Monday, March 18, 2013

Gerald Shea talks about discovering his deafness halfway through life and his extraordinary book Song Without Words

Imagine going through life and not realizing that you had a hearing problem. Gerald Shea was a brilliant lawyer who had grown accustomed to filling in the blanks of the words he heard, until, in his thirties, he was diagnosed as profoundly deaf. This is an astonishing book about communication, acceptance and hearing. I'm honored to have him here. Thank you, Gerald.

As someone who is painfully aware of every difference I possess, I find it absolutely remarkable that when you lost your hearing as a child, you didn't realize anything was wrong, you had no shame, and that it took until you were 34 to get a diagnosis. Could you talk a bit about that please and about your feelings when you were diagnosed?

I’ll try not to repeat (or laboriously so) what’s in the book!  As my world grew quieter, losing high frequency sounds but keeping many lows, I wasn’t conscious of it, and thought that everyone else heard words as I did, but was much faster at understanding them than I was.  I have always been, I think, a happy person, and became, instinctively, an excellent lipreader.  When I didn’t understand, which happened often, I would laugh, or change the subject, or even sing.  Music and laughter take you a long way.  So I always had lots of friends, though as a child I had my angels and saints too, as I write in the book, whose voices, of my own creation, of course, were beautifully clear to me.
When I was finally diagnosed at age 34, at Columbia P&S, and Dr. Chang fully explained what was wrong, I was devastated.  I thought back, immediately, during the seconds and minutes after I fully grasped what my life had been, to all that I had lost: the words, the ideas, the opportunities; all that lost time as Proust put it in writing of memories.  And yet, I always thought, still do, that I have, and have had, a full life. |

The most moving element of my discovery, as I write in the book, was that day out in the country when I rediscovered the sounds of nature, the crickets, heavenly crickets, and the birds, the rainfall, the footsteps, the breaths, the wind, the water, the merry bubble and joy of my life as a young child.  They are like Proust’s madeleines, except they had been absent for almost three decades.  They were a remembrance of things past, and on that day and thereafter, beautifully, miraculously it seemed, present again.  

You're consciously coping with your hearing problems now. In a sense, was ignorance bliss for you when you were younger or do you feel more empowered by the knowledge you now have?
I don’t think the ignorance was ever blissful.  You have to work hard to live, partially deaf, in the world of the hearing, even as a child, even (or particularly) if you are unconscious of the problem.  You’re always struggling deciphering the riddle of words before you give up and laugh, or change the subject, or sing, or run away to do something else. 

Later in life, at Andover, at Yale, at Columbia Law School, and certainly in practicing law, the problem became very difficult, and when I was 29, I developed ulcers, taking stomach-coating liquids and tablets, probanthine (a pill that dries you up), valium and then coffee to counteract it, because I didn’t know what the problem was—just that I was so poor at deciphering speech, and unaware that others didn’t have to do it.  But with the final diagnosis, and the hearing aids, within two weeks the ulcers were gone, and Claire threw away all the pills. 

I don’t and didn’t feel “empowered,” but it was wonderful to know what was wrong, and to deal with the easier word-transitions that the hearing aids gave me, throughout my practice of law for another 20 years or so.  Still, the hearing lawyers, bankers and others, on the opposite side of the table, were, I often thought, the hearing enemy.  In other contexts too, whenever I lose the thread of a conversation, which happens often, I feel a kind of enmity towards the speakers when their words race away from me. 

Can you talk about the "lyricals" you mention--which is a very lovely word, by the way, for how one interprets sounds one cannot quite hear?

Thank you—I thought of the term—lyricals—out walking one day with my hearing aids on, listening to the sounds of the forest.  The partially deaf interpret what others say through “lyricals,” in which those with limited hearing register the wrong words, or nonwords, in lieu of what is actually spoken.  Consonants are the markers of our speech, and are the high frequency sounds I generally don’t hear.  Without them, it’s a challenge to figure out what other people are saying.  Lipreading can help, but many consonants are invisible (T, K, D, hard G, H, S) and many look alike (P, B and M; F and V), and often, because of the fast pace of conversation, you miss those that are visible.
For example, if you said, “I thought of that,” I could hear, “I lost my hat,” a lyrical, and I would have to figure out your words through context.  To recall, for example, that you hadn’t been wearing a hat.  And think about the following sentence that’s in the book.  First look only at the vowels: 
 _a_e  _ _e  _a_  a_a_! 
It’s incomprehensible.  Now look only at the consonants: 
T_k_  th_  c_t  _w_y! 
The consonants tell us the cat’s being banished.  But you’ll usually get one or two consonants through lipreading and, in quiet, a hint of its sound, and context helps.  Meter helps too.  Someone said to me the other day as we were walking in London, “euh oh ay!”  I had no idea what she meant, until she added “be airful washing the trees,” which rather easily became “be careful crossing the street,” and led me to her earlier words, “look both ways.” 

No one has ever called these transitional words “lyricals”, or fully realized their origin—the mind at work filling the gaps left by dead or dying cells in the inner ear, but other writers have certainly experienced them.  Everyone who is partially deaf—and there are 30-40 million of us in the United States alone, communicates through lyricals.  So it’s to be expected that deaf writers will write about them albeit, until now, without calling them “lyricals.”  Thus, in David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence (2008), a character reveals “the pastime of the dance went to pot” as “the last time we went to France it was hot;” and “we seared our asses on bits of plate” gets repeated as “we were near Carcassonne, a pretty place”—illustrating with a wink the loss of a number of vowels and consonants at various frequencies, and the mind’s incorrect substitutions. For Josh Swiller (the unheard, 2008) with guesswork “your brain has to turn the ideas into words,” as in his “this place is going to rah,” searching for “this place is Gomorrah.”  He means not so much “ideas” as lyricals, the wrong words, or nonwords though you are, of course, in search of the speaker’s idea. 

But others are beginning to use the term now; and the partially deaf know, and the hearing are learning, exactly what it means. 

 I love that you said that everyone needs to be able to effectively express him or herself, in whatever way works best. Would you talk about that please?

Everyone needs—it is a universal need—to be able to use his own language, that is, the one in which he or she can most effectively express himself and understand others.  To illustrate the point, I devote a chapter to Helen Keller.

Deprived of both hearing and sight by scarlet fever when she was 19 months old, Helen was forbidden to use sign language, the rudiments of which she had learned, through touch, as a child.  She was left without any real language of her own, able neither to speak nor to read lips by touching them, as had been claimed.  She was taken over by others, notably her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and Helen’s mentor, Alexander Graham Bell.  Bell was violently opposed to the use of sign language by the deaf, even though he conceded that sign was “the quickest way to reach the mind of a profoundly deaf child.” 
Helen wrote what she was told, or helped, to write—of images and sounds, which she could neither see nor hear nor remember, telling us of sounds—trilling crickets, ringing bridles, and cracking whips; and of colors—silver lakes and sunlit mists. Her birthright was sold for what a contemporary blind writer called a mess of verbiage.  This brought her fame, and benefited others, but lost Helen her identity. 

You also talk about the debate about whether or not to implant deaf children with cochlear implants, something you seem concerned about. Perhaps one size--and one way of hearing--does not fit all?

That’s correct.  For people who lose their hearing after they have acquired speech, cochlear implants can be a great help.  With hard work and therapy, they can identify the sounds the implants bring them as speech, and function relatively well—certainly far better than they would with no hearing at all.   
But I think Helen Keller’s predicament invites an examination of those born profoundly deaf today, who are tested as infants but then being given cochlear implants at less than a year old and forced to learn to speak and to read lips.  I wonder—though I am keeping an open mind—whether these children have the language they need—or whether they might wind up without any effective language at all.  The book contrasts Helen, and what may happen to these children, with Emmanuelle Laborit, the deaf French actress (prix Molière) who, like Helen was denied sign language as a child but was then effectively rescued by two American sign language teachers in Paris, one deaf and one hearing.  Unlike Helen, Emmanuelle came to know herself and to develop her own voice and life, as a writer and, in sign language, on stage as both a modern and a Shakespearean actress.  In the end, she had the language she needed, and we need to be sure these children do as well.  That language could conceivably be speech, but I believe the matter remains in doubt.

What did you discover in writing this book?

I like to think that I have converted what might be regarded as a defeat (when I decided, though correctly, that I should withdraw from law practice at the relatively young age of 53) into a kind of triumph.  I don’t say this boastfully but with a sense of relief.  As I say in the book, the partially deaf may have an advantage at writing because lyricals give us an infinite vocabulary, far beyond that of our own tongue, which enable us to slide from one word to another when we are in the more workable, limited, finite vocabulary of the English language.  I may not be as eloquent as a poet, as Joyce, for example, but I try to be, and the path is smooth; and the rearrangement of real words to reflect my ideas more fluently, or accurately, or poetically, is a defining element of my life.  I have found my new vocation.

What's obsessing you now?

I am thinking a lot about what to write next.  But it’s too early to hint at what I have in mind! 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

One question you might have asked is:  “Why have you called the book Song Without Words?” 
This comes back to what I have said about music.  I played one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, his first (Opus 19b, No. 1, in E Major) for a hearing expert who was examining me in New Orleans, as I describe in the book. He kept a piano in his office and asked me to play.  The title, thus really Mendelssohn’s, elicits a number of reflections about my own life and the lives of the deaf generally:  lyricals are often a song without words, or with the wrong or evolving words; sign language may perhaps be said (for the hearing) to be a song without words, though in effect signs are the equivalent of words, or as wholly effective as words; the true (melodic) songs I have listened to all my life have been songs without words, until I have read or deciphered them; Mendelssohn's own pieces are songs without words, perhaps, but so beautiful that the words seem to be there.  As Mendelssohn himself explained to a friend who wanted to write words for them:  “the thoughts expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to put into words but, on the contrary, too definite.”  And this definiteness is a vital link of the partially deaf to the hearing world.  The book itself is, or aspires to be, a song, often composed of lyricals that are themselves melodic.  Birdsong and the sounds of nature (crickets, water, the wind in willows), which I can hear only with my hearing aids, are, for me, songs without words.  And the profoundly deaf themselves possess their own song without words (for the hearing), to be found in the visual melody of their language.  If you watch people signing, their eyes (if sighted), their hands, and their expressions, they look as if they’re conducting mutually responsive, silent symphonies.  And the deaf who are also blind, when signing with hands embraced, seem to be conducting a single symphony of their own. 

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