Helen Keller — a Deaf and Blind woman who became an author and an international SuperStar against the merits of her monumental disability — is one of the most magnificent examples of the human spirit in the history of America.
I have defended the spirit of Helen Keller on this blog, and while I am a tremendous fan of her incredible mind, I’m not terribly interested in her sex life as a lesbian or not, or as the secret, fateful, lover of her teacher, Anne Sullivan’s, husband, or her role as the concubine of a local cub reporter who wrote about her early life and made her a star.
What does concern, and interest me, is the lingering slandering of her as a young child in her effort to write, at 11-years-old, a story for publication called “The Frost King” — that was too closely associated with a previously published work entitled “The Frost Fairies” — that she was accused of plagiarism that haunted and stooped her for the rest of her life.
Here’s the modern telling of what happened:
The earliest dust-up came in 1892. Helen had sent a story she said she’d written, ”The Frost King,” to one of her many boosters, Michael Anagnos of the Perkins Institution in Boston. The institution’s alumni magazine published the little tale, idiotically calling it ”without parallel in the history of literature.” ”The Frost King” turned out to bear a strong resemblance to ”The Frost Fairies,” by Margaret T. Canby, which had probably been read to Keller (using finger spelling) by Annie Sullivan.
When word of the plagiarism got out, the newspapers jumped on it. Anagnos responded by assembling a nine-member tribunal of Perkins officials, who cross-questioned the child mercilessly. They acquitted her by a single vote, Anagnos’s. Then he turned on both Keller and Sullivan, declaring, ”Helen Keller is a living lie.” Anagnos’s boosting stopped; Keller, who would publish 13 books, remained paranoid about plagiarism ever after.
Here’s how Helen related the horror of her plagiarism accusation in her autobiography many years later:
Mr. Anagnos was delighted with “The Frost King,” and published it in one of the Perkins Institution reports. This was the pinnacle of my happiness, from which I was in a little while dashed to earth. I had been in Boston only a short time when it was discovered that a story similar to “The Frost King,” called “The Frost Fairies” by Miss Margaret T. Canby, had appeared before I was born in a book called “Birdie and His Friends.”
The two stories were so much alike in thought and language that it was evident Miss Canby’s story had been read to me, and that mine was — a plagiarism. It was difficult to make me understand this; but when I did understand I was astonished and grieved. No child ever drank deeper of the cup of bitterness than I did. I had disgraced myself; I had brought suspicion upon those I loved best.
And yet how could it possibly have happened? I racked my brain until I was weary to recall anything about the frost that I had read before I wrote “The Frost King”; but I could remember nothing, except the common reference to Jack Frost, and a poem for children, “The Freaks of the Frost,” and I knew I had not used that in my composition.
Helen’s friend, Mark Twain, leapt to her defense when he much later first learned about the plagiarism accusation:
Years later, Helen’s friend Mark Twain was so deeply touched by reading of this incident in one of her published works, that he wrote to her of his outrage over the chastisement.
Referring to her detractors as “a collection of decayed human turnips” Twain pointed out that he himself had committed just such an incident of unwitting plagiarism in penning the dedication of his Innocents Abroad. Twain went on to argue that all human thoughts and writings were but repetition of earlier thoughts held by others, strung together in new variations.
In fact, he added, her highly educated critics had themselves learned to parrot other people’s knowledge by attending college.
What is utterly remarkable about the plagiarism accusation against an 11-year-old Deaf-Blind SuperGenius is that, as Mark Twain suggests, she was precisely and succinctly relating the memes and mythology of her young life and sharing them in the only way she knew how. She was subconsciously retelling a story that had somehow successfully embedded its plot into her being and, in the retelling, she came too close to the original.
Now, how a Deaf-Blind child could so closely replicate the intricate plot details of a story and make it her own is a marvel in itself. How can any child know the fine line between inspiration and stealing and direct copying? It’s an impossibility!
Helen Keller never was never a content thief, but the accusation — and ensuing lack of support from those who propped her up for exposure in the public eye — deeply wounded her. Those who were sworn to protect her did not, and for that malice against the human condition, Helen Keller was scarred and terrified of repeating her unwitting sin over the long, remaining, arc of her life.
The Helen Keller plagiarism accusation is an important lesson for all of us. Do we give the disabled SuperHuman powers because we believe in them, or because we misunderstand what makes them? Can we truly know the nature of anyone’s disability or special gifts?
I am reminded of an elderly Deaf-Blind friend of mine who used to live in my Alphabet City apartment building in New York City many years ago. My friend was able to navigate the neighborhood with the aid of thick glasses and a white cane.
One day, my Deaf-Blind friend was walking and using his cane on the sidewalk to test for obstacles in front of him. As he walked, he happened to clip a young boy on the heel with his cane. The kid, frightened, leapt out-of-the-way to make way for my friend. The boy’s father was a different beast and deliberately stepped in front of my friend so they would collide.
The brute started poking his finger in my friend’s chest asking him why he “hit” his son with his cane.
My Deaf-Blind friend had no idea what was happening — all he knew was that he was being angrily poked in the chest by a stranger on the street. My friend made the sign for “sorry” and tried to voice the word as well, repeatedly, to no avail.
I happened to be on the same street and saw and heard all this happening in front so me, so I ran up the sidewalk and said to the brute, “He’s Deaf and Blind. He didn’t see your son. He didn’t mean to hit him.”
The brute turned his anger toward me and shouted, “If he’s Deaf-Blind and didn’t know he hit my son, WHY IS HE APOLOGIZING?”
With that, I knew there was no reasoning to be had, and I took my friend’s elbow to turn him toward me, and away from the angry poker, and I signed my name into his hands, and told him what happened with his cane hitting the boy.
He nodded and again apologized and I voiced for him directly to the son who was standing far away up the street away from us all. My friend and I didn’t wait for an acknowledgement. We turned around and went back home together.
Somehow, some believe, Helen Keller, at 11-years-old, had a malicious heart and a felonious intent in sharing a new story that happened to be inspired by a childhood memory. With no foundation for sight or hearing, the originating story took hold deep within her to become a touchstone for promised brilliance — all in spite of devastating disabilities.
Instead of celebrating her charm and wit and gumption — Helen Keller was criticized and cut down in her youth like a fallow Summer wheat left to moulder in the field, full of promise and hope, but left of little substance. The real miracle in her life was not Anne Sullivan, but rather her inborn ability to overcome the false obstacles and faulty accusations of alleged supporters surrounding her, but never defending her.
In the dust of Helen Keller’s plagiarism accusation, we are left, a century later, with the residual example of a Deaf-Blind old man, strolling down the street — moments away from walking into a bloody beating — just because he was not SuperHuman enough to overcome his multiple disabilities and avoid a young child on the sidewalk.