The XX Factor

The Miracle Worker

The death of director Arthur Penn , who early in his career directed The Miracle Worker , the story of the early life of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, made me wonder if young people today even know, in more than just a glancing way, who Keller was. She and Anne Frank were two pole stars of my youth-girls who made something extraordinary out of the worst life had to offer. Keller lost her sight and hearing as an infant and with the help of Sullivan, was drawn out of almost complete isolation to become one of the most celebrated figures of the 20 th century. I know that Anne Frank-the brilliant young writer killed by the Nazis-is still known by young people today. Her book is required reading at many schools. I was lucky enough to read it on my own, so her diary was not a burdensome assignment, but a blazing, wrenching work I read past my bedtime with a flashlight.  I’m worried, however, that Keller is being forgotten, reduced to an “uplifting” figure of another era. Read her stirring autobiography , and if  you haven’t ever seen it, rent The Miracle Worker . This is no sappy melodrama, but an emotionally bruising look at bringing someone out of mental and emotional darkness. Pay particular attention to the virtually wordless dining-room fight scene between Helen and Annie. As staged by Penn, it is one of the most rousing pieces of choreography on film.

Photograph of Helen Keller’s statue by Karen Bleier for Getty Images.