The Miracle Worker, based on Helen Keller’s book The Story of My Life, was released in 1962. Shot in black and white, the strarkness of the film showcases the gravity of the situation. Anne Bancroft plays Annie Sullivan, the woman who taught a blind, deaf and mute child how to communicate with the world around her. Patty Duke, in her first major role, plays that child. Both actresses won Academy Awards for their performances: Bancroft for Best Actress and Duke for Best Supporting Actress.
The film is set in the 1880s in Tuscumbia, Alabama, where Helen had been born a healthy infant. But when she was 19 months old, a disease—possibly scarlet fever or meningitis—destroyed her sight and hearing. Not able to hear, she also couldn’t speak.
In the film, we repeatedly see a frustrated and violent Helen, unable to communicate any other way, lash out at everything and everyone. Her parents pity her too much to make her behave. They hire a succession of people to help control her. When she is seven, her parents as a last resort approach the Perkins Institute, an “asylum” for the blind. The school sends them Annie Sullivan, a “half-blind Yankee schoolgirl” who had grown up in the school. (Annie was blind but had her sight restored through a series of operations.)
Annie or Teacher, as Helen will come to call her, is as headstrong as Helen. She stands up to Helen’s autocratic father, and won’t accept tantrums by a child. Even a severely handicapped child. She is convinced that with work Helen can learn a tactile sign language that will open the world to her. But Helen doesn’t want to work. She doesn’t understand when Teacher grabs her hand and traces shapes on her palm with her finger. She reacts as if the teacher is trying to restrain her.
The breakthrough comes as Annie drags a fit-throwing Helen to the water pump in the yard to clean her up from her latest mess. Even then she tries to teach Helen by signing the word “water” into her hands each time water touches them. Suddenly Helen stops writhing. Her face shows something has happened. She holds her hand out to have it done again. She touches the water. She signs the word back into her teacher’s hand. Teacher holds Helen’s hand to her face as she nods. “Yes.” We watch Helen joyfully stumble from one object to another, putting out her hand to ask for the word, then spelling it back into her teacher’s hand. As Teacher says, now “she knows.”
Helen throws her arms around the necks of her parents and accepts the affection they’d so wanted, but were never able, to give and receive. Tears run from her sightless eyes. She has been rescued.
While the movie shows the metamorphosis when Helen began communicating, there’s much more to her story. Helen had a brilliant mind. She learned to speak, even though she couldn’t hear her own voice. She graduated from Radcliffe, traveled to 39 countries, lectured before thousands, and wrote thirteen books. All because one woman understood her distress and persisted until she opened to Helen a whole new world.
It’s not a huge leap in my mind from Helen Keller’s wonderful teacher to the greatest Teacher who ever lived. Jesus was the premier Miracle Worker. Perhaps nowhere was His power to transform a life more evident than in the life of a woman named Mary who was from the village of Magdala. The Bible never says that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute as some have portrayed her. Neither is there any basis to the ancient heresies and myths that say she was romantically linked to Jesus. We know very little about her except that—until she met Jesus—she was possessed and controlled by seven demons.
John MacArthur writes in Twelve Extraordinary Women that demon-possessed people were never evildoers but victims with utterly ruined lives. He speculates, “In all probability, she suffered even worse torments, too, such as blindness, deafness, insanity, or any of the other disorders commonly associated with victims of demonic possession described in the New Testament. . . . Scripture deliberately and mercifully omits the macabre details of her dreadful demon-possession.”
Whatever Mary had suffered, all that changed when Jesus cast the seven demons out of her. Set free from her darkness, she became one of the band of people who followed Jesus (Luke 8:1–3). She never forsook Him, even though others did. She stood by the foot of the cross with His mother (John 19:25). After He died, she followed Joseph of Arimathea when he claimed Jesus’ body for burial so she would know “where He was laid” (Mark 15:47) and the women could give Him a more loving burial. On Easter morning, beside the empty tomb, it was to Mary Magdalene that Jesus appeared first after His resurrection (Mark 16:9). The Miracle Worker had done His greatest miracle by defeating death itself. Mary’s joy was inexpressible.
Like Mary Magdalene, Helen Keller’s life was radically changed. If Annie Sullivan had not intervened when she was a child, Helen could have become a bitter, old, handicapped woman. (She lived to be 88.) Instead, she became a world-renowned author and speaker. She also became a Christian. Sometime after she learned to communicate through signing, she was told about Jesus and how He gave His life for all who would come to Him. Her answer shows that He still reaches into the darkest places in hearts and minds. She said, “I knew Him. I knew Him. I just didn’t know His name.”
©2017 by Vicki Huffman
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