Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Nielsen, Kim E. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. New York University Press, 2004. 178 pages, $30.00 Cloth 0-8147-5813-4.

Reviewed by Joy B. Davis, independent scholar

In her recent book, Kim E. Nielsen tells the story of the forgotten and often suppressed radicalism of Helen Keller. Unlike most narratives of Keller's life, Nielsen is concerned with the politics of the adult Keller, who in her teens had joined other radicals in converting to Swedenborgianism. As a student at Radcliffe College, where she learned four languages, Keller was frustrated when her professors failed to connect ideas to their wider social contexts. She began speaking out in support of radical causes, published her first autobiography at the age of 23, graduated at 24, and became a member of the Socialist Party of America at 29. In her twenties and thirties, Keller supported suffrage, birth control, striking workers, and jailed dissidents, garnering the unwanted attention of the FBI. She indicted capitalism in a series of stinging critiques and went so far as to encourage men not to participate in World Wars I and II because she believed wars are capitalistic ventures. With characteristic pride, she initially turned down Andrew Carnegie when he offered her a regular pension income. Before the age of 40, Keller had published five books, which were translated into numerous languages, and many articles in popular magazines, becoming increasingly well known throughout the world as the deaf-blind girl who had achieved the miracle of language.

Keller began to temper her public political views when she joined the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) in 1924. Although she had celebrity appeal, that popularity did not translate into income. Anne Sullivan, Keller's teacher and companion, was legally blind, and financial worries were ever more present as both women aged. In exchange for her public support and appearances at fund-raising events, the AFB provided Keller with a yearly pension and helped her make other financial contacts through which she began traveling to many countries. Although she never fully relinquished her radical politics, Keller bent to pressure from the AFB (and those in her close circle) to remain apolitical in public. After Keller's 1937 trip to Japan, the State Department began to use her as a propaganda tool to better relations between the United States and other countries, even sending her back to Japan to tour Hiroshima and Nagasaki after WW II ended. While the State Department was using Keller as an unofficial ambassador, the FBI continued to monitor her activities, despite their frustration at not being able to supervise her conversations or put a wiretap on her phone. Keller journeyed to more than 30 countries and raised millions of dollars throughout the world for hospitals and schools for the deaf and blind. In 1968 she died after being awarded the Medal of Freedom a few years earlier.

Nielsen identifies herself as a historian, which helps her place Keller's disability in the context of competing 19th and 20th century ideologies. She does a convincing job of describing how the "manufactured frameworks of our historical memory" prescribe a particular, politicized Keller, one that allows "dominant cultural attitudes regarding disability," gender, and the public body to remain largely unexamined (pp. 1, 128). Keller had a complicated relationship with disability. Like radicals and conservatives of her time, she fully supported the policies of the eugenic and euthanasia movements, arguing that disabled children's lives should not be sustained. In a highly publicized case in 1915, a deformed baby was allowed to die after his physician refused to operate on him. In the pages of popular newspapers and magazines, Keller defended the physician's actions against the "cowardly sentimentalism" of those who condemned him, arguing that the life of the baby was "not worth while" and that he was "almost sure to be a potential criminal" when he grew up (pp. 36-37). By 1938, however, Keller had altered her views, and she argued publicly for the life of a blind baby, declaring that the baby still had a chance to have "vision more precious than sight" since the truly disabled were those who had "eyes of ignorance" (p. 69). While Keller engaged in legislative lobbying and fund-raising as part of her agreement with the AFB, she had almost nothing else to do with disabled people or the disability movement. Throughout her life, she turned down repeated requests to speak to groups and organizations on behalf of people with disabilities. She evidently did not view herself as a member of an oppressed group, but rather as an individual who had difficulties that she was able to overcome. While this furthered the story of Keller, it actually limited the effectiveness of others to politicize disability.

With such a fascinating story to tell, it is a shame that Nielsen's book is marred at times by problems in organization, unfinished anecdotes, idiosyncratic commentary, and mechanical errors. As a historian, Nielsen's instinct is to group her topics according to consecutive years, but this gets her into trouble at times, because the subject of Keller is such a large and unwieldy one. This method leads Nielsen to bring up a number of topics that are mentioned in passing, only to be brought up many pages or even chapters later, where they may or may not receive fuller treatment. For example, it is not until Keller is nearly 60 years old, according to Nielsen's timeline, that we are told that Herbert Haas is the "household's caretaker" (p. 63). Nothing else is mentioned of him until 13 years and 40 pages later, when Nielsen informs us that Haas has died. Some of Nielsen's anecdotes are left unfinished, as when she tells us that many of Keller's associates campaigned on her behalf for the Nobel Peace Prize, but then leaves it to the reader to surmise that Keller, although nominated, did not in fact win the prize. Nielsen also often interrupts her narrative to insert intrusive comments. When discussing Keller's visit to Syria, for example, she tells us how press reports covered Keller's public lecture in great detail, with one embassy worker even counting the amount of print devoted to stories about Keller in each newspaper and magazine. But Nielsen breaks her professional tone by adding, "(Didn't this person have anything else to do?)" (p. 109). In another place she quotes from a letter Keller wrote but cannot refrain from commenting on it: "[J]ust to make sure that my 'wild, strong will' [wouldn't it be nice to know whom she was quoting?] does not run away with me. . ." (p. 77). In addition, a number of mechanical errors are scattered throughout the rest of the book: misspellings, such as "characterizcing" (p. 83), incorrect parts of speech, as in "in order to understood their words" (p. 132), and so on. While a good editor should have caught all of these mistakes, they do not overpower Nielsen's story of the intriguing political history of an icon of disability.