Helen Keller in Love
by Rosie Sultan
Helen Keller has long been a towering figure in the pantheon of world heroines. Yet the enduring portrait of her in the popular imagination is The Miracle Worker, which ends when Helen is seven years old.Rosie Sultan’s debut novel imagines a part of Keller’s life she rarely spoke of or wrote about: the man she once loved. When Helen is in her thirties and Anne Sullivan is diagnosed with tuberculosis, a young man steps in as a private secretary. Peter Fagan opens a new world to Helen, and their sensual interactions signing and lipreading with hands and fingers quickly set in motion a liberating, passionate, and clandestine affair. It’s not long before Helen’s secret is discovered and met with stern disapproval from her family and Annie. As pressure mounts, the lovers plot to elope, and Helen is caught between the expectations of the people who love her and her most intimate desires.
Richly textured and deeply sympathetic, Sultan’s highly inventive telling of a story Keller herself would not tell is both a captivating romance and a rare glimpse into the mind and heart of an inspirational figure.
Praise & Reviews
“Going well beyond Keller’s Miracle Worker days… Sultan convincingly imagines that this much admired if oversimplified icon wanted nothing more than to be treated like a woman.”
— Patty Wetli, Booklist
“Eye-opening and thoroughly involving… This well written novel will appeal to those who enjoy women’s fiction as well as readers of historical and biographical fiction. A thoroughly enjoyable read that should entice many to seek out one of the biographies Sultan recommends in an afterword.”
— Library Journal
“With empathy, imagination and vivid sensory detail, Rosie Sultan’s Helen Keller In Love gives voice and scent and touch to an iconic American heroine during a little-known chapter in her life.”
— Jane Mendelsohn, author of I Was Amelia Earhart
“In this richly imagined and moving novel, Rosie Sultan brings alive the history of Helen Keller, the brilliant, miraculous creature who stole the heart and sympathy of the world while also exploring how she must have felt as a woman: the loneliness, longing, and great vulnerability. The result is a vivid, sensuous portrait full of sound and vision.”
— Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes
“Helen Keller In Love is involving, passionate, and deeply felt. It tells this little-known, remarkable story with a loving heart, beautiful language, and great commitment to its heroine. Helen Keller was a woman with blood in her veins, this book makes you feel it.”
— Martha Southgate, author of The Taste of Salt
Peter Fagan was a miracle I was not prepared for. Annie, my teacher, was so sick she couldn’t translate for me day and night, so Peter came to be my private secretary until Annie got better. The scent of him still clings to my skin as I sit on this porch waiting for him to come: his scent of woods, heat and water: that scent that told me right away that he would change my life.
The night we met, Lake Bally in Appleton, Wisconsin smelled of rain. Annie and I sat despondent over the failure of the audience to listen to our Chautauqua lecture tour when Peter arrived from Boston. He slid into the billowing, creaking tent—in the night his scent came easily to me: I inhaled typewriter ink, cigarette smoke, and the strange, muskrat smell I always associated with men. I held the edge of my chair and felt his footsteps as Peter swung closer to the stage where Annie and I sat; Annie shifted beside me, saw him, and spelled her impression into my hand: “He flips open a brown reporter’s notebook, waves a cigarette with thin, with long fingers,” she reported, and I lifted my head, sensing electricity in the air.
“Is he handsome?” I asked, nervously smoothing my hair.
“All I can say is thank God you’re blind.” We both laughed.
“Is he that bad?” I cocked my head. Peter felt closer. Annie said, shifting in her chair, “He’s looking left, now right.” Annie went on, her fingers flying in my palm: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, his shirt is unbuttoned. And he’s got that shifty look of a person ready to flee.”
“Flee?” I leaned closer to Annie.
“His family fled Ireland,” Annie went on. “The famine. He’s a socialist now,” she told me. “Another supporter of lost causes—Like you.”
We both laughed again, but I felt a slight mocking in Annie’s palm. “Do I look all right?” Always I’ve liked men better than women; even at age seven I’d ask Annie to make me pretty. Now, dress tugged down just a bit, I sat up straighter.
“He doesn’t see you,” Annie rapped. “But he is looking. He’s turning this way. Dark hair, he’s shaking his jacket off his shoulders, and oh, brown eyes.” Relief washed through me as Peter rounded the table. Through the soles of my shoes I felt the sssaah, ssaaah of his boots until he swung up to the table and grasped my hand.
“Miss Kel-ler, a pleasure to see you.” His voice rough as twine thrummed through my fingertips when I touched his throat.
He drew me in.
“The pleasure is mine,” I spelled into his rough palm.
“The famous Helen Keller,” he repeated. That night, in the dome of the tent on Wisconsin’s shore, with the crowd filing out into the heat of the night, I grasped Peter’s hand in mine and felt the delicacy of his fingers.
“You’re engaged,” I blurted out. “To help us.”
He just threw his head back and laughed, his throat a lush drink of creamy milk. “Yes, I’m engaged in the important mission of taking over for Miss Sullivan and getting you two safely home.” And I believed him.
“I’ll take her to dinner if you’d like,” Peter turned to Annie; as always when I’m with two people I held Annie’s hand with my left hand and listened as she spelled. At the same time I held my other hand to Peter’s lips and lip read his response. His mouth moved quickly, excitedly under my fingers; Annie’s spelling—usually up to 80 words per minute poured into my palm—was weary. Peter looped his arm through mine; he led me through the tent robust with the odors of farmers, dirt tracked in on their shoes, and the scent of machinery still in their clothes, and when Peter said, “Watch your step,” I knew we were about to cross from the inside of the tent to the rough, patchy grass outside.
Just as we stood at the tent’s edge the cool night air hit me: it was filled with the vibrations of the dinner bell—pulsing and fading on Lake Bally’s shores.
“Let’s eat,” Peter said beside me. “Are you hungry?”
“Starving,” I said right back.
The steady thrum of the dinner bell chimed in the night air. As I felt its vibrations in my hands I hesitated, then stopped on the threshold of the tent.
Before walking out into the night that bell stopped tolling, leaving a fist of empty air—and I can tell you now what I did not know then: that bell was just like Peter. Booming with joy. But soon empty. Gone. I held his hand more fiercely in mine.
Author Q and A
Why did you decide to write about this relatively unknown period in Helen Keller’s life? How did you first learn about it?
I’ve been fascinated by Helen Keller since I was about seven years old, and got my first book about her. I’ve read most everything about her since. A few years ago I read a new biography called Helen Keller A Life by Dorothy Herrmann. Toward the end of the book was a short chapter that told the story of how, at the age of 37, Helen had a secret love affair with Peter Fagan. I put the book down and said to myself, “There’s a big story here.” Within a few days I was on my way to writing Helen Keller In Love.
Why did I write about this little-known period in Helen’s life? Because once I knew she had had a love affair I saw her as more than an icon: I saw her as a woman with vulnerabilities and conflicting desires. I wrote about this period to bring to life the complexities of Helen Keller’s very human heart.
What are the challenges in writing a historical novel? Did you feel a certain responsibility to Helen when sharing her story? How do you think she would react to your novel?
The challenges of writing a historical novel are to fully explore, in a deep and almost reverent way, the life of a fellow human being in the context of the wider world. Helen Keller was a political activist who protested against the United States’ entry into the First World War, a leader who advocated for the rights of the deaf/blind, and a woman who worked for the rights of others, while chafing against restrictions put on her own life. The historical novel allows all of those elements to come alive. It is a thrilling form.
Did I feel a responsibility to her? Absolutely.Yet I also felt that this was an opportunity to tell parts of Helen Keller’s story that she could not, or would not, fully tell. My hope would be that she would see the book as a respectful tribute to her. A love letter, almost, to the radical, deeply adventurous life she led.
How did you come to write the book from the perspective of a blind/deaf person? Especially since you are neither blind nor deaf?
I guess the way I see it is that I wrote the book from the perspective of Helen Keller. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the several books and hundreds of letters written by Helen describing her world. And what a gift those books and letters are; they bring to life in precise detail how she experienced the world from a sensory perspective. These books and letters describe her life as a young woman, her evolving political views, her deep religious faith, and how she perceived herself and the world around her.
I could not have written a book from the perspective of any blind-deaf person. But Helen made it possible for me to write from hers.
Helen describes her world as “a tangible white dark…a deep fog, rough to the fingers” (p. 9). Where did this image come from? How did you meet the challenge of imagining what a sightless person ‘sees’?
The image is based on Helen Keller’s very apt description of her world. In her autobiography, A Story of My Life, she wrote, “Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in. . .?” The image was so precise in its effort to convey Helen’s experience that I paraphrased it in my novel. She says in the text of the novel that she wrote this description in one of her books. This signals the reader that the phrase is, or is based on, her own words. I repeated this process at key points in the book.
Conveying Helen’s experience was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. To do so, I closely read her own descriptions of her world. The main texts I studied were her autobiography and her truly amazing book called The World I Live In.
In several sections of the book you describe Helen’s sexual experiences. Some people might find these scenes unsettling or even slightly inappropriate. Do you agree?
I’ve gotten this question a lot. And, I have to admit, at first I was really surprised by it. Because, for me, when I was writing the novel I was just in the story. And I was deeply aware of Helen Keller as a complex woman with emotional and physical desires. A woman with a profound desire for love. Suddenly I saw this saint-like, iconic figure as the complex woman that she really was. So writing about her as a sexual and sensual woman felt completely natural and completely normal. It was a natural part of both the story and the person Helen Keller was.
Annie Sullivan devoted her entire life to Helen, and her complete and utter dedication is admirable but also somewhat perplexing. What do you think motivated her to give her so much of her life to Helen?
In my research for this book I discovered that Annie Sullivan was as fascinating as Helen Keller. Annie was a very complicated woman from a background of poverty and deprivation, who was blind for many years of her life. She transformed Helen by teaching her language, yes. But Annie was also deeply transformed by her role as Helen’s teacher. Through her work with Helen, Annie, for the first time, found love, stability and joy.
Yet their mutual dependency was problematic. Even when Annie married, later in life, she still devoted much of her time and energy to Helen, and that was a source of great conflict. Helen was always Annie’s primary focus, and that, along with Annie’s own personal demons, made the building of her own life nearly impossible.
Many people believe that hardships such as physical disability can fortify a person’s spirit. Do you agree?
I can only say what I know from Helen Keller’s own writings. She was seen as a role model of how one can strengthen one’s character by overcoming difficulties. Indeed, Helen Keller came to believe that her dual handicaps provided her a special role in the world, to help others equally afflicted.
But, as Helen Keller also acknowledged, there is a cost to this idea. Much of her life was spent demonstrating that she was equal to the ‘normal’ hearing and sighted world: many of her books and speeches told of the benefits she derived from overcoming her difficulties. Yet that story, in its very triumph, also created a gap between Helen and the larger society. Certainly Helen Keller enjoyed the respect of many for her story of triumph, but she also suffered from loneliness for being set apart, or put on a pedestal.
There are moments in the novel where Helen, in retrospect, sees hints in Peter’s behavior as to the end of their relationship. Do you believe their romance was doomed from the start?
No, I really don’t. I think they both came into the relationship with genuine curiosity and excitement. They were both highly intelligent, passionate, and committed to causes they believed in. So I wouldn’t say the relationship was doomed from the start. I would say that as it progressed they both became aware of the pressures on them, and they struggled to move forward in spite of those pressures. That, to me, is one of the beauties of this story. The way they tried to form a relationship based on love, a truly unusual relationship in which they would have to create their own rules, find their own way. Yet so much was against it.
Considering that Helen was a woman who gave so much of her life to the public, why do you think she so rarely discussed her relationship with Peter?
The answer to that question is complicated, but one clue can be found in Helen’s own writings. In her mid-life memoir Midstream, she writes ever so briefly about her love affair with Peter. To the entire affair she devotes perhaps a few paragraphs, at best. And in a startling admission of her own mixed feelings about her role in keeping secrets from her mother, her teacher, and the larger world that thought they ‘knew’ her, she writes, “I am a human being, with a human beings frailties and inconsistencies.” To me, that quote is heartbreaking. It’s such a poignant plea to be accepted as, after all, merely human.
In the afterward, you refer to a number of non-fiction and reference resources you used when writing the novel, but perhaps you could speak a little bit about the fiction writers who have influenced your work. Whose writing do you admire?
I admire a wide range of writers, but I especially I love novels with characters that are driven by their own desires, yet shaped by the forces of history, as well. So I have read and re-read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day for the sheer force of its storytelling and its perfect blend of history and character. My copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is worn out from many readings: what a great story of war and love. Jane Mendelsohn’s lyrical novel I Was Amelia Earhart has a dreamy, poetic quality that resonates long after the novel is read, and then of course there is Marguerite Duras’ incomparable work of love and longing, The Lover. In all these novels illuminating, funny, complex characters grapple with both their personal desires and the shifting desires, and behaviors, of their own historical eras. That is what I love.
What is your next project? Would you write another historical novel?
The research I did over a period of several years for Helen Keller In Love has yielded enough material for another book, so yes, I will definitely write another historical novel. I’ve already started it and I’m very excited about it. Look for it in the future!
More About Helen
The Story of My Life
Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan and John A. Macy
Doubleday, Page & Co. (1903)
The World I Live In
by Helen Keller
NYRB Classics, 2004
Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy
by Joseph Lash
Delacorte Press, 1980
Helen Keller: A Life
by Dorothy Herrmann
The Radical Lives of Helen Keller
by Kim E. Nielson
New York University Press, 2004
“Helen Keller’s Secret Love Life“
“Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Helen Keller“
Good Housekeeping Magazine