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Authors: Charlotte Gray

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Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

She had the “great men” in her protector’s parlor eating out of her hand. Dr. Daniel Gilman, the founding president of Johns Hopkins University, told the Washington
Evening Star
that “her story is remarkable, and the skill of her teacher, Miss Sullivan, is admirable in the highest degree.”

Thanks to Alexander Graham Bell, Helen Keller was regularly in the public eye. In early 1893, Washington newspaper reporters watched her turn the first spadeful of earth for a new building to house the Volta Bureau and its library of information about the hearing-impaired. The building, a handsome neoclassical yellow brick and sandstone structure, was located at 1537 35th Street NW, in Georgetown, next to Melville Bell’s house. A few days later, Alec took Helen and Annie with him to a day school for deaf children in Rochester, New York. Alec vehemently argued that day schools were preferable to boarding schools for deaf children, because the children returned to their families at the end of each day. In Rochester, he spent a couple of days raising money for the school and promoting the superiority of teaching lip-reading over sign language. “The teachers and pupils have been profoundly impressed with Helen and much encouraged in their work,” he wrote triumphantly to Mabel, “for the method of instruction pursued here is the same as that adopted by Helen’s education. The elder pupils wept over Helen and there was not a dry eye among the teachers either.” Later the same year, he escorted Helen and Annie around the Chicago World’s Fair, and introduced Helen to teachers of the deaf who “saw enough to remove all their doubts.”

Alec also used Helen in demonstrations to prove the effectiveness of oralism. Helen described their stage act some years later, in a chapter entitled “My Oldest Friend” in her 1930 book,
Midstream: My Later Life:
“After he had talked awhile, he would touch my arm, I would rise and place my hand on his lips to show the audience how I could read what he was saying. I wish words could portray him as I saw him in those exalted moods—the majesty of his presence, the noble and spirited poise and action of his head, the strong features partly masked by a beautiful beard that rippled and curled beneath my fingers.… No one can resist so much energy, such power.” Who would not be moved by the sight of the slender young woman, dressed in a demure white muslin gown and with an expression of rapture on her face, reaching up to touch the lips of one of America’s best-known men?

Despite her disabilities, Helen was a natural performer—pretty, outgoing, and eager to capture public attention. She loved being a star. Over the next few years, she totally eclipsed the aging Laura Bridgman as a fascinating specimen of human achievement. With her severe dress, prim manners, and eagerness to please, Laura had satisfied the mid-nineteenth-century appetite for a frail victim-heroine whose rescue from spiritual imprisonment was a Christian morality tale. Helen, who was truly brilliant, embodied the new robust “anything is possible” ethic. In time, she would master French, German, Latin, and Greek (although only her close friends learned to understand her speech in any language). Urged on by Alec, she insisted on attending a school for normal students rather than a special school for the deaf and blind. She would attend Radcliffe College, and she would be published widely. She read Roman history, German philosophy, and English literature, and embraced radical socialism and Swedenborgian beliefs. In 1903, the Harvard philosopher William James (brother of the novelist Henry James) noted that, while Laura was “almost a theological phenomenon,” Helen was “primarily a phenomenon of vital exuberance. Life for her is a series of adventures, rushed at with enthusiasm and fun.”

If it was Alec who put Helen Keller on display, she herself was happy to publicize her relationship with the world-famous inventor. It is doubtful whether she would have achieved her celebrity status without Alexander Graham Bell’s intervention. His whole-hearted devotion to the interests of the deaf as well as his warmth toward her were crucial to her successes. She dedicated
The Story of My Life
to “Alexander Graham Bell, Who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies.” Years after his death, when she met one of his granddaughters, she confided, “I am still hungry for the touch of his dear hand.”

While Alec’s attitude to Helen Keller was a mix of warm friendship and scientific detachment, his immediate family’s attitude to his protégée was far more complicated. Alec could be as insensitive to their feelings as, in earlier years, his father Melville had been to his.

Mabel kept her distance from Helen Keller, despite everything they had in common—disability, Alec’s support, an appetite for life. Mabel was not present in 1893 when Helen appeared at the Wednesday-night get-together in their Washington home. When Alec escorted Helen to the Chicago World’s Fair the same year, Mabel and her children did not join the party, although Daisy was the same age as Helen, and Elsie only two years older.

This was partly because the Bell girls were in school and Mabel had her hands full running households in both Washington and Nova Scotia. But there was something else going on too. Mabel was, in the best Boston tradition, accustomed to being the self-effacing wife of a Great Man, but Helen Keller consumed Alec’s attention and affection to a remarkable degree. At heart, Helen Keller, like her mother, was a Southern belle, whatever her disabilities. She cultivated her looks, well aware that both the “vital exuberance” noted by William James and her sweet expression won men’s hearts. She went through the agony of the removal of her own eyes (which bulged) and the insertion of sparkling blue glass eyes, widely admired for their living beauty and humane depth. Because she could neither see nor hear, Helen and Alec could communicate only through the most intimate of senses: touch. How did Mabel feel as she watched the pretty young woman twenty-three years her junior laying her fingers on Alec’s lips and looking up at him through those eerie azure eyes?

Mabel professed to admire Alec’s efforts on Helen’s part. “My own darling,” she wrote to him in March 1892, when she was in Europe and he was in Boston with Helen and Annie. “You are a perfect knight errant going about to succor distressed damsels, and I love you.” She often wrote a note at the end of her husband’s letters to Helen, seconding his invitations to visit the Bells. But she also sympathized with the less visible member of the Helen-and-Annie double act. “I know just how that poor Miss Sullivan must feel.” A week later, she scolded him for not writing to her: “I do think Helen Keller and the summer meeting might rest for one night.… I tell you I am a jealous woman, and that is at the bottom of what you consider my want of sympathy with your work.”

Mabel wasn’t the only person suffering flashes of resentment. “Both children are a little jealous of your appreciation for Helen Keller,” Mabel informed her husband in 1895. Elsie and Daisy Bell often found themselves outside the closed door of the drawing room, listening to the sound of Helen’s laughter within as she talked to Alec. They watched their father set off to tour Washington Zoo with Helen, and without them. They saw the yellow cockatoo he presented to her on her fourteenth birthday, which she called Jonquil. Only rarely were they allowed to play with Helen. When they did, they were deliberately careless of her handicaps.

Years later, Elsie admitted to Helen E. Waite, author of the 1961 authorized biography of the Bells,
Make a Joyful Sound,
that they resented their exclusion from their father’s special relationship with another child their own age. On one occasion, she and her sister were told to entertain Helen Keller, and they decided to show her their secret hiding place. “Later,” Waite recorded, “strolling outside in search of the three children, Dr. Bell heard a cheerful call. ‘Here we are, Papa! Look up here on the roof!’ Raising his eyes, the horrified man beheld his two little girls with Helen between them happily perched on the roof of Grandfather Hubbard’s stable! His gaze went to the ladder. How had a blind child made the ascent, and then taken the perilous walk along the roof?” Alec carefully guided Helen down the ladder and gave his daughters a stern rebuke. Elsie insisted that “Helen certainly had a good time!” but there is a hint of revenge in the episode.

However, there was a more subtle dimension to Mabel’s wariness of Helen Keller that had nothing to do with Helen herself. Throughout the Bells’ marriage, Mabel nursed a deep-seated ambivalence toward her husband’s concern for the deaf, and it was a source of tension in their relationship. In 1888, Alec reproached her: “[Y]ou haven’t a particle of sympathy
for my work
—there I am fated ever to be alone.” For Mabel, the fundamental issue was that she felt devalued when she was identified as deaf, so she shunned not just the label but also the company of the hearing-impaired. “It has been my life-long desire to forget, or at least ignore, the fact that I was not quite as other people,” she admitted to her son-in-law Gilbert Grosvenor at the end of her life.

“I have striven in every possible way to have that fact forgotten, and to so completely be normal that I would pass as one.” For this reason, she preferred to keep her distance from Helen, no matter how appealing the child was or how close she grew to Alec. “To say a child was deaf was enough to make me refuse to take any notice of it. If help had to be given, given it was from a distance.” Mabel was particularly wary of the teachers of the deaf. “Of all the people I hated [to meet] a teacher of the deaf [was foremost]. I was always on the lookout for a little difference in their manner of addressing me, which would reveal the fact that I was a ‘case’ in their eyes.… Above all things I antagonized my husband’s efforts to keep up his association with them and to continue his teaching of them. Well, this is a confession of great selfishness. The only excuse is that it is just the spirit enlightened teachers of the deaf wish to see manifested in their pupils. They don’t want them to herd together and become a ‘peculiar people.’”

Mabel knew that strangers often found her hard to understand, but nothing exasperated her more than being treated as, in her expression, a “Barnum monstrosity.” Her own daughters were taught that it was only courteous to face anybody they were talking to, and that it was rude to shout from another room; as a consequence, they were slow to realize that their mother could not hear. Daisy learned the hard way. When she was only about three, her mother came into her room one night to check on her health. At first Daisy pretended to be asleep, then she spoke to her mother as Mabel was leaving the room. When her mother apparently ignored her, left the room, and closed the door behind her, Daisy was frightened and began to bawl. “Her father heard her,” according to Helen E. Waite, “came in, listened to the story, and quietly explained.” Later, Elsie and Daisy often acted as Mabel’s “ears” during telephone conversations, but they were usually oblivious to their mother’s condition because they could all communicate with each other easily. That was exactly the way their mother wanted it. She strove to create the kind of self-sufficient little family unit that, as a child, she had known within the Hubbard family.

Mabel’s reluctance to be identified as deaf, combined with her husband’s single-minded support for the assimilation of the hearing-impaired into mainstream society, began to affect Alec’s relationship with the single most important champion (other than Alec) of deaf education: Edward Miner Gallaudet. The cordiality of that 1886 dinner, when Gallaudet joined Alec to meet Captain Keller and his daughter, would gradually dissolve in the next decade.

Perhaps the deterioration in relations was inevitable, considering the men’s different philosophies. Courtesy and good manners could not smother the rivalry between their two systems of education. As superintendent of Washington’s Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, Gallaudet endorsed the “Combined Method”: students in his institution were instructed in both sign language and lip-reading. But Gallaudet never hid his conviction that sign language was intellectually superior for deaf people than any form of the English language. “So far as motions or actions addressed to the senses are concerned,” he would write in 1899, “[sign] language is superior in accuracy and force of delineation to that in which words spelt of the fingers, spoken, written or printed, are employed.” According to Richard Winefield, author of a study on the Gallaudet-Bell communication debate, Gallaudet believed (like the Abbé de L’Épée and his own father before him) that “sign language was the natural language of deaf people, as natural as standard English was for children in Britain or the United States. The objective of the oral method was communication in standard English, something Gallaudet considered artificial.” Gallaudet felt that deaf children had a right to use this “natural language,” and he considered himself the champion of that right. He lobbied for the right of deaf people to speak for themselves at conferences and conventions and to teach fellow members of the deaf community.

Alec couldn’t accept Edward Gallaudet’s conviction that sign language was “natural” for the deaf, or that acquisition of the English language, for signing, speech, or the manual alphabet, was “artificial.” Alec also believed that if deaf students were grouped in a residential institution with deaf teachers and allowed to rely on sign language, they would never be able to function in the world outside their institution. “The great object of the education of the deaf,” he wrote in 1889, “is to enable them to communicate readily and easily with hearing persons.”

Alexander Graham Bell’s faith in the ability of almost all deaf people to learn both lip-reading and some form of speech was sustained both by Mabel’s extraordinary skill and by Gardiner Hubbard’s long-term support for the cause. As he put it to Gallaudet, “I wish you could realize, as I do, how important even imperfect articulation is to a deaf person. I have daily—hourly—experience of its value in my own home.” It wasn’t just Mabel’s skill that shaped his certainty that most hearing-impaired people could master lip-reading and mix easily with hearing people. He was also influenced by Mabel’s own attitude to her disability, by her determination to live a “normal” life. He was apparently oblivious to the happiness that many deaf people found in the company of others like themselves, where, as Helen Keller herself had put it, they were no longer “foreigners.” He was convinced that the deaf population far preferred lip-reading to sign language and that it was only because people like Gallaudet had so much professionally invested in sign language that signing continued to dominate North American deaf education.

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