ASL Review

For more information about the process of developing this book review in multiple formats, see Teresa Blankmeyer Burke's essay in this issue, "MetaMeta Upload: Composing A Review in ASL and English."

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Audio English Review

Written English Review

The best disability memoirs are neither inspirational nor voyeuristic, but produce a description of a life lived in a body that is marked as categorically different. In the hearing loss subset of disability memoir, several works address this task by offering descriptions of lives frustrated by norms established and adhered to by hearing people -- snapshots of the difficulties of negotiating tricky terrain when the hearing is partial. Some of the more thoughtful works in this genre include Bonnie Poitras Tucker's The Feel of Silence, Michael Chorost's Rebuilt: My Journey Back to the Hearing World, and Cheryl Heppner's Seeds of Disquiet: One Deaf Woman's Experience. Gerald Shea's memoir, Song Without Words, fits this category.

Able-bodied, hearing reviewers with limited moral imagination often package disability memoir as inspirational: several reviewers of Shea's work have succumbed to this temptation. This is the wrong approach. The question that reviewers should ask themselves is this: how does Shea's book fit into the subgenre of hearing loss memoir and what unique contributions does it make?

Shea's work stands out among hearing loss memoirs on two counts, and should be read for these reasons. First is the late discovery of his deafness, which occurred decades after his hearing loss due to childhood illness. The second attention to the description of his process of what it is like to experience partial hearing and what the mind does to fill in the gaps. I will comment on these in turn, wrapping up with some more general observations about the book from my own standpoint as a deaf philosopher with research interests in memoir.

Most tales of undiscovered deafness take place before infant hearing screening became a universal practice. 1 A common version of this story is the uncommunicative child, misdiagnosed as having a cognitive or intellectual disability, who is institutionalized with others receiving similar diagnoses only to be identified as deaf years later. 2 Gerald Shea's story is unusual in that he functioned well enough as an oral deaf person, indeed, exceptionally well in some aspects of life, that he and others did not recognize his deafness. The reader knows the story of Shea's late realization of his deafness up front, and is primed to recognize clues foreshadowed throughout the memoir – the girlfriend who finds him dreamy and unfocused, the dread of public humiliation in law school due to a misunderstood question, and more generally, his communication difficulties in his first job as a lawyer.

One common response to learning of undiagnosed deafness is disbelief – how is it possible for a person to be unaware that his experience is so atypical? There are two answers to this, of course. The first is practical, and has to do with social structures and institutions that assess normality. Among these are grade school hearing screenings, and family members and close associates noting that one is not functioning as well in response to auditory information. In the former case, Shea's hearing was within the species-typical range when his school conducted its annual hearing screening. In the latter case, unlike most people who lose hearing later in life who have a well established baseline of responses to auditory stimuli, Shea's circle of intimates does not note any changes in his behavior, thus missing one of the key identifiers of hearing loss. The philosophical answer to this question is that it is more difficult than one might imagine to sort out those individual behaviors that are uniquely particular from those that deviate from species typicality. When one's functioning manages to satisfy external criteria (such as graduation from not one, but two Ivy League institutions and an upwardly mobile career), the signal that something is possibly awry is muted. When this is coupled with the question of distinguishing individual peculiarities from deviancy via the range of species typicality (as measured by the biological and functional), this becomes a hard problem.

Lipreading is a difficult task, made slightly easier with residual hearing, but the difference is minimal. Shea's phenomenological description of the thought processes he goes through with his "lyricals" bits of nonsense words and actual words cobbled from sound and speechreading, is spot on, and an important contribution. That said, the author's decision to repeat the phenomenon through the book has several upshots, not all of them welcome. One is the helpful reminder that this is an ongoing occurrence in the lives of people who have partial access to auditory communication -- this experience does not drop out once one has recognized and addressed hearing impairment. Another is that the experience of misunderstanding is not just amusing (to others as well as the person generating the lyricals), but sometimes thought-provoking in interesting ways. I have always viewed this as a form of deaf-gain for those inclined to wordplay as an art form. What rings less true for me is the kinds of comprehension errors that occur in Shea's lyricals. Now, this may be due to individual variation. Perhaps I am just a better lipreader than Shea, or my training as a philosopher has developed my inductive skills further, but some of his lyricals struck me as highly counterintuitive, and even inconsistent with the larger picture painted of Shea's success. On first reading, this was a red flag. It wasn't until after dining with Gerry and comparing our own very different lyricals in response to the same spoken phrases (which was a highly entertaining and fun activity) that I determined these were not contrived for literary effect (an initial concern), but really do correspond to his own experiences.

I promised to wrap up with some general observations about Shea's book, but before I do that, I will take a slight detour into philosophy of memoir. Memoir provides a way for seeing into others' lives – not just the minutiae of decisions made and roads not taken, but the swerves that lead a person into moral landscapes that might otherwise be difficult to comprehend. Disability memoir is particularly useful, I think, in giving able-bodied people some insight for imagining what life might be like for disabled people. The worry is this: once the cover is closed, the reader can slot her reactions into socially constructed heuristics – among these are pity, moral saint, martyr, and (sometimes) monster.

The really good disability memoir elicits more complex responses from the reader – not just during the reading, but afterwards, so that the reader, when faced with an encounter with a person with the same kind of disability, is willing to do two things: first, to withhold judgment and resist the temptation to slot the disabled person into the convenient and ready-made category; and second, to attend, really attend, to what the person with a disability says and does. This is a high bar that rests not only on the merits of the book, but on the moral character of the reader, including the not just the willingness to resist pat conclusions, but to know when one ought to set aside the heuristics as a moral move.

It is my view that Shea's memoir fails to give the reader a way out of the maze of disability tropes. One reason for this is the book could benefit from more phenomenological accounts of the impact that making sense of hearing has on relationships. But more than a desire for more of Shea's richly detailed phenomenology, the faint leitmotif of super crip accomplishments and its inspiration porn sequelae makes it harder for the reader to transcend conventional thinking about disability and shift to a Murdochian move of attending to this person with a disability. The reader will recall that my initial response to Shea's lyricals was skepticism; they did not correspond to my own speechreading intuitions. It took the experience of comparing lyricals to the same spoken prompts to drive this point home -- that the mistake of assuming similarity in lyricals is of the same ilk as slotting the memoir into a familiar category.

Finally, when reading any memoir, it is helpful to consider what is missing as well as what is included. This is true for book reviews as well. The astute reader of this review and of Shea's book may wonder why, as a deaf philosopher, I have not commented on Shea's observations about philosophy. My response to Shea's use of philosophical concepts and ideas is to resist the temptation to apply the philosophical tools of my training, and instead, to listen, really listen, to his Song Without Words. I encourage you to do the same.


  1. In the U.S. infant hearing screening is conducted via the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention state programs.
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  2. A classic example of this is the book Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson by Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner. It should not be taken as a story relegated to the distant past, and unlikely to happen in more contemporary, enlightened times. I have deaf friends to whom this happened as recently as 30 years ago.
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Copyright (c) 2014 Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

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