What I Learned from Helen Keller and My Father

My introduction to the life story of Helen Keller was through the film, The Miracle Worker. With the help of the acting brilliance of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, I watched the impaired little girl transform not only herself but her family and teacher by her determination to overcome the loss of sight and hearing because of an illness in her infancy.

If you have seen this film, maybe you had the same reaction to Helen’s bravery when she, faced with the desertion of her teacher, breaks free of her family’s indulgence of her impairments and proves she is capable of learning.

In the film, she stumbles from one object to another in her front yard, naming each as her teacher had signed them to her, giving her utmost effort to vocalize words she has never heard.

During those moments in the film, I cheer for that little girl, fighting all the odds, including the people who loved her most, to be more, have more, achieve more than anyone believed she could, including her teacher.

By her supreme effort to prove she is capable of more than being a sightless, voiceless creature to be pitied, Helen is transformed into a heroine and a champion of those less fortunate.

That story, the legend the film created, has always inspired me and probably, with the help of women in my life and in my family who, in spite of adversity, kept faith with themselves, gave me the foundation that has seen me through my own, though meager in comparison, adversity. Women who, for their families and friends, follow their dreams, protect and provide for their children, stand by the men they love, even if they fall short of reaching their life’s goal, never give up. Always adjusting, altering, sacrificing to meet the needs of the people they love.

These qualities are part of what make us all capable of heroism, at least in the eyes of those we love. When my father returned home as a veteran, there were no jobs. Despite his experience as an Army officer, the only work he could find was as a farm laborer, picking potatoes. He had to provide for his wife and children and he did this back-breaking work to ensure than none of us went hungry. While he was bending beneath the weight of this burden, my mother was working nights in the canning factory.

My mother’s memoir of her WWII experiences is Following the Troops. She was proud of my father, even when she was run out of Boston because of him.

I’m an author and I write about women who, despite uncertainty, disadvantage or disappointment, take on life on their own terms, finding the men they need along the way, chasing them down when they have to.

Men like Eric Wasserman, women like Sylviana Innocenti.

Also on this subject...


  1. Leigh, how can I read Virginia’s memoirs if I don’t have a nook book? I really need to know how come she was ‘run out of Boston’! I’m sure it makes for riveting reading, as my grandmother also told me tales of the hardship of living through the wars – she saw both the First World War and WWII – and the social changes, particularly in WWI, were incredible.

    Also, I read about Helen Keller when I was really young in a Reader’s Digest magazine. I was so astounded that someone could achieve what she did that I tried walking about with my eyes closed and not speaking; my mother begged me to give it up after a few accidents. However, it later led me to volunteering in a school for deaf children when I was in my teens, and I learned how to see the person first and not the disability.

    I have just returned from a tall ship voyage where I worked alongside people who coped with severe health problems. One woman – I’ll call her Celia – told me how she lost a leg when a young joyrider crushed her between her car and his, and ran away leaving her trapped. She was able to see that her leg had been severed above the knee, and it was 20 minutes before someone found her.

    Celia very matter-of-factly told me her story, and showed me the prosthesis she wore, and where it had blistered her skin owing to the movement of the boat. She explained that the young lad who hit her came from a family of habitual criminals and had suffered appallingly himself. She said he was a child who’d never stood a chance of leading a normal life, and it was the knowledge that so many young people in her area lived with this kind of deprivation that took her to university, and subsequently and into social work.

    This woman is amazing. She did the same work as the rest of us, befriended everyone, sang at the drop of a hat, made people laugh, and never, ever, did I see her without a smile on her face.

    Meeting Celia has had a profound effect on the way I now see my life. I have always known, beyond a shadow of doubt that women are tough, but I think I’d temporarily forgotten that I am one! It’s true that I’d confronted many of my own personal tigers on this trip, and I managed to achieve things I never thought possible. But Celia’s attitude to people, and to life, has inspired me to view my own health issues in a totally different light. Because I will do what women have always done when facing difficulty – I will simply find ways to look at life from another angle. And this, I think is our greatest strength.

    1. Teresa, thank you so much for this story and for telling me about your experiences. I am continually astounded by the strength and fortitude of my fellow human beings, but I think women are beyond mere human capacity for endurance.

      When I was editing the two books, Parachutes and Petticoats and Iancs, Conshis a Spam, I read some of the saddest, wisest, kindest and most horrendous accounts of women’s triumphs and suffering during World War Two, and these were the experiences of women in Wales, a microcosm of the whole world at war.

      We can be proud and grateful to all of the women who’ve gone before us and have been courageous enough to speak about their lives, hopes and disappointments, to let us know their side of the story.


      PS:You can download a free Nook reader for your PC at Barnes and Noble’s Nook Store: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/u/nook-for-pc/379003591. Let me know if this doesn’t work. Otherwise you can download Adobe’s Digital Eiditons Reader (also free): http://www.adobe.com/products/digital-editions.html?promoid=DTEIO