Helen Keller Speaks About Her Greatest Regret — Never Mastering Speech

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.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Helen Keller Cap­tured on Video

Helen Keller Pays a Vis­it to Martha Graham’s Dance Stu­dio Cir­ca 1954

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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les PrimerFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Peter Marshall says:

    That is a tru­ly won­der­ful mes­sage. For some­one who is SO hand­i­capped, she did an amaz­ing, extra­or­di­nary job. I only hope I can mea­sure up, and even do bet­ter, with her exam­ple as a guide and a bea­con.

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