Helen Keller. Thanks also to Julia Bascone, Desiree Coaches, Peter Kunz, Alexander Ritchie, Andrew Leland, Sara Luderman, Nate Jones, Nate Peerbaum, Will Healy, the pianist who resurrected Helen Keller's long lost vaudeville show tune from sheet music. Thanks also to the accessibility team: Eboni Gaytan, April Jackson, Annie Dieckman, Shannon Finnegan and braille transcriber, Sharon von See. Speaking of braille, alongside the transcripts we post for every episode, we have a braille transcript for this episode. It's right up on the episode page, so let folks know about it if they might be interested. We're always trying to become more accessible, so if you have thoughts on how to improve, please let us know. 

LULU: A few books to shout out for this one. First and foremost, Kim Nielson's The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. It's a fascinating read, and we relied on it heavily to make this episode. Next up, Georgina Kleege's Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. Elsa Sjunneson has a new memoir out called Being Seen: Beautiful, Troubling, Full of Snark.
And finally, Katie Booth's The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness. We had a much longer conversation with Katie Booth about her personal connection to this topic. It became quite an emotional and stirring conversation. Flipped my brain around about a lot of stuff. And we are putting that up on The Lab, our members-only feed. So if you are a member, you can find that there. And if you are curious about becoming a member, go check out Radiolab.com/thelab. Wow, that was a lot of credits. If you made it all the way through, thanks for hanging out. We'll be back next week.

 

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