Macy’s Day: Interview with Kim E. Nielsen

Kim E. Nielsen’s latest book, Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller, provides a rich account of the woman most of us know only as the person who taught language to a deaf-blind girl named Helen Keller. But Macy’s life was extraordinary in its own right. She lost her mother early and was sent with her younger brother to a monstrously disease-ridden and abusive almshouse. Her brother soon died, leaving the vision-impaired girl alone in the world. Through a combination of luck and pluck, she landed a spot at a renowned school for the blind. After graduating with no other employment options, she reluctantly accepted the position of governess to Helen Keller. The two women soon became famous and they would remain the most steadfast of friends for the rest of Macy’s impressive and difficult life. Nielsen is also the author of The Radical Lives of Helen Keller and Un-American Womanhood: Antiradicalism, Antifeminism and the First Red Scare. She is the editor of Helen Keller: Selected Writings. She teaches history, gender studies, and disability studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

I’m always curious about people who write biographies about really famous people. Some people might figure that the territory has already been covered. Can you say why you write about Helen Keller and now Anne Sullivan Macy?
Well, I read biographies all the time as a child. That’s the source of my love of history. It gives you facts and context but also satisfies a love of gossip. When I feel like I have to work but don’t want to, I read biographies because it doesn’t feel like work.

But I initially wrote about Helen Keller out of naïveté. Now I realize that she’s one of the most written about women in the universe, and didn’t understand that choosing her as my subject might present some obstacles in my career. But I fell into writing about her and I love it.

Then I finished writing my books on her and swore her off. I told my husband I would never speak Keller or Macy’s name again! [Laughs] I started a completely different project. Then nine months into this other project—and I don’t want to get too mystical—I was haunted by Annie. She had such an important story and no biography had been done of her since 1933. Even then, no one ever focused on her as a person of her own. She was always just an accessory to Helen.

What was the project you set aside to work on the biography of Macy?
It was a historical study of competency and how it relates to race and gender—what it has meant to be deemed incompetent or competent in the historical context. I may go back to that, but I had a unique opportunity to do this biography. I had just been doing so much research and I had a perspective to share, so I did it.

Do you think that we need to revisit these large iconic figures like Keller and Macy periodically as times change? I think the title of your latest book Beyond the Miracle Worker hints at that, because hopefully we are now past the time where we would think it would take a miracle for someone who can’t see or hear to make profound intellectual contributions to our society.
I do think so. Our times change and the questions we ask change. There are so many ways we think about disability and women that have changed. But it’s also important to ask the same questions and see if we get different answers. We think we know these people, and then we get a new take. Biographies tell us about who we are today, about our concerns now.

When Keller was middle-aged, she apparently accepted a marriage proposal from a man she seemed to love, but then immediately dropped marriage plans when Macy and family members expressed horror. Can you explain why these people who loved Helen dissuaded her from what might have been a happy marriage?
It’s hard to overstress the importance of the fact that this proposal came at the height of the eugenics movement, in the 1920s. [Eugenics is the pseudo-science of breeding humans to eliminate undesirable characteristics such as laziness, poor hygiene, and excitability, as well as mental or physical disability.]  Women with disabilities were highly discouraged from marrying and having children, even a woman like Keller who wasn’t born blind and deaf. It was simply considered so distasteful, it wasn’t done. On more minor thing was that most women with college education did not get married at that time, but that was not as important as the eugenics issue.

As I read Beyond the Miracle Worker, I noticed that often I would read about a particular interaction or activity and ascribe a set of motivations, and then in the next paragraph I would read your interpretation. Often, you ascribed motives that were pettier than I had, motivations based in jealousy, competition, or dependency. You mentioned that you had been sick of them for awhile and had sworn that you would not write about Macy or Keller again. Do you think you might be too annoyed with these women sometimes?
[Laughs.] I learned a lot about friendship from these two women. You know, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were the closest of friends. But when Anthony died, Stanton wrote that Anthony had been the biggest thorn in her flesh. It seems that she was able to be the thorn because they were close friends, but also it was almost because of Anthony being the thorn that they were able to be such close friends. This sort of thing applies to many friendships.

I think about how much these women tolerated in each other, and especially Helen must have wanted to slap Annie sometimes. She had such moods and could be so difficult. But they truly were incredible friends. I’ve had long conversations with my best friend about this. How fascinating it is to have a dear friend who can annoy but still be there.

I am especially fascinated by Annie because she was so wounded but able to do wonderful things. That resonates with me because I’m not perfect. It’s not like she overcame her flaws, she kept most of them, but then managed to be a good person who cared about people and accomplished a great deal.

What are you working on now?
I am working with Beacon Press again, which has been wonderful. I am doing a disability history of the United States, both pre-colonial and post-colonial. It is due out in 2012 and it is planned to be used as both a textbook and something accessible to a general public, in the style of Howard Zinn.  It’s quite an honor and to be honest originally I turned it down because it was just too daunting. But the more I thought about it, the more appealing it became. I guess I am just a sucker for a new challenge.

Can you describe some positive trends going on right in the field of disability studies?
It’s incredibly exciting right now. One of the things that I think is really interesting is the ways that people are pointing to disability as a central part of how we construct our society, especially the intersections with race, gender and sexuality. For example, many pro-slavery arguments claimed that African-Americans were disabled by their race. They used that language. They said that the desire to escape was a proof of a diseased race, and that African-Americans therefore needed slavery. Or another example is the way women were denied access to higher education for many years with the argument that their bodies were so impaired that they would never be able to withstand the strain.

What are some of your favorite biographies?
Oh, I should go look at my bookshelf, but some that leap out at me are:

Daniel Boone by John Mack Faragher, The Heminges of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed (this was amazing), The Education of Jane Addams by Victoria Brown, and Susan Ware’s biography of Amelia Earhart.

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