An unheard-of surprise

Hayley Campbell reviews Gerald Shea's <em>Song Without Words</em>.

Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life
Gerald Shea
£17.99, 320pp. Da Capo Press.

“What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears.” – Victor Hugo

When I met Gerald Shea I was painfully conscious of sound. The book launch had been going for two hours, I had arrived late and – after loudly thanking the coat-check lady and trip-trapping my old Cuban heels across highly polished porcelain tiles – found that his speech was already well underway in the carpeted quiet room of the posh Chelsea house. There were glowers, stares, and the overwhelming cloud of expensive perfume hit me with such force it was near audible. I choked. Shea on his pedestal, mid-speech, never wavered. Jokes. Applause. Shea’s recently published memoir laid in piles next to him in a room so quiet I could hear the fabric of a suit as two legs were crossed twelve feet away.

His is a story of a life that could have been completely different, perhaps un-memoir-worthy, had he only known one thing: that he was deaf. By the time he found out he had already made it through Harvard and Yale and became a successful lawyer. He was not profoundly deaf, but partially; not from birth, but the age of 5, when a bout of scarlet fever ravaged the epithelial cells in the lower part of the cochlea, the most complex and vulnerable component of the ear. Most vowels and some consonants disappeared from his world. Before their absence was discovered in a routine test in his mid-30s, he put his failure to understand things down to an intellectual defect rather than aural: he thought he heard the same things that other people heard and they were just better at understanding, that he was slow – a fraud in the world of academia. Girlfriends told him he was a bad listener and left him. They were technically entirely correct. If only he’d listened.

His story is like something straight out of Ira Glass’ radio show, This American Life – one of those episodes where the music stops on the crucial soundbite where our hero says “and I never knew” and makes you cry on the bus. How different would his life had been, what would he have done instead of guzzling Mylanta for stress-related stomach ulcers while looking at his own exhausted face in the public bathroom and saying: “I wish I were dead”? Professionally, he would have done nothing differently – he would still be a lawyer. But he wouldn’t have had to quit in the end and break his own heart.

I’ve had little experience with the profoundly deaf aside from being the only hearing person at a deaf film festival. The crowd was inexplicably noisy: all the sounds that hearing people learn to stifle are there, unmuted. Everything is louder bar the applause, which is a visual jazz-hands style wave rather than anything audible. Sound doesn’t matter here. Being profoundly deaf gives you a separate world to belong to – one with a language entirely of its own – but sound is different in Shea’s world, where being partially deaf casts you adrift between two places, the hearing and the other. Said Shea: “We the partially deaf, are not as well off as those who sign, for we have to combine our dual paths of understanding, our eyes and our ears, to get the message in a medium in which we are not at home.” Everything moves slower in the in-between, where brainpower is devoted to tasks unnatural to it.

In her Harper's Magazine article in 1954 the American writer Sylvia Wright coined a term for the things that Shea would later call “lyricals”. As a child she had misheard a line of the ballad, The Bonny Earl O'Moray: “laid him on the green” had become “and Lady Mondegreen”. She said: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.” Reading Shea’s book you can’t help but agree with her. Lyricals commonly happen to the hearing in the form of song lyrics: kiss this guy, Alex the seal, and, less commonly, a man I know was genuinely confused for an entire childhood as to what could possibly be romantic about the warts on the knees of a woman. He figured it was something he’d understand when he got older when females were no longer an alien species (as it turns out, the wants and the needs of a woman are still as mysterious to him as the warts on their knees). Shea might hear the lyrical “This is summer’s wilting youth in a Moma” where others would hear “Mrs. Sommer will see you in a moment.” Lee Marvin’s line in the old film Bad Day at Black Rock, “You gotta big mouth, boy – makin’ accusations of disturbin’ the peace” went into Shea’s head as: “You gotta big mouth, boy – makin’ of today a song of second peace.” Infinite possibilities for poetry and beauty and Edward Lear-ish nonsense lie in the most mundane of daily sentences.

These “lyricals” were how Shea lived his life and studied, too, in a language all of his own: taking notes in lectures (to him, verbatim) and, later, in important legal meetings. He was “freezing the lyricals in time and figuring them out” or in other words: deciphering them late into the night instead of sleeping, slowly killing his relationships and himself.

The book is not his just his own history but also that of the profoundly deaf and partially deaf throughout the ages: he talks about Juan Pablo Bonet in the Middle Ages attempting to make mutes speak simply by forbidding sign language; Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian, the first hearing teachers of French sign language in the 19th century; and Helen Keller being made to learn the cumbersome art of fingerspelling instead of her own language of mime. It’s a history of how people find a way – their own way – when one (or more) sense is gone.

Toward the end of the launch I got to speak to Shea, a thoroughly polite and deliberately spoken American man called Gerry who now lives in Paris with his French wife. He wears hearing aids, and as long as you speak to him face-on there is no miscommunication. He talks briefly about hearing birdsong for the first time, the tinnitus locusts in his head replaced by something outside of it: in short, the book spiel, the jacket copy. But then he looked wistful and told me about hearing “the sound of [his] own piss in the john” for the first time. I later wonder why he didn’t put it in the book given it was his most relatable example of hearing loss so far. A lifetime not knowing that piss had a sound?

Humans communicate. It’s not second nature, it’s nature. Without that, what is it like to be human? Shea’s Song Without Words is as eloquent an answer as we are likely to get.

A plate from Gray's Anatomy. Photograph: Getty Images

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

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Why are Moby, Ed Sheeran and Laura Mvula putting on gigs in the living rooms of total strangers?

Billy Bragg, The National and Nothing But Thieves are all doing the same.

Depending on your personal taste, Ed Sheeran turning up at your house, guitar in hand, to sings some earnest tunes could be a dream come true or a living nightmare. But what about The National? Or Moby? Or Laura Mvula? These are just some of the artists that have agreed to put on shows today in people’s homes around the world – from Washington DC to Cape Town.

Today, over 1,000 artists will play “living room shows” in 60 countries as part of Give a Home, “the largest global festival ever held”. Organised by Sofar and Amnesty international , the concerts are being held to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and as a guesture of solidarty with the 22 million refugees worldwide: fans were given the chance to donate to Amnesty when applying to win tickets.

British rock group Nothing But Thieves have always injected a level of political consciousness into their songs. Their second album, Broken Machines, was released earlier this month, charting at number two in the UK album chart. I spoke to guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown about Give A Home and their concert tonight in London.

Why did you agree to be a part of Give a Home?

It’s just something that we’re passionate about. We write songs about the refugee crisis, and this is what we talk about as people: in the band, on the bus. My girlfriend works at NGOs like Care and Amnesty, so it’s something that we’re passionate about. When we got this opportunity to play we jumped at the chance - anything we can do to even marginally help, we will. This is going all around the world, Ed Sheeran’s doing one in Washington, and The National are doing one. It’s amazing how many bands and artists have got involved.

Any you’re particular fans of?

Well, I mean, Conor [Mason, lead singer] really likes the National – but they just beat us to number one album!

Have you done a gig like this before?

Yeah, absolutely. We like playing these stripped back sessions, it makes the song come alive a bit more in a way, because they’re really raw, and some of them were written like that: just acoustic guitar and voice.

Do you think musicians and celebrities have a responsibility to engage with politics and issues like the refugee crisis?

We feel that way. I feel like we would be letting ourselves down and neglecting some sort of duty to use your platform for good and for things that you believe in. I get that it’s not for every artist, and I don’t think every artist should be pressured into doing it. But personally, for us, we’re writing an album and we want it to say something. It wouldn’t represent us if it didn’t.

What do you hope people who go to the gig will get from it?

Hopefully it will give people a sense of community, that’s what this whole thing is about. Its about raising awareness for the refugee crisis: I mean, it affects 22 million lives. It’s important to do something that just lets refugees know that they’re welcome and safe. Anything we can do to help in that way would be a positive thing.

What can people do to support refugees?

You might have to ask my girlfriend! Just talking about it in a way that is compassionate is important. I think one of the problems we have, especially at the moment in the age of Facebook, is that although social media has done a world of good in some areas, it also creates an “us v them” enviroment, and I think that’s really dangerous for humanity. I don’t think that way of thinking is positive at all. If this can do anything to bring a sense of community and togetherness, then that would be amazing.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.