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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Crossing the Divide: Representations of Deafness in Biography

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Thus, in spite of the importance of the historical aspects of each biography, the biographer must be more than a historian. The biographer must remain focused on the portrayal of the development of a single life. “Biography is the study of the evolution of a human soul,”3 according to Maurois, so it is particularly important for the biographer to discover and portray the moments when the subject became himself, found a vocation, overcame weaknesses, and developed a new understanding of life. Berthier’s biography of the Abbé de l’Épée (1852) sketches the moment when L’Épée discovered his vocation—he stumbled on two deaf girls in a house on Fossés-St.Victor Street, recognized their vulnerability because of their disability, and decided to devote his life to teaching them and others like them. Helen Keller made a trope toward goodness once she was able to communicate, and this development is at the heart of Yvonne Pitrois’s analysis of her. Rocheleau’s study of Ludivine Lachance in Hors de sa prison (Out of Her Prison, 1927), showed the touching development of strength on the part of her deaf-blind heroine. Terrified of death when it was first explained to her, Ludivine ultimately accepted her own death with courage when her time came. For all three writers, then, it was clearly the development of character that was at the heart of the narrative.

All biographers are on a quest for the truth. They must consider which materials can be used to find and to record the truth about their subjects. They must see what others have written about a chosen subject and read letters, diaries, and journals written by the subject. But even after such careful research, the biographer must be aware that the subject may be posing and that the words of others may be contradictory. The biographer must cultivate “faculties of artistic divination,” as well as scientific investigation, in order to be successful in finding and portraying the subject with accuracy.4

Further complicating this quest is an understanding on the part of modern biographers of the complexities of personality. Berthier, Pitrois, and Rocheleau all understood that the quest for the truth includes an acknowledgment of the protagonist’s faults as well as his virtues. Berthier, although he deeply admired the Abbé de l’Épée, wrote that L’Épée did not always have sufficient faith in the possibilities of sign language in and of itself, without alteration. In this same analysis, Berthier acknowledged the abbé’s commitment to the children he taught, even depriving himself of heat in the hard winter of 1788, in order to save the kindling for his young students. Similarly, Pitrois underlined the brilliance and dedication to social service for the blind and deaf-blind of Helen Keller, while faulting her for her vaudeville appearances with Anne Sullivan. Pitrois saw these performances as undignified and sensationalistic, an interesting view that will be discussed in depth in a later chapter. Rocheleau, in her portrait of Jeanne le Ber in Françaises d’Amérique . . . , showed us a “saintly recluse” who desired to live following the laws of God but failed in her earthly commitments to family and friends.

Can autobiographical narrative provide us with the truth more readily than biography? It would seem so, as who better than the man himself to write about his own motives or the secrets behind his actions? But numerous factors make even autobiographical narratives false. We forget a lot about our own lives, a phenomenon that occurs throughout our lives and that may have numerous causes. There may be aesthetic reasons, as an autobiographer may be tempted to make of his life a work of art, often eliminating, without realizing it, the everyday events that reveal what that person had in common with others. This might create the impression that his life was more different than it really was. Forgetfulness might also be triggered by the censorship the mind performs upon the disagreeable or the shameful. We may want to forget humble origins or embarrassing episodes in our lives. Memory often fails through a process of rationalization. An event may be the work of chance, but we may discover, in retrospect, a heroic narrative.

Additional obstacles to creating authentic autobiographies and memoirs exist for people with disabilities, deaf people, women, and other marginal groups. This genre was long defined by men in the mainstream of society. The powerful early writers of autobiography, Augustine and Rousseau, do not offer adequate models for writers on the margins of society. Perhaps in some measure due to an absence of models, none of the deaf authors included in this analysis wrote a full-length autobiography. Writing, in general, before autobiographies were too much in fashion and perhaps additionally distanced from this form by his marginality, Berthier did not even write a memoir. He did include personal observations and comments in his biographies of deaf educators. His affection for Laurent Clerc and his continuing correspondence and relationship with him long after Clerc’s initial departure from France are revealed in an essay appended to the biography of the Abbé Sicard.


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