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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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Corinne Rocheleau chose to portray subjects who reflected her dual concerns for the place of deaf citizens and women in society. Her deafness at the age of nine had isolated her, but the education that she received at the convent school in Montreal gave her the tools, not only to survive, but to thrive. At the convent school, as well, she saw the nuns’ dedication to their work, a dedication that Rocheleau wanted to emulate, and after observing the effectiveness of many of the sisters in their professional roles, she came to believe that a woman could be scholar, teacher, and writer.

Rocheleau’s writing would build on this foundation and additionally free her. In Françaises d’Amérique, she presented a panorama of women, all of whom lived in the New World but who made very different life choices. Hors de sa prison and Those in the Dark Silence (1930), dealing with deaf-blind subjects, enable her to resolve some of her remaining feelings of bitterness about her deafness. Rocheleau, in later years, served the deaf community extensively, as a writer and as a teacher. Her writing had sufficiently helped to defuse the negative feelings and to allow her to lead a creative, happier life and to make peace with her difference.

This element of emotion in psychobiography, however, must not keep the biographer’s art from being objective. Although it is hard to avoid excessive emotional involvement with the material, the biographer needs to stand back and strive to be a “participant-observer.”11 There must be some involvement on the part of the biographer, but she should resist being taken over by her subject. The biographer must be sympathetic, yet sufficiently distant, both involved and uninvolved, and must be able to separate from the subject, according to Edel.

Berthier, Pitrois, and Rocheleau tended to involve themselves in their texts more than later biographers would find acceptable. They register moral approval or disapproval and clearly indicate whether they accept or reject their subjects’ positions. All three, however, were impeccable in their research; they consulted works and letters in archives, and they interviewed surviving friends and colleagues who were contemporaries of their heroes. The reader can feel confident of their research, if not always of their interpretations.

For them, as well as for mainstream biographers, the major task of the biographer is to recover the mind of the subject. The text must be true to the human sources from which it springs, and therefore, the chronicler must take into account written archival materials and the application of psychoanalytical concepts of life writing when depicting the hero. The biographer must get beyond the appearance of things and establish a nuanced relationship with his or her subject that allows for an understanding of how the subject may have been motivated by compulsions, emotions, and passions to make significant life choices and how she fulfilled her destiny, or failed to do so.

The reader also has a relationship with the text and its hero. “The biographer makes himself like his hero in order to understand him; the reader in order to copy his actions.”12 A reader may be comforted, or may aspire to act more responsibly and become a more empathic person. Biography offers us lessons in morality by giving us a panorama of individual examples and reminding us that human beings have both positive and negative features and that we would do well to imitate the best, rather than the worst, examples. Challenges, then, exist for the reader, as they do for the biographer.

But regardless of its challenges, biography merits the doing, as the need for the hero is “as old as mankind.”13 It sets before us lofty but accessible, astonishing but credible, examples to follow. It seems to flourish particularly during periods of doubt and despair, appearing as a source of reassurance that people are capable of strength and goodness. It is a complex art form, and we demand much of it and its practitioners: “We demand of it the scrupulosity of science and the enchantments of art, the perceptible truth of the novel and the learned falsehoods of history.”14 But it meets our expectations, if not always on an individual basis, as a genre, by offering us heroes whose actions and voices sometimes uplift us and always interest and educate us to human potential.

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