Looking Beyond Helen Keller’s Story

Helen Keller as we all know is renowned for overcoming severe sight and hearing handicaps devoting her adult life to improving the lot of the disabled. Her name is recognized by millions, her life story is familiar to so many. In a recent visit to her birthplace and museum in Florence, AL, I learned so much more about her family life beyond the classic stories of her growth, development and nurturing by tutor and governess Annie Sullivan.  

Helen lost her sight and hearing at 19 months and quickly became the focus of attention by her parents Arthur and Kate Adams Keller. In that regard, I wondered about the impact of her afflictions on her siblings and the reactions of her 4 siblings; two half brothers, James and William Simpson, sister Mildred Campbell Keller and brother, Phillip Brooks Keller. Did they feel equally loved by their parents or ignored in deference to the energy, anguish and devotion given to Helen in learning to overcome her handicaps.  In her 9th year, she was enrolled in the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA and left her birthplace in Florence. She reportedly did not return home to live after this move.

On the museum tour, the docents highlighted her parents success and wealth, living on a 640 acre plot of land. They touted the continuing success and brilliance of the modern day Keller family engaging in highly regarded careers,  The continuation of the family line reportedly is due to Helen’s sister Mildred with three daughters to carry on.  

Little is known or documented of the lives of Helen’s two older half sibs; James Keller b abt 1869-In 1900 living with cousins and grandmother in AL, unmarried and William Simpson Keller b abt 1876-In 1929 living in Alabama married to Annie, Civil Engineer (Highway) for the State of Alabama. Neither James or William had children to carry on the name. Not unexpectedly we learned that her half siblings were quite affected by their neglectful upbringing, both leaving Florence for elsewhere in AL.  James is quoted as saying “I feel overlooked much of the time with Helen getting all of the attention.”  James is believed to have died young, in the early 1900’s, but the circumstances are unknown.    

Her full fledged sibs were Phillips Brooks Keller b abt 1892-1n 1920 living in TX, unmarried, Civil engineer and sister Mildred Campbell Keller 1886-1969 in Montgomery AL, married to Laban Tyson. their 3 children were: Katherine b abt 1910, Patty b abt 1915 and Mildred b abt 1918, responsible for carrying on the family name. 

William James, a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher said of Helen Keller in 1908, “Whatever you were or are, you’re a blessing.” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_James
Indeed she was a blessing to many but how often we do not learn of the realities of life and living and the affects individuals have upon one another. I just wanted to share these glimpses into the back stories of a personality we have all come to know and revere. 

The images; the Helen Keller museum and the famous pump, site of the triumph of Annie Sullivan tapping Helen’s understanding of language.