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An unheard-of surprise

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

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

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.