A largely unsuccessful attempt at a full-scale biography of the difficult, unhappy woman whose life story is inseparable from that of Helen Keller.
Called “Teacher” by Keller and popularly known as “The Miracle Worker,” Anne Sullivan was born into poverty in the late 1800s and suffered intense psychological and physical miseries during a lifetime in which she was mostly dependent on others. Sent to an almshouse by her widowed father at age ten, she lived in the grimmest of conditions until admitted to the Perkins Institution, a famous school for the blind in South Boston. She was not completely blind, but her eyes required numerous surgeries and her sight was always precarious. Her life with Keller began after her graduation from Perkins, and from age 20 until her death she remained with the famous deaf-blind woman. “They lived intricately intertwined lives,” writes Nielsen, “were deeply dependent upon one another, and loved one another profoundly.” Sullivan’s initial role as governess and teacher is well known, but as Nielsen (History and Women’s Studies/Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay; Helen Keller: Selected Writings, 2005, etc.) demonstrates, that role evolved over time. It was a painful process, as the stubborn, defensive and proud woman struggled to establish herself as a serious and capable educator. As an adult, Keller became the duo’s breadwinner, supporting them both financially for many years. Marriage to the much younger John Macy came late in Sullivan’s life, and just how it worked for the threesome is unclear. Eventually the Macys separated, but Sullivan and Keller stayed together until the end. Unfortunately, many of the details are murky, and Nielsen is forced to acknowledge that no record of events exists and that her subject’s reactions can only be imagined.
A sympathetic account hampered by inadequate and often contradictory source materials.