Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice by Jessica White

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.

24 comments

  1. Quilt; pick-up truck; native grass; hen house; felt-tip pen 🙂

    I enjoyed this book mostly for White’s memoir component and how clearly it articulates the idea that deaf people must fit in with the hearing world, rather than the other way around.

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    • Ha, thank you Kate. I feel like we play Australian vocab crossword puzzle, or something 😀 I had plenty more, but didn’t want to come off as TOO out of touch.

      I did enjoy moments from White’s life more than Maud’s because it seems like there is a great deal of White speculating about Maud’s life. The parts I disliked most were about Rose Praed. I kept thinking, “Yes, she’s Maud’s mother — move on.”

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  2. I’m really pleased and more than a bit relieved that you liked this one. My favourite component of the book was Maud’s sad story, but I was disconcerted too by how revealing Jess was of herself.

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    • Relieved? You didn’t birth the book, Bill! That’s okay, though, I also understand. Every time Jackie hates a Valdemar book, I think, “Good gravy, what have I done.” My least favorite parts were about Rose Praed. I know that she’s important, but it felt like she was stealing time from Maud’s story.

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  3. This sounds fascinating. A lot of what you write about the deaf community and issues of conforming/existing in a world that isn’t designed for you reminds me of the debate that constantly rages about how much autistic people should/shouldn’t try to “pass” as neurotypical. It sounds like the book explores those things really well – I hadn’t heard of it before you wrote about it, but I’ll definitely be picking it up.

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    • I’m one of those jerk-holes who think, “I never would have guessed you were autistic!” because I grew up with autistic people, who were not yet diagnosed because autism wasn’t so well-known in the 90s. Thus, someone who was “different” was very obviously different. And mostly, they were picked on for being “weird.” So, it’s still an issue that I’m working on, and I know I’m wrong, and I’m trying to use my disability as a way to remember someone “passing” for “normal” isn’t a win.

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  4. One of the side effects of Covid for those with hearing impairments, is how the wearing of masks makes it difficult/impossible for lip-reading. I have a colleague who really struggled during our recent winter months when most of us wore masks to work.

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    • And I needed new hearing aids, which I realized and came to terms with, right as COVID-19 was becoming a “thing.” I had to wait so long to get new ones — for places to reopen, for me to get an appointment, for the company to make the hearing aids, etc. I had a whole lot of help from co-workers translating for me.

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  5. God, I can totally see how trying to read lips, translating people’s body language and straining to hear things can be exhausting, I don’t blame you for feeling sick of it all. I can’t believe people have said that to you; turn up your hearing aids? Ugh what is wrong with people…

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  6. Great post Melanie. I enjoy hybrid memoirs when both aspects are strong, and here they were. I loved how Jess used her experience to reflect on Maud’s and vice versa. She worked long and hard on this book – I know because I met her for coffee a few times during the writing over the years (when we was researching in my city) – and it shows I think in how tight it is in the final product.

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  7. Really interesting to hear about this book and particularly your perspective on it. I had no idea that there had been so much historical resistance against deaf people being “allowed” to use sign language. Though I do have a friend with a child who is hearing impaired and they went back and forth for a while over getting him an implant because they felt like there would be backlash from others whatever choice they made.

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    • It becomes a moral issue, but also a concern about how much you want to make a smooth path for your kids in life…..I honestly don’t know what I think about it. On the one hand, I want to fit in, on the other hand, the world isn’t built for me to fit in, and can I change that?

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  8. Great review, this sounds like an excellent resource for someone who doesn’t know enough about living with a hearing disability (me) and a source of potential solidarity for someone who does. Putting together the story of two lives so far apart sounds like an interesting way to examine this topic, and I’m sure emphasizes some of the things that society is STILL not doing well to accommodate those auditory needs. You’re right that the world is built for people who can hear without difficulty, and it shouldn’t be- it should be built for all people, as they are. Thanks for including some tips on how to make things easier when conversing with someone deaf or hard of hearing.

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    • You’re welcome! I’m now interested in finding a book about deaf culture/history. I also thought you might like the hybrid-genre aspect of Hearing Maud. It’s something you seem to notice and appreciate in other books because hybrid can also mean not limited.

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