I was sad to find out that the actor Patty Duke died this week. She has always been a sort of kindred spirit to me because we both share the experience of having inhabited both roles in the famous story of The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Okay, only one of us, Patty Duke, actually played both roles, winning an Oscar in 1962 for the role of Helen, and winning an Emmy in 1979 for her role as Annie Sullivan. But I did inhabit both roles, only my portrayal was more metaphorical. And I didn’t win an Oscar. Or an Emmy. But I think that Patty Duke and I could both state that playing both roles changed our lives.
It all started, as so many of my adventures did as a kid: in the biography section of the school library. In second grade I read Helen Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of my Life.” I read it and re-read it. Here was this person who couldn’t speak, or see or hear in any way I could understand, and she did all of these amazing things, traveled the world, went to college, wrote a book. My seven year old self didn’t or couldn’t yet identify with Helen and her struggle, in many ways, it may have been too close to how I was feeling, so instead, I decided I would become Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan—someone who could reach across every possible communication divide and be able to help people. She was my superhero. Becoming Annie Sullivan became my new obsession. On the back flap of the book they described that they were building a new building for the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts and were looking for donations. I didn’t understand things like copyright dates, and it turned out the school had been long built, but I sent them all of my Easter money anyway. It was an act of generosity, although at seven, I think really it was a practical way of ensuring my future employment and, literally, a place to go to work, when I became Annie Sullivan. In return, a very nice Mr. Stuckey of The Perkins School for the Blind sent me a giant package of information about the school, how to learn sign language, and a metal slate and stylus to write braille. I spent months learning sign language and how to write in braille. And while I didn’t stick with the plan to become a teacher of the deaf-and-blind, I don’t think I ever lost my wish to become that person who can reach across whatever divide is there to help someone—there are many kinds of silence and many kinds of blindness and all of them need different ways of being reached and supported. If I were honest, I would say that book helped shape the very career I ended up with.
But it wasn’t until I was much, much older and on my own journey of healing that I finally let myself understand Helen, and learn from her. In the story, Helen, who loses her sight and hearing as a toddler from Scarlet Fever, is lost in her own world. She rages and fights and struggles to make herself understood, and she can’t connect to the world around her. She has experiences, she has feelings, she has sensations—but no way to put these things in to a language. And then Annie comes along and begins to teach her that each thing in the world is paired with a word. And in the beginning, since Helen is smart, she is able to memorize words and how to spell them, but it is an exercise, it’s all intellectual. She hasn’t quite connected the idea that there is language – a way of taking what is on the inside and having it make sense not only to yourself, but to someone else as well.
When I first started therapy and my therapist would ask how I was feeling (as therapists are wont to do)—I would answer from the outside in: I would ask myself, how would she imagine that I would be feeling right now? Or how should someone feel when talking about something like this? It never occurred to me to look inside myself. Feelings were an intellectual exercise—they were something for my brain to figure out. I could understand them in others, but not myself. Like Helen, I had no language, yet, for what I was experiencing and I didn’t really know that I was missing it.
And like Helen, slowly, feelings were paired with words. I would rummage around inside myself and try out words: sad? No. Angry? No. Anxious? Yes! I had a word that went with a feeling! And someone else could hear it too and suddenly understand where I was. It was the building of a whole new vocabulary, not of different words, or words I didn’t intellectually understand, but a vocabulary that was mine. Words that belonged to me and my experience, not just other people. A vocabulary that seemed to connect my head with my heart.
In the story the Miracle Worker, Helen’s breakthrough comes after a big fight where Helen throws the water pitcher at dinner. Annie decides that Helen must refill the pitcher so she drags her out to the water pump in the front of the house and puts her hands under the running water and signs the word “water.” And something clicks. Helen, who had a bit of spoken language before her Scarlett Fever, connects the word water with the spoken word “water” she once had, and gets it: the water she feels is the same as the word ‘water’ in her head, and the word ‘water’ her mouth wants to make. All of these things can connect. All of those words I memorized are real things. And I can have them. All those people have names and so do I.
There aren’t many breakthroughs in real life that have that same cinematic quality. Mostly mine were the small pairings of feelings with words—where it felt like suddenly my life was moving from black and white to color. But there was one day where I suddenly hit upon a feeling that didn’t fit any of the words I had. I wrestled around inside of me and came up empty. I looked at my therapist hoping she would fill in the blank and let me off the hook. She didn’t. So there I sat, in silence, feeling on the inside that I was running around a big empty forest looking for a way out. I wanted to be rescued from the feeling, and from not being able to communicate it. She didn’t say anything, but she also didn’t go anywhere. She was right there. I thrashed around on the inside and cried on the outside and finally in a state of exhaustion, I realized that the feeling I wanted to describe was ‘lost.’ And so I said that. And she asked me to describe it. And I did. And suddenly, I wasn’t alone anymore. And in that moment I not only understood that there is language for feelings, but I could understand and feel the relationship that was holding me through my struggle to find them.
Most of us don’t know what it really feels like to not be able to see and hear. But most of us who have lived through trauma or deep grief and loss do know what it feels like to be exiled in a world of emotions, feelings, sensations—and not be able to find the language for it—because language in these situations can feel foreign. Where all the words you know don’t fit what you are feeling. The words can feel too small for the size of the feeling. Or too trivial. Or sometimes you finally grasp a word and it seems to slip away as soon as you try to open your mouth to explain it to someone else.
And in those moments, we all need our own version of Annie Sullivan. Someone who doesn’t fix it, but someone who makes us stay in the conversation. Stay in the conversation with ourselves and with them long enough for us to build a language. A language that binds all of those pieces and fragments of feelings and memories and sensations together. And a language that allows us to once again, or sometimes for the first time, to feel like our own experience makes sense and that that experience is held in the heart of another.
© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD