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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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The biographer also needed to understand himself, his own inner life, well enough so that he didn’t confuse it with that of his subject. Transference is the term used to describe the involvement between psychoanalyst and patient that occurs during psychiatry. It is the development of an emotional attitude toward the analyst on the part of a patient, which may be either positive or negative. By seeing these attachment patterns and interpreting them, the analyst gains understanding. (Edel believed that, in fact, the analyst may be considered a biographer of the soul.) Biographers have a similar emotional attachment to their subjects but often don’t acknowledge it or understand it completely.

How do biographers choose their subjects? According to Edel, Freud observed in his study of Leonardo da Vinci that biographers became quite obsessed with their heroes.8 The biographer’s choice of subject may be a response to some hidden need in his own personality or nature. At the heart of the biographical enterprise is “the relation of the biographer to the subject.”9 In Aspects of Biography (1929), André Maurois, without specifically using the term transference, described his relationship with his own biographical subjects in exactly those terms. He added that when the author chooses his subject in response to a personal need, biography can be said to be disguised autobiography. Similarly, according to Edel in Writing Lives (1984), Vladimir Nabokov felt that all biographers were individuals who completed their lives by writing the lives of others.

A biographer, then, may use his writing to work through his own personal obsessions, or he may portray in his work what life has denied him, depicting the subject as the kind of man he would himself hoped to become. He may, like the novelist Marcel Proust who translated his illnesses and withdrew from life’s difficulties into the rich world of Combray, convert negatives into positives, revealing “the triumphs of art over neuroses and of literature over life.”10 We return, then, to Maurois’s theory, supported by Edel, that biography is disguised autobiography.

All three of the deaf biographers featured in this volume used the biographical form to help themselves to understand, to heal, and to resolve feelings about their deafness at a safer distance than autobiographical confession would have allowed. Their subjects, in large measure, wrestled with issues similar to those experienced by the authors, or found a way to transcend them.

Awakened to the vulnerable situation of deaf people in society by his loss of standing at the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris between 1832 and 1836, Berthier portrayed, in all of his studies, the political pressures that influenced the lives of his subjects, as they had his own. Through his writing, Berthier was able to learn from his successive subjects and moderate his own anger and frustration. The healing effects of writing about his own issues, through the more comfortable medium of biographical sketches of others, led to an effective catharsis that enabled him to live his own life more creatively.

The trauma that Pitrois would try to resolve through her biographies was her loss of hearing and vision, as a result of sunstroke, at the age of seven. Between the ages of seven and twelve, Pitrois struggled between light and darkness, finally regaining her vision, although she remained deaf all her life. Even though she recovered her sight, Pitrois was deeply affected by the temporary experience of its loss, and her biographies reflect this preoccupation. Her biography of Helen Keller and the trilogy of biographies entitled Trois lumičres dans la nuit: Valentin Haüy, Louis Braille, Maurice de la Sizeranne (Three Lights in the Darkness: Valentin Haüy, Louis Braille, Maurice de la Sizeranne) allowed her to explore heroes who benefited the blind community and, in the cases of Keller, Braille, and de la Sizeranne, were blind themselves and therefore overcame great odds, including the inclination to become bitter. Through her exploration and analysis of these models, Pitrois would finally be able to defuse the haunting memory of her blindness.

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