Hooboy. This memoir has been a challenge to review. Firstly, I aim to review the book, not the person, when it comes to memoir, but that’s hard. Secondly, author Terry Galloway is one of those people whose identity is like a big Venn diagram that make up one bold, unique person. So, I’ve decided to approach this review by looking at each of the four words Galloway chose to describe herself in her title: MEAN Little deaf* Queer.
*deaf with a little “d” refers to people who cannot hear. They often view themselves as disabled and oftentimes lose their hearing after they learned to speak. Deaf with a capital D refers to people who cannot hear who use ASL as their primary form of communication and share a culture, history, and values. They do not view themselves as disabled and are proud of their Deaf identity. Read more at ConnectHear.
When Terry Galloway’s mother was pregnant, she was given a shot that was later found to cause issues for the fetus. In Terry’s case, she became deaf over time, though she hid it for ages. Galloway grew up in Stuttgart, Germany because her father had been sent to spy by the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps after WWII. As a military family, they had a house, food, a German maid. They played games like Scare for which they used spy techniques their father taught them, which read more like survival training if I’m honest. Galloway even told one little friend that if Scare had been real life, she’d be dead right now.
With blocky hearing aids and ridiculously thick glasses, Galloway stood out. As she grew, she worked to be the perfect brave boy, knowing that someday she’s grow up into a stoic man, like a cowboy (see the cover). While her sisters eventually went to college, moved out, and got married, Galloway hung around home until they sold the place and booted her, paying for one year of rent as she tried to stabilize herself. Drawn to theater, the author never seemed to have a solid job with health insurance. In an effort to be at true creative, she lost her virginity to a boy while in high school — terrible advice given to her by her sister — and then engaged in sexual activities of all kinds, making it hard to stabilize her personal life, too. But along her journey, Galloway creates or co-creates funky theater scenes, including Actual Lives, “an activist theater for adults with disabilities.”
Starting with “MEAN”: yeah, there are plenty of places where Galloway seems quite mean. Because her dad was in the military, she visited the army hospital. As they attempted to “fix” her deafness, she felt that “The army nurses took so much blood, I worked up a positive fondness for the needle. Kids who were howling and carrying on about their polio boosters were hauled in to witness my pincushion serenity.” Galloway isn’t kind to herself, either. At the advent of puberty, she zooms out and sees herself as:
. . . a toad — a tubby, moist, myopic croaker who couldn’t take a hop without her glasses fogging up, her boobs flopping like tiny rice-filled sacks, and her hearing aid squealing like the brakes of a train. It was a sorry transformation and seemed to happen overnight. Actually, it happened in less than an hour.
Her meanness often comes across as funny, perhaps spunky, making for a good read. But then there is a baffling scene in which Galloway falsely claims to her friends a guy raped her, but when her friends demand they all go to the police, she tries to convince them she wasn’t being truthful. I was so confused here; it was a brief scene.
As for “Little,” Galloway, regardless of which part of the book were in, always sounds like a tiny spitfire. I’m thinking of the reason she had dental issues: “. . . my two front teeth were fangs because I’d whacked myself in the mouth with the vacuum cleaner handle I’d used as a bazooka during a game of war.” And then there is the literally “little” of her, the brief time — at least in terms of how much attention it gets in the book — of her being bulimic. Both the mention of the rape and bulimia are almost hinted at rather than fully explored, and I wondered what the author was holding back in her story, or if she should have edited out parts to which she could not devote more exploration.
Now on to little-d “deaf.” Galloway never learns sign language, though to be fair it doesn’t seem that her parents sought out the Deaf community or a way to communicate with their daughter. After all, she was born in 1950, when children were forced to learn “oralism” and forbidden to sign and punished for doing so. Galloway sees herself as disabled and says so many times in MEAN Little deaf Queer. When Galloway meets Deaf people as an adult (signing started to come back in schools in the 1960s), she suggests they are exasperated that she doesn’t know sign, as if she is not worth their time. I found Galloway’s perspective informative, which has value, despite her thoughts and feelings being contrary to the beliefs of the Deaf community, namely that being deaf isn’t a disability. In the end, Galloway is excited by new digital hearing aids and already thinking head to cochlear implants, to fix her disability/”disability.”
Because Galloway was viewed as disabled, she thus chosen to lead theater workshops for disabled people, despite having no qualifications (and she knows it). Readers do get lots of information on disability and inclusion in the arts. What do you do if your actors can’t walk, or hear, or pick up a pen to write their script, or have the cognitive ability to work through a warm-up activity? This is where she develops her Actual Lives theater. Although I don’t agree with Galloway’s opinion that being deaf means she is disabled, I did cheer on her bold assertions about them, which she applies throughout the book to anyone who is the antithesis to any part of Galloway’s identity:
To them we are the taxpayers’ burden, always lobbying for tiny little drinking fountains and ramps, ramps, ramps, and more ramps. . . . To another breed of them, we are special little angels sent by God to test toe spiritual forbearance of the able-bodied.
Lastly, Queer. Yes, has physical relationships with men and women. Yes, she now has a female partner, and they have been together for decades. Yes, she has had non-monogamous relationships and multiple-partners in one bed. However, the memoir didn’t emphasize Galloway exploring her sexuality. She seemed afraid her family would reject her despite them being liberals. They did not and vowed to love anyone she loved, welcoming any partner into the family. She speeds over relationships, never quite digging into why she was promiscuous and now (mostly) monogamous.
But the focus of Mean Little deaf Queer seemed more about Galloway’s frenetic life, her song-and-dance and hamming it up, her desire to kick her friend out of her electric wheelchair and commandeer the device to zip around the theater stage. The way her deafness stopped her from being a “normal” actor. Anger at what she’s missed, frenzied, racing around and grasping at things. If I met Terry Galloway, chances are I’d be overwhelmed immediately. Just look at her photos on her website.
Overall, interesting, witty at times, lacking in other places, especially when she drops a bomb of information and lets it explode while she runs away.