Have you listened to the podcast on Helen Keller? We strongly recommend that you do before diving into the life of the woman we discuss in this minicast, it will make the experience just a little richer. Go ahead, we’ll wait.

While doing research for the Helen Keller podcast, we both gained an admiration for Anne Sullivan Macy and thought she deserved a little spotlight time all her own. Of course, much of her story is intertwined with that of Helen, but she was a strong, smart, brave woman who lived a life previously uncharted. She busted through barrier after barrier to create a life story worth repeating.

Born in 1866 in Feeding Hills, MA, as life dealing goes—Anne was not given a winning hand: her parents were extremely poor Irish immigrants who chose to leave the support systems in bigger cities like Boston and settle in rural New England. Her father was an alcoholic who could not hold a job, and her mother would eventually die of tuberculosis when Anne was only nine years old. Her parents had five children, although only two of them would live to adulthood.

When Anne was seven she contracted trachoma which went untreated. Had she been emigrating to the US, she would have been turned back to Ireland for this bacterial infection of her eyes—instead she lost her most of her vision.

Once her mother died, her younger sister Mary was sent to live with relatives. We read, and must believe, that Anne never saw her again. Her father was unable to care for Anne and her brother, Jimmy, so they were sent to the Tewkesbury Almshouse within a year of her mother’s death. Just hearing the grim realities of this institution would make most of us weak in the knees, but she really had a “it is what it is” attitude about it.

Sadly, her brother, who had a tubercular hip, died within a few months of entering the Almshouse.  Anne was alone.

But we are not talking about someone who is willing to give up, here—this is Anne Sullivan: Barrier Breaker! She had some operations on her eyes while at Tewksbury, and had some opportunities to live outside of the institution.  When she moved back, she took yet another opportunity when it presented itself and talked her way into the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.

Young Anne Sullivan

Once at the school, she found a home. Oh, yes, she had a lot of barrier busting to do; this is a young woman who was raised to survive, and whose skills did not help her much in her new surroundings.  But she was bright, determined, and quickly caught on to life at the school.

While at Perkins, she not only learned academics, life skills, people skills, and a career path as a teacher- but she also had two fairly successful eye operations. The second of which, was shortly before she was sent to work with a young southern child named Helen Keller.

At this point her life is, and  for the remainder of it would remain, intertwined with that of Helen Keller.

Of course, we speculate quite a bit about Anne and Helen- why they connected and worked so well together, how they created these unusual lives for themselves, how they became a family. All of the remarkable achievements of Helen Keller are shared by her companion who she called “ Teacher”. Together they went to Radcliffe (although only Helen was presented with a diploma, Anne also received the education), were public figures, traveled the world,and stood on the vaudeville stage. Even Anne’s marriage to John Macy was shared—in part- by Helen. John had been Helen’s editor in the writing of “The Story of My Life”, and the three of them lived together in a house owned by both Anne and Helen in Wrentham, MA. The two had  a very beautiful relationship that often is brushed aside and not discussed, the spotlight instead on the achievements of Helen Keller.

John Macy

Anne and Helen on the stage

Anne had health problems ; her eyesight was never fantastic, and she suffered from  lifelong episodes of melancholy – not sure exactly what that means but we (the non-mental health professionals that we are) think it suggests clinical depression. She also suffered from a number of other illnesses, and her eyes frequently caused her pain. But she had Helen at her side, just as she was at Helen’s translating into her palm.  Helen took care of Anne  as much as Anne took care of Helen. Finally on October 20, 1936, Anne Sullivan died of coronary thrombosis.

She did not have an easy life by any standards,—she was dealt a very harsh hand- but what Anne Sullivan made of her life and how she plowed and persevered through some really huge obstacles really sets all of our bars high. We couldn’t help but admire her.

Time Travel With The History Chicks

If you want an easy read with lots of pictures, head over to the American Foundation for the Blind, and take a tour through Anne’s life. http://www.afb.org/AnneSullivan/default.asp

That site really does have a bounty of information, pictures, and oddities. Start here, with the bronze casts of Anne’s hands. http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=1&TopicID=181&DocumentID=1038

If you are looking for something deeper, check out Beyond the Miracle Worker: the Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller, by Kim Nielsen.

As always, music for our podcast comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at music.mevio.com.