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The Art of
Being Deaf: A Memoir|
The odd thing was, I could not forget the certainty in the psychologist’s voice. It haunted me. He had repeated his question about my deafness once more, rephrasing it for emphasis: “It must surely have had a profound impact on you as you were growing up.” I felt unsettled by his words. I was assailed by doubt and wondered why I felt so jarred by a question that I had, for most of my life, shrugged off.
I mulled over the basic facts of my biography. I was the sole deaf child in a family of five muddling along during the 1950s and 1960s in a weatherboard war commission house at The Grange, a Brisbane suburb. It had closely mowed lawns, a creek at the bottom of a hill, a lolly shop crammed with God-knows-what other crazy trinkets, a bakery with faded awnings that sold white sponge cakes with pink icing, and a butcher shop with sawdust on the floor and slabs of beef with purple stamps on the skin strung up on long, grey steel hooks. The local milk-bar gave off a hopeful air of danger: young men in tight jeans—hair slicked back into a quiff with Brylcreem, and Craven A cigarette packs tucked up their T-shirt sleeves—hung out there; their ponytailed girlfriends were draped around them.
My father, Jimmy Mac, once a “Ledger Keeper” for the Mobil Vacuum Oil Company, had served as a corporal in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during World War II in Ceylon and New Guinea. He had also served as a boxing official at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, having earlier won fame and been written up in the Brisbane Courier Mail as a “bright little bantamweight” and “one of the best lightweight boxers in North Queensland” with a “dandy left, and a good right [who] steps into his punches pivoting on them well.” My memories of him stemmed from his days as a tally clerk on the wharves during the week and a bookie on Saturdays. Everywhere he went, he wore his felt hat with the little feather in the band. He would have worn it to shield his Irish complexion from the burn of the Queensland sun, but he probably also fancied it for its flair. He had a gift for telling stories that made people laugh. He even made himself laugh.
My mother, baptized Eloise but known to all as Jackie, was a curvily petite woman with a broad smile and green eyes that hinted at secrets she might share—if pressed—in exchange for a chat and a cigarette. She spent her childhood on a cherry orchard in Young before leaving at the age of fifteen to work as a nurse in wartime Sydney. Black-and-white prints snapped by roving photographers in the city streets at that time show her in the company of friends, all laughing as if life’s comedy was theirs to enjoy forever. She met my father in North Queensland in one of those postwar romances when time was still an enemy of promise, and love had to be grasped in a quick foxtrot around the floor to the sound of a saxophone, lest it be swallowed up by yet another war, another Depression, another something terrible. Jimmy Mac sent Jackie a gilt-edged postcard—pink-golden sun setting on a palm-tree fringed beach—embossed with the words “Memories of Magnetic Island.” On the back, he had written in his convent-bred penmanship, “Mine are happy. Are yours?”
After their wedding, they set up their home in Townsville and then moved to Brisbane two years later. My older sister, Cecily, wore her dark hair in thick Annie Oakley–style plaits and burnished her fair-skinned complexion with Coppertone lotion. My older brother, Michael, all sun-bleached hair and sturdy brown limbs, went on hikes along the Kedron Brook on summer days. My parents did not know of any deaf relatives in their families. There was just me, the little deaf girl, but I was not a child given to the moody contemplation of my deaf life. The fact that I wore a hearing aid and that my sister and brother did not was not remarkable to me. That was just the way things were.
Coincidentally, during this time of introspection, I was invited by an editor to write a piece for a literary journal, and so, with the psychologist’s question still on my mind, I made it the trigger for an article. Still feeling defensive about his question, I wrote mockingly about the psychologist and presented my deaf childhood and adult life as a series of happy vignettes with only the occasional disruption to my sanguine self. I conceded, in this article, that I had missed my deaf childhood friends when I left them behind, that I had once experienced discrimination at university, and I wondered about the impact of my deafness on my sister and brother, as well as on my parents, but dealt with this in an “All’s well that ends well” tone of dismissal. I wrote it more as a writing exercise than as an exhumation of the psychologist’s question. The editor would not publish my article. He felt that I had gilded the lily, downplayed the significance of certain events, and avoided other questions altogether. He encouraged me to explore the topic more intently. While I wondered why this editor was so reluctant to accept my cheery version of events—must misery lurk in every story?—I accepted his challenge.
This was more difficult than I had expected. I do not go about the daily business of my life measuring how much I hear or do not hear, feeling barbs of revelation about my deaf self, and I wondered why it should be of such interest to anyone else. My being deaf is not usually the subject of self-absorption. I do not need to hear in order to think, and my private musings wander along the same topics as anyone else: work, relationships with friends and family, hopes and dreams about love. I can tune into my thoughts as soundless as they are. I like the muffled air of silence, and, in fact, I am writing all this with my hearing aids turned off; I enjoy the sense of being set apart from real life. But when I made myself consider the audiological facts of my deafness for this chapter, I was surprised by what I discovered.