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American Annals of the Deaf

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Crossing the Divide: Representations of Deafness in Biography

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Pitrois included moral observations that reflected her religious views in her biographies, but she left neither memoirs nor autobiographical essays. Some rich comments, however, surface in her newsletter for deaf people, La Petite Silencieuse (The Little Silent Girl). There we learn of her close relationship with her mother and of her deep concern for deaf and deaf-blind people. Pitrois used the newsletter to urge her readers to support one another and to collect books, clothing, and money from those able to spare it for the benefit of the poorest. It is perhaps this same religiosity and moral rigor that prevented her from chronicling herself—this, coupled with the fact that it was still considered inappropriate for women to write about themselves and their personal aspirations.5

Rocheleau, alone of the three, wrote an autobiographical essay, “My Education in a Convent School for the Deaf,” in 1931. It is a partial analysis, covering only the years up to and including the oralist education she received at the convent school in Montreal. The essay narrates the devastation Rocheleau felt upon becoming deaf at the age of nine and how her studies at this school, after many failed attempts to find a suitable education, finally enabled her to reconnect with family and friends and lead a productive life. The essay is sensitively written and reflects a courage and assertion that this disabled woman’s life is worth the retelling. Rocheleau revealed herself here as an early feminist, an aspect of her work and life that will be analyzed more completely in a later chapter. Her essay resembles more modern biographical writing in that she does not write about a completed life but about a life in progress, and the writing itself becomes part of her process of defining herself.

Maurois asserted that autobiography, like biography, is difficult to create. We need appropriate models. We cannot completely retrieve the past, as it is impossible not to change it both consciously and unconsciously. He believed that an intellectual autobiography is the closest one can come to writing an authentic autobiography. Such a biography, he said, recounts how a person’s intelligence and ideas were developed. His belief was that, in this manner, there are fewer subjective or emotional elements that came into play (Maurois 1930, 165).6 Rocheleau approached this model in her essay, which focused in large measure on her educational development both before and during her years in the convent school.

As works with both historical and scientific dimensions, the best biographies and autobiographies must be works of art, as well. The first and most important choice of the biographer is that of his subject. The biographer must then uncover what is unique about the protagonist. Although the life depicted may manifest the influence of some underlying philosophy, the author must avoid being heavy-handed in the expression of that philosophy. To achieve artistic effect, he may, instead, analyze the themes and motifs that reveal a hidden artistic unity.

How else can the biographer respect scientific truth but still approach the art of the novelist? First, he must follow chronological order, allowing for the portrayal of the evolution of the human spirit in the individual. Character evolves in contact with human beings and events. These influences revealed in their progression will ideally lead to art, which depends upon a sense of movement. Thus, even though the characters of a biography or autobiography are real, they may still be appropriate material for a work of art, if the biographer composes his work with care.

Midway between art and science, reflecting elements of both, are the findings of Sigmund Freud and his successors, and their influence on biography. There was, after Freud, a new arena for biographical study. Reading audiences wanted to know more about human nature and the motivations for human achievement. There was a desire to learn about the inner life, as well as the outer life, of the subject. The biographer had to pay heed to this in his “recording and telling of human lives.”7 A new form of biography called “psychobiography” developed, essentially beginning with Lytton Strachey, who was the first to use Freud in a creative way in his work. The biographer now was expected to discover and understand his subject’s secrets and feelings, as well as how the subject handled his or her own life.

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