Thank you for inviting me here tonight to talk about and read from Seeing Annie Sullivan. I continue to be very moved by your belief that poetry is an effective way to tell a story and am thrilled that Perkins has had such an interest in my book and has translated it into Braille and into a Talking Book.
Recording the book onto tape was unlike anything I'd ever done. I had to distance myself from the words (to read them exactly as printed, without commentary) while at the same time be deeply intimate with them. Word by word, I'd remember the choices I had made, the other words vying for that place, the way the poems had been tossed and turned.
The artist Robert Rauschenberg said that before he begins a new work, he has no ideas, just curiosity. Curiosity is what got me started on this book, this exploration. I had read Helen Keller's The Story of My Life intending to write a poem to answer a question that had long intrigued me: How did a deaf and blind child grow up to become a woman with an exceedingly strong, active, and vocal sense of social justice? Helen's book naturally led me to 21-year-old Annie Sullivan. More intriguing questions ensued: How did their friendship evolve over 49 years from teacher/student to inseparable companions and best friends? How was Annie able to be objective in translating everything that people were telling Helen? She never censored tone or words. How much of her own ambition, her individuality, did Annie forfeit throughout their life together? And then the specifics of her teaching. What gave her the confidence to wing it? How did she acquire the intuition and day-to-day perseverance for her teaching methods, which Maria Montessori called revolutionary? Of course as a poet I couldn't resist the idea that, as Annie declared, everything has a name. Words, and their precise declaration, mattered.
I became very knowledgeable about Annie (thanks in great part to the boxes of archival material at Perkins) and soon had to confront the most absorbing questions of all, which then framed the scope of the book: Why did Annie tell no one, not even Helen, about her childhood until just a few years before she died? (Even then she was reluctant; it was only when the biographer Nella Braddy reminded her that if she doesn't tell it herself, after she's dead someone else will tell it wrong.) What happened in those first fourteen years and how did it influence the rest of her life?
Annie Sullivan was born in 1866 in the farmland of Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, to impoverished Irish Catholic immigrant parents. As a toddler she contracted trachoma, which made her visually impaired throughout her life, and she later had numerous eye operations. After her mother died when she was eight, Annie's father sent her to live with relatives who found her uncontrollable and a burden. They in turn send her, along with her brother, to the almshouse in Tewksbury where she lived from age 10 to 14. The Tewksbury almshouse was an unspeakably awful institution with horrendous health and human rights violations. During an investigation of its conditions, Annie persisted in begging the visiting officials to send her to a school for the blind that someone had told her about. She graduated from Perkins Institute for the Blind, as valedictorian, at 20 years old. Through a fortuitous set of connections, she went to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to teach Helen Keller in 1887. My book ends one year later, when she is 22.
Although many people have heard of Annie Sullivan, they know her only as Helen Keller's innovative and successful teacher. Except for her portrayal in the "Miracle Worker," she was relegated to the shadows; in the photos with Helen and Mark Twain, or Albert Einstein, or Alexander Graham Bell, you find her in the background. The spotlight followed Helen's accomplishments and shaped Helen's public persona. After Annie's death someone said that she was "the dynamo in the basement; Helen was the beautiful structure erected above it."
Annie Sullivan was a survivor. She made it—through a combination of random luck and the benefits of her angry, willful, contentious, and stubborn personality. She could easily have joined the tens of thousands of children disappeared into abject poverty, neglect, and a system of institutional disregard. But she got through it and used the memory and skeletons of that time to build her personal and social politics. Annie did not blame herself for the economic and social torments of her childhood and its scars, but she did say, perhaps in defense of her silence about her childhood: "The essence of poverty is shame. Shame to have been overwhelmed by ugliness, shame to be the hole in the perfect pattern of the universe."
Standing at the entrance to the Perkins School for the Blind at age 14 after leaving the Tewksbury almshouse, Annie first realized that to many people the world she came from was invisible, unheard of. "The world of the disinherited," she said, "is one of strangeness, grotesqueness and even terribleness, and a close recital of the doings of its inhabitants reveals an almost new universe." Annie's self-identity as a disinherited person and her sense of being one of the vast number of so-called "undeserving" haunted her always.
The adult Annie Sullivan was a complex woman harboring many contradictions. For instance, she yearned for recognition for teaching Helen yet she rudely rejected the accolades. In turn gentle and agitated, she suffered from wild mood swings and took up horseback riding, galloping to dispel the moods. Issues of class and inequity were always on her mind. "Some of us," she said, "blunder into life through the back door." And her biographer wrote, "the inequalities of the distribution and administration of money have always disturbed Annie. When she is with the poor she is overwhelmed by her good fortune, and when she is with the rich, the spectre of all the misery she has ever known stalks at her side."
—Denise Bergman, June 2014
Back to Seeing Annie Sullivan