Helen Keller
As Mystic

By Norman D. Livergood

     Many of us are aware that Helen Keller was a truly remarkable person who overcame the triple handicaps of lack of sight, speech, and hearing. There has been a great deal of interest in her partly because of the astounding story of how she developed from essentially a non-person to a fully functioning, highly intelligent, truly cultured individual through the revelation of meaning within language. 1

     If we delve further into her writings and biographies, to our astonishment we discover that Helen Keller was a profound mystic within the tradition2 of Hermes, Plato, Shakespeare, and Blake.

"...Try to imagine, if you can, the anguish and horror you would experience bowed down by the twofold weight of blindness and deafness, with no hope of emerging from an utter isolation! Still throbbing with natural emotions and desires, you would feel through the sense of touch the existence of a living world, and desperately but vainly you would seek an escape into its healing light. All of your pleasures would vanish in a dreadful monotony of silent days. Even work, man's Divine Heritage--work that can bind up broken hearts-- would be lost to you. Family and friends might surround you with love, but consolation alone cannot restore usefulness, or bring release from that hardest prison--a tomb of the mind and a dungeon of the body . . ."

Helen Keller, September 4, 1948

     For us to develop even a partial understanding of Helen Keller, we need to put ourselves in the situation of a young seven-year-old girl living in rural Alabama in 1887.

    This child had been blind, deaf, and mute since she was nineteen months old. In her later writings, Helen referred to herself in this period as "Phantom."

"What thought did she have in the five years she wandered in complete isolation? She said years later that she 'was like a ship in a dense fog, groping its way without compass or sounding-line'. And that she lived in 'a conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught or that I lived or acted. I had neither will nor intellect. . . I had no power of thought'. She also called herself a 'Phantom in a No-World'."

Waite, Helen E., Valiant Companions: Helen Keller
and Ann Sullivan Macy

     To understand how this non-person became a fully-functioning woman, we must examine the life and capabilities of her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
Annie Sullivan's Background

Annie Sullivan at age 21
Annie Sullivan
     Annie Sullivan's genius as a teacher is the primary reason Helen Keller developed into a fully-functioning individual. Annie had grown up in a dreadful family situation. Her father, illiterate and shiftless, was an alcoholic as well as verbally abusive to his family. Annie's mother was tubercular, suffered a fall when Annie was very young and walked with crutches the rest of her life. Annie's younger brother, Jimmy, was born with a tubercular hip. When she was about five, Annie contracted trachoma, which gradually reduced her vision.

     Half-blind and Irish-tempered like her father, Annie lashed out at her cruel world. Her mother died when Annie was still young and was buried in Potter's Field--the final resting place for the poverty-stricken. In 1876, when Annie was ten years old, she and her handicapped brother Jimmy were forced to live in a state poorhouse in Tewskbury, Massachusetts. Conditions at this hell-hole for the poor, the insane, and the infirm were so dreadful that inmates died like flies. Without treatment or care, Jimmy soon died, leaving Annie in a morbid state of depression and hopelessness.

     Annie underwent several operations for her eye disorder, but her sight continued to deteriorate. Living under constant threat for her life in the Tewksbury almshouse, Annie was finally placed in the Perkins Institution for the Blind in 1880.

     The Perkins Institution had been founded by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, an American pioneer in social reform. Howe had been somewhat successful in working with a girl by the name of Laura Bridgman. Laura had been stricken with scarlet fever at the age of two, resulting in deafness, blindness, muteness, and impaired senses of taste and smell.

      Operating on the principle that the blind should be educated to become self-reliant and to regard themselves as citizens of the Commonwealth, Howe taught Laura to read using raised letters and communicate through signing. However, Laura never learned to be self-sufficient and lived all her life at the Perkins Institution. Howe had died four years before Annie arrived at Perkins, the Institution now headed by Michael Anagnos.

     Dr. Howe's widow, Julia Ward Howe, was a celebrity in her own mind, having written "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Madame Howe exhibited her supposed erudition through the public reading of Plato's Phaedo in the original Greek or reading aloud to "the poor, blind children" at Perkins the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles. Julia Ward Howe was a leader in movements to secure the rights of blacks and women, but all her life retained a fastidious disdain for the lower classes.

     Annie learned to dislike self-important aristocrats such as Mrs. Howe and for the rest of her life had no respect for persons of wealth who looked down their noses at the poor or infirm, treating them with contempt while pretending to care for them.

     Annie served as a teacher at Perkins under the supervision of Mr. Anagnos. She felt that classroom teaching of canned subjects was an ineffective way to help the blind and deaf learn to fend for themselves.

     Turning down several jobs offered her, Annie Sullivan finally agreed to become the teacher of a young blind and deaf girl living in Tuscumbia, Alabama by the name of Helen Keller. With great trepidation, Annie boarded the train to begin her journey to a strange new land.

Helen's Background

     Helen Keller's father, Captain Arthur H. Keller, had fought with the Confederate army at the siege of Vicksburg. After the election of Grover Cleveland he was appointed U.S. marshall for the Northern District of Alabama. He had previously been the owner and editor of the North Alabamian, a weekly newspaper that never made any money.

     Captain Keller loved his family dearly, but he was decidedly a gentleman of the South. Though he treated Negroes kindly, as long as they kept their place and were deferential and polite, he told a Northern visitor that "we never think of them as human beings."

     Helen's mother, twenty years younger than her husband, was the daughter of Charles W. Adams, a lawyer and former brigadier general in the Confederate army. General Adams had originally come from New England and was related to the Adams family. Helen's mother was of the Everett and Sherman lineage, but such family connections were no longer a matter of pride in the postbellum South.

      Coming from a well-to-do Memphis family, Helen's mother had married Captain Keller in a pique and by the time Helen was born she realized that she'd made a mistake. At times she went for days without speaking to her husband. But she was a hard-working home maker and a loving mother to her children.

     When she was nineteen months of age, Helen suffered from what the doctor diagnosed as "acute congestion of the stomach and brain." The high fever accompanying this malady left Helen blind and deaf. As a young blind and deaf child, Helen lived much like an animal, rushing from one sensation to another. Some members of the extended family, particularly Mrs. Keller's brother, considered Helen mentally defective and urged that she be put away in a home for the blind.

     Fortunately, even before Annie arrived, the family had allowed Helen to explore her world as best she could.
     "At the back of Helen there was a wonderful family--especially a mother wise and patient and strong enough to let her baby go exploring and learn by experience just as other babies did, rather than hold her back for fear she would be hurt." 3
     The Kellers decided to seek advice from Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and a former teacher of the deaf. Travelling to Washington, D.C., the Kellers were graciously received by Dr. Bell and Helen met this man for the first time who was to become her life-long friend.

      Bell urged the Kellers to write to Mr. Anagnos of the Perkins Institution for the Blind and see if someone might be available to work with Helen. Upon receiving their letter, Anagnos wrote to Annie, who was staying for the summer with her Perkins house mother, Mrs. Hopkins, at the Cape.

      Annie was interested in the job but unsure of her ability to become a teacher of a deaf-blind young girl. But she accepted the position and returned to Perkins to prepare herself for the challenge. She studied Dr. Howe's work with Laura Bridgman, reading how he had taught her about the meaning of words by having her handle an object while simultaneously spelling the name of the object into her hand.

The Genius of Annie Sullivan

      No one was more aware than Helen Keller of the enormous travail which Annie Sullivan underwent in helping to develop a fully functioning individual. Annie was absolutely determined that this young girl would learn about everything in her world: every sound, color, texture, event, meaning, feeling, concept, and activity. Annie was intent on becoming the eyes and ears of this person so that she could have a complete grasp of what it is to be human.

     As we study how Annie helped to fashion this person named Helen Keller, we're amazed at how many new concepts and methods she had to create on her own--because there simply was no one who had ever accomplished what she wanted to do. It's also astounding to think of how easily she could have created a warped, truncated creature who would have become a recluse like Laura Bridgman or a self-absorbed prodigy like some of the young Hollywood child stars.

The Revelation of Meaning

     On March 3, 1887, a frightened, half-blind twenty-one year old Boston Irish young lady was traveling by train to meet for the first time the blind-deaf daughter of a Southern family in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Helen tells in her own words what happened next.
"Then suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge, to love, to the usual concepts of nature, good, and evil. I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life."

"My teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, had been with me nearly a month, and she had taught me the names of a number of objects. She put them into my hand, spelled their names on her fingers and helped me to form the letters; but I had not the faintest idea what I was doing. I do not know what I thought. I have only a tactile memory of my fingers going through those motions and changing from one position to another.

"One day she handed me a cup and spelled the word. Then she poured some liquid into the cup and formed the letters w-a-t-e-r. She says I looked puzzled and persisted in confusing the two words, spelling cup for water and water for cup. Finally I became angry because Miss Sullivan kept repeating the words over and over again.

    "In despair she led me out to the ivy-covered pumphouse and made me hold the cup under the spout while she pumped. With her other hand she spelled w-a-t-e-r emphatically. I stood still, my whole body's attention fixed on the motions of her fingers as the cool stream flowed over my hand. All at once there was a strange stir within me--a misty consciousness, a sense of something remembered. It was as if I had come back to life after being dead!"


Helen's Rebirth into Mental and Spiritual Awareness

     The "water" episode was Helen's actual rebirth into mental awareness, what Helen called her "soul's sudden awakening."

     Before her awakening to the magic of meaning, Helen was sub-human. Helen later wrote of herself at this time:
"I was like an unconscious clod of earth. There was nothing in me except the instinct to eat and drink and sleep. My days were a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without interest or joy."
     Helen realized that the "water" episode was her actual coming back to life after being dead! From the beginning, therefore, Helen understood that the experience was more than merely physical--that it was an awakening to mental realms.
Now I see it was my mental awakening. I think it was an experience somewhat in the nature of a revelation. I showed immediately in many ways that a great change had taken place in me. I wanted to learn the name of every object I touched, and before night I had mastered thirty words. Nothingness was blotted out! I felt joyous, strong, equal to my limitations! Delicious sensations rippled through me, and sweet, strange things that were locked up in my heart began to sing.

"When the sun of consciousness first shone upon me, behold a miracle! The stock of my young life that had perished, now steeped in the waters of knowledge, grew again, budded again, was sweet again with the blossoms of childhood. Down in the depths of my being I cried, "It is good to be alive!" I held out two trembling hands to life, and in vain would silence impose dumbness upon me henceforth.

"That first revelation was worth all those years I had spent in dark, soundless imprisonment. That word "water" dropped into my mind like the sun in a frozen winter world.

"The world to which I awoke was still mysterious; but there were hope and love and God in it, and nothing else mattered. Is it not possible that our entrance into heaven may be like this experience of mine?"
     Helen had experienced a regeneration from a lifeless form to a human being and she grasped the full meaning of this change from "death" to life.

      After Annie had helped Helen to make the breakthrough to meaning, Mr. Keller, Mr. Anagnos, and many others encouraged Annie to write a report of her work with Helen because they felt it was a great accomplishment. Reluctant and uncertain of what she was doing, Annie nevertheless consented and completed the report in 1887.

     The report was published in the Perkins Report of that same year. Captain Keller and the others had been right, it was a great story and Annie's account was reprinted, reviewed and quoted in nearly every newspaper and magazine in America. It captured the imagination of people all over the world. People everywhere took the little Alabama girl to their hearts. And Helen Keller was no flash in the pan; from then on, she was famous!

     Annie constantly reminded Helen that her real attainments would be in her spirit and mind and that she must not let fame affect her in any negative way. As Annie wrote to a friend in June of 1887, "My beautiful Helen shall not be transformed into a prodigy if I can help it."

     And Annie was successful in helping Helen develop a truly outgoing and delightful personality, free from the tincture of egotism with which fame often stains the strongest soul.

"There probably had been people, even distinguished folk, who had gone to the parties or the teas where they knew Helen was to be because they were fascinated by her story and were eager to see the Wonder Child, but most of them, once they had been with her, forgot that she was a prodigy and surrendered to her simply because she was a joyous, natural, eager-minded girl who seemed to be brimming with interest in everybody else." 4
     Annie was intent on Helen developing into not only a highly intelligent and articulate woman, but a truly cultured person with genuine appreciation for art and music and the subtle nuances of literature and poetry. Helen later described how Annie wanted not simply knowledge as such for her, but "the thousand little graces and amenities which betoken true culture and refinement."

"Together we saw life in all its different aspects and were often in the society of the great, the gifted, the influential, among whom were women beautiful both in mind and body whose conversation intrigued Teacher. What irritated her most were idea-less talk and deportment and actions without grace of individuality. She excused the ill-starred poor and the untutored defective, but never those who had means to be educated and acquire refinement."
     One of the most important decisions Annie Sullivan made concerning Helen's development was to throw away all the preconceived plans for formal "lessons" which Howe and others had established as the norm for handicapped children. Annie made the momentous decision that there would be no fixed schedule during which Helen would sit at a table memorizing selected words or completing routine activities. Annie and Helen would come and go as Helen's interest indicated, without Helen being aware that she was doing something important. Helen would learn just by living!

"You were at least not hampered by preconceived notions, and I think that an advantage. You did not take to your task standardized ideas, and your own individuality was so ingrained that you didn't try to repress Helen's. You must not lay too much stress on what you were not taught by others. What we learn from others is of less value than what we teach ourselves!"

Alexander Graham Bell in a letter to Annie Sullivan

     Annie used Helen's sense of touch and smell--her two intact senses--to their fullest in helping her develop. Helen learned about new-born life when Annie had her hold an egg in her hand so that she could feel the baby chick 'chip-chipping' its way out through the shell.

     Of this aspect of Annie's genius, Helen wrote: "Poetry and music were her allies. In her fingers words rang, rippled, danced, buzzed, and hummed. She made every word vibrant to my mind--she would not let the silence about me be silent. She kept in my thought the perceptive, audible, and other qualities of every object I could touch. She brought me into sensory contact with everything we could reach or feel--sunlit summer calm, the quivering of soap bubbles in the light, the songs of birds, the fury of storms, the noises of insects, the murmur of trees, voices loved or disliked, familiar fireside vibrations, the rustling of silk, the creaking of a door, and the blood pulsing in my veins."      Many people could never grasp how Helen could develop an understanding of such abstract entities as love or beauty. When she was fairly young, a presumptuous gentleman asked her what beauty could possibly mean to a blind person. The self-possessed young Helen replied that she imagined it was a form of goodness! Telling her mother of the incident, she said that after she had made this remark the nonplussed gentleman 'went away!"

     Annie was constantly amused as well as amazed when asked by supposedly learned--but baffled--people in the field how she taught Helen abstract ideas like gladness, goodness, love, and beauty. "It isn't the word," she replied, "but the capacity to experience the sensation that counts. The word love she learned as other children do," Annie explained, "--by its association with caresses."

     Annie's straightforward answers to all Helen's questions formed a large part of Helen's conceptual world, especially in regard to mental or spiritual concepts. Annie described their discussion of the concept of soul:
"At another time she asked, 'What is a soul?' 'No one knows what the soul is like,' I replied; 'but we know that it is not the body, and it is that part of us which thinks and loves and hopes, and which Christian people believe will live on after the body is dead.' . . .  I explained to her that the soul, too, is invisible, or in other words, that it is without apparent form. 'But if I write what my soul thinks,' she said, 'then it will be visible, and the words will be its body.'"
     Annie Sullivan understood that she had been, in a very real sense, Helen's mental and psychological mother. But she was an independent person in her own right and wanted Helen to think for herself as well. As Helen later described this aspect of their life together:
"The more we talked, the less we thought alike, except in our desire of good and our intense longing for intelligence as a universal attribute of mankind."
     Not only did Annie allow Helen to form her own judgments, but she was able to truly respect Helen's opinions even when they different greatly from her own. In later years, Helen realized that Annie was aggrieved that she had chosen Swedenborg's ideas as an important part of her spiritual point of view. Annie had felt that Helen should simply explore her own mind in forming her philosophical convictions.

     But, true to her own independence of spirit, Annie was able to respect even Helen's interest in Swedenborgian ideas:
"I can respect your beliefs because you do not use them like a weakling to console yourself for blindness and deafness, but as part of the happiness God wants to create for us all.

"Yes, dear, I am your mother in heart and mind, but I do not own you. I want you to form your views independently. Only keep yourself clear of competitive sects and creeds, and do not get involved in any fanaticism. Always be just and generous to those with whom you differ."

Helen's Mystical Development

     One of the primary facets of Helen's development as a mystic was her learning to meditate on the deeper, spiritual meaning of this new life.
"One day I was made radiantly happy and brought nearer to a sense of God when I "watched" in my mind's eye an exquisite butterfly, just out of its cocoon, drying its wings in the sun, and afterward felt it fluttering over a bunch of trailing arbutus. Someone told me how the ancient Egyptians had looked upon the butterfly as an emblem of immortality. I was delighted. It seemed to me as it should be, that such beautiful forms of life should have in them a lesson about things still more lovely."
     In her book, Light In My Darkness, Helen described what she called her Spiritual Awakening.
"I had been sitting quietly in the library for half an hour. I turned to my teacher and said, "Such a strange thing has happened! I have been far away all this time, and I haven't left the room." "What do you mean, Helen?" she asked, surprised. "Why," I cried, "I have been in Athens!"

"Scarcely were the words out of my mouth when a bright, amazing realization seemed to catch my mind and set it ablaze. I perceived the realness of my soul and its sheer independence of all conditions of place and body. It was clear to me that it was because I was a spirit that I had so vividly "seen" and felt a place thousands of miles away. Space was nothing to spirit! In that new consciousness shone the presence of God, who is a spirit everywhere at once, the Creator dwelling in all the universe simultaneously.

"The fact that my small soul could reach out over continents and seas to Greece, despite a blind, deaf, and stumbling body, sent another exulting emotion rushing over me. I had broken through my limitations and found in the sense of touch an eye. I could read the thoughts of wise men and women - thoughts that had for ages survived their mortal life - and could possess them as part of myself.

"If this were true, how much more could God, the uncircumscribed spirit, cancel the harms of nature - accident, pain, destruction - and reach out to his children! Deafness and blindness, then, were of no real account. They were to be relegated to the outer circle of my life. Of course I did not sense any such process with my child-mind; but I did know that I, the real I, could leave the library and visit any place I wanted to, mentally, and I was happy. That was the little seed from which grew my interest in spiritual subjects."
     Helen's close friend, John Hitz, gave her a copy of Emanuel Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell in raised letters. Helen was immediately attracted to the ideas in the book and found in it "a likeness of a God as lovable as the one in my heart.

"My heart gave a joyous bound. Here was a faith that emphasized what I felt so keenly - the separateness between soul and body, between the realm I could picture as a whole and the chaos of fragmentary things and irrational contingencies that my limited physical senses met at every turn. I let myself go, as healthy, happy youth will, and tried to puzzle out the long words and the weighty thoughts of the Swedish sage. As I read Heaven and Hell, I felt God as close to me as when Bishop Brooks and I talked about Christ.

"The words "Love" and "Wisdom" seemed to caress my fingers from paragraph to paragraph, and these two words released in me new forces to stimulate my somewhat indolent nature and urge me forward evermore. I came back to the book from time to time, picking up a line here and a line there, "precept upon precept," one glimpse, then another of the Divine Word hidden under the clouds of literal statement. As I realized the meaning of what I read, my soul seemed to expand and gain confidence amid the difficulties that beset me. The descriptions of the other world bore me far, far over measureless regions bathed in superhuman beauty and strangeness. In that spiritual world where great lives and creative minds cast a splendor upon darkest circumstances, events and mighty combats sweep by endlessly, and the night is lit to eternal day by the smile of God.

"I glowed through and through as I sat in that atmosphere of the soul and watched men and women of nobler mold pass in majestic procession. For the first time immortality put on intelligibility for me, and the earth wore new curves of loveliness and significance.

"I was glad to discover that the City of God was not a stupid affair of glass streets and sapphire walls, but a systematic treasury of wise, helpful thoughts and noble influences. Gradually I came to see that I could use the Bible, which had so baffled me, as an instrument for digging out precious truths, just as I could use my hindered, halting body for the high behests of my spirit.

     Helen Keller (1880 - 1968), suffering from the lack of sight, hearing, and speech, developed into a highly advanced human being--much more aware and discerning that many people possessing all five senses. From her personal experiences she became a true mystic in the Hermetic-Platonic tradition. She is a tremendous inspiration to all humankind--a magnificent trailblazer in the spiritual realm.
"According to all art, all nature, all coherent human thought, we know that order, proportion, form, are essential elements of beauty. Now order, proportion, and form, are palpable to the touch. But beauty and rhythm are deeper than sense. They are like love and faith. They spring out of a spiritual process only slightly dependent upon sensations. Order, proportion, form, cannot generate in the mind the abstract idea of beauty, unless there is already a soul intelligence to breathe life into the elements.

"Many persons, having perfect eyes, are blind in their perceptions. Many persons, having perfect ears, are emotionally deaf. Yet these are the very ones who dare to set limits to the vision of those who, lacking a sense or two, have will, soul, passion, imagination. Faith is a mockery if it teaches us not that we may construct a world unspeakably more complete and beautiful than the material world. And I, too, may construct my better world, for I am a child of God, an inheritor of a fragment of the Mind that created all worlds."


1 See the section on Helen Keller in Chapter Seven of The Perennial Tradition, "Language and Human Evolution"

2 The Perennial Tradition

3 Waite, Helen E., Valiant Companions: Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan Macy, p. 37

4 Waite, Helen E., Valiant Companions: Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan Macy, p. 134