How old were you when you found out that there’s a conspiracy theory about Helen Keller circulating on TikTok? For many olds, this terrible news hit them this week, when Twitter user @jamie2181 shared a TikTok video made by a middle school history teacher, who recorded himself talking to his students off camera. In it, you can hear a student saying: “Helen Keller is the Nazi guy. … She’s a terrorist. … Helen Keller was the blind and deaf person who was fake, she didn’t exist, but everyone believes she was deaf and blind.” The revelation that Kids Today “don’t know” enough about history is one that’s been had by generations of Americans, and part of the popularity of this teacher video is just about that—they’ve never heard of D-Day either! (Or so the students say—I’d never count out a troll.) But the Helen Keller angle is something new. “Not believing in Helen Keller’s story” is not a deficit of knowledge, but an active contestation of it.
The Daily Dot’s Audra Schroeder tracked the trend to May 2020, when a TikTok user first posted a video using the hashtag #HelenKellerWasntReal. The idea crossed over to Twitter in early January, with a tweet from screenwriter Daniel Kunka, who reported that his teenage relatives had argued to him over text that Helen Keller “was a fraud who didn’t exist.” If you visit the #HelenKeller hashtag on TikTok now, videos are split between Helen Keller jokes (a very popular one has Keller saying “hello” to a gardener by mistake and being busted for not really being blind) and others just advancing the conspiracy theory.
The comment sections underneath the conspiracy videos take predictable shape and showcase a cycle of madness: Somebody takes the video to task for ableism; somebody else says, “Go away, boomer, leave us alone”; somebody else says, “But for real. She didn’t do all that.” Sometimes users chime in describing fights with teachers on the matter, reporting being disciplined for holding fast to their beliefs that Helen Keller could not have written books, or flown a plane. “Suspicion stalks fame; incredulity stalks great fame,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in a 2003 New Yorker piece about Helen Keller’s lifetime of facing down critics. Ozick was wrong about one thing: She wrote, only 18 years ago, that such critiques were now unthinkable. “In an era of earnest disabilities legislation, who would think to charge [Keller] with faking her experience?”
As with many memes, the “Helen Keller Isn’t Real” theory has a heavy dose of irony, laid on to lend the videos’ makers some plausible deniability. That doesn’t absolve them of ableism. “The videos may have started as jokes, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are harming disabled people,” Haben Girma, a Deafblind human rights lawyer who wrote a Twitter thread on the TikTokers in January, said in an email to me. “Nearly every disabled person has been told, at one time or another, ‘You’re faking it.’ ”
Keller was first accused of “faking it” when she was 11, and was investigated for plagiarizing a fanciful story she wrote, called “The Frost King.” Young Keller was put on “trial” before several adults at the Perkins School for the Blind, where she was a student. After some noted the similarities between a piece by a published author and Keller’s story, the head of the Perkins School, who had previously been a passionate advocate of Keller’s, called her “a living lie.” (Mark Twain, who would later become Keller’s friend, called the panel of suspicious teachers a bunch of “decayed turnips,” which is pretty perfect.) The experience was wrenching for Keller and proved to her early on just how easy the same people who had put her on a pedestal found it to turn on her. “As I lay in my bed that night, I wept as I hope few children have wept,” Keller wrote in her autobiography.
Cynthia Ozick points out that when that autobiography came out, in 1903, Keller was again accused of “inauthenticity,” with interviewers and reviewers accusing her of writing about things that she could never really know about. (“All her knowledge is hearsay knowledge,” wrote a reviewer in the Nation.) She kicked back: “The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction.” Kim Nielsen, historian and author of The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, told me that Keller would “respond to accusations with jokes as much as possible—try to deflect with humor,” especially as she got older. “But she certainly found it personally infuriating, and professionally difficult,” Nielsen added. “It hindered her ability to make a living.”
Nielsen’s book shows how the doubt that swirled around Keller also made it hard for her to advocate for her own politics, which lay far to the left. In 1916, Keller sent $100 to the NAACP, with a note of support that included the line: “Ashamed in my very soul I behold in my own beloved south-land the tears of those who are oppressed.” Newspapers in Alabama argued that their famous author was being misled by those around her—that, in fact, she was basically incapable of having politics. The Selma Journal published her letter with an editorial alongside: “The people who did such wonderful work in training [“training”!] Miss Keller must have belonged to the old Abolition Gang for they seemed to have thoroughly poisoned her mind against her own people.” Another journalist wrote that Keller was a socialist only because of the “the manifest limitations of her development.”
As Keller got older, the pedestal she lived on made it harder and harder to do what she wanted to do. In the 1920s, Nielsen writes, Keller was at an impasse: “Editors only wanted to publish Keller’s writings about herself, a subject on which she no longer cared to write.” As she got more and more political, Nielsen writes, “editors and the reading public generally wanted nothing from her but uplifting commentaries on conquering disability.” Keller saw the dynamics of the situation clearly. “So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly,” she wrote in a letter to Sen. Robert LaFollette in 1924, explaining why she had not endorsed him publicly in his Progressive candidacy for president. “When it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics … that is a different matter!”
Later in her life, out of financial necessity, Keller took a job working for the American Foundation for the Blind, but this curtailed her political activity again, as those in charge of the organization were quite conservative. Nielsen writes: “She seems to have escaped one stereotype only to move to another: from the politically manipulated and publicly pitied, deaf and blind young virgin to the politically safe, but glorified, superblind saintly spinster.”
All of which is to say that during her life, Keller constantly struggled against the idea that she was “faking it,” but also against a celebration of her accomplishments that somehow succeeded in constantly withholding full human dignity from her. This is where Keller’s experience intersects with the way she’s taught in schools. “She’s often held over kids’ heads as this inspirational model,” Nielsen said, “but also of saintliness and goodness. Kids are given the story of the water pump, but they hear very little of her adult life. She’s presented almost as an antidote to any complaint. You know: You have too much homework? Well, Helen Keller … any time they can’t do something.”
Historian of disability Catherine Kudlick said in an interview, of the way Keller’s accomplishments are presented: “We call them ‘supercrips’—these great figures that transcend everything.” “The accusations” on TikTok, Kudlick said, “come from his place of, Oh, this pristine person—you know, even she isn’t sacred. Many of us with disabilities grow up kind of resenting her because she’s always held up as this prim, pretty girl.”
Kudlick referred me to the work of Georgina Kleege, a writer and professor who is legally blind, who published a creative and fascinating book called Blind Rage that takes the form of letters to Helen Keller. “Since I was a child,” Kleege wrote in the foreword to this book, “I have heard her name invoked as a reminder that I should be grateful for how lucky I was. I resented her for this, and suspected that her life, especially versions that appeared in my schoolbooks and in popular entertainments like The Miracle Worker, were too good to be true.”
Children—blind or sighted—tend to be taught about Keller young, and many such lessons revolve around the events of Keller’s youth. Kids hear the simplified story of the moment she understood that Anne Sullivan was signing water in her hand, followed by a long CV of her later accomplishments. Nielsen pointed to the fact that the statue of Keller representing Alabama in the U.S. Capitol—nominally a great honor for a citizen—depicts Keller as a young girl, at the pump. This is a focus that reinforces the idea that Keller’s life began with her being “reclaimed”—coming out of her tantrumming, wild state into a world of words and literature. It’s a vision of saintliness that doesn’t account for her 87 years of activism and travel, most of them spent as a full-fledged adult with radical politics.
And so, the TikTok conspiracy, abhorrent as it is, may be what you get when a complex person becomes a heroic figurehead that stands in for an entire group of otherwise-invisible Americans. “We’re in a society right now that’s questioning heroes in every way,” Kudlick said. “We’re investigating them, and seeing they’re not what we thought, or what we were taught. So why wouldn’t somebody like Helen Keller be put through that?”
“She’s always taught as a moral lesson,” Nielsen said. “She’s never included in the discussion of civil rights history, the history of education. We don’t put her in context of special education laws and their development, civil rights of people with disabilities.” In other words, she really did “do all that.” We just need to do a better job of teaching and remembering it.