|Deaf Hearing Boy|
The Second Volume in the Deaf Lives Series
From Disability Studies Quarterly
Robert H. Miller’s Deaf Hearing Boy: A Memoir focuses on the author’s experiences as a hearing child of deaf parents. The book describes his formative years in Ohio, both on the farm with his paternal grandparents and in the city of Toledo, starting in 1938, and continues through adulthood to postretirement in 2002. The eye-catching, thought-provoking title, Deaf Hearing Boy, is commonly used by naïve children to identify the children of deaf parents (CODA). These naïve children do not understand the roles of CODAs. Confessions and revelations including the struggles, embarrassments and joys of being a hearing child of deaf parents are described in detail. In essence, these experiences are typical of CODAs as mentioned in the foreword.
The book is organized into a foreword, introduction, nine chapters and an afterword. Just before the introduction, there is a brief family tree that contains three levels of the family tree: grandparents, parents, their siblings and Robert’s and his wife, Elizabeth’s siblings. Including the family tree before the story began was very beneficial as it helped the reader to follow family relationships, although it would be more helpful if the author coded which members were deaf on that family tree page in order to further sensitize the reader to the dynamics of the relationships through the eyes of the author.
As normally found in memoir books, nine chapters focus on major changes in Robert’s life, starting with his early years (1938–1942). The first chapter is a good introduction on the history of deaf people and the community as based on personal stories. As such, it is helpful for lay readers who need to get a sense of the type of community experienced by the author. The struggles Robert’s parents, Richard and Elizabeth, faced as a deaf couple, when they got married and had children were very typical. Furthermore, Robert’s grandparents, who were hearing (the label deaf people ascribe to people who hear), did not have much confidence in the deaf couple’s ability to manage their own lives. For them to accept the marriage of their deaf children and see them as independent, living on their own, was a struggle, indeed. The second chapter portrays Robert’s deaf parents moving to Toledo as an escape from the farm and wanting to live in the city to stay connected with the deaf community. Their involvement with the deaf club in Toledo for seven years (1942–1949) was the high point of their life. The third chapter, “Summer Idylls” (1944–1949) reveals the convenience and inconvenience of Robert’s summers at his hearing grandparents’ farm.
Specifically, Robert could connect with being hearing through his grandparents, but at the same time this reflected a sense of betrayal of his deaf parents. This chapter describes how he moves toward resolving his dilemma and determines where his loyalties were. Chapter Four (“Hard Times: 1944–1949”) described how his parents’ difficult marriage led to their divorce, their difficulty in holding jobs and their inability to live on their own, stresses that Robert as a child recognized implicitly as having to do with their being deaf. In Chapter Five (“Back to the Farm: 1950–1953”), Robert describes being caught in the middle between his grandparents and his parents. What would happen is that he would hear inappropriate and demeaning remarks from his hearing grandparents about his deaf parents. And his grandparents continued to give instructions to their son, Richard through their grandson, which was very humiliating for both Robert, the son, and Richard, the father. Role exploration, identity, and responsibilities placed on the son, Robert because of the parents’ deafness and grandparent perspectives are discussed in depth. Chapter Six (“Sherry School: 1950”) marked the lowest point in Robert’s life, with his parents’ divorce, going through difficult economic hard times and not doing well in school. Going through puberty at that time likely complicated matters as well. Chapter Seven (“A New Life: 1951–1953”) reveals Robert’s increasing maturity as he entered a new school, and eventually understood his parents’ deafness as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a medical disability. Chapter Eight (“High School: 1952–1956”) concludes with humorous anecdotes of how Robert coped with situations such as preparing people at school, his friends, and his dates for the eventual meeting with his deaf parents, showing how clear he was in terms of accepting his parents and how his coping skills had evolved to the point where he could serve as a class president in his high school, graduate with honors, and obtain high scores on his college entrance exams.
This book is an excellent source for those who are curious about the lives of deaf people in the years prior to, during World War II, and afterwards. For the lay reader, it opens the door to better understanding of such lives. The inner dialogues Robert describes throughout the book are very typical of CODAs. For instance, Robert wondered why he enjoyed spending time with other families that had CODAs. It did not dawn on him until much later that the shared experiences he had with other CODAs brought them closer together. In the mid 1900s it was common for deaf people to have jobs as printers, to go to deaf clubs that had long steps at the entrance to the building, to have children interpret television programs for deaf parents (there were no captions back then) and try to take control of information when interpreting, and eventually to view their parents as human beings who tried to do their best within the parameters of culturally deaf ways of being.
Overall, readers will find this book enjoyable, educational, fascinating, and probably emotional. This book can be considered as a supplemental reading for Deaf Culture, Deaf History and Family Communication courses. This book would be also helpful for deaf parents who have just had hearing babies so they can better understand the emotions their own children may go through. Naturally, CODAs will enjoy this book, knowing they are not alone.
R. H. Miller is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Louisville.
Print Edition: ISBN 978-1-56368-305-3, 5½ x 8½ paperback, 176 pages
E-Book: ISBN 978-1-56368-280-3
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