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  • To Teach and to TreatMeditations on The Miracle Worker
  • Ellen Handler Spitz

"It's less trouble to feel sorry for her than it is to teach her anything better."

William Gibson, The Miracle Worker

When Dr. Gerard Fromm asked me to speak on The Miracle Worker at the Austen Riggs annual Creativity Conference in honor of playwright William Gibson, who passed away in November 2008, at the age of ninety-four, and who was a great friend to psychoanalysis, I demurred at first because I am not an expert on the life of Helen Keller, nor indeed on blindness, nor on disability; yet I have thought deeply about the film, and I hope that what follows may prove meaningful. It is, of course, a brilliant work, and all I can do is to offer a few of my own perceptions. I must emphasize at the outset that, in what follows, I shall be speaking about the 1962 movie with William Gibson's script, just as it is, and not its relation to historical fact. I shall be treating it sui generis, as a work of art, tout compris.

Last term, my colleague Professor Jay Freyman, a classicist, and I taught a seminar on "The Nature of Learning and the Art of Teaching" at our campus of the University of Maryland. In it, we screened this film, as it seemed to us that The Miracle Worker had to be an indispensable part of our inquiry. But why? What makes it such an important and timeless classic on the nature of learning and the art of teaching?

Ninety minutes long, black and white, deceptively simple, the film held our students rapt (the class, twenty Humanities Scholars, watched it together, as a group). Although they had already been captivated by a plethora of engaging material, [End Page 101] including films such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, To Sir with Love, Farewell, My Concubine, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, The Paper Chase, and many readings ranging from Aristophanes, Plato, and Montaigne to Jacques Barzun, Gilbert Highet, and Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), I doubt that, for most of them, anything trumped The Miracle Worker.

Our special focus was as stated, and, along with this particular film, we asked our students to read Montaigne's classic, justly famous essay of 1575, "Of the Education of Children," a supremely relevant text. Now, at Austen Riggs, the manifest focus is not on teaching and learning per se but rather on therapy and treatment. Which are different. Or are they? If they are different, how are they different and in what ways different? Bennett Simon, for example, has noted in Mind and Madness in Ancient Greece (1978) that Plato treats madness and ignorance as maladies of the same kind. Simon writes: "Plato's unique contribution is the ideal that man can achieve control over the irrational by a special kind of training and education." He adds that, "analogously, Freud's unique contribution was the development of [a method] leading to permanent, internal reorganization … a method of understanding, leading to self understanding" (207). This juxtaposition frames my essay.

In pondering the film and what it portrays and in considering how different and similar these realms of endeavor are and in what ways they overlap—education and treatment, the teacher and the therapist—we might note that the Greek stem therap- carries the basic meaning "to serve." Hence, its English derivative "therapist" likewise carries the connotation of service, i. e., the therapist renders service to the body or mind of the patient. Indeed, the ancient Greeks so used the stem to mean "render medical service."1

Annie Sullivan, young and inexperienced (Helen Keller was her first pupil), is brought to Tuscumbia, Alabama by a set of desperate parents because their little girl, Helen, blind and deaf, needs to learn. The stakes are high. If she cannot learn, the alternative under consideration by her family is to send her to an institution that may destroy her spirit and possibly spell her demise altogether.

Creating mayhem in her parents' gracious southern mansion, Helen appears to us on screen as a feral child—dirty, [End Page 102] unkempt, uttering...


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