In freelance writing news, I am so proud to announce I wrote a reflection on "A Quiet Place" for SPORK!, a Chicago non-profit that connects the differently abled, and advocates for our issues. I deeply loved John Krasinski's film, especially because it views hearing loss as an asset, rather than a weakness. You may read my thoughts on "A Quiet Place" on the SPORK! site. I look forward to collaborating with the organization more in the future!
I was lucky enough to be invited by Eileen Tull, goddess of one-woman theatre, to perform as part of the last Plagiarists show in April. This is the Plagiarists Salon's tenth year in existence, and the theme for the night was "Start Again." I performed a piece about Helen Keller and my relationship to her performance of disability on the vaudeville circuit. This was a test run for a longer version of the monologue that I will be premiering at the Chicago Theatre Marathon this summer, and I am hyped/terrified to present it there.
Below is the monologue I presented at the behest of The Plagiarists, and it will look much different by the time I perform it in July. But I got lots of good feedback, so some bits of this template will be appearing. Enjoy ...
When I was born, I had underdeveloped lungs and a hole in my heart. I weighed one pound thirteen ounces, and I was on oxygen for months in the NICU. When I did go home, I wore an ankle monitor while I slept, in order to alert my parents if my heart stopped beating. In short, I was a very sick baby. Antibiotics I needed to survive created profound deafness in my right ear, along with family history dampening the sound in my left. No one has ever said I like to do things the easy way, and you can take the fact that I wrote eight drafts of this monologue as proof. Performers are always perfectionists. We just make it look easy.
When Helen Keller was born, she was one hundred percent healthy. For the first nineteen months of her life, she thrived as any baby of the 1880s might. But at over a year old, Helen contracted an “acute congestion of the stomach and the brain,” probably meningitis or scarlet fever, and forever lost her sight and hearing. We know her today as an exceptionally intelligent and talented woman, who didn’t let her disability keep her from graduating college and speaking out for those less fortunate than her.
None of this to say that my experience and Helen Keller’s experience are remotely the same. That would be a ridiculous claim. I live at a time of greater resources and understanding -- although let me take a second and reassure you that the American With Disabilities Act is not a breeding ground made for frivolous lawsuits (contact your Senators about the recently passed H.R. 620 that will come to their session soon enough) -- but Helen and I share the lifetime of responsibility that anyone with a disability will recognize. Keller is held up as a role model, not just because she accomplished remarkable things, but because she “triumphed” over her disability. It’s not enough that she lived a good life, and lived with disability. She had to rise above her disability, and work twice as hard any hearing or sighted woman to prove her worth to the world.
Case in point, and something else I share in common with Ms. Keller: did you know she was a theatre artist? She performed on vaudeville from 1920 to 1924 in a sketch entitled “The Star of Happiness,” a piece hundreds of people watched her perform twice a day before hot lights and the audience murmurs she could only feel as vibrations. Picture yourself sitting in the crowd, itchy seats, near the end of a long program. You’re getting impatient for the day’s freak and odd acts -- aka, people who are notorious in newspaper headlines. These folks come after ventriloquists, dancers, comedians, singers, and performing animals. The curtains rise on a cozy, crackling fireplace, a piano with a bowl of American Beauty roses sitting on it, and a set of French windows overlooking the painted backdrop of a garden. You can smell the sweat and excitement of your fellow men and women as Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, walks out of the wings in a ball gown, and speaks:
“All the world loves and knows Helen Keller, the girl with the unconquerable spirit. She has fought her way uncomplaining against the greatest obstacles that ever confronted a human being … Today, she is the Star of Happiness to all struggling humanity.”
You lean forward, the wooden seat creaking beneath you. This is what you have been waiting for: to witness the blind see, to hear the deaf speak. You are the “breath” that Helen Keller can feel on her face, as she draws her fingers up to part coarse velvet curtains and step into your line of sight. She wrote often about feeling the audience’s “life vibrations,” in addition to taking in the “rush, glare, and noise” of sympathetic viewers. The piano is played by a musician, and Helen, also in fancy dress, waltzes over to it, places her fingertips on the instrument’s face, and declares the tune “very beautiful.” Annie Sullivan describes for onlookers how Helen feels the composition with her hands, much as she communicates through finger-spelling and touching others’ faces and lips. Sullivan then tells the audience how Helen learned to understand language, that infamous story about the water flowing over her hand at the wash pump, the spelled words of her teacher bringing meaning into her life. And when the crowd applauds, Helen assures us all she understand the sentiment because she can feel your noise working its way through the floorboards. Before she draws the act to a close, she even smells the roses and identifies them by name. All her coping skills are laid bare before she declares through Sullivan:
“Don’t you see what it means? We live by each other and for each other. Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much. Only love can break down the walls that stand between us and our happiness … This is my message of hope and inspiration to all mankind.”
The curtain closes on swelling music and the recitation of a poem declaring Keller, or God, to be a “wonderful star of light.” The syntax is unclear. What remains clear to a contemporary audience, I would hope, is how treacly this show was; Sullivan frames every single move Helen makes as courageous, equal to saving an especially adorable puppy from a burning building. Helen herself proclaims she is a message of inspiration, all because she smells some roses. We would label this act as inspiration porn today, though it doesn’t quite reach the exploitation levels of some reality television. But even back then, it had to be jarring to get standing o’s just for walking into a room under your own power.
And while the flowers and the music are a nice touch, everything about this act was a parlor game, rules clear, rough edges smoothed out. Helen took questions after the show, but the questions were often repeats, and her answers were always rehearsed, always clever. “What is Miss Keller’s age?” “There is no age on the vaudeville stage.” “What do you think of capitalism?” “I think it has outlived its usefulness.” “What is your definition of a reformer?” “One who tries to abolish everything his neighbor enjoys.” Performers are always perfectionists. We make it look easy.
Helen Keller loved theatre people. She loved our loud clothing and loud expressions, and apparently, she learned how to apply stage makeup from Sophie Tucker. Annie Sullivan didn’t like people in general, and she was going blind at the age of fifty-four. She didn’t have time for performance outside of her half-hours onstage. Vaudeville was only required because Helen’s wealthy patrons didn’t want to pay her way past boarding school, and the lecture circuit had a more brutal touring schedule. But on a deeper level, Helen Keller understood show folk. “The thought often occurred to me,” she later wrote, “that the parts the actors played was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.”
She might as well have been talking about herself. People of her day were often alarmed by the blind, citing their milky eyes and far-off, even protruding looks. Many people wrote upon meeting Helen that her eyes looked bright blue, intelligent, pristine, and that such brilliance spoke to her character. In reality, her eyes had been surgically removed before college. When people gazed into her pupils, they were actually looking at glass. But she never told them. Another bit of showmanship.
If you live with a disability in the United States, you can’t help developing secrets. You have to cope with the world around you, and explaining why you need others to look at you when they’re speaking can become exhausting. If you walk out of a restaurant with me, you may notice that I will saunter a couple steps behind before swinging around to your right side. That’s so I can hear you with my good ear. But I’ll never tell you that. Because when I do, the conversation is interrupted. I’m met with guilt and questions and a need for absolution, and man, I just want to chit-chat before we part ways at the crosswalk. I may be the best listener you ever meet, but that is not just because I’m empathetic. I spent hours training myself to study your speech, to see how your mouth moves when you’re forming vowels and consonants. A lot of the hearing I do is guesswork, but if I told you that, you’d either feel desperately sad about my effort, or you’d lift me up as a paragon of human achievement. And neither of those hot takes is reality. You would do everything I do, if you were in my shoes. You would learn language and navigate the world the way Helen did. But we’re not asked to think about disability as a fact of existence. We frame it only as a tragedy. Or a battle.
In fact, we avoid accepting disability at all. One in five Americans has a disability in the United States. Twenty percent of the population will develop a disability in their lifetime. Playwright and disability rights activist John Bellesco wrote that it’s the only minority that everyone can join, either through age, accident, wartime service, or other circumstance. And that terrifies us. That’s why Helen Keller had to wear false eyes. That’s why I can only purchase a hearing aid so small, you can’t see it unless I pull back my hair and point it out to you. That’s why we talk about triumphing over disability, rather than living with it. The alternative is too honest, and we refuse to count ourselves among a number we’d rather forget. So we don’t think about access, we don’t ask others what accommodations they might need (though shout-out to my family and friends who often do!). We don’t work together, the way Helen Keller encouraged us to, and that means we isolate American citizens who need us the most.
Visibility is why Helen Keller acted on vaudeville. If audiences saw her, and understood that she had hope, then they couldn’t ignore the multitude of blind Americans who weren’t privileged enough to live with her sponsorships or family wealth. She raised incalculable amounts of money for schools for those with disabilities, and spent her entire life speaking out for the poor -- though her socialist view were often squashed by relatives and editors who worried she’d alienate her adoring public. So even though her performance was sentimentally sunny, and too easy to seem real, it changed minds and hearts.
But imagine if we looked deeper, if we saw Helen Keller not as an icon, but as a flesh and blood woman. What if we told her to drop the performance and rehearsed lines? What would we understand about living with a disability then? We would see how hard it was to navigate everyday life, certainly. Helen could not live without a companion, and she worried about taking care of the people she travelled with; vaudeville raised retirement funds for an ailing Annie Sullivan, as well. We would see why Helen loved books so much, because she could participate in a story without being pulled in a thousand different directions by celebrities who wanted her insight to rub off on them, or minders who asked her to put on a cheerful face to remind audiences not to be scared of the blind. We might even see how much a woman of her time she was, and how lonely.
Not too long before joining the vaudeville circuit, Helen Keller fell in love. A secretary named Peter Fagan had taken over most of Annie Sullivan’s duties due to her health issues, and one night, he entered Helen Keller’s study, and told her he was full of plans for her happiness. The Star of Happiness described her response as yielding “to an imperious longing to be a part of a man’s life.” The word imperious means assuming power without justification, and if you read up on Helen Keller, you immediately understand how impossible, and inappropriate, she found the idea of romance for herself. Alexander Graham Bell, married to a deaf woman when he met the Kellers (though he was a scourge to Deaf education for many reasons), encouraged Helen to consider marriage as a possibility in her twenties. “I can’t imagine a man wanting to marry me,” Helen replied. “I should think it would seem like marrying a statue.” She inherited this belief from her mother, who shuddered to think of Helen ever performing wifely duties, and she absorbed the same message from the society in which she lived. She could be the first deaf-blind woman to earn a bachelor’s degree, she could rouse crowds and perform soliloquies, but trying to build an everyday life -- to have kids, to connect with others the way able-bodied people do -- that was a stretch for America’s imagination. She didn’t believe herself worthy of unconditional love, either. That may be the real tragedy of her life.
Helen was in her mid-thirties when Fagan appeared. He was much younger and poor, with few prospects. But he could finger-spell and read to her and look after her public life. Keller’s mother disliked Fagan, declaring him a creature and a social climber. So the couple applied for a marriage license in secret, eventually planning to elope. But Helen’s family discovered their plans, and banished Fagan from the household. Helen received a note in braille hatching another escape, but it was not be, as her fiance was chased off the grounds with a gun. Some days later, her sister Mildred found Helen waiting on the family’s porch at midnight, suitcase by her side. She had been waiting for Fagan for hours, but he never showed. Helen never learned why, and assumed the worst about his cold feet. From then on, she completely internalized other’s views about her disability in regards to marriage.
While performing onstage, Helen often received proposals by mail. She struck up a correspondence with one widower from Kansas, speaking frankly about her expectations for her life. “Sometimes I have wondered rebelliously why Fate has trifled with me so strangely,” she wrote, “why I was so tantalized with bodily capabilities I could not fulfill.” But she explained that she had learned not to reach for the moon, and was reconciled to die unwed. This response is sad, surely, but it’s also a remarkable letter because Helen is far more candid about her daily existence with a near-stranger than she is with friends, family, and her fans. “You have read my books,” she continued. “Perhaps you have received the wrong impression from them. One does not grumble in print, or hold up one’s broken wings for the thoughtless and indifferent to gaze at. One hides as much as possible one’s awkwardness and helplessness under a fine philosophy and a smiling face. What I have printed gives no knowledge of my actual life. You see and hear, therefore you cannot easily imagine how complicated life is when one has to be led everywhere and assisted to do the simplest things.” She kindly turns down his offer, concluding, “I tremble to think what an inescapable burden I should be to a husband.” Though she met this man briefly in New York once, she soon cut off their letter exchange, directing her decades’ remaining energies into her social work and political action, and leaving the stage behind.
I opened this piece vying for your sympathy a bit. I told you about hardships and hard won survival when I could have told you that I am happy and healthy and no longer listed a failure to thrive. I could have told you how much help I received from my family, doctors, teachers, administrators; so I know in my bones that no one accomplishes anything alone. I could have told you that it’s awesome to be deaf in one ear, because I can sleep on my good one, and nothing disturbs my rest in the middle of the night. I could have related what a relief it is to be able to turn off my hearing aid in a crowded Red Line car, so I’m not bothered by the fifty different fights nearby passengers are having very loudly on their cell phones. Right now, I could tell you that my truest secret is this: hearing loss is actually my greatest superpower. Because it’s made me the capable and trusting person I am. But I wanted you to know the other side of the coin, as well. The strain and effort and constant negotiation. Because that’s reality. Helen knew, and I know it, and those without disabilities should bear that responsibility, too.
But which is the real person, you may ask, the part we play or the secret self? Helen certainly believed in performance, even as she admitted her life was more nuanced than the experience she distilled onstage. There is grace in making this life look easy, that it’s livable, that it’s lovable. But there is also value in presenting disability unvarnished, with its challenges intact, so we know how to move forward together. Because that’s what Helen wanted for us all, and from the time I first read her vaudeville script years ago, I knew that I had to make such a coming together my life’s work, too. As a contemporary artist, I can speak what she could not: that those of us with disabilities are not to be pitied, feared, or rejected, but we are also not to be sainted, put on pedestals, or glossed over. Instead, I want you to understand me fully. I invite you into my perspective onstage, I invite you to live in my silence as much as I live in your sound. Helen could feel the vibrations of music by placing her hand on a piano. Instead of watching her from afar, I ask you to rise from your seat, put your hand on the instrument next to hers, and close your eyes. Feel what she felt, understand the world from her point of view. Because with understanding, comes loves. And like Helen told audiences so long ago, I like to think what follows love is happiness.
Playwright News & Musings on Comic Book Culture
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