Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner's Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson reads much like a Southern Gothic tale certain to ignite indignation and anger in any sympathetic reader. Burch and Joyner detail Wilson's life as an African American Deaf man wrongfully institutionalized, without access to his native signed language, languishing in social isolation for most of his adult life.1 The lack of meaningful social engagement Wilson endured over an extended period of time makes it difficult for the authors to fully access Wilson's inner life. Burch and Joyner state that their work cannot be a traditional biography in that sense; however, they do provide as much detail as possible. This meticulously researched and impeccably organized book uses oral interviews to supplement documented history on Wilson. Additional sources of information come from hospital, medical, and institutional records; popular media; and historical records chronicling the broader social and political atmosphere during Wilson's life.

The book is divided into eleven sections, each highlighting an important step in Wilson's journey. Though much of the text deals with Wilson's life after he was institutionalized, his childhood is described in some detail in the first portion. Growing up, Wilson attended a segregated school for African American Deaf children outside Wilmington, N.C. until his expulsion in 1924 at age 16. He spent a brief period of time at home, but in 1925 was accused by a family friend of the attempted rape of a neighboring girl. At a subsequent "lunacy" hearing, he was found insane and committed to an institution in Goldsboro, N.C. Later testimonies strongly suggest that Wilson never committed the alleged crime, but Burch and Joyner (and even Wilson's own family) fail to understand exactly why he was accused. At this point in the book, it is hypothesized that Wilson may have been viewed as an economic burden to Wilson's mother and the neighboring family who provided her with support. Difficulties in communication may have contributed to the frustration Wilson's family must have experienced when he was home. Oral interviews with family members prove they felt an inability to communicate with Wilson; neither he nor they understood written English. Thus, Burch and Joyner suggest, the hardships faced by a minority family with a Deaf child may have proved too much for this family. The events surrounding Wilson's alleged crime and subsequent incarceration highlight issues of poverty, race, and ableism, though Burch and Joyner must hypothesize the severity of these issues for Wilson, as some aspects of his life will never be fully known. Race, class and disability status remain important throughout the text, serving to guide Wilson's treatment and sustain his placement in an institution.

Burch and Joyner spend some time on the issue of whether Wilson, deprived of access to any signed language or socialization with other Deaf people after the age of 17, was culturally Deaf. His use of signs regional to his school (Raleigh Signs), Deaf behaviors like breaking eye contact at times to signify his unwillingness to listen, and preference for Deaf people who used his native signed language, all support the authors' argument that Wilson was culturally Deaf. This, coupled with the professional assessments of Wilson's language use and ability to communicate, leads the authors to conclude that he was culturally Deaf. Because Deaf education was racially segregated in the early 1900s, and because signers developed regional dialects of signs, Wilson grew up using Raleigh Signs, which differ significantly from American Sign Language (ASL). Though the authors themselves are the first to admit they do not know what Wilson's opinion of his cultural status was, nor did he appear to fully understand ASL or Raleigh Signs later in his life, they do conclude that Wilson was deprived of access to his culture and signed language, in addition to being wrongfully institutionalized. Though Wilson received no accommodations for communication prior to the 1990s, the interpreters he received afterward seem to have been unsuitable as well. Burch and Joyner express approval of the use of interpreters and of the language assessments Wilson experienced, but note that the mixed results of such assessments and the lack of the interpreters' ability to fully communicate with him highlight the insufficiency of these too-late measures.

In Unspeakable, Burch and Joyner succeed in gaining access to a world that is typically inaccessible: that of the institutionalized. However, the connections between deafness and disability are pursued only in part. For example, people with intellectual disabilities have a long history of institutionalization, isolation, and forced sterilization — experiences that Wilson shared. Historical representations of disability experiences are often silent on the subject of Deaf people's experiences with institutionalization and sterilization. The connections between these communities, who for different reasons often face similar challenges, perhaps could have been pursued, though the authors do mention some of these issues. Throughout the book, the focus remains on issues of race, culture, and class.

The legal battle on behalf of Wilson for services and reparations for his wrongful institutionalization and its effect is one of the main topics of Unspeakable. Only recently have the civil and social rights of people with disabilities been addressed in legislation, long after Wilson's incarceration. As early as the late 1960s, hospital records indicate that he was suggested as a good candidate for release from the facility and charges against him had been dropped. Some efforts were made in the early 1970s to locate his family and later to rehabilitate him, both without success. Wilson met with various social workers, who wondered why he was in an institution and began working on his behalf. Legal action was pursued by both guardians and later some of Wilson's family who had learned about Wilson's existence through the media generated by his guardians. His family and his guardians fought for Wilson to receive proper placement and appropriate services, and yet Burch and Joyner do not know how much of this was desired, directed, or fully comprehended by Wilson. He was eventually moved to a small cottage on the institution's grounds, where he lived out the remainder of his life.

Burch and Joyner have created a non-traditional biography about a man deprived of his self-determination, buffeted about, and reliant on government intervention for reparations for their treatment of him. This painstakingly researched, organized, and exceptionally well-written publication is worth reading simply for pleasure, but will also be useful for a wide variety of scholars. Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson provides a valuable source of information for students and scholars studying issues in deaf culture, social justice, African American culture, disability studies, post-Civil War history, and institutionalization, among others. The authors do an impressive job of analyzing the policies, attitudes, and prejudices that created and perpetuated systems of oppression in the post-Civil War era. Furthermore, this book begins to describe some of the history of African American Deaf people, an area that has received little attention. Unspeakable is a work not only about one Deaf man, but about much larger social issues that marked the 20th century.


  1. I consistently use the capitalized version of “deaf” in all instances to denote the state of being culturally Deaf.

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