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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 female biographers portrayed in this study will be in a state of liminality in two arenas. They are caught between worlds both as deaf individuals and as women. Their somewhat ambivalent views of their deafness will be discussed at length in the chapters of the book devoted to them. Their views of themselves as women are equally complex, stemming in part from their belonging to two eras, as their education occurred in large measure during the late nineteenth century while their actual professional careers extended well into the twentieth century. Pitrois, although additionally challenged psychologically by a temporary blindness that had traumatized her in childhood, had great courage and energy in pursuing her writing career. Her works were well reviewed during her era, and she was decorated by several countries, including France and Belgium. She seemed to have had little conflict about pursuing her writing. This may have been due, to some extent, to the influence of her mother, who was well established as a writer of children’s books in France and offered much encouragement to her talented daughter.

Corinne Rocheleau received more opposition from her family when she entered the work world, even though the decision to do so was, at least in part, due to financial considerations. It is true, though, that she took jobs in addition to her writing, working at the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., and, later, at her brother’s factory. This was still a more unusual path for a woman at that time than the teaching and writing that the family was more able to accept when she chose it as her full-time work later in her life. The differences between the responses of the families may also be culturally based. Pitrois traveled extensively, but her home and values were French. As a Franco-American who matured in both French Canada and the United States, Rocheleau and her family had values that belonged to the two cultures, but in this area, the family seemed to fall more into the American pattern of a reluctance to opening the work world to women. With impressive fortitude, Rocheleau followed her own path, eventually gaining the acceptance that she wanted, as she was close to her extended family.

Rocheleau challenged societal biases in other ways. For the women of her generation, the public and private spheres were separate. Women who wanted a public life did not marry, and for those who married, there was a private, but not a public, life. Already a well-known author, Rocheleau married Wilfrid Rouleau later in life and had with him, according to her own accounting, her happiest years. He was very supportive of her achievements and was particularly proud of her writing success.

For those marginalized individuals in society—whether they are women or people who happen to be deaf, disabled, or ill—much courage is needed to tell their story. Negative portrayals in literature and the media and the absence of adequate role models still perpetuate stereotypes. And those writing to challenge these stereotypes encounter ridicule. But for those writing courageously in spite of such impediments, there is the possibility of self-discovery and re-creation of the self through the act of writing.

This was the path chosen by the three deaf writers included in this volume, which explores how they tell their stories of marginality, focusing in particular on how they crossed the divide between deaf and hearing people, each in his or her unique way. Although these biographers found different ways to bridge this gap, they are all brave, ethical, and civic-minded role models for us as readers, whether hearing or deaf. They teach us that it is possible, if challenging, to cultivate our uniqueness in a creative way while still participating in the larger society and making substantial contributions to it.

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