Sunday, March 04, 2012

Helen Keller and Peter Fagan

(Description of the video: Various photographs of Helen Keller are interspersed with clips from television programmes showing her at a variety of events. The are interspersed with text telling the story of Helen Keller's rise to popularity and of her meeting with Peter Fagan when Annie Sullivan was away recuperating. Much of the rest of the story can be found in my earlier post and in the post that follows.)

A long while back I wrote a post about Helen Keller documenting the love story that is, oddly, still never told. Helen fell in love with a fellow named Peter Fagan - a love that she referred to throughout her life - a love which was denied to her by time, by circumstance and by greed. I will never think of Annie Sullivan in any way but as a person who abused her position and abused her trust. The story of Helen Keller's love tells of the attitudes that society held, and holds, towards sexuality and disability. And of the story of the abuse of a person's life and will by someone who profits by providing assistance.

In writing that post I asked, even the famed Penny Richards who writes often and well of disability history, if anyone had a picture of Peter Fagan. I wanted to see the man who could see Helen Keller. I wanted to have a sense of the man who walked with, talked with, and fell in love with Helen the woman - not Helen the commodity. Over time I gave up the search.

But I have the heart of a shopper. That means when I want something, I'll look until I find it. I might give up for a bit, but then I'll try again, and again, and again. I'm the same with something like this. Yesterday morning, up and on the computer early, while Joe slept, I began the search again. And I found this short YouTube clip. In it is a blurry photo of Peter Fagan. I was so pleased to see it and to see the story here.

That success sent me searching, I found the transcript of a film, The Real Helen Keller, about Helen's life (I think the YouTube clip was based on that film) where Ann Fagan Ginger is interviewed about her father's relationship with Helen and why he did not show up on the day that they were to meet. If you click on the link and want to go to that part of the script just hit 'Control F' and search the name 'Fagan' and it will take you right there. It reports, from one of Helen's relatives, that Annie Sullivan called the Keller's to inform them that she had seen the two kissing and that they must be separated.

Another site, Roaring Girl has stills from the film including this one:

(description of photo: Blurry image of Peter Fagan standing in a forest. He is wearing a loose fitting suit with a narrow tie and a white shirt. He holds his hands together making him look slightly nervous in getting his piture taken. His hair is parted on the left, it is dark. His features are hard to see but he looks fairly young.)

(Peter's daughter Ann Fagan Ginger is given as the source for the photograph.)

I was so pleased to see the short YouTube film and to subsequently find this photograph and evidence that Peter went on to marry and have children. I wonder what his life would have been, what her life would have been had love been enough to win the day. Though her heart was broken, I'm so glad to know that Helen's face had been touched lovingly and that she had been kissed - by someone who loved her.

I believe that Helen's story goes far beyond what we know in 'The Miracle Worker' ... we all know of the pump that pumps water, but we need to also know about the heart that pumps passion. I don't know who did this video, they use a pseudonym, but I thank them for it. I sat in the dark, hearing Joe breathing softly as he slept, knowing that there were those who would have, if they could have, denied me this. A more hateful crime I cannot imagine.


Tamara said...

Good research. I had heard about this, but not this much detail. I can see your point about your view of Anne Sullivan, but I don't know if I can totally agree with it being that simple. I guess - fist of all, Anne Sullivan had such a horrific early life that I can imagine that some of her decisions could be warped by her childhood experiences in an awful institution.

I was just doing a litle skimming on Wikipedia. Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller had been together for close to 30 years when Helen and Peter Fagan fell in love and were going to marry. It also appears that Sullivan and her husband John Macy seperated in 1914 - and that John Macy wrote and asked for money during the early years of their separation. Perhaps her motivations were complicated by that experience - which seems to have happened just before Helen and Peter's relationship - as well.

It's a tragedy that parents and other family members (especially siblings) and caregivers of people with diabilities should learn from. Her mother, her siblings - all could have been less protective and more supportive of Helen. One would think that Anne Sullivan would have been and should have been her advocate, but one would also think her family members would have been more respectful of her - what she wanted from her life rather than their fears.

Dave Hingsburger said...


I do think it's 'that simple' ... I appreciate your research, I didn't know some of those things. But, even so, I find that we always look for reasons to explain away why abusers abuse and why controllers control. I've heard staff explain away the behaviour of other staff by saying, 'She's going through a bad time.' 'He is separating from his wife.' And then I'm supposed to understand, and excuse, abusive behaviour. I don't. If you were the parent of a child physically or emotionally abused would you react with understanding if someone said, 'I know your child was brutalized, but the staff is having financial difficulties and was under stress.' I think probably not.

Tamara, please do see me attacking what you've written, I'm not. I want this to be a dialogue because not only are the reasons behind abuse complex, so there are difficulties with people seeing 'no tolerance' as being more problematic than 'a wee bit of tolerance' for abuse.

Thanks, too, for being the first person to respond, I was wondering if anyone was reading this morning.

Dave Hingsburger said...

For those wondering why the last two comments were removed, I was requested to remove anon's comment as she was embarrassed by what's she'd written, she said, 'I realized after I pushed the publish comment button that I'd made a mistake. It has been removed.

Penny L. Richards said...

And there he is!

The biography of Anne Sullivan Macy by Kim Nielsen (_Beyond the Miracle Worker_, Beacon Press 2009) is well worth a read for anyone interested in the complexities of the Keller-Sullivan relationship. (Nielsen is also the author of The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, and editor of Keller's writings.) Keller and Sullivan were both women with multiple disabilities; there were times when Helen was more the carer and Anne was more in need of support; they had no dependable source of income, but Anne was the one who worried over that more, and she was generally more wary about exploitation.

Nielsen has the Fagan story on pages 202-208 (at least in the hardcover; my short version: Anne was away from their shared home, recovering from tuberculosis, when the Fagan episode erupted. Fagan had originally been hired by Anne's ex-husband to help with interpreting. It was Helen's mother Kate who kicked Peter out of the household. Both Keller and Fagan denied most published reports about their relationship. Neither Sullivan nor Keller was consistent about dating or saving their correspondence, so there are a lot of gaps in the historic record on this one.

Many possibilities; but I think we'll probably never really know much about this episode.

Andrea S. said...

One book about Helen Keller that I enjoyed is called "Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller" by Georgina Kleege. This book does include some content on the Peter Fagan affair and other interesting information about Helen Keller's life, going well beyond the old story of the water pump. I wish *this* (or something like it) was the story I had grown up knowing about Helen Keller. I probably would have admired her more, and related to her more as a deaf (though sighted) child growing up, if I had known that she was a feminist and a socialist who cared social inequities that made so many people poor.

Another book that touches briefly on Helen Keller's life is "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" by James W. Loewen. As per the title, this book criticizes the way that many high school U.S. history textbooks distort U.S. history and leave out a lot of information that could be both more informative and more engaging (i.e., not so "boring") for high school students. Among other things, he devotes about half a chapter to interesting things about Helen Keller asides from the water pumpt story. Though I can't remember now if the events involving Peter Fagan was among them.

The rest of the book is interesting too (information about the history of Native Americans, and the history of white/black racial relations and so forth that most high school history classes don't do nearly enough justice to). It's not a perfect book (I wish he could have also talked more about women's history, and he says nothing at all about the history of the disability rights movement) but still enlightening for what it does cover.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I wonder if they were not allowed to marry due to eugenics ideas which would have been coming to prevalence at that time? I did a quick internet search and nothing indicated this but still . . .

Helen Keller's life and life story have been so exploited by people with their own agendas it is hard to know who she really was.

I guess that unlike Arlene in the song She Never Knew She Never Knew, Helen Keller knew what she was missing. Who do we think we are to deprive people of loving relationships???

Thanks again for a thought provoking post


Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I have just been doing a little more research - the plot thickens. It appears that Helen Keller WAS a eugenicist. I did not know that before. Here is an article:

Curiouser and curiouser

Belly (Liz McLennan) said...

Yikes, Colleen! Have just begun to read the article you've linked here. Very, very uncomfortable. Very "Animal Farm" ish....

Dang, Dave. So many things to think about here, in one post and the comments which follow.

What a gift you have!

John R. said...

Point to all of should NEVER be censored, prohibited or judged based on ability, disability, race, creed, species is the incredible gift/force and ultimate mystery that humans receive and unfortunately we have warped it in our human-ness...let love guide..let love rule...let love be....end of to you all...

Tamara said...

I don't mean to "explain away" or excuse in any way what she did, nor do I seek to say it was even acceptable or understandable for the times. As a person with a disability herself, I would have hoped she would have naturally understood that her job should have been to work towards Helen not depending upon her - and it seems, perhaps, she depended more on Helen that vice versa. I need to read more to understand it better.
I just don't see that - from this time and space and without the facts being clearly written - that we can attribute motivation of profit or greed to Anne Sullivan. She could have been motivated by trying to protect Helen. I see many parents of kids with disabilities (and not) who are extremely overprotective - and I have to ask myself if I am being overprotective from time to time - probably should check myself more frequently.
It also seems to me that it was a complicated relationship. They were together for nearly 30 years before this happened. How common is it today to have someone be a paid caregiver from the time a person with a disability is six years old until the caregiver's death? We found that having the same aide in school for more than a year or two could be a negative thing for our son. I can't imagine that type of long-term relationship - for someone who is paid to provide services.
And then I guess I just feel the family is the most culpable. The man apparently did not show up to meet her because he was afraid of being shot - not by Anne Sullivan, but by a family member. So, I lay more fault at the feet of the family than staff in this situation.
To answer your question, would I accept excuses for abuse based on staff's personal issues? Of course not, but then I wouldn't be supporting the staff's abuse as her family seemed to.
People who do great things are still human - and often have great faults. I think Anne Sullivan was wrong and that Helen Keller should have been allowed to marry if she chose to. I think Peter Fagan should have showed up. I think her parents should have backed off. And I don’t think her brother-in-law should have threatened another person’s life. I just don’t think the story is all about Anne Sullivan and her greed. I still believe it is more complicated than that.
I wonder how staff deals with parents who don’t want their adult children with disabilities engaging in sexual relationships – or even just dating. As my son enters the early teen years, I’ve begun to see some moms who were fierce about independence when their children were younger, starting to show some signs of protecting their child from the typical “boy-girl stuff”. It’s going to be interesting to see how all those “hopes and dreams of independence” they envisioned for their children when they were very young evolve when it comes to dating, sex and even marriage.

Dave Hingsburger said...


I am sorry if my poorly written response to you was in any way offensive, I value as a reader and as a comment writer, I just wanted to continue the discussion and am glad you responded. I understand that we don't know everything but we do know certainly, that Annie Sullivan made her living from her relationship - her support of - Helen Keller. This financial relationship would be ever present - it makes it difficult to know what would have been genuine concern for Helen or genuine concern for herself. It would have been difficult to know if she were protecting Helen or herself. It's this kind of conflict of interest that is inherent in the carer/care recipient relationship that casts doubt on all her decisions. I don't believe that, knowing Helen as a bright woman who took strong - even dangerous stands, she picked up that phone and called the parents about the kiss she'd seen because of her concern for 'Helen's' future. I find it interesting that she married herself - yet managed to see that Helen did not.

But I didn't really write this post about Helen and Peter, I wanted to write it as a kind of history lesson about what people do to people with disabilities when it comes to love and relationships. As you rightly point out, self determination often stops at love and sex and marriage. Helen Keller was a complex woman, as we have seen here, with strong beliefs and with a clear voice on issues of concern - and even she was thwarted from a life that included love.

Tamara said...

Oh - no offense taken. It was interesting to think about, and it's made me want to start reading more about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan again. I was in love with that story as a very young girl, and it's probably time I ventured passed the version for 8 year olds! :-)

Dave Hingsburger said...


The movie 'The Miracle Worker' was the primary reason I chose to work with people with disabilities. I loved the movie - Patty Duke was astonishing - and still find it moving and powerful. I have read some of Keller's writing and discovered I liked reading 'her' rather than reading what others said of her. Thanks for being open to discussion. I enjoy being made to think more deeply about what I write and what I say.

Penny L. Richards said...

The phone call story is interesting--it's never mentioned in Nielsen's biography, and it doesn't really fit logistically. Sullivan was very ill in a tuberculosis sanitorium, and soon shipped out for Puerto Rico for several months for her health, during the time in question. Both women had known and worked with Peter Fagan for several years at that point.

It's very possible that Sullivan wouldn't have opposed marriage in general for Helen, but this particular man was considered unsuitable. Having family and friends shoo away a 'bad match' wouldn't have been a rare occurrence for a Southern woman, no matter what her age or disability. But the phone call and threats in the Fagan family's story might just be colorful elaborations on that narrative.

Janet said...

I've just read the whole selection of the script on the link you provided. I think it is significant that the speakers are Keller Johnson, who is the Vice President of the Keller Foundation and who hosts educational events and Fagan Ginger who is Peter Fagan's daughter (and if you google her she is a high powered civil liberty lawyers) these aren't people simply telling tales.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting reading Dave, and all your responders. Like one of your responders mentioned - I had never really gone past the story for the eight-year-old either. It was interesting to read your post and see the story from a very different perspective. While taking courses on care-giving and support work, I find the thought of Anne Sullivan in the role of abuser very thought provoking. I had never thought that way before. Thank you for opening our minds Dave.

- Beannnie

Joe M. said...

Anne Sullivan's common mistake that many well-intended direct support professionals make: advocating FOR Helen and not WITH Helen.

Kristin said...

What an amazing find. Thanks for sharing it with us.

TC 2012 said...

I really appreciate your work on behalf of people with disabilities. We have been working in Ghana for the past five year with a particular focus on the "unit schools" that are self-contained schools of 2 or 3 classrooms in a general education school for students with intellectual disabilities. There are 24 such schools throughout Ghana and from what we have seen, the closest to inclusive education that we have found on a systematic level in Ghana. Here is a link to recognition we received last Saturday for our work in Ghana. There are three short videos embedded in the article that shows the quality of the unit school teachers and students. Cate Crowley

Unknown said...

Mr. Hingsburger,

I have been intrigued by Helen Keller since childhood. I appreciate your work and am interested in a new book by Rosie Sultan entitled "Helen Keller in Love." I intend to buy it this weekend. Also, there was a movie in 1998: "Monday After the Miracle" a sequel to "The Miracle Worker," about Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan which dealt with the same issue. I would love to know your thoughts should you read this new book. Thanks again

DownwardDog Productions said...

Peter Fagan was my maternal grandfather. According to my mother, Helen and Peter were in love, however Anne Sullivan was jealous of anybody else getting close to Helen and she insisted the relationship end. Which I guess was good for me, as Peter then married my grandmother instead. As a child I worried alot about whether my mother (and hence myself)would have been born if Peter had married Helen, and whether or not I would then have been the same person.....
(obviously not, in genetic terms, but since no one really knows how conscoiusness inheres in the brain, I did wonder if the same "I" would have existed.)
Peter died 9 years before my birth, so all I know about him is family legend.
Sarah Bates (daughter of Mary Fagan Bates, who was the daughter of Peter Fagan)
I have a fairly good photo of Peter Fagan if you can tell me how to post it to you.

jean fagan yellin said...

I am Jean Fagan Yellin, Peter Fagan's fourth, and youngest, daughter.The picture of my father that you have shows him in the woods with a camera in his hands;he loved photography. A brilliant man, he was a journalist, founder and editor of THE NEWS OF LANSING, a short-lived union paper. He married Sarah Robinson, a teacher and an extraordinary woman; together they were the center of a small radical circle in East Lansing, Michigan. My father did not often mention Helen, but when he did, he spoke of her with warmth. It is my understanding that he left her when his life was threatened. He kept the ring Helen gave him, and when I was in my teens, seeing it in a drawer, I asked him if I could wear it. It has been on my finger ever since. Jean Fagan Yellin
(I am unable to pull up the url you list, hence may perhaps be repeating information you already have.)

Lorraine Corso said...

What a tragic love story! It's too bad Peter did not fight for Helen.

Anonymous said...

wow all of your comments are interesting.Ido believe that it was her family who was mostly protective of her,and that without their permission anne sullivan could have only done so much.If the stories are true in reguards to peter ,then how tragic.Iam glad that she at least was kissed and knew what it felt like to love and to be loved.

gardenlady Backyard said... Thought you might like to read this book: The Story of Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan

Anonymous said...

To those who questioned whether Annie was acting only in her own interest or in Helen's since she was a paid caregiver most of Helen's life- I'm a paid caregiver for elderly people. The fact that I'm paid does not in any way diminish the genuine love and concern I feel for the people I care for, or the bonds I form with them. If anything, since her relationship with Helen lasted until her death, I would venture to say that she got even closer to Helen than I get to my residents because she had all that time to get to know her. Being paid to care for someone does not render any relationship between the caregiver and the care recipient self-serving. I would think it would take a lot of devotion to stay with the same "client" that long. People need to make a living. If I were independently wealthy, I would do my work for free. But I have to eat. So did Annie Sullivan.

edu said...

We love your Hellen Keller article and all of the comments. Very informative and well designed.

Consider reading our recent article about Helen.

Helen Keller and the Empire State Building

dorian white said...

I found this article while watching a movie 'The story of Esther Costello' (based on a book) which has similarities to the Helen Keller story. It stars Joan Crawford. It's a really good movie and worth watching. It details the relationship between Esther (Helen) and her caregiver, the wealthy "Anne" who has a crooked husband.

Douglas Colson said...

Interesting dialogue between Tamara & Dave here, though I tend to side with Dave due to one simple fact which can not possibly be attributed to mere conicidence. The only documentation I have found of Helen Keller having a relationship just happened to be when Anne Sullivan was not there. It was her only window of opportunity. Given this, can one not deduct that it was Anne Sullivan that prevented Helen Keller from becoming involved romantically? I think anyone would reasonably conclude this.

Anonymous said...

This has been a fascinating read, especially the comments. What we really need to consider here is that we are all interpreting the events of over 100yrs ago through the lense of our current times. We can never begin to imagine what Anne, Helen's family, Peter & Helen herself were thinking. Ones capacity for choice is so different now.

seymourblogger said...

What a wonderful post and wonderful comments. It seems to me that the elephant in the room is the unconscious erotic relationship between Sullivan and Keller. I am not saying it was acted upon or even that either of them were aware of it. If anyone was, it was probably Helen. It is obvious in this short film with the snapshot of Peter that the two women loved each other. There is no way of separating caring for Helen and being paid and the immense affection between them. The entire part of Helen learning to speak and how they did it is extremely erotic with all that sensitive touching. I don't think Sullivan could have come up with it without wanting that kind of physical closeness and touch with Helen. Is this sexual abuse? Well changing an infant's diapers, cleaning them and touching them is also very erotic, so I wish people would get over this projection of sexual abuse in all sorts of not dark corners. The artist FKA twigs has a song, extremely erotic, where she is sucking the fingers of a lover and that was what resonated with me as I watched the film, saw the ecstatic look on Annie's face as Helen touched her to learn the vibrations of words.We know now from physics followed by psychology that the Subject/Object cannot be separated. So of course caregiver, money and the Other cannot be separated however many people say it isn't the case. There are defense mechanisms that would keep one from knowing, at least consciously.This would make a wonderful study from a psychoanalytic POV as well.Feels like Clara Schumann's love with Robert, Robert Browning with Elizabeth, and Charlotte Bronte with her husband. All of them had to break with their father's who controlled their lives.So if Fagan had showed up that day Annie Sullivan's life with Helen would have been over eventually. She knew it, and she knew just what to say to Helen's mother to get her to stop it. So we are left with "what if?" And I am not sure Fagan in thinking it over, didn't realize what he was taking on and not feeling so much like it away from her. I think he wanted his own life which he may or may not have been able to have with Helen. This is an example of Courtly Love which de Rougemont has deconstructed for us. Towards the end he has a chapter titled, "Marry Iseult?" No, that isn't in the cards for Romantic Love which this was. Fagan didn't show up. How long would he have stayed in the marriage?