John Gianvito’s documentary Her Socialist Smile debuted at the virtual New York Film Festival this fall to a strictly online audience. The film follows the political life and lectures of Helen Keller, a woman best remembered in the American consciousness for learning to speak and write despite coming of age deaf and blind at the turn of the century. As Protean readers may know, Keller was also a prolific socialist writer. Her activism was unrepentant, even as she grew in popularity as an inspirational, politically neutral public figure.
Socialism was not a niche part of Keller’s life, but the crux of it. As a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, she called for nationwide workers’ strikes and revolution, bemoaning that her fans and benefactors wanted to sanitize her image. She pushed back against a one-time ally, President Woodrow Wilson, with her anti-war advocacy in the wake of World War I, likening his views of pacifists to those of Kaiser Wilhelm II. In December 1917, she wrote to Wilson: “Because the Kaiser is destroying freedom in Europe to preserve autocracy, must we destroy it here to preserve democracy? […] We want peace and freedom for the world, and we believe that this can be attained only by substituting an industrial democracy for the present economic system.”
Keller refused to be silenced, both literally and figuratively, delivering speeches worldwide as a representative of the United States and purposefully interjecting calls to action in appearances where she had been expected to serve as more of a neutral figurehead than someone capable of independent political thought. In her own words, Keller did not “give a damn about semi-radicals!”
Her Socialist Smile, which just won the Douglas Edwards Experimental Film Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, focuses more on Keller’s political life than other strictly biographical stories like The Miracle Worker. Excerpts of Keller’s writings are narrated by the poet Carolyn Forché over some archival images of the period, as well as nature scenes. Forché’s narration is both soothing and enraging, lulling the viewer with the sounds of leaves blowing in the wind and water dribbling along a river, contrasted with Keller’s impassioned and trenchant commentary on societal ills, much of which could have been written today.
Keller worked as an advocate for deaf and blind people in the U.S. and abroad, but she ventured beyond discussions of medicine and education and into the underlying circumstances of disability. What causes blindness? Often, in Keller’s view, it is a lack of job opportunities and socioeconomic support, causing impoverished people to turn to sex work and subsequently contract venereal diseases like syphilis; with a lack of access to proper medical care, this can lead to a loss of sight. It is not only syphilis that causes blindness, then, but a lack of health education, abhorrent living conditions, and a dearth of financial, vocational, or economic options. (The disease can also be spread through non-sexual contact in cramped, unsanitary housing.) Keller explains her thoughts on the matter in her 1913 socialist essay collection Out of the Dark, to which Gianvito refers extensively.
But ironically, the documentary is best enjoyed by someone with 20/20 vision. The small white or red text on the black screen made my eyes water, and at times was not accompanied by Forché’s narration. It’s unfortunate that the film debut was not fully accessible to people with vision impairments or hearing loss. It’s not clear how Gianvito chose which of Keller’s words were worthy of narration, which were left to the sighted, and which were overlooked altogether. The most affecting moment of the documentary happens at the beginning, when we hear an extant recording of one of Keller’s lectures. This clip upstages the remainder of the film, as we realize that Keller’s words are best heard without the manipulation of any filmmaker, regardless of their intentions.
While Her Socialist Smile details Keller’s political activism and writing over the course of many years, it does not mention Keller’s regrettable foray into eugenics. This is likely intentional—from a modern standpoint, this egregious outlying ideology tends to undercut Keller’s moral standing—but it also assumes that the audience isn’t equipped to handle a nuanced discussion of the shortcomings of Progressive-era thought.
Keller’s eugenics writing focuses mainly on the “Bollinger Baby,” a child born with a severe disability in 1915 who would have died without medical intervention. The Bollinger parents consented to not risk surgery on the infant at the advice of their doctor, Harry Haiselden, not knowing at the time that Haiselden had euthanized other patients throughout his career. The Bollinger Baby received nationwide media attention, with Haiselden arguing that disabled children would lead painful lives, which was largely true in 1915: the U.S. did not have a social safety net in place for people who could not work, schools for disabled children were barebones, and institutionalization was a traumatic inevitability.
Haiselden also posited, like many eugenicist thinkers of the time, that people with disabilities were a societal burden for the rest of the nation, a belief that led to the systemic sterilization of people with mental and physical handicaps. Keller, who by this point was well-known, wrote an op-ed in The New Republic in support of Haiselden. She suggested that contentious cases like Bollinger’s should go before a physicians’ jury to determine the best means of intervention for disabled infants, and that it was the duty of modern citizens to “decide between a fine humanity like Dr. Haiselden’s and a cowardly sentimentalism.”
Some of Keller’s writing on the Bollinger Baby is quite jarring—she refers to the child as a “malformed idiot,” which was common parlance at the time but is nevertheless off-putting. But she acknowledges the same uncomfortable realities that Haiselden pointed out in his initial defenses (although he used them to justify his medical malpractice of repeated covert euthanasia): the U.S. was not created for someone like the Bollinger Baby to live and thrive in. We may, nowadays, have medical technology that could keep Bollinger alive, but we are still saddled with a government that serves the elite, characteristically unwilling to institute socioeconomic policies that address the poverty, living conditions, and economic prospects of so many disabled people. Keller’s op-ed on the Bollinger Baby is disturbing, but in the context of her life’s work, which Her Socialist Smile elucidates so well, it seems that she saw these views as consistent with her calls to come together to address systemic problems rather than prioritizing a more individualized approach.
Omitting Keller’s eugenicist thinking from Her Socialist Smile does a disservice to the audience in assuming that viewers aren’t discerning enough to understand the historical context of the Progressive era. The reality is that leftists have been having these nuanced conversations for years, recognizing that the failures of the past were not created in a vacuum and that unequivocal hero worship does not aid any cause. Keller should not be idolized or ostracized, but simply read and understood.
Despite this omission, the ending of Her Socialist Smile leaves a profound impact with a disturbing revelation. The archive containing much of Keller’s work was housed adjacent to the World Trade Center and was largely destroyed when the building caught fire from falling debris on 9/11. Keller spent her life fighting against the forces of imperialism and warning others of capitalism’s disregard for human life, and her papers were then lost in a criminal act of retaliation for American interventionism that sent our nation into an imperialist tailspin. The ending is a chilling reminder of why Keller’s words feel so prescient over the course of the film—and of how far we still have to go. ♦
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is a New York-based journalist and arts critic. She is a contributing writer at AwardsWatch, and her work has been featured in Narratively, Bitch Media, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Alma, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @Miajmerrill.