“That first revelation was worth all those years I had spent in dark, soundless imprisonment. The word ‘water’ dropped into my mind like the sun into a frozen winter world” —Helen Keller


Early in my period of incarceration, I was very fortunate to be able to study the life of Helen Keller. This study was to have a profound impact on my being. Her description of becoming free from the total isolation she lived in spoke directly to my heart.

Many of us are aware that Helen Keller was a truly remarkable person who, with the help and the unconditional love of her teacher Ann Sullivan, freed herself from “that hardest prison” of being totally deaf and blind.

I realized that no one can become free without help—without the unconditional love of a teacher.

On September 4, 1948, Helen Keller wrote:

“Try to imagine, if you can, the anguish and horror you would experience bowed down by the twofold weight of blindness and deafness, with no hope of emerging from an utter isolation! Still throbbing with natural emotions and desires, you would feel through the sense of touch the existence of a living world, and desperately but vainly you would seek an escape into its healing light. All of your pleasures would vanish in a dreadful monotony of silent days. Even work, man’s Divine Heritage—work that can bind up broken hearts— would be lost to you. Family and friends might surround you with love, but consolation alone cannot restore usefulness, or bring release from that hardest prison—a tomb of the mind and a dungeon of the body...”

Strangely, Helen Keller’s sense of isolation caused a reverberation deep in my being and I identified and empathized with her in the deepest possible way.

In her book “Valiant Companions: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy” Helen E. Waite wrote:

What thought did (Helen) have in the five years she wandered in complete isolation? She said years later that she “was like a ship in a dense fog, groping its way without compass or sounding-line”. That she lived in “a conscious time of nothingness”. That she “did not know that she knew (nothing at all) or that she lived or acted”. That she had “neither will nor intellect...no power of thought”.

Helen Keller described herself prior to her awakening as a “Phantom in a No-World”.

That’s how I first felt as a prisoner.

—A Phantom in a No-World.

Helen Keller described the “hardest prison” as being the “tomb of the mind”. It was from this “tomb” she awakened:

I was like an unconscious clod of earth. There was nothing in me except the instinct to eat and drink and sleep. My days were a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without interest or joy.

Then suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge, to love, to the usual concepts of nature, good, and evil. I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life.

My teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, had been with me nearly a month, and she had taught me the names of a number of objects. She put them into my hand, spelled their names on her fingers and helped me to form the letters; but I had not the faintest idea what I was doing. I do not know what I thought. I have only a tactile memory of my fingers going through those motions and changing from one position to another.

One day she handed me a cup and spelled the word. Then she poured some liquid into the cup and formed the letters w-a-t-e-r. She says I looked puzzled and persisted in confusing the two words, spelling cup for water and water for cup. Finally I became angry because Miss Sullivan kept repeating the words over and over again.

In despair she led me out to the ivy-covered pump house and made me hold the cup under the spout while she pumped. With her other hand she spelled w-a-t-e-r emphatically. I stood still, my whole body's attention fixed on the motions of her fingers as the cool stream flowed over my hand. All at once there was a strange stir within me--a misty consciousness, a sense of something remembered. It was as if I had come back to life after being dead!

“That first revelation was worth all those years I had spent in dark, soundless imprisonment. The word ‘water’ dropped into my mind like the sun into a frozen winter world” —Helen Keller

Now I see it was my mental awakening. I think it was an experience somewhat in the nature of a revelation. I showed immediately in many ways that a great change had taken place in me. I wanted to learn the name of every object I touched, and before night I had mastered thirty words. Nothingness was blotted out! I felt joyous, strong, equal to my limitations! Delicious sensations rippled through me, and sweet, strange things that were locked up in my heart began to sing.

When the sun of consciousness first shone upon me, behold a miracle! The stock of my young life that had perished, now steeped in the waters of knowledge, grew again, budded again, was sweet again with the blossoms of childhood. Down in the depths of my being I cried, "It is good to be alive!" I held out two trembling hands to life, and in vain would silence impose dumbness upon me henceforth.

The world to which I awoke was still mysterious; but there were hope and love and God in it, and nothing else mattered. Is it not possible that our entrance into heaven may be like this experience of mine?

As you read later, little did I know that the study of Helen Keller’s amazing awakening and the study of so many other great teachers was laying the foundation for many of my own epiphanies, chief amongst them being the creation of Everyman Foundation.

Helen Keller with Polly Thompson, 1948
Photographed by Yousuf Karsh