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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Art of Being Deaf: A Memoir
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I already knew that my deafness was unrelated to the rubella epidemic that had occurred during my mother’s pregnancy, but I now learned that the opaque medical words used to define the absence or subduing of sound within me—“moderate-severe, sloping to profound, unknown etiology”—do not reveal what I can hear or cannot hear. For several days I experimented with sounds by tapping, clapping, and dropping things; by standing still on a busy footpath listening out for bird calls, people chatter, and car horns; and by turning my hearing aids on and off in different situations. I made notes about what I could or could not hear. I worked out that without my hearing aids, if I am concentrating, and if the sounds are made loudly, I am aware of those sounds at the lower end of the scale. Sometimes, it is not so much that I can actually hear sounds; it’s more that I know that those sounds are happening. My aural memory of the deep-register sounds helps me to “hear” them, much like the recollection of a tune replaying itself in my imagination. I discovered this effect during one of my sound experiments. I swim with friends regularly and had assumed that I could faintly hear the vowel sounds of their voices without my hearing aids. But one day, while I was talking with one of my swimming companions, I realized that I could not hear him at all. Nothing. Zilch. I had tricked even myself because I am so proficient at lipreading, and because I know what his voice sounds like when I wear my hearing aids. What I was actually doing was “dubbing” my friend’s apparently soundless words with my recollection of his voice from our conversations when I wear my hearing aids.

With or without my hearing aids, if I am not watching the source of those sounds—for example, if the sounds are taking place in another room or even just behind me—I am not immediately able to distinguish whether the sounds are conversational or musical or happy or angry. I can only discriminate them once I have established the rhythm of the sounds; if the rhythm is at a tearing, jagged pace with an exaggerated rise and fall in the volume, I might reasonably assume that angry words are being had. I cannot hear high-pitched sounds at all, with or without my hearing aids: I cannot hear sibilants, the “cees” and “esses” and “zees.” I cannot hear those sounds that bounce or puff off from your lips, such as the letters “b” and “p”; I cannot hear that sound that trampolines from the press of your tongue against the back of your front teeth, the letter “t.” With hearing aids, I can hear and discriminate among the braying, hee-hawing, lilting, oohing, and twanging sounds of the vowels . . . but only if I am concentrating, and only if I am watching the source of the sounds. Without my hearing aids, I might also hear sharp and sudden sounds like the clap of hands or crash of plates, depending on the volume of the noise. But I cannot hear the ring of the telephone, or the chime of the doorbell, or the urgent siren of an ambulance speeding down the street.

My hearing aids help me to hear these sounds, but again, not all the time. I drift away from the pull of sound, and need others to tug me back. Many examples spring to mind, but one, from many years ago, will do for now. I have a nephew, Alexander who, as a six-year-old, was a serious-minded boy and not easily moved to laughter. He would reflect on the mysteries of arithmetic, posing such wonders as “Did you know that when you add up two odd numbers, the answers are always even?” One day, when I was driving him home from a children’s theater, I glanced across at him in the passenger seat and saw he was grinning. He looked up at me, flushed with his smiles. I turned my attention back to the road, pleased by his enjoyment. A heartbeat later, Alexander called out in that over loud, barrel-chested voice of little boys. “Do you know that a police car is chasing us?” And that was how I caught the siren’s heart-stopping, needy, wait-for-me cry.

I was curious about what it would mean for me if I reopened the psychologist’s question for my private exploration. What was the impact of my deafness on my life? What threat would be posed to me if I tackled this question head-on? In the months following my visit to the psychologist, my reflections took on a more urgent, even querulous, tone. Having let the first questions to take hold in my imagination, new ones tumbled in. Where were my childhood deaf friends? What would my life have been like if I had stayed at the deaf school? How were my relationships affected by my deafness: not just my friendships but also my romantic relationships too? Eventually, I found myself confronted with the ultimate question: what was holding me back from finding, and then telling, my own story of deafness?

In making the decision to understand the impact of my deafness on my life and to answer those questions that were unsettling me, I was unsure whether to undertake my journey solo, as it were, without any guiding tools other than my memory and imagination. I wondered if it would be cheating to combine my recollections with research on deafness by experts, because although I’m deaf, I did not consider myself to be an expert. In fact, I didn’t know all that much about deafness or deaf culture. I had not made it my business to make a study of it. If anything, I had made a virtue of avoiding such introspection, led by my mother’s aspirations that I would live wholly as a hearing person separate from the deaf community. I did not even know many deaf people anymore. I was worried, too, that my memories would be contaminated by the influences of those other expert voices. I decided to begin my investigation at the beginning: I would return to my childhood.

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