Jessica White is an Australian author of two works of fiction. A fun aspect of reading Australian fiction as a person from the U.S. is seeing words I don’t know and Wikipedia won’t tell me: doona, ute, spinifex, chookyard, textas, etc.. White writes in her hybrid memoir-informational book Hearing Maud that her first novel was a success, but her second was not. Hearing Maud isn’t concerned with White’s books so much as writing, and how writing is a type of communication she turned to because she is deaf. At age four, White became ill with meningitis. To kill the infection, doctors gave her a large dose of antibiotics. The medication that prevented her death damaged the nerves in her cochlea, all while saving her brain. She lost all hearing in her left ear and half in her right.
Of course White knows what it means to live with deafness, but does she write about it in a way relatable to other deaf and hard of hearing people? Wisely, White knows when to include details of living life as a person with little hearing. She frequently turns to her siblings, asking them to repeat what others said. I know I’ve done this frequently with my spouse and co-workers. When White faces hearing tests, she works to be “good” at it so she can prove her worth as human:
At my annual check-ups, I strained to hear the beeps in tests because, I reasoned with faulty logic, the more I could prove I could hear, the more normal I would be.
Any faults in hearing feel like person failure, and when someone quips, “Are your damn hearing aids broken? Turn ’em up!” as if that is hilarious or useful, it cuts deeply, almost unforgivably.
Even when White does “pass” for a hearing person, she is mildly scorned by an audiology lecturer, who says, “The problem with people like you is that you make deafness look easy.” Essentially, White captures the problem hearing people have with the deaf community: you’re either too deaf to be worth it, or not deaf enough to count as disabled. It’s something I struggle with, ending up feeling like a phony with a small problem. The hard evidence arrives as daily exhaustion, as if I’ve studied for hours for a final exam. White also describes a familiar exhaustion that comes after a day of carefully reading body language, lip-reading, asking for people to repeat themselves and dealing with their frustration, and feeling anxious about hearing incorrectly and then saying something that doesn’t make sense back.
Hearing Maud is a hybrid memoir, one that is part White’s memoir, part biography of Maud Praed, and part history of the treatment of deaf and hard of hearing people. By weaving these different threads, White creates interesting context for her and Maud’s lives, lived about 100 years apart. When Maud was a girl in 1880, a group of one dozen people, none of them deaf, gathered at an education conference. Nine of them decided that all deaf children must learn to speak, that sign language was not a complex enough form of communication. White concludes,
The ramifications of this conference were profound: for the next century deaf people were forced to communicate in a difficult language, for which they were often mocked because they could not hear themselves well enough to speak. Teachers who taught sign language lost their jobs, and the solidarity and culture that deaf communities provided was eroded, particularly as these communities were formed in schools.
In her coverage of deaf people during Maud’s life, White explains that a non-verbal person was considered animalistic, an embarrassment, which is why Maud was institutionalized for most of her life. Maud and her deaf peers were forced to learn to speak to prove their humanity, which White suggests left them so isolated that they suffered from mental illnesses. White considers the modern ways deaf people are forced into behaving “normally” — with medical aids:
While technologies for FM systems, hearing aids and cochlear implants have revolutionised life for deaf people, at their heart lies conformity. Ads for hearing aids, which are becoming smaller and smaller, often use the word ‘invisible’. Hearing loss is still something to hide, and a deaf person is still expected to act like a hearing person.
What may seem helpful or like revolutionary technology — and I know this feeling thanks to my new hearing aids — also forces deaf people to exist in a world that isn’t made for them, rather than the world seeing differences and adjusting. Enunciating clearly, being no more than ten feet from a deaf or hard of hearing person, learning sign language, facing the person to whom you are speaking, keeping facial hair trimmed away from your lips, speaking at a reasonable pace, and saying the person’s name before you begin speaking to them are all ways to make space in your world for people with auditory disabilities.
I was worried that I found Hearing Maud interesting only because I could relate, but by comparing the societies into which Jessica White and Maud must fit, the author brings a disability rights angle to her hybrid book, elevating it into more than me nodding along in recognition.