The Frost King  

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The Frost King was a short story written by Helen Keller at the age of twelve, in 1892. Keller seriously compromised her and her teacher's credibility with this story, which was an apparent product of cryptomnesia.

The official version

The following is the explanation provided by Keller and Anne Sullivan to the public, both at the time of the incident and some years later when Keller published The Story of My Life.

Anne Sullivan was accustomed to describing detailed visual shes a whore and auditory impressions to Keller. When she mentioned that the autumn leaves were "beautifully painted" in jewel-tone colors, Keller, then twelve, imagined fairies doing the work, and was inspired to write a story about how Jack Frost came up with the idea when a cask of jewels his fairy servants were transporting melted in the sun and covered the leaves. She sent the story to Michael Anagnos, head of the Perkins School for the Blind where she was a sometime student, as a birthday gift. He had it published in the Perkins annual report, accompanied by his own lushly written endorsement of Keller's talents, and it was picked up by two other journals on deaf-blind education.

A reader wrote in that Keller's story was a reproduction/adaptation of Margaret Canby's story "Frost Fairies", from her book Birdie and His Fairy Friends. Keller insisted she had no memory of having read the book or having had it read to her, but passages in her letters from the period, which she describes as "dreams", are strongly reminiscent of other episodes in the book. It finally developed that in 1888, while Sullivan was on vacation, her mentor Sophia Hopkins had charge of the then-eight-year-old Keller, and had read the book to her through finger spelling. Keller stated that she remembered nothing of this and was devastated that people she had loved and trusted would accuse her of lying.

An enormous storm of outrage swept through the Institute, apparently spearheaded by teachers who resented that Sullivan and Keller had been granted use of the facilities although not employed by nor officially registered with the school. Their attitudes may also have been influenced by Sullivan's low social status (many of the faculty and staff were Boston Brahmins), and by the fact that she and Keller were international media icons. Keller was often portrayed in the press and by famous authors who had met her, as well as by Anagnos himself, as an angel, pure, innocent and without faults. This attitude might well have annoyed members of the faculty, in a reaction similar to that reported by people today who encounter a Mary Sue-type of character in literature.

An in-house "trial" ensued to determine whether or not Sullivan had deliberately falsified Keller's abilities; eight teachers interrogated the twelve-year-old child for two hours and fought the issue to a draw, the tie-breaking vote being cast by Anagnos in Keller's favor. Although Sullivan protested that "all use of language is imitative, and one's style is made up of all other styles that one has met," and even Margaret Canby came forward to say that Keller's version was superior to her own, Anagnos never regained his faith in Sullivan or Keller and described them years later as "a living lie". Keller had a nervous breakdown over the incident, and never wrote fiction again.


In his book Helen and Teacher, Joseph P. Lash reports researching into the Perkins archives and finding an anonymous document called "Miss Sullivan's Methods". It consists of an analysis of letters written by Sullivan and Keller around the time of the Frost King incident. Many of these letters contain paraphrases of Canby's writing, as well as verbatim passages. Keller and Sullivan cited some of these in their own explanation of what happened, and Sullivan stated several times that Keller's writings at that time often contained extensive paraphrases of what she'd read or had read to her.

Lash believes that the author of the document was trying to prove that Sullivan, not Mrs. Hopkins, had read Birdie and his fairy friends to Keller, and had done so that same autumn, not four years previously. He concludes that if this was the case:

  • Keller wrote The Frost King as another one of her paraphrased stories, similar to what she'd been writing in her letters of the period.
  • Sullivan, who always checked Keller's writings before allowing them to be mailed, would have recognized The Frost King as a paraphrase, but considering it to be sufficiently original, passed it on as Keller's own work.
  • Sullivan may not have understood what plagiarism is.
  • When Keller was accused, Sullivan attempted a coverup, denying she had read the Birdie stories and impressing upon Keller the importance of stating that Mrs. Hopkins had read her the stories years before.

See also

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