Helen Keller in Love
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Helen Keller’s life of tragedy and triumph made her an American legend. Her incredible story of how she first learned to communicate has been told in films such as The Miracle Worker and in her autobiography, The Story of My Life. Although Helen Keller exists as an icon, she was also a woman, with the same desires and needs as any other. This is the side of Helen Keller that isn’t included in films, history books, or even her own writing; this is the side that is imagined in Rosie Sultan’s debut novel, Helen Keller in Love. Witty, insightful, and poetic, Sultan’s book is based on the true story of a forbidden romance between one of America’s most beloved figures and the impetuous young man who stole her heart.
In her thirties, with mounting debt, and fearful of losing her longtime teacher and companion Annie Sullivan to tuberculosis, Helen Keller is a woman with great responsibilities, both public and private. She has met with presidents and celebrities, raised money for charitable causes, and been an inspiration to millions, yet part of Helen is unfulfilled. Using intimate, firstperson narration, Sultan allows Helen to confide in the reader her yearning for love, marriage, and even childrenfeelings she keeps hidden from family and friends. When aspiring journalist Peter Fagan arrives to serve as Helen’s personal secretary, the chemistry is palpable, and Sultan’s dialogue imagines their witty, flirtatious banter perfectly, capturing the joy of new love. As Helen and Peter plan to elope, her mother and Annie pressure her to abandon the relationship and her chance at a life she never thought possible. Caught between her passionate desires, her family obligations, and her commitment to her causes, Helen finds herself pushed to the breaking point; to satisfy one part of her life, she must deny the others.
Sultan demonstrates the complexities of human relationshipsthe tensions and affection between lovers, friends, and familyand her portrait of Helen and Peter’s romance is warm and sympathetic. Her novel imagines a love affair that could have changed history. The nuanced depiction of Helen’s deepest hopes and struggles is sure to resonate with readers. Filled with rich, lyrical prose, Helen Keller in Love presents Helen not as a woman whose disabilities deprive her of sensations but as a woman whose inner life is a riot of sensual experience, sexual desire, and love.
Rosie Sultan earned her MFA at Goddard College and has taught writing at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, and Suffolk University. She is a former fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and won a PEN Discovery Award for fiction. She currently lives with her family in Brookline, Massachusetts. This is her first novel.
Q. Why did you decide to write about this relatively unknown period in Helen Keller’s life? How did you first learn about it?
RS: I’ve been fascinated by Helen Keller since I was about seven years old and got my first book about her. I’ve read almost everything about her since then. A few years ago I read a new biography called Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann. Toward the end of the book was a short chapter that told the story of how, at the age of thirtyseven, Helen had a secret love affair with Peter Fagan. I put the book down and said to myself, “There’s a big story here.” Within a few days I was on my way to writing Helen Keller in Love.
Why did I write about this littleknown period in Helen’s life? Because once I knew she had had a love affair I saw her as more than an icon: I saw her as a woman with vulnerabilities and conflicting desires. I wrote about this period to bring to life the complexities of Helen Keller’s very human heart. Q. What are the challenges in writing a historical novel? Did you feel a certain responsibility to Helen when sharing her story? How do you think she would react to your novel?
RS: The challenges of writing a historical novel are to fully explore, in a deep and almost reverent way, the life of a fellow human being in the context of the wider world. Helen Keller was a political activist who protested against the United States’ entry into the First World War, a leader who advocated for the rights of the deaf/blind, and a woman who worked for the rights of others while chafing against restrictions put on her own life. The historical novel allows all of those elements to come alive. It is a thrilling form.
Did I feel a responsibility to her? Absolutely. Yet I also felt that this was an opportunity to tell parts of Helen Keller’s story that she could not, or would not, fully tell. My hope would be that she would see the book as a respectful tribute to her. A love letter, almost, to the radical, deeply adventurous life she led.
Q. How did you come to write the book from the perspective of a blind/deaf person? Especially since you are neither blind nor deaf?
RS: I guess the way I see it is that I wrote the book from the perspective of Helen Keller. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the several books and hundreds of letters written by Helen describing her world. And what a gift those books and letters are; they bring to life in precise detail how she experienced the world from a sensory perspective. These books and letters describe her life as a young woman, her evolving political views, her deep religious faith, and how she perceived herself and the world around her.
I could not have written a book from the perspective of any blinddeaf person. But Helen made it possible for me to write from hers.
Q. Helen describes her world as “a tangible white dark . . . a deep fog, rough to the fingers” (p. 9). Where did this image come from? How did you meet the challenge of imagining what a sightless person “sees”?
RS: The image is based on Helen Keller’s very apt description of her world. In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, she wrote, “Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in . . . ?” The image was so precise in its effort to convey Helen’s experience that I paraphrased it in my novel. She says in the text of the novel that she wrote this description in one of her books. This signals the reader that the phrase is, or is based on, her own words. I repeated this process at key points in the book.
Conveying Helen’s experience was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. To do so, I closely read her own descriptions of her world. The main texts I studied were her autobiography and her truly amazing book called The World I Live In.
Q. In several sections of the book you describe Helen’s sexual experiences. Some people might find these scenes unsettling or even slightly inappropriate. Do you agree?
RS: I’ve gotten this question a lot. And, I have to admit, at first I was really surprised by it. Because, for me, when I was writing the novel I was just in the story. And I was deeply aware of Helen Keller as a complex woman with emotional and physical desires. A woman with a profound desire for love. Suddenly I saw this saintlike, iconic figure as the complex woman that she really was. So writing about her as a sexual and sensual woman felt completely natural and completely normal. It was a natural part of both the story and the person Helen Keller was.
Q. Annie Sullivan devoted her entire life to Helen, and her complete and utter dedication is admirable but also somewhat perplexing. What do you think motivated her to give her so much of her life to Helen?
RS: In my research for this book I discovered that Annie Sullivan was as fascinating as Helen Keller. Annie was a very complicated woman from a background of poverty and deprivation, who was blind for many years of her life. She transformed Helen by teaching her language, yes. But Annie was also deeply transformed by her role as Helen’s teacher. Through her work with Helen, Annie, for the first time, found love, stability, and joy.
Yet their mutual dependency was problematic. Even when Annie married, later in life, she still devoted much of her time and energy to Helen, and that was a source of great conflict. Helen was always Annie’s primary focus, and that, along with Annie’s own personal demons, made the building of her own life nearly impossible.
Q. Many people believe that hardships such as physical disability can fortify a person’s spirit. Do you agree?
RS: I can only say what I know from Helen Keller’s own writings. She was seen as a role model of how one can strengthen one’s character by overcoming difficulties. Indeed, Helen Keller came to believe that her dual handicaps provided her a special role in the world, to help others equally afflicted.
But, as Helen Keller also acknowledged, there is a cost to this idea. Much of her life was spent demonstrating that she was equal to the “normal” hearing and sighted world: many of her books and speeches told of the benefits she derived from overcoming her difficulties. Yet that story, in its very triumph, also created a gap between Helen and the larger society. Certainly Helen Keller enjoyed the respect of many for her story of triumph, but she also suffered from loneliness for being set apart, or put on a pedestal.
Q. There are moments in the novel where Helen, in retrospect, sees hints in Peter’s behavior as to the end of their relationship. Do you believe their romance was doomed from the start?
RS: No, I really don’t. I think they both came into the relationship with genuine curiosity and excitement. They were both highly intelligent, passionate, and committed to causes they believed in. So I wouldn’t say the relationship was doomed from the start. I would say that as it progressed they both became aware of the pressures on them, and they struggled to move forward in spite of those pressures. That, to me, is one of the beauties of this storythe way they tried to form a relationship based on love, a truly unusual relationship in which they would have to create their own rules, find their own way, yet so much was against it.
Q. Considering that Helen was a woman who gave so much of her life to the public, why do you think she so rarely discussed her relationship with Peter?
RS: The answer to that question is complicated, but one clue can be found in Helen’s own writings. In her midlife memoir, Midstream, she writes ever so briefly about her love affair with Peter. To the entire affair she devotes perhaps a few paragraphs, at best. And in a startling admission of her own mixed feelings about her role in keeping secrets from her mother, her teacher, and the larger world that thought they “knew” her, she writes, “I am a human being, with a human being’s frailties and inconsistencies.” To me, that quote is heartbreaking. It’s such a poignant plea to be accepted as, after all, merely human.
Q. In the afterword, you refer to a number of nonfiction and reference resources you used when writing the novel, but perhaps you could speak a little bit about the fiction writers who have influenced your work. Whose writing do you admire?
RS: I admire a wide range of writers, but I especially I love novels with characters who are driven by their own desires yet shaped by the forces of history as well. So I have read and reread Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day for the sheer force of its storytelling and its perfect blend of history and character. My copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is worn out from many readings: what a great story of war and love! Jane Mendelsohn’s lyrical novel I Was Amelia Earhart has a dreamy, poetic quality that resonates long after the novel is read, and then of course there is Marguerite Duras’ incomparable work of love and longing, The Lover. In all these novels illuminating, funny, complex characters grapple with both their personal desires and the shifting desires and behaviors of their own historical eras. That is what I love.
Q. What is your next project? Would you write another historical novel?
RS: The research I did over a period of several years for Helen Keller in Love has yielded enough material for another book, so yes, I will definitely write another historical novel. I’ve already started it and I’m very excited about it. Look for it in the future!
- What did you know about Helen Keller before you read this novel? Did the character in the novel match your expectations? Explain.
- Were you startled by the sexual nature of Helen's relationship with Peter? Did this challenge any assumptions you had about Helen, or about people with disabilities in general?
- Helen describes her mother as living in "a shadow of grief that she couldn't save me" from the illness that took her sight and hearing and that she is haunted by the "intolerable, blurred image of what I could have been" (p. 74). Imagine yourself in Helen's mother's place. Describe your feelings about Helen's life and her relationship with Peter.
- Why does Annie object to Helen and Peter's romance? Do you agree with her opinion? What other reasons might she have had for not wanting Helen and Peter to be together?
- Have you ever had a romantic affair, friendship, or relationship that others in your life disapproved of? Did their disapproval affect your actions?
- On page 43, Helen says, "Annie needed me to stay childlike." What does she mean by this? Is it true?
- Helen's descriptions of sounds, feelings, and scents are striking in their beauty and imagery. Choose one of your favorite examples in the book and explain why you find it so moving.
- When considering Peter's feelings for her, Helen asks, "Was he attracted to the idea of me? I had the strange sensation the answer was yes" (p. 71). What does she mean by "the idea" of her?
- Imagine your own life without sound or sight. What would the biggest challenges be? How would you overcome them?
- Why does Helen and Peter's relationship end the way that it does? Are there any clues to this earlier in the book?
- Does Peter really love Helen? Did Helen have a realistic expectation of what a relationship is?
- Would Helen's life have been better or worse if she and Peter had married?