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Anne Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller, BFFs

Book Cover for Beyond the Miracle WorkerBy Kim E. Nielsen

The friendship of Anne Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller was not very glamorous. It lacked the men and clothing of the “Sex and the City” women. It lacked the dramatic guns and suicidal road trips of Thelma and Louise. It wasn't a fifty year slumber party of everlasting conversations, hugs, and secrets, and included no backstabbing cattiness and sexualized mud-fights. Somehow, however, the two women, remained friends— genuine friends— for nearly fifty years.

Having first written extensively on Helen Keller and now on Anne Sullivan Macy, I sometimes feel that I've lived two sides of the same story. After meeting in 1887, fourteen years apart in age, the two women quickly became the central persons in each other's lives. They became, slowly and eventually, dear friends.

Like all long-term friendships, perhaps, it was a confusing mess of a friendship. Their intense and multifaceted relationship contributed to the deterioration of the Macys' marriage— John Macy was not only Anne's husband but also Keller's editor and political mentor, and all three lived together in a house that was more Keller's than anyone else's. Even public perception of Keller and Macy was contradictory, haunted by the question of which woman enabled and created the other. Many credited the teacher with crafting her student's personhood; but as Keller grew to adulthood, others dismissed Macy as a low-status assistant.

To add to the mess, the two had all the foibles of human beings. Keller protectively held long and fierce grudges towards those who even hinted at criticizing Macy, and rarely (even long after Macy's death) said anything negative about her. Yet she could be a passive-aggressive snot, and after John and Anne Macy's separation wrote frequently about John's good looks, intelligence, and all around wonderfulness. Macy could be great fun, but her dourness, when it arrived, was intense and hard for Keller to understand. Macy admired but begrudged Keller her optimism. She also envied Keller's religious faith, but wanted nothing to do with it.

Most importantly, and what made the friendship work, was that they trusted one another. While the whole world assumed that Keller's deaf-blindness forced her to depend on Macy, my research suggests that the reverse more accurately characterizes their relationship of nearly fifty years. Macy leaned on Keller, juggling her uneasy combination of emotional vulnerability and a fierce desire for independence. Her lifelong struggle with chronic illness and depression was far more debilitating than Keller's deaf-blindness. Keller provided love, acceptance, daily assistance, an income, and a home. Their deep friendship, and Macy's willingness to allow herself to be dependent on Keller, gave meaning to Macy's life. Keller felt immense friendship, gratitude, and love for Macy, but she did not need her friend in the same way that Macy needed her.

Near the end of Macy's life Keller served as her personal aide. At one point in the 1930s any letters Macy sent had been fingerspelled (she called it dictating) to Keller who then typed them. In several of the letters Keller inserted comments in parentheses, disagreeing with or editorializing about Macy's words. My favorite example of this includes sniping between the two. In a slightly joking manner Macy complained about Keller's cheerfulness and health. While the food, drink, and heat had made the older woman ill, the younger woman had insides “made of cast iron fastened down with hoops of steel” that left her unaffected. Keller inserted her own parenthetical remarks, this time indicating that it was Macy's own *&%^ fault that she got sick because she drank too much water. Bicker, bicker, bicker!

The bickering, however, was part of the friendship; it was part of the trust. When Susan B. Anthony turned seventy, her dear friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, “If there is one part of my life that gives me more intense satisfaction than another, it is my friendship of more than forty years standing with Susan B. Anthony... Emerson says, ‘It is better to be a thorn in the side of your friend than his echo.’ If this adds weight and stability to friendship, then ours will endure forever, for we have indeed been thorns in the side of each other… I have had no peace for forty years, since the day we started together.” (Woman's Tribune, February 22, 1890).

Anne Macy and Helen Keller would have agreed. Disagreement and debate added energy to their friendship, as well as the weight and stability referred to by Stanton. For almost fifty years they lived out their friendship and their trust— as they shared a love of the intellectual life, adventured, bickered, and cared for one another. May all of us be so lucky.

About the Author

The author of three books, including two on Helen Keller and one on Anne Sullivan Macy, Kim E. Nielsen is a professor of history and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.