I was so sick of Helen Keller. She'd begun to annoy me tremendously. After two previous books on the famous deaf-blind woman I swore I would never again write anything even remotely related to her. I’d had enough. I started a project far removed and told everyone in my professional circle about that far-removed project in order to commit myself to it.
Then I reread Anne Sullivan Macy's 1916 letters to Helen Keller. Macy had written them to her former student and then dear friend as she dealt with the illness that she thought would kill her. The letters reveal an introspective woman trying to understand her life. Vacillating between urgency and detachment, she reflected on pleasure, anger, complacency, and amazement. It struck me that her life embodied both contradictions and intensity: physical pain, emotional pain, isolation, friendship, joy, intellect, tenacity, success, and near constant self-doubt. Yet, as she thought about death, as she pondered her life, she took immense joy in the daily life of the Puerto Rican countryside where she was staying.
Though born in 1866, Macy's life dilemmas are surprisingly modern. How does a smart, passionate, introspective woman find love, intellectual satisfaction, economic stability, and friendship? How do any of us do so? She called herself a "badly constructed human being" who "blunder[ed] into life through the back door." As far as I can tell, that is how most of us do it.
As I reconsidered Macy, I became convinced that I, and nearly everyone else, had shortchanged the woman known only as the teacher of Helen Keller. I needed to do better-- to do justice to her and to provide a peephole into Keller and Macy's multifaceted, and often surprising, friendship. Our cultural memory mythologizes and simplifies Macy as a straightforward educational superhero. She deserves more.
Thus, here I am, writing about Anne Sullivan Macy-- 143 years to the day after the poor and tubercular Irish immigrant Alice Sullivan gave birth to her first child, the one who would become Helen Keller's teacher. Happy birthday, Anne Sullivan Macy.
This may be unfashionable for a historian to admit about their subject, but I like Macy. She was imperfect, sort of ornery, intensely smart, sometimes unreasonable, loyal to her friends, passionate about embracing life, reflective, and learned to be comfortable with and honest about her emotional wrinkles (well... at least most of them most of the time). Her own passions sometimes discomforted her. Keller"s relentless cheerfulness drove her nuts. She loved literature and understood the value of stories to the creation and re-creation of self. And she had the courage to live out a dear and ever-changing friendship, in which the deaf-blind Keller eventually cared for and became the personal aid of her former teacher.
Convenient for me as a historian, Macy's life also was both personally dramatic and intersects with major themes and questions of U.S. history. Macy led me through the starkness of nineteenth-century immigrant life, the horrors of a mid-nineteenth-century asylum and the development of U.S. social welfare systems, regional differences in the post-Civil War decades, and the tumultuous marriage of a smart and ambitious woman trying to make a professional life in a patriarchal society. She was a chronically ill, disabled woman whose public identity excluded nearly all acknowledgment of her disability-- and through her I have learned more about the complexities and variations of the U.S. disability experience than I did studying Helen Keller.
For all of these reasons, tonight the very patient people of my household will tolerate me as I insist that we have chocolate cake and toast Anne Sullivan Macy. Maybe we'll save cake for Helen Keller; perhaps not. Happy birthday, 143 years old, to Anne Sullivan Macy.