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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

‘The Miracle Worker’ Tells a Surprisingly Bold and Liberatory Story about Helen Keller

How the 1962 film about Helen Keller is not the sanitized, ableist depiction we might assume.

The Miracle Worker is something of a middle school staple in the United States. Helen Keller is a significant figure in American history—she was the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor’s degree and a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, among other things—and the 1962 film offers an accessible way into her story. But when something’s a middle school staple, you inevitably tend to continue viewing it through your middle school eyes, no matter how the years pass. It can take so much to let go of that—even though, if pushed, none of us would have trouble admitting that we were really stupid when we were 13. 

I’m from Ireland, where The Miracle Worker doesn’t have that kind of cultural cache, but I’ve spent enough of my life online to absorb it by osmosis. For American leftists in particular—eager to reassert Helen Keller’s socialism, since that doesn’t seem to come up in middle school—The Miracle Worker is almost a bogeyman. The more I learned about Helen Keller, the more it seemed like people talking about her life and work were actively countering The Miracle Worker, sometimes explicitly. The Miracle Worker is the official Helen Keller story, sanitized and shrink-wrapped for moral majority suburbanites, a reduction of a complex, trailblazing woman. For disability activists, it’s invoked the way Rain Man is by autistics: this is how they see us, this is what we are understood to be

So when I watched The Miracle Worker, I had a very strong impression of what to expect. If nothing else, the title seemed to give the game away. I thought Helen would be a simplistic flatline of a character meant to inspire an abled audience. That, in turn, her teacher Anne Sullivan’s vision impairment would be glossed over or erased entirely, positioning her as the Heroic Abled Person “saving” Helen. That it would embody, if not create, so many of the tropes of how disabled people are represented on screen: designed primarily to make those of us who can see and hear feel “grateful” not to be otherwise. 

Not only was I dead wrong, but pretty much the opposite is true.

The Miracle Worker, adapted by William Gibson from his play of the same name, opens when Helen is 6 months old. She has recovered from a serious illness, and the doctor says she’ll be okay as he leaves. It’s Helen’s mother who notices something is wrong when Helen doesn’t respond to her name. 

The bulk of the movie takes place when Helen is 6 or 7 years old. Though Patty Duke, who originated the role on stage, should be, at 16, too old to play Keller, it works. She throws herself into the role with remarkable conviction and zero vanity, delivering a huge, hideous performance that I am certain must have been an influence on Linda Blair’s possessed little girl in The Exorcist

If that sounds like an odd comparison, let me be clear: Helen is a brat. Of course she’s a brat. Helen has no way of communicating with the outside world—she has some “home signs” understood by her family, like a sign for her mother, but no language, whether spoken, written, or signed. So the main form of communication she has is screaming and throwing tantrums and hitting out. Her father ignores Helen and her brother belittles her, both essentially dismissing her as more nuisance than human being. Her mother, meanwhile, loves her with a pitying love, unwilling to deny her anything when she has already been denied sight and sound. Between them, Helen becomes a spoiled tyrant. She smacks her parents without consequences. They let her grab food off their dinner plates with her hands to avoid telling her no (her mom) and in the hopes of getting some peace and quiet (her dad). 

While writer Elsa Sjunneson (herself deafblind) criticizes this portrayal as presenting disability as something “scary and disturbing,” to me, it’s a shocking and effective counter to the rhetorical tendency to treat disabled children as angels walking the Earth. It still feels genuinely audacious 60 years later.

While depicting disability itself as scary is a definite problem in the media, Helen’s behavior is clearly not a result of her disability—it’s the result of ableism. Helen is allowed to get away with things that no hearing or seeing child would. The Kellers set the bar low for her, on the expectation that the bar can never be low enough for her to get over. There’s no point in trying to get her to sit at the dinner table with her family, or to stop hitting other people, or wear her clothes properly. Both Keller parents fundamentally underestimate Helen’s capabilities. She is so clearly intelligent, played with whip-smart wiliness by Duke, yet she is assumed to be intellectually disabled. Doctors encourage the Kellers to have her admitted to an asylum. Helen’s mother refuses to acquiesce, contacting the Perkins School for the Blind in the hope that they can help. 

The school sends Anne Sullivan: not, as the Kellers had hoped, one of the school’s teachers, but one of its recent graduates. “Another invalid to take care of,” Helen’s brother sneers. 

Anne, played by Anne Bancroft in dark glasses, was valedictorian. Her flashbacks are out of focus, mimicking her impaired eyesight. An Irish Catholic orphan in a Northern city, she grew up in one of the asylums that Helen’s doctor recommended: Tewksbury Almshouse in Massachusetts. She and her brother with the disabled leg used to play with rats. The children and adults were all on top of one another, and sexual abuse was rampant—Anne tells Helen’s mother about a baby who had “diseases no baby is supposed to have.” The film doesn’t embellish this—if anything, the full horrors of the Tewskbury Almshouse are played down. (The investigation into the institution received a report of a dead patient being skinned and the skin being tanned into leather.) Anne’s backstory casts Helen’s life—hitting her parents with impunity, growing up in a Southern aristocratic family who, even if the movie never says it aloud, obviously owned slaves (and are vocally nostalgic for the Confederacy)—in a very different light. Instead of pitying her, you realize she is comparatively privileged. 

Anne’s vision impairment makes the Kellers nervous, like it makes her less capable, but it is in fact what makes her uniquely qualified for the job. She is capable of love without pity, of frustration without dismissiveness. How can she feel sorry for Helen when Helen has so much more than she ever did?

Helen smacks Anne so hard she knocks one of her teeth out.

From there on out, most of the film is this ongoing mental—and sometimes physical—tussle between Helen and Anne. It’s a sleek showcase for two brave and revelatory central performances, for which Duke and Bancroft rightly both won Oscars. Anne refuses to be subject to Helen’s tyrannical whims, and so takes on the Nanny 911 role of teaching her some manners. At one point, there’s a nearly 10-minute fight scene between Anne and Helen, and it’s one of the best scenes in cinema. Arthur Penn, who would go on to direct New Hollywood milestone Bonnie and Clyde, made a lot of violent movies, but this scene might be the most visceral, the most savage and wild. Anne wrestles with Helen to try to get her to eat with a spoon. By the fight’s end, Helen has eaten her food and folded her napkin—and the entire room has been destroyed. Helen is dogged; Anne is ruthless. Bancroft and Duke reportedly needed to go to the hospital after filming. 

The scene is uncomfortable in the best way art can be: it challenges you, forces you to live without easy resolution. The fight scene is funny, frustrating, scary, shocking, hopeful, joyous: the whole movie in microcosm.

All the while—even during the fight—Anne is constantly at her true work, the thing she came to do: teach Helen language. She finger-spells everything for her. It’s the same way you talk to a baby, Anne explains to Helen’s mother. You know they don’t understand, but you keep at it until, eventually, the words and what they refer to click together. At a certain point, Anne begins to despair: Helen’s behavior has improved, but she can only mimic Anne’s fingerspelling, “monkey see, monkey do” (as Helen later put it). Helen’s parents are pleased, but for Anne, obedience on its own is no gift at all. She wants Helen to have the ability to communicate. For words and meaning to finally click. It ultimately does in the film’s most famous scene, when Anne finger-spells W-A-T-E-R, signifying the water she can feel running from the tap. It’s a realization we probably all make as babies, but don’t remember. Helen, deprived of language until the age of 6, goes through that realization at an old enough age to remember it forever. It’s incredible. It plays with the punch-the-air thrill of the climax of a sports movie, but with a deafblind girl learning language instead of Rocky going the distance against the heavyweight champ. (It’s the same basic idea. Helen is in training the whole movie, and after all, she is the ultimate underdog.) 

Nothing about it feels sanitized or shrink-wrapped. It feels bold and uncompromising. It feels, for me, politically incisive: its disability politics are liberatory. There can be a tendency to assume representation of minority groups has continually gotten better over time. This assumption leads to preemptive dismissal of older representations. Even if it’s true in some narrow ways, the accompanying dismissal is nevertheless, as David Byrne once wrote about music improving over time, “typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present.” In The Miracle Worker, there is, crucially, no abled hero, like in Johnny Belinda, Radio, or Me Before You. It’s not the disability equivalent of Sandra Bullock saving a Black kid in The Blind Side. It’s a vision-impaired woman teaching a deafblind child. Anne is underestimated precisely because she’s a young disabled woman, and she succeeds in no small part because she is a young disabled woman. I dislike the title The Miracle Worker—it seems to elide the film’s complexity in favour of an ironed-out inspirational narrative—but it amazes me, still, that that hokey sounding title refers to a disabled woman. That she earns the title not by being an angel upon the earth, but by being a goddamn professional determined to see things through. 

And inside that story about disability, there’s a clear class narrative that subtly calls ahead to Helen Keller’s socialist activism. Anne and Helen are both extraordinary people. They were both disabled from infancy. They both succeed in leaps and bounds when given appropriate education. But only Anne was institutionalized. Only Anne was thrown away like a sack of rubbish, left to fend for herself in hell. Helen isn’t fully insulated by her class position—that asshole doctor keeps suggesting the asylum, after all—but Anne faced the brunt of society’s ableism at its most violent and most horrific. And there are surely dozens of disabled kids as whip-smart and bright as Helen hidden away in institutions all over the country—not one of whom will get the miracle they deserve. 

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