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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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These narratives of disability and deafness have value both for the storyteller and for the audience. The biographer may transmute painful experiences in art and may rise above adverse circumstances. Even if one cannot repair the situation and it ends badly, there is value in being able to describe and discuss it in literature. The fact that the tale can be told can reduce stigma and marginalization for the person recounting it. These written narratives may provide help to other deaf and disabled people by giving them a different perspective on their situation, and friends of deaf people can support their friends more intelligently by reading such narratives and reflecting on them.

Particularly noteworthy is that through these narratives, deaf people can find meaning in their deafness. The writing serves as a healing ritual. According to Couser, “If illness and disability are reminders of our mortality and frailty, narratives of these conditions are testaments to our resilience and vitality.” Narratives at first take us out of our bodies and later return us to them with a better understanding of how bodies shape our identity. Illness or disability threaten to make our lives meaningless by fragmenting them. But by organizing our lives in coherent ways, these disability and deafness narratives shore up a sense of the value of these lives.

Disabled and deaf people, like women of previous centuries, had been made invisible. In part this situation was created by others: the society-at-large for deaf and disabled people and the male establishment for women. But the situation was complex, for the marginalized groups came to internalize and accept the diminished view of them propagated by mainstream culture, and they lost the belief that they could achieve heroic stature. Carolyn Heilbrun, in Women’s Lives: The View from the Threshold, describes the courage it takes for those in a liminal or marginalized state to struggle against their isolation. Focusing in large measure on the situation of women, Heilbrun speaks of the realization on the part of early feminists that women had been made invisible as professionals, and how daring it was for these women to step outside of established societal structures and challenge the norm.

Heilbrun looks at the biographies and memoirs of women who struggled with a state of “betweenness.” In so doing, they altered literature and society. How did such marginalization initially occur? Feminists believe that literature before and after World War I reflected what amounted to a war of the sexes. Professional women, particularly those who wrote, were consistently portrayed as evil and intruding upon men’s clear right to be the only literary creators. Feminism came to see in modernism, the literature that prevailed during that era, a fear of women’s voices that seemed to be its single most powerful motivation. Women are consistently seen in the works of this era as objects of men’s desires or hatred; the women are not seen as capable of having a range of human experiences. And women who gave all their energy to writing, rather than trying to please men, were judged not to be worth looking at, either as women or as writers. Feminism, beginning in the 1960s, revealed this war of the sexes and, at the same time, in writing about it, revised the situation. Women in their writing and analyses began to portray a new range of possibilities.

The cost was high, however, for female writers dissenting from mainstream culture between World Wars I and II and even into more recent times. Such women were on the point of leaving one condition or self for another, but were not yet clear about where they belonged or what they should be doing. Heilbrun saw them as having a threshold experience, or being in a state of liminality. (The word limen means “threshold.”) Women turned to liminality in order to find a way out of patriarchy. They needed to take stock, define a new direction, and find alternative communities to support them. The path was particularly challenging for women who wrote memoirs or biographies. When women memoirists write about being between worlds or experiences that are new, they must create a new form, as male autobiography doesn’t provide them with adequate models. They discover themselves, become famous, and re-create themselves by the act of writing. Even if they don’t conclude their works with the certainty of male autobiography, they do reflect a less apologetic tone than earlier female autobiography. These newer autobiographies have an admission of ambition and do not shy away from discussing the suffering the women experienced to attain their goals. Although these women had their individual goals and destinies, the desire for all of them was to move from this state of liminality, courageously chosen, to the center of human experience.


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