Every American schoolchild — so it went in my generation, anyway, and in several before it — learns about Helen Keller, though generally we only learn that, despite having lost both her sight and her hearing to scarlet fever, she managed to become a respected public figure. This sort of notability-in-the-face-of-adversity story so captures the imagination, and I daresay the American imagination especially, that Keller wound up the subject of quite a few movies: not just documentaries, but feature films too, from 1919’s silent Deliverance to 1962’s The Miracle Worker to 1984’s The Miracle Continues. Yet it still takes seeing the actual Keller, whose name has over the past 45 years become a byword for deafblindness, to believe her.
Fortunately, clips like the one above allow us to do just that. Here, we see Keller communicating with Polly Thompson, her assistant and companion. Thompson could translate the touch-based language system she used with Keller, but in this film, we hear not just Thompson’s voice but Keller’s own. Her incomplete mastery of speech, alas, remained Keller’s lifelong regret. “It is not blindness or deafness that bring me my darkest hours,” she says, and Thompson repeats in her own theatrically clear, Scots-tinged elocution. “It is the acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally. Longingly I feel how much more good I could have done if I had acquired normal speech. But out of this sorrowful experience, I understand more fully all human tragedies, thwarted ambitions, and the infinite capacity of hope.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.