Anne Sullivan Macy

Anne Sullivan Macy (1866-1936) overcame a destitute and abusive childhood to become a brilliant teacher who accomplished what few people believed was possible. She taught Helen Keller, a blind, deaf and mute child, to communicate. Sullivan coached her through Radcliffe College and accompanied her in public appearances worldwide. Though visually impaired herself, she served as Keller's eyes and ears until her death.

Johanna Sullivan, nicknamed Annie, was born April 14, 1866 in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts. She was the oldest child of Irish immigrants, Thomas and Alice Cloesy Sullivan. Sullivan was the oldest of five children, two of whom died in infancy. When she was five, Sullivan contracted trachoma, a bacterial eye infection. The disease left her half blind.

Alice Sullivan suffered from tuberculosis. After a fall, when her oldest daughter was three or four, she could walk only with the help of crutches. When Annie Sullivan was eight, her mother died. After her mother's death, Sullivan's two surviving siblings went to live with relatives. Sullivan was left to care for her father, an illiterate, unskilled, and abusive man.

Two years later, Sullivan and her brother, Jimmie, were sent to live in the state poorhouse in Tewksbury—a filthy, overcrowded home where the children were exposed to people with serious mental and physical ailments. Jimmie Sullivan, who had a tuburcular hip, died six months later, leaving Sullivan alone. Her years at Tewksbury shaped Sullivan's personality. Although she claimed to have risen above the corruption she witnessed at Tewskbury, she experienced violent rages and terrors for the rest of her life. She once wrote that Tewksbury left her with "the conviction that life is primarily cruel and bitter."

Following her brother's death, Sullivan discovered Tewksbury's small library where she persuaded people to read to her. She longed to attend school. In 1880, when Franklin B. Sanborn, head of the State Board of Charities, visited Tewksbury for an inspection, Sullivan boldly walked up to him and told him she wanted to go to school. That fall, she left Tewksbury and entered the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston.


A Defiant Student

Sullivan soon found that she was socially and educationally far behind her classmates. At the age of 14, she had never attended school before and knew less than her younger classmates. Sullivan was humiliated by her lack of social skills when others learned that she had never owned a comb, wore a nightgown, or held a needle. But Annie displayed greater maturity in some ways, having lived on her own. She hid her insecurities under a defiant attitude and showed little respect for her teachers. The school's director, Michael Anagnos, who later became a close friend, nicknamed her "Miss Spitfire."

A few teachers recognized Sullivan's intelligence and tamed her headstrong ways. Anagnos encouraged her to tutor younger students. She also underwent eye surgery that partially restored her vision. Sullivan graduated from Perkins at the age of 20. She was the class valedictorian and gave a moving speech at commencement.


Teacher and Student

In 1887, Sullivan accepted a position as teacher to Helen Keller, a seven-year-old girl who was left blind, deaf, and mute by an illness she suffered when she was 19 months old. To prepare herself, Sullivan studied the case of Laura Bridgman, a former Perkins student who was also blind, deaf, and mute. Bridgman had been taught to communicate through the use of raised letters and manual language.

Sullivan moved into the Keller's Tuscumbia, Alabama home. She found Keller to be a spoiled and temperamental child, subject to tantrums. After a short time, Sullivan and her student moved into a garden house on the Keller property where the strong-willed teacher and student began their lifetime of interdependence. Sullivan taught Keller to obey and finally, to associate words with objects and ideas. The moment of Sullivan's break-through with Keller, when she finally understood that every object has a name, occurred on a spring day when Sullivan pumped water from a well onto Keller's hand as she manually spelled w-a-t-e-r. The moment was immortalized in the Broadway play and film, The Miracle Worker.

Sullivan described the world to Keller by constantly spelling words into her hand. Sullivan had high expectations for Keller and insisted that she communicate with complete sentences. She also taught her that there were many ways to say the same thing. Other than her studies of Laura Bridgman, Sullivan had no training or direction in teaching her student. She learned by trial and error. The results were miraculous. Sullivan even taught Keller to speak.

In 1888, Sullivan and Keller traveled to Boston, where Keller attended school as a guest at Perkins. Anagnos was amazed with Keller's progress and published accounts of her accomplishments in the school's annual report. The publicity made Keller famous. The two women met and befriended many influential people including Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Maria Montesorri.

Keller's notoriety attracted many benefactors. Throughout Keller's life, they provided support and helped her complete her education. Among the contributors were industrialists John Spaulding, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry H. Rogers.

Sullivan accompanied Keller when she attempted to improve her speech at the Wright-Humason School in New York. Keller prepared to attend Radcliffe College at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. At Cambridge, the school's director criticized Sullivan and accused her of overworking her pupil. He tried unsuccessfully to separate the two.

In 1900, Keller entered Radcliffe. Sullivan attended classes with her, spelling the instructors' lectures into Keller's hand and reading textbooks to her for hours, despite her own poor eyesight. Many people recognized Sullivan's ability to filter information to Keller, feeding her only what she needed to know and discarding the remainder of the instructor's lecture. Some criticized Sullivan, believing her to be manipulative. They felt that Sullivan overworked Keller and made her overly dependent. These accusations were heard throughout their lives.

In reality, the two women were extremely dependent on each other. Many people saw them as one person. Sullivan biographer Nella Braddy wrote that, "as long as Annie Sullivan lived, a question remained as to how much of what was called Helen Keller was in reality Annie Sullivan. The answer is not simple. During the creative years neither could have done without the other." When Keller graduated with honors from Radcliffe in 1904, she and others were disappointed that Sullivan wasn't also granted a degree.


A Family of Three

In 1901, while a student at Radcliffe, Sullivan and Keller met John Albert Macy, a Harvard instructor who helped Keller write her autobiography. John Macy helped Keller with her studies and relieved Sullivan when her eyes needed rest. Sullivan and John Macy fell in love, but she resisted his proposal, fearing that marriage would hurt her relationship with Keller. She finally relented and on May 2, 1905, at the age of 39, they were married. He was 11 years younger than she.

Keller lived with the Macys in a Wrenthan, Massachusetts farmhouse the two women had purchased in 1904. In 1909, all three became Socialists, though Anne Sullivan Macy was more conservative than the other two. Socialism gave Keller a social cause to promote and a topic for her writing. Her teacher accompanied Keller as she traveled around the country promoting social causes and telling her story.

Macy's health continued to decline. In 1911, she became ill and underwent major surgery. Her eyes caused her constant pain and periodically required surgery. Despite these setbacks, she continued to work with Keller, accompanying her on a long series of lectures, beginning in 1914. Her devotion to Keller was one of many factors that strained her marriage. Money was a major problem, as Keller's income was supporting the three of them. John Macy, like others, began to think of his wife as manipulative in her treatment of Keller. He couldn't deal with her temperamental moods, which only Keller seemed to be able to tame.

In 1914, John Macy traveled to Europe. The marriage was over, although they never divorced. Macy became deeply depressed. She was in poor health, exhausted, and overweight; she feared she was going insane. In 1915, a Scottish woman named Polly Thomson joined the household. She served as Keller's secretary and gave Macy some much-needed rest. The following year, Macy and Thomson traveled to Puerto Rico, where Macy recuperated from a suspected case of tuberculosis. The Wrentham house was sold. After returning from Puerto Rico, the three women moved to a home in Forest Hills, New York.

Three years later, Macy accompanied Keller to Hollywood, where she portrayed herself in the movie, Deliverance. The film was not a financial success and Keller and Macy turned to vaudeville as a source of income. They starred in an inspiring act in which Macy described how she taught Keller to communicate and Keller described how people need each other. They performed their act for three years, despite Macy's fragile health. When illness prevented her from going onstage, Thomson stepped in as a substitute. Macy and Keller resumed traveling 1924, when Keller began fund raising for the American Foundation for the Blind. Macy accompanied Keller on stage and repeated her words, as Keller's speech never was clearly understood.

By 1929, Macy's eyesight was one-tenth normal vision. Her right eye was in constant pain and had to be removed. In an effort to restore Macy's health, she and Keller traveled abroad in 1930. For the next three years, she spent summers in Scotland. She was now completely blind. On October 20, 1936, at the age of 70, Macy died of myacarditis and arteriosclerosis at her home in Forest Hills, New York. Her cremated remains were interred in Washington's National Cathedral.

Macy's lifelong devotion to her student grew out of her own insecurities. Always in the shadow of Keller's fame, Macy funneled her own ambitions through her student. Keller, who called Macy "teacher" throughout her life, paid tribute to her mentor in a 1955 book, Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy . Sullivan was also the subject of a 1933 biography by Nella Braddy, entitled Anne Sullivan Macy . Though Keller's reputation always outshone Sullivan's, the teacher was occasionally honored in her lifetime. In 1932, she earned an honor that many people, including Keller, believed she deserved at Radcliffe, 28 years earlier. Temple University presented an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters to Macy and Keller. The two women were made honorary fellows of the Educational Institute of Scotland in 1933 and received medals for "cooperative achievement of heroic character and far-reaching significance" from the Roosevelt Memorial Foundation in 1936.


Further Reading on Anne Sullivan Macy

Lash, Joseph P., Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy, Delacorte Press, 1980.

Notable American Women 1607-1950, edited by Edward T.James, Belknap Press, 1971.

"Annie Mansfield Sullivan Macy: Helen Keller's "Teacher," (October 21, 1999).