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Reviewed by:
  • The Radical Lives of Helen Keller
  • Robert L. Osgood (bio)
The Radical Lives of Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen (New York: New York University Press, 2004, 208 pp., casebound, $30.00)

According to Kim E. Nielsen, the enduring public image of Helen Keller falls well short of authentically reflecting the remarkably rich and complex intellectual, political, and personal interests and accomplishments of this internationally renowned American. In The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, Nielsen examines Keller's life from multiple perspectives that extend well beyond the typical simplistic views of Keller as a lovely, inspirational deaf-blind girl who overcame a tremendous handicap. In doing so, Nielsen employs a theoretical and analytical framework grounded to some extent in gender studies but more extensively in disability studies. This approach challenges the author to look past the traditional views of Keller and to make sense of how her actual status as a woman, political activist, public intellectual, and person with disabilities interacted in complicated and instructive ways with the interests of those promoting Keller as a safe, appealing, and comforting national icon. This ambitious "political biography" (14) is certainly that and more: It enlightens us with regard to important aspects of her personal life, her views and those of others concerning the nature of deaf-blindness and disability, and her role—both self-developed and imposed—as a representative of a variety of marginalized populations struggling for greater respect and autonomy in their lives. [End Page 248]

Nielsen begins the book with an extensive introductory chapter that summarizes her conclusions and lays the theoretical groundwork and investigative purpose of her research. Traditional public conceptions of Keller as a child, frozen in time, being tamed and civilized by the steady, caring instruction from Anne Sullivan; as a virginal, even asexual, woman who through diligence, strong character, and hard work overcame the crippling effects of a profound disability; and as an elderly international ambassador of goodwill for the United States, advocating a variety of safe causes, do not, according to Nielsen, come anywhere close to telling the full, true story of Keller's life and thought. Instead, Nielsen explains that Keller held strong interests in social and political issues and considered herself an activist, especially on behalf of women's rights, socialism, the eugenics movement, Swedenborgism, pacifism, and, later, nuclear disarmament. Nielsen states that many people believe that Keller's status as a woman and a disabled person, coupled with her controversial "political sentiments," rendered "her unfit for a wide-ranging political life." Keller reacted to such assumptions with "anger and frustration. . . . She frequently found such attitudes more debilitating than her disability" (9).

However, Nielsen also notes the irony that Keller never became a strong advocate for disability rights in general, overtly concentrating instead on fundraising only on behalf of blind persons. To Keller, disability was a "repugnant" condition caused not by "political structures" but physiology; it was a "problem to be conquered . . . and left behind." Indeed, Nielsen argues, Keller built her career around conquering her disability: "[L]ike other disabled superstars, she became mired in the performance and ideology of perpetually overcoming her disability," implying "that the responsibility for meeting legal, physical, or cultural barriers lay entirely on her shoulders, and that she should respond to such barriers with cheerfulness and vigor." Thus Keller, who clearly identified social inequities driven by racial prejudice, gender bias, and capitalism, never publicly or even privately saw disability as a source and/ or an object of oppression. The book situates these themes in the context of Keller's life, one that Nielsen sees as "radical" not just in the sense of Keller's sometimes [End Page 249] radical political views but also in the sense that she lived "radically different lives at different points in her life." Radical Lives, Nielsen writes, "seeks to recognize the various political lives Keller lived and the reasons for those political and personal revolutions" (14).

The book consists of an introduction and five chapters. Chapter 1, "I Do Not Like This World as It Is," covers the years 1900–1924 and describes Keller's emerging social activism, her years during and after attending and graduating from Radcliffe College, the...