The Miracle Worker tells the story of Helen Keller, a child who becomes deaf and blind shortly after birth, and who is so spoiled and pitied by her own family, that she becomes virtually feral until a young woman named Annie Sullivan takes her under her wing and helps her to become a human. Sullivan’s methods are unorthodox, but by seeing Helen’s potential, she helps her to comprehend and articulate the world around her. The film’s penultimate scene is of Helen and Annie drawing water from a pump. After Sullivan’s tireless lessons of the deaf-blind alphabet to Helen, the young girl finally realises the connection between signifier and signified and says the word “WATER”.
There the story ends. Without wishing to analyse the film in any depth (though please do leave comments – you know who you are, Mr Kinophile), its story is of an unfortunate child, born into a sightless, soundless world, who is misunderstood by her family, but who is finally rescued by the miracle worker of the title. In an article for the journal Rethinking Schools, Ruth Hubbard suggests that the portrayal of Keller as an “angelic, sexless, deafblind woman smelling a rose as she holds a Braille book on her lap” is designed to convey “a politically conservative moral lesson, one that stresses the ability of the individual to overcome personal adversity in a fair world. The lesson we are meant to learn seems to be: 'Society is fine the way it is. Look at Helen Keller! Even though she was deaf and blind, she worked hard – with a smile on her face – and overcame her disabilities.'”
In fact, the really interesting story starts shortly after that of the film finishes. Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller remained close friends, and Annie’s husband, William Macy, was a committed Marxist. Sullivan, recognising a radical streak in Keller, gave her a copy of H.G. Wells’s New worlds for old and some summaries of Marx’s core concepts. Keller devoured these works, and became an unswerving Socialist, and by the inter-war years she had become the most famous disability rights campaigner in the USA.
Keller’s key contribution to disability rights was that disability – blindness, deafness or any other chronic illness – was linked to class. In an early, relatively timid essay entitled “I must speak”, she identifies the cause of much childhood blindness as ophthalmia neonatorum, an infection passed on from man to woman, and from woman to child. It is easily treatable, she says, but its source lies in the sin of immoral men and women (in a later essay, she realises that the sin that she speaks of is itself a consequence of poverty and exploitation).
She challenges a commonly-held view that workers might be poor because they are deaf or blind – that their poverty, in other words, is due to a necessary, or unexplainable, evil – by explaining the necessity of unemployment within the capitalist system:
There are, it is estimated, a million labourers out of work in the United States. Their inaction is not due to physical defects or lack of ability or of intelligence, or to ill health or vice. It is due to the fact that our present system of production necessitates a large margin of idle men. The business world in which we live cannot give every man opportunity to fulfil his capabilities or even assure him continuous occupation as an unskilled labourer. The means of employment – the land and the factories, that is, the tools of labour – are in the hands of a minority of the people, and are used rather with a view to increasing the owner’s profits than with a view to keeping all men busy and productive. Hence there are more men than jobs. This is the first and the chief evil of the so-called capitalistic system of production. The workman has nothing to sell but his labour. He is in strife, in rivalry with his fellows for a chance to sell his power. Naturally the weaker workman is thrust aside.
Keller’s Socialist beliefs were an embarrassment to capitalists who wished to champion her promotion of disability rights. She writes of one Mr McKelway, the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who had once praised her campaign but, upon realising that she was a Socialist, had written an editorial suggesting that her “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Keller is indignant at his hypocrisy:
Now that I have come out for Socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him ... The Eagle and I are at war. I hate the system which it represents, apologises for and upholds. When it fights back, let it fight fair. Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper.
Since I've been getting into Spinoza lately, I especially like this passage from an interview with Keller by Barbara Bindley for the New York Tribune in 1916. Keller is asked about the eureka moment in which she discovered that things were not as they seemed:
"For a time I was depressed, but little by little my confidence came back and I realised that the wonder is not that conditions are so bad, but that humanity has advanced so far in spite of them...Reality even when it is sad is better than illusions. Illusions are at the mercy of any winds that blow. Real happiness must come from within, from a fixed purpose and faith in one's fellow men, and of that I have more than I ever had.