It is incongruous that the beloved American hero who wrote, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content,” could be the same person who later wrote, “A mental defective, on the other hand, is almost sure to be a potential criminal.” Yet, Helen Keller, our national treasure who conquered the solitude and silence of blindness and deafness to learn to read, write, and even speak, signed her name to them both.
I recently checked out a copy of “The Story of My Life” from the local library, eager to learn more about the woman who, with the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, defied all societal expectations in post-Civil War America to learn to communicate, first through her hands and eventually through her voice.
My first clue into Keller’s elitist worldview should have been the book’s front cover flap, which promotes her autobiography’s usefulness in explaining “the degree to which she had become a full human being,” as if she were not already a full human being ahead of her education. My husband gave me eyes to see the situation for what it really is.
“You realize that Helen Keller was a proponent of eugenics, don’t you?” he casually tossed over the front cover of my book one afternoon.
I would not believe it. How could a woman made deaf and blind from an illness in early childhood possibly advocate for killing those born with the same disabilities? A quick internet search, however, succeeded in eliminating my doubts regarding Keller’s eugenic opinions.
Keller Rejected the Sacredness of Life — For Others
“Sir,” Keller began in a public letter published in “The New Republic” on Dec. 18, 1915, in response to a physician’s recent dappling in infanticide. “Much of the discussion aroused by Dr. Haiselden when he permitted the Bollinger baby to die centers around a belief in the sacredness of life. If many of those that object to the physician’s course would take the trouble to analyze their idea of ‘life,’ I think they would find that it means just to breathe. Surely they must admit that such an existence is not worthwhile. It is the possibilities of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature.”
Ironically, “unthinking creature” is a term Keller never applied to herself in her earliest years, even though her blindness and deafness kept her from being able to communicate her thoughts and feelings to others in their fullness. In fact, Keller pointed out that even before she could use the more effective tools of signing and reading lips, both she and her family, her mother especially, were capable of communicating their love and affection for each other through other means and senses, particularly touch.
In fact, Keller attributed such human care and attention as the very means by which her own life had value, saying, “Thus it is that my friends have made the story of my life. In a thousand ways they have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges, and enabled me to walk serene and happy in the shadow cast by my deprivation.”
Keller even went so far in her autobiography as to attribute a foreknowledge of the senses, whether realized or not, to all people. “It seems to me that there is in each of us a capacity to comprehend the impressions and emotions which have been experienced by mankind from the beginning,” she said. “Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this gift from past generations. This inherited capacity is a sort of sixth sense — a soul-sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one.”
Alexander Graham Bell Influenced Keller’s Eugenic Views
Why, then, would Keller later deny such commonality of existence to those born “poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking”? Perhaps we can see the beginning of her worldview’s progressive evolution in her autobiography’s dedication:
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
who has taught the deaf to speak and
enabled the listening ear to hear speech
from the Atlantic to the Rockies,
this Story of My Life.
Born into a well-off family in Alabama, Keller met and frequently associated with progressive giants of her time, including Alexander Graham Bell, who Keller described as having “the tenderness and sympathy which endeared [him] to so many hearts” and rejoiced that “he understood my signs, and I knew it and loved him at once.” She wrote:
His dominating passion is his love for children. He is never quite so happy as when he has a little deaf child in his arms. His labours in [sic] behalf of the deaf will live on and bless generations of children yet to come.
Strangely, this same Bell is credited for having called for the “eradication of the deaf race” and quoted as saying:
People do not understand the mental condition of a person who cannot speak and who thinks in gestures. He is sometimes looked upon as a sort of monstrosity, to be stared at and avoided. … Those who believe as I do, that the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world, will examine carefully the causes that lead to the intermarriages of the deaf with the object of applying a remedy.
Keller’s Worldview Was Logically Inconsistent
In her autobiography, Keller began to call for purging of another kind, one that, if applied to humanity as a whole, may help us understand her later eugenic leanings:
[T]here is much in the Bible against which every instinct of my being rebels, so much that I regret the necessity which has compelled me to read it through from beginning to end. I do not think that the knowledge which I have gained of its history and sources compensates me for the unpleasant details it has forced upon my attention. For my part, I wish, with Mr. Howells, that the literature of the past might be purged of all that is ugly and barbarous in it, although I would object as much as anyone to having these great works weakened or falsified.
It is important to note that the general public first regarded Keller’s cultivated abilities as a sham, for many could not believe a blind and deaf girl capable of such reforms and successes through education alone. Keller herself justified the writing of her autobiography as a means of explaining how the years Sullivan had personally devoted to teaching her was the very reason she was finally able to communicate, even write a book.
How, then, do we reconcile Keller’s justifications for her own education with her published disdain for the very air breathed by those deemed “not worthwhile”? How can we see her failure to advocate for the education of others born with physical and mental disabilities as being anything but shortsighted?
When reminiscing about her education and her favorite books, Keller pointed out William Swinton’s “Outlines of the World’s History” as being one of her “treasures,” describing that from it she learned “how by liberty, tolerance and education the great and the wise have opened the way for salvation for the whole world.”
Would that the whole world include even those humans Keller later suggested be eliminated from the earth.