Deaf memoir speaks passionately

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May 12, 2014

The Deaf House 

By Joanne Weber

Thistledown Press

274 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Margaret Thompson

There is a prefatory Note to The Deaf House by Joanne Weber that explains the difference between deaf/Deaf and hearing/Hearing as they are used in the narrative. For many readers this may well be their introduction to points of view radically at odds with their perception of profound hearing loss as a disability. That the Note needs to be there at all, on the very first page, is a clue to the frustration and conflict the deaf/Deaf face in their attempts to survive and thrive in the hearing/Hearing world.

Weber relates her own experience to illustrate that struggle. We meet her first as a small child, baffled and disturbed by the sounds in her head. Her hearing parents, especially her mother, throw themselves into the task of acquiring every scrap of knowledge and skill that would help them help her. The result is a child who is amazingly successful at school, despite profound deafness. She loves books, and thanks to her mother’s constant insistence on correction and practice, on learning sign language and lipreading, speaks clearly and grammatically. To all intents and purposes, she functions perfectly, although she guesses much of what is said; she is even paraded as an exemplar of what a profoundly deaf child can achieve.

Weber gives an impassioned account of the inadequacies of this way of life. There is a frantic quality to the events echoed in the tone of her writing. We follow the compulsive student, the affair with a married man, the single mother of two small girls who keeps moving house, the frustrated teacher, torn by the professional requirements that tie her to teaching practices she is convinced are useless. The simmering anger effectively conveys the turmoil of those years, but it is the quieter moments that provide insight for the hearing reader: the younger daughter, weeping, placing her hand on her mother’s throat, for instance, or the image of Weber’s ideal house—open, doorless, so that she can always see people talking.

The tensions inherent in a lifetime of trying to function in a world whose rules are predicated on being able to hear are most clearly exposed in Weber’s accounts of her interactions with her students and the education system. Her attempts to make her students more proactive and independent are frustrated at every turn. The students have cochlear implants and think they need nothing else; they rely too much on interpreters; the interpreters sign sloppily and inaccurately, using a code invented by hearing people rather than American Sign; the students think of themselves as disabled, belonging only to the hearing world rather than to the Deaf community.

Weber uses many fictional devices to convey the chaotic nature of her life. She plays with time, cutting frequently forward and back, to her childhood, to the early days of her relationship with her daughters’ father, often repetitiously, and sometimes, distractingly. She has conversations with herself, and introduces different facets of her own personality in dramatized playlets—Ms. Hearing Weber, for example, Little Red Deaf Coat, Joanne Maybe Hearing, It Depends. Such restlessness “on this weary walk in the desert” needs an antidote, and it does come finally with the appearance of Johanna, who can tolerate compromise and failure, and say, “I must stop looking for ways to escape my Deaf body.” Her voice is the last we hear, calming the turbulence:

“There is no solution, no cure, no rehabilitation, there is my body that just is. Fired into the world, my Deaf body has become the house.”

There is satisfaction for the reader in Weber’s acceptance, but also, perhaps, a sense of an opportunity missed. For those who can hear, deafness is an unfathomable state; how illuminating it would have been to devote more space to a discussion of the role of language, for example, or to explore the choice by the Deaf to not pursue technological or surgical remediation. Dwelling so exclusively on the personal engenders sympathy for an individual, but information and analysis may lead to understanding and action for a community.

Margaret Thompson’s new novel is The Cuckoo’s Child.

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