Ask Keller - August 2005
Are you curious about some aspect of Helen Keller's life,
and haven't been able to find the answer to your question? Ask Keller
Johnson-Thompson, Helen's great-grandniece. This monthly column features
real questions from readers like you.
Did Helen Keller ever learn to speak?
In March 1890, while still a student at Perkins School for the Blind, Helen learned of a little girl in Norway—also deaf, blind, and mute—who had learned to speak with her mouth. Helen knew that others spoke with their mouths, and she wanted to do the same. Although Annie tried to discourage her, Helen insisted that she would learn to speak.
Annie knew that if Helen was to learn how to speak, she would need the best teacher available. So, she took Helen to meet with Sarah Fuller, an expert on education and the principal at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Ms. Fuller offered to teach Helen.
Helen was so excited. She had wanted to learn to speak with her mouth for as long as she could remember. She later wrote, "Sometimes I stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips. I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips frantically without results. This made me so angry at times that I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted."
On March 26, 1890, at the age of ten, Helen was getting her chance. Helen and Ms. Fuller sat down to begin a task that many claimed was impossible. Ms. Fuller began by placing Helen's hand on her face and in her mouth, lightly at first. This allowed Helen to feel the position of Fuller's tongue and lips when she made a sound. She then shaped Helen's own mouth for making basic vowel sounds. She took Helen's hand and placed it on her throat so that Helen could feel the vibrations. For the next hour, the two focused on making the sounds of language. Helen would gently touch Fuller's face, mouth, tongue, and throat. Helen's hands also probed her own mouth and neck, as she tried to copy what Ms. Fuller was doing. First, she learned to form sounds. With time, she uttered her first sentence: "It is too warm."
Helen found the work exhausting, but she refused to give up. She only had 11 lessons in all, but she practiced almost nonstop. She spoke to birds, to her toys, to her dog. Speaking her thoughts was far easier than the manual alphabet, so Helen quickly traded one form of communication for the other.
Although Helen never spoke as clearly as she would have liked, she did use her new skill quite well throughout the years. You can see a short video of Helen speaking in the Helen Keller Kids Museum Online.
What was the title of Helen Keller's first book, and how did she get started as a writer?
At Radcliffe College between 1900 and 1904, one of Helen's English teachers was Dr. Charles Copeland. Dr. Copeland believed that Helen's writing was among the best he had come across in his classes. But he wanted Helen to write more personally—more about the world she lived in. At first, Helen was hurt by his criticism. Then she realized that he had pointed out exactly what she found missing in her own writing. She decided to be herself, to write her own thoughts and own ideas.
As a result, her writing skills grew. Her talents were noticed by the editors of Ladies' Home Journal. They asked Helen to write the story of her life. It would be published in five monthly installments in the magazine. The fee they offered was $3,000.00—a huge sum compared to the average salary. Since supporting themselves was almost a constant struggle for Helen and Annie, it was very tempting. With Annie's encouragement, Helen agreed. She felt pleased that she would be earning money on her own.
But she soon found that writing her story and keeping up with her school work was impossible. A friend introduced Annie and Helen to John Macy, a young English instructor at Harvard. Helen liked John immediately. He quickly learned the manual alphabet and began helping Helen edit her work. He also convinced Helen that her work could be expanded into a book. He helped her negotiate a contract, and in 1903, her first book, "The Story of My Life," was published by Doubleday, Page & Company.
The book was well received. The publisher assured Helen and John that the book would live on. Indeed it has, becoming an international bestseller. It has been published in more than 50 languages and remains in print 100 years later. You can read "The Story of My Life" for free at http://www.afb.org/mylife.