Saturday, September 22, 2007

Interview with Sarah Miller, author of Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller

Sarah Miller (pictured left)

Before becoming a teacher in the field of Deaf Education, I never dreamed of teaching anyone…. let alone deaf students. Similarly, I didn’t wake up one day and say “Ya know, for the next decade I would like to learn American Sign Language so that one day I can be fairly competent enough to teach English as a second language. I didn’t set out to save anyone. In fact, since becoming an educator in the field, I am increasingly annoyed when someone asks my profession, I reply “Deaf Education”, and then they react, “how honorable”… “how noble”.. Or “that must be a challenge” (sighs and rolls eyes).

The reason for this trip down memory lane is due to Sarah Miller’s new book, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller. In June, I put the book on my Blog with a note “Most of my friends know that I'm not a big fan of books about Helen Keller”. I add my little story above because in my interview, I mention my bitterness regarding Helen Keller books. Sarah Miller sets me straight (and by that I mean she has written a book that I just couldn't put down). Refreshingly, her book takes on Annie Sullivan's point of view as a young woman who not only desperately needed a job but saw Helen Keller as a child, first and foremost, who needed and deserved discipline! She wasn’t taking on any “cause” to save the child’s life. She wanted Helen to behave and then possibly become educated. When Annie pitied the child, it wasn’t because she was deaf or blind but because she had never been expected to learn. In Miller’s book, readers will learn just as much about Annie Sullivan, including her unfortunate family life and her brother whom she lost at a young age, as they will about Helen Keller’s education.

On her webpage, Sarah admits "I'm happiest when I manage to read three to five books a week. Okay, I really like it best when I can read five to seven books a week". She is fortunate enough to work at a children's bookstore, Halfway Down the Stairs, where she reads the latest books. She is bold. She wrote and befriended Donna Jo Napoli (an author I have yet to contact although her webpage is listed under this blog's author section.... she writes books to help Deaf people learn to read). If Sarah lived near me, we'd probably be friends... of course, we probably wouldn't get to know each very well because we'd be reading.

All that being said…. Check out my interview with Sarah Miller below.
SPW: Some people call it that ah-ha moment, that point when one realizes something for the first time. On your website, you explain that watching the water pump scene of The Miracle Worker made your cry. Will you explain how that one moment inspired a book published nearly a decade later?

SM: I don’t know quite why or how it happened – I’d seen the movie more than once, so the conclusion wasn’t a surprise – but seeing that play live sparked an interest both in Helen Keller and in language itself. The impact language has on thought fascinated me, as did the realization that to a certain extent you need language to even communicate with yourself.

I didn’t walk out of the theatre that day intending to write a book, but seeing the play definitely lit the fuse. I have an ever-present list of historical passions, and Annie and Helen became one of them right then and there. I read all the books I could get my hands on, took all the sign language classes my university offered, taught myself Braille, and changed my major to linguistics. Eventually I visited the Keller home in Alabama. At some point my not-so-casual interest turned into an official project. By that time I’d figured out there was another side to the story that was barely explored in most accounts.

SPW: My bitterness about "other" Helen Keller books is that they typically neglect her teacher, Annie Sullivan and reveal the story, aside from a few disagreements, as one where Helen was able to quickly learn language.

SM: I think your bitterness is quite justified, actually. Even Helen Keller herself admitted in her book, Teacher:
“Exceedingly I regret that in The Story of My Life I was careless in what I wrote about the progress Helen made in language and in learning to speak. The narrative was so telescoped that it seemed to ordinary readers as if Helen in a single moment had ‘grasped the whole mystery of language.’ What misunderstandings I must have created by my artless account of what I am sure a critical, mature person would have presented with a proper sense of perspective.”

SPW: Did you find it difficult to tell this story from Annie's perspective?

SM: I really didn’t find it difficult to tell the story from Annie’s perspective. I was very lucky that Annie’s original letters from her early weeks with Helen are still accessible in some editions of Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life. Being able to follow Annie’s day-to-day actions and read her thoughts in her own words made a world of difference. But it was just as important to gather other people’s impressions in order to get a fuller picture of Annie. Eventually, by reading and reading, I got a feel for Annie’s personality and her voice. Did I get it “right”? There’s really no way to know for certain. All I can tell you is that after years of research, it feels right to me.

SPW: What do you hope young people will learn from this story that they might not from another Helen Keller book?

SM: On a superficial level, I would love for people to realize that Annie Sullivan did not travel to Alabama on some nobly inspired mission to free the mind of a deaf-blind child. The woman needed a job, plain and simple.

Mostly, though, I hope people will see that Annie didn’t “sacrifice” her life for Helen. Annie needed Helen every bit as much as Helen needed Annie. In my opinion, the depth of Annie’s emotional needs almost precisely matched the breadth of Helen’s requirements for physical assistance. In a sense each saved the other from her own form of darkness.

SPW: Helen Keller met some famous people through her travels. From your perspective, how did Annie Sullivan not become star-struck?

SM: I have an inkling that Annie secretly believed her star (Helen) trumped all the rest. They met hordes of famous people and adored Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, and Charlie Chaplin, but off the top of my head I don’t recall Annie ever being star-struck by any of the luminaries she met. Also, so many people were so deeply moved by meeting Helen that I wouldn’t be surprised if Annie became happily accustomed to a sort of one-way flow of attention.

SPW: How do you think she handled always being second to Helen Keller and hardly receiving recognition for her work?

SM: I think Helen’s unwavering loyalty to her teacher had a lot to do with how Annie managed her own second-string status in the eyes of the public. Annie knew Helen was something extraordinary, and I think the fact that Helen’s devotion never faltered meant more to Annie than any outside recognition.

Annie’s was a famously contradictory personality, and this is just another example of that – in this case, a fierce pride in Helen combined with a sort of shyness regarding her own part in what the public regarded as a miracle.

SPW: Through all of your research, how did your story take form?

SM: In addition to getting a feel for my characters’ personalities, my research was largely a matter of piecing together the various accounts of Helen and Annie’s early interactions and then ferreting out gaps to fill with fiction. I’m an awful stickler for historical accuracy, so the chronology itself dictated the form of the story. But since a person’s emotional landscape is rarely completely charted, I used the available clues as a springboard into Annie’s point of view. In many cases, what isn’t said turns out to be just as interesting as what is. The Perkins doll is a great example of that – only Helen wrote about the fate of the doll. Annie doesn’t mention the doll at all in her letters from that time, but it’s clear from other sources and memoirs that it was likely very important to her.

I also worked very deliberately to include slices of Annie’s past whenever possible, because I think large chunks of her experiences were directly relevant to how Annie approached Helen in those early days, as well as to how she formed such a deep relationship with Helen. It was fascinating to see how many clear parallels could be drawn between Annie’s past and the challenges she faced with the Kellers.

SPW: I read that you found some juicy details about Helen preparing to elope with a man named Peter Fagan. I vaguely remember hearing that before. Was there anything that was particularly fascinating?

SM: My favorite facet of the Peter Fagan affair is that Annie knew nothing about it. Helen even lied to her beloved teacher’s face when confronted about Fagan. Annie and Helen had been together for nearly 30 years by that time, and I find it astonishing (and frankly a little amusing) that Helen was able not only to harbor such a huge secret, but then to lie convincingly about it to the one person who probably knew her best of all.

SPW: Did you find any fascinating stories about Annie?

SM: As far as Annie herself, I don’t recall uncovering anything really striking in and of itself. There were a couple instances where a notion I’d formed about Annie was confirmed nearly world-for-word in my research. That’s a neat feeling, to be able to sit back and say, “I knew it!”

SPW: I know that I'm particularly interested in Helen's communication skills before and after Annie's arrival. So if you wouldn't mind elaborating on that, please do.

SM: When Annie arrived to teach her, Helen was already using about 60 home-signs she’d invented herself. Most of them were nouns, but she did have a few signs for adjectives and actions: spreading her fingers wide meant large and pinching a little bit of skin on her hand or arm meant small. As Annie later explained, “a push meant go and a pull meant come and so on.” Many of Helen’s signs were imitative, such as miming putting on glasses to indicate her father, or tying imaginary bonnet strings under her chin to refer to her aunt.

Those 60 signs weren’t enough, though. Being mostly concrete, they severely limited her ability to communicate anything abstract, such as tastes, feelings, or a sense of time. Imagine how maddening that would be – your functional senses allow you experience sensations of touch, smell and taste, and those are the very things that are most difficult to express with descriptive signs. (Try miming the sentence “Yesterday I ate a grapefruit but I like oranges better because they’re sweet” and you’ll see what I mean.) Even Helen’s noun-signs weren’t always understood. In effect, Helen had to not only invent a sign for everything she wanted to express, but teach them to everyone she met. Daily, sometimes hourly, Helen’s frustration at not being able to communicate would trigger one of her famous meltdowns, which I called “frustration-tempests” in Miss Spitfire.

One thing I found interesting and challenging to deal with was the fact that Helen had never stopped saying “wah-wah” for water. That’s quite a problem when you’re trying to convince your audience that Helen didn’t understand the meaning of words. In The Miracle Worker, Helen says “wah-wah” for the first and only time at the pump, but that’s exactly backwards. In reality, Helen said “wah-wah” virtually every time she came in contact with it. I can understand why William Gibson chose to hold her speech until the end of his play – since it’s impossible to see underwater fingerspelling from row “H” in the balcony, having Helen speak is the best way to get the miracle across to a large audience. However, as Roger Shattuck points out in his introduction to the restored edition of The Story of My Life, the downside of that hugely dramatic moment is that it inadvertently feeds the prejudice that spoken language is superior to signed language.

To avoid perpetuating that notion in Miss Spitfire, I had to let Helen say “wah-wah” every time she touched it. When she finally understands the meaning of the letters w-a-t-e-r at the pump in chapter 29, she cuts off her “wah-wah” mid-syllable and begins to spell the word instead of saying it. As in reality, signed language overtakes spoken. I hope that simple reversal will help to show that the form language takes doesn’t matter. What Helen actually learned at the pump were two simple concepts that are equally true for both spoken and signed words:

1.) Words are symbols. They don’t have to resemble objects and concepts, only represent them. (Of course, signs like baby and words like bam do sometimes look or sound like what they name, but not very often.)

2.) Perhaps most importantly, Helen understood in a single moment that words already existed for anything she wanted to express. In most basic terms, she realized she didn’t have to invent signs anymore, just learn the ones everyone else was already using.

However, it’s not as though she left the pump suddenly fingerspelling full sentences after these revelations. Annie still had plenty to teach her, for at that point Helen only realized that concrete objects had names. As Helen admitted in later life, “What happened at the well-house was that…she [Helen] associated words correctly with objects she touched, such as ‘pump,’ ‘ground,’ ‘baby,’ ‘Teacher,’ and she gave herself up to the joy of release from inability to express her physical wants. […] She only thought the words she had learned and remembered them when she needed to use them. She did not reflect or try to describe anything to herself.” It took many more patient weeks for Annie to teach her verbs, adjectives, and prepositions like on, in, and under.

SPW: What advice would you give to young people who are reading your book for the first time?

SM: I’d give them a quote from Annie herself to keep in mind as they read:
“The truth of a matter is not what I tell you about it, but what you divine in regard to it.”

Miss Spitfire is what I have divined from the information Annie and Helen left behind.

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller
Publication Date: July 28, 2007
Age Range: 10 to 12
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
ISBN: 1416925422

For more information about Miss Spitfire and Sarah Miller, visit Check out her Blog: to learn what she is reading (Wow, does she read!!!)


Anonymous said...

Happily there have been several interviews with Sarah. The downside is that they tended to mirror one another. You, however, managed to ask a series of questions which took the readers (and her parents and friends) to a new dimension of understanding of both Anne Sullivan and Sarah Miller.

Asking questions is an art form. It becomes clear that you asked because you wanted to learn, not just to verify your own assumptions.

Thank you for uncovering another layer of both of these very introspective women.

Sarah's Mom, Charlotte

Sharon Pajka,Ph.D. said...

Thanks Charlotte:)