A Q&A with Rosie Sultan, whose new book explores the little-known romance of an American icon.
When a review copy of the book "Helen Keller in Love" by former fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Rosie Sultan arrived in the mail, we were intrigued. As the book jacket notes, the public image of Helen Keller and "The Miracle Worker" ends when Helen is 7 years old. After that, most people have no idea what she did or accomplished, but we weren't necessarily prepared for the story that follows.
Thanks to Sultan's excellent storytelling ability and her ability to embellish the facts when necessary, the love story captured in this book, which hits shelves May 1, rivals that of the best romance novels. When Helen is in her thirties and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, a young man steps in as her private secretary. That man was Peter Fagan, and Helen fell fast and hard for him. As pressure mounts, the lovers plan to elope, but Helen is caught between her family and public obligations and the man who introduced her to a whole new world of feeling.
"Why was I so brazen - so forward with Peter? I was thirty-seven years old and had never been alone with a man, never mind a man with a mouth like night." - Helen Keller In Love
Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and her childhood home is open to the public there. Each summer, starting in June, "The Miracle Worker" is performed on the grounds during the town's Helen Keller Festival. While the book is set mostly in Massachusetts, where Helen and Annie lived during her adult years, references are made to Tuscumbia, and Helen also travels to her sister's home in Montgomery. A blend of fact and fiction, this book is a must-read for any Helen Keller fan, as well as those readers who just enjoy a good love story.
Editor Erin Z. Bass spoke with Rosie Sultan by phone about the book last month.
You became fascinated by Helen Keller when you were 8 years old. Why?
I think the way it happened for many people. School had a series of books you could choose about women. I chose Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller. I remember sitting down on my bed, opening the book about Helen Keller and being astonished about who she was and what her life was like. After that, as things would come out about her, I would read them.
How did you discover the story of Helen and Peter Fagan?
I had no idea she had any love interest. There’s a chapter in the back of “Helen Keller: A Life” by Dorothy Herrmann that tells the story of Helen having an affair with Peter Fagan. It was very short, just the description of what the known facts are. I was stunned. I put the book down and thought, there’s a really big story here and I’m gonna tell it.
The week after, I went to the local library and got out all the books by and about Helen Keller (pictured on the right in a 1913 photo from the Library of Congress). I read her “Story of My Life” and books she wrote, and she wrote a memoir in the middle of her life, and in the middle of that book there are a couple of paragraphs where she hesitantly talks about her affair. She’s very apologetic about it, calls it her 'little isle of joy.' She‘s in some ways regretful about having kept this from her family. She says, 'I am a human being with a human being’s frailty and inconsistency.' It’s a plea on her part to be seen as human. I found that heartbreaking.
Then, I started doing research at the American Federation for the Blind in New York and there was this one file in hundreds of files of letters with 'Peter Fagan' on it. In that file, there was one letter from the daughter of Peter saying her father had kept a photo of her [Helen Keller] all these years and why would he have had that photo. Her secretary responded that she was ill.
Your book reads like a desperate love story. How many of the facts are true and what did you embellish?
The letters that they [Helen and Peter] exchanged were all burned in a fire in her home in Connecticut. There was an actual newspaper article published in The New York Times announcing the engagement. Her mother did read the article and banish Peter from the house. Helen was taken to Alabama, there was a scuffle with her brother-in-law, Peter did try to take her twice and didn’t show up at the end. That chronology is real. Actual moments when they’re together to a certain extent are imagined. I know the things she’s talking about, things they’re grappling with were happening in her life at the time.
"The car shuddered beneath my feet. For the first time I felt real fear slice through me. Peter stroked my hair. 'Helen, I'm willing to chase you all the way to Montgomery if I have to, but please tell me that you don't have a passel of gun-toting relatives down there.'" - Helen Keller In Love
Do you think Helen really wanted to marry Peter or did she just want to get away from Annie and her mother?
I think that they both probably entered into the relationship with great excitement and happiness, but I also think Helen was so dependent on Annie and thinking Annie had tuberculosis was a real feeling of fear of how would she would go forward. Maybe out of that enters Peter, who offers to take care of her. I think that fueled that desire quite a bit, along with a desire for independence and a fuller life.
It’s probably fair to say she might have had an unrealistic expectation and so did he of what a marriage under those circumstances would be like.
You’re exploring a different side of Helen Keller in this book. What other things did you find out about her that people may not know?
I was very surprised at how passionate she was about world events and had this incredible sense of justice, not just for the disabled but for anyone. Way before anyone else, she sent a letter to the NAACP and she was from the South and people were scandalized by that. I was surprised by the empathy she felt for anyone who suffered, how outspoken she was, constantly writing letters to the newspapers, and one thing that was surprising was that editors didn’t want to hear her opinions on those issues. She struggled with that.
I was surprised to read about how fine a line she walked between being a celebrity — people mobbed her and pulled flowers off her hat — but I also was surprised at how complicated that was for her to have that public image. For example, in the early 1900s, Helen Keller cannot be sexual or seen as a sexual being in any way. She’s the one who writes a letter to Ladies Home Journal about the leading cause of blindness [syphilis at the time], but she’s seen as saintlike and pure, not able to have the life of any normal active woman. Also, that she was funny.
I didn’t have a chance to visit her home, but I did read much of what she wrote about it. When Anne Sullivan first arrived in Tuscumbia, she wrote letters to Sophia Hopkins in Massachusetts describing her daily activities with Helen and the household.
What are you working on next?
There was so much that came up in the research that I have enough material to start another one. I think I need to write about Anne Sullivan. She was an amazing, fascinating woman who has a story that really needs to be told.
Published by Viking, "Helen Keller In Love" will be on sale May 1. We'll be doing a special giveaway of the book starting tomorrow for Literary Friday, so stay tuned to win a copy here first.