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).


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Citations in this episode

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


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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