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God and Anne Sullivan: What I Learned from Re-Watching “The Miracle Worker”

April 3, 2018


It had been years since I had seen it.

And it was even better than I remembered.

The Miracle Worker is a play written by William Gibson in 1957 and made into an Academy Award winning film in 1962. Culled from Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, the play tells of the fierce, harrowing first encounters between the feral blind and deaf child and the tenacious, indomitable teacher, Anne Sullivan. Set in 1880s Alabama, Anne Sullivan found herself wrestling (physically and emotionally) not only with an overindulged, ignorant child, but also with a family broken by abject helplessness and unbridled pity.

At first, Anne kept her misgivings regarding the Keller familys misguided indulgence to herself. She penned an exasperated letter to a colleague saying: “And, nobody, here has attempted to control [Helen]. The greatest problem I have is how to discipline her without breaking her spirit. But I shall insist on reasonable discipline from the start.”

When Anne dined with the family for the first time, Helen wandered around the table snatching food from each person’s plate with nary an objection from anyone. When Anne, aghast, refused to allow Helen to steal from her plate and grabs her wrists to arrest her behavior, Helen launched into a tantrum. Almost on cue, the family flew into a defensive rage toward their new guest.

Captain Keller: “Miss Sullivan! You would have more understanding of your pupil if you had some pity in you. Now kindly do as I—”

Anne: “Pity? For this tyrant? The whole house turns on her whims, is there anything she wants she doesn’t get? I’ll tell you what I pity, that the sun won’t rise and set for her all her life, and every day you’re telling her it will, what good will your pity do her when you’re under the strawberries, Captain Keller?”

Captain Keller [Outraged]: “Kate, for the love of heaven will you—”

Kate Keller: “Miss Annie, please, I don’t think it serves to lose our—”

Anne: “It does you good, that’s all. It’s less trouble to feel sorry for her than to teach her anything better, isn’t it?”

Captain Keller: “I fail to see where you have taught her anything yet, Miss Sullivan!” 

Anne: “I’ll begin this minute, if you’ll leave the room, Captain Keller!”

The next scene is one of the most extraordinary I have ever seen on film. Anne Sullivan (played by Anne Bancroft) and Helen Keller (played by Patty Duke) find themselves alone in the dining room in a face-off of violent wills. Anne’s effort to get Helen seated in a chair, folding her napkin, and eating her dinner with a spoon results in chairs furiously overturned, spoons being thrown, hair pulled, food spat into one face and a pitcher of water thrown into the other. Exhausting and unsettling, the two angry and defiant figures nearly destroy the room (and each other) in an effort to take (or repel) one bite of food off of a spoon. Emerging from the ravaged room, Helen desperately finds her way to her mother and Anne stands wearily and caked with food.

Kate Keller: “What happened?”

Anne [Exhausted]: “She ate from her own plate. She ate with a spoon. Herself. And folded her napkin.”

Kate [Softly]: “Folded—her napkin?”

Anne: “The room’s a wreck, but her napkin is folded.”

Contrary to the first time I saw The Miracle Worker (in high school), it dawned on me that this play is not an inspiring story of a young disabled girl who finds her voice. Instead, it is an indispensable parable about the human need for structure, order, and discipline. Before we can do anything, we must understand what we cannot do. We must comprehend what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable. And that is damned hard. Although Anne recognized that the Keller family’s pity and indulgence was a misguided manifestation of love, it was in fact devastating. It trapped Helen in an abyss of appetite with no ladders of discipline or ropes of order to climb out. The food would come, but you first must fold your napkin. Your doll awaits you, but you first must spell D-O-L-L. Sacrifice is hard, but necessary. Just consider, no athlete, student, musician, or worker ever willingly sacrificed without a greater end in sight. Neither would a young Helen Keller.

And this is how Anne Sullivan reminded me about God.

Those laws and rules, strictures and standards that God revealed to his people? Even those that seemed harsh and difficult to understand? They were intended to pull us out of the abyss of ourselves, to rescue us from our selfish appetites and animal desires and usher us into the blinding light of God’s love. Laws and rules exist for the sake of reminding us of our dignity, not to assault it. God’s law says, “You can’t do that because you are better than that. You should do this because this is your high calling. It doesn’t always make sense, but it will, trust me, it will.” Have faith, says God to a broken creation. Have faith, said Anne to a broken child.

There is one scene in The Miracle Worker that epitomized the work of Anne Sullivan. Exhausted and exasperated from a day of little gain, Anne turned to a well-worn book for perspective and hope. She read a familiar passage aloud:

“This—soul—This blind, deaf, mute woman—Can nothing be done to disinter this human soul? The whole neighborhood would rush to save this woman if she were buried alive by the caving in of a pit, and labor with zeal until she were dug out. Now if there were one who had as much patience as zeal, he might waken her to a consciousness of her immortal [soul].”

Anne Sullivan insisted that you can’t stop digging. The child inside is dignified and worth saving. It might be painful and it might require great sacrifice. But you dig anyway.  

Because that’s what you do.

Sounds a lot like God.