Helen Keller's Lost Chance at Love

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched; they are felt with the heart.”
~Helen Adams Keller

Image of Helen Keller in 1914
Helen Keller, ca. 1914. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
So much emphasis is placed on Helen Keller’s deaf-blindness that many people tend to forget that Helen Keller was a woman with a distinct personality, likes, dislikes, and faults. In an Amazon search, there are 285 books about Keller made for young children and focus mainly on her first few years with her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. Keller lived to be 87 years old, which means that she lived 80 years more after the famous scene at the water pump where she learned to communicate with others. When authors and teachers do discuss her later life, they usually only discuss her work advocating for people with disabilities.
There is an aspect of Helen Keller that is rarely mentioned. She was a real woman – a woman with the same desires, needs, and feelings as other women, with or without disabilities. She may not have giggled with her teenage girlfriends about the cute captain of the football team, but she did have at least one romantic (maybe sexual) relationship with a man.
Helen didn’t leave us too much detail about this man, but there are a few things we do know from her writings, the writings of her family, and historical research. Helen met Peter Fagan in January 1916. Fagan, who was in his 20s, was Helen’s fingerspelling secretary. By November 1916, the two had plans to wed. Unbeknownst to Anne Sullivan Macy or Helen’s mother, Helen and Peter applied for a marriage license in Boston. Unfortunately for them, a Boston newspaper leaked the story. Although Peter and Helen denied the news, Anne and Helen’s mother had an absolute fit. The two women forced Helen to leave Boston and return to her mother’s home in Alabama. Peter followed them, but was chased away by Helen’s gun-wielding brother-in-law!
Tragically, family letters reveal that Helen’s family saw her waiting, dressed, and with a suitcase, on the front porch all night long waiting on her lover who never arrived. Helen’s mother felt that it would be “unseemly” for Helen to marry – i.e. for her to have a sexual relationship with a man. In her autobiography, Midstream: My Later Life, Helen wrote that her brief love affair was “an island of joy surrounded by dark waters. I am glad that I have had the experience of being loved and desired. The fault was not in the loving, but in the circumstances.”
It is so, so sad that two people who apparently loved each other were unable to be together because society’s view of people with disabilities. Helen was 36 at the time – more than old enough to make her own decisions, at least in today’s world. Thankfully, society’s views about love and sex for people with disabilities have changed over the years. The reluctance of many to acknowledge this aspect of Helen Keller’s life illustrates the stigma that is still attached to the issue.
People who have disabilities should never again have to endure what reads like a Shakespearean tragedy in their pursuit of love.

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