MEAN Little deaf Queer by Terry Galloway

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.

22 comments

  1. But did you like it? My sense was that in the end you found her less than full disclosure frustrating, designed to tease maybe.
    Is the book recent? It doesn’t seem like a 70 year old’s book (and nor does the one photo I found).

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    • For this book, I wasn’t really thinking so much about whether or not I enjoyed it simply because the author is from a different time period, when hearing devices where large and cumbersome and people didn’t want deaf children, nor did they want their deaf children to learn sign language or be different in any way, hence the focus on oralism, which set deaf children back many years in their education. Therefore, I made the decision to evaluate whether this author achieved the goal of convincing reads if she really conveys that she is mean, little, deaf, and queer.

      I see Galloway was born in 1950, but you’re right, there is almost a twenty-something feel to her whole life: parents paying for apartments, falling in and out of jobs, trying to be an artist, etc.

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  2. It sounds like the book has a smorgasbord of elements to it. Some of your reflections on it sound deep and a bit disturbing, while others have a sense of humor to them, and then others are just plain interestingly informative. I have to say, like the above commenter, I’m wondering if you liked it too or how you would sum up your emotional response to it?

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    • My response to this book is complicated. On the one hand, Galloway ends with a hopefulness about cochlear implants, which the Deaf community rejects, as it suggests deafness is a handicap, and they do not believe that. Galloway never joins the Deaf community, nor does she engage with Deaf people. As a result, I’m reading this book about a woman surviving as a deaf person in a different time period, one that is dissimilar from today, especially after the passage of ADA laws. In the end, everything felt complicated, and my emotional response didn’t feel like it belonged in this review because it would sound judgmental. Both you and Bill are right, though! I am a bit evasive here, which is not my normal style.

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  3. This sounds interesting if perhaps a bit overwhelming. The stuff about disability in the arts is fascinating, but does the rest of the book drown it out?

    In regards to the complaints about “them”, does she ever define “them”? I always feel like having a united us against a nebulous them sounds great, but actually can just be an excuse for stirring up resentment against a vague enemy. It’s one of the things I dislike about the autistic community, actually, and part of the reason I’m not involved with it – so many in the autistic community see anybody neurotypical as part of a sort of Malevolent Them, and it just feels so off and unpleasant to me.

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    • If I remember correctly, Galloway sees misguided people as THEM. Anyway who pities disabled people are THEM, for instance. The more we communicate and learn about disabled people, who have historically been silenced, the more well-intentioned people realize that pity is the wrong response. I’m not sure how Galloway felt about her poor vision and deafness before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S., but she definitely sees herself as disabled and needing to be “fixed.” I’m sure at the time her community felt the same way, so I can see how she would develop strong us/them feelings.

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    • I was definitely exhausted writing the review. The author is a deaf person from a time before the ADA, and she sees herself as disabled, which is contrary to the Deaf community and everything I’m learning about it. I didn’t want to sound judgmental in my review, so I tried to focus on how well she expounds upon her four adjectives in the title instead of my feelings about it.

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  4. Hmm lots to unpack about this book for sure. I appreciate your education re: the big D and little d, I had no idea there was a distinction there. I also wasn’t aware that the community don’t view it as a disability-this is very enlightening, and to me, sounds very empowering. Her chaotic life sounds a bit stressful for me to be honest haha

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    • When I look at her photos on her website, they stress me out. She looks like she’s trying SOOOO hard to be funny and extreme, and that is absolutely not my kind of humor — though I know lots of other people enjoy it.

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  5. This sounds like a lot. The author sounds like someone interesting to read about but maybe not that easy to be around in person. (At least, that’s how this introvert feels!) I had no idea about the difference between deaf and Deaf so I’m glad to learn the distinction.

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    • Yes! Even as I was reading the introvert in me was intimidated. I truly struggled to review the BOOK and not the AUTHOR. I know sometimes people mix those up when they’re doing nonfiction, but the point of the book isn’t to agree with the writer’s life, but assess how he/she constructed the book.

      And you’re welcome!

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      • That can be a really hard thing to separate. I know I tend to be drawn to memoirs from people that I find Interesting so I usually enjoy their book company at least, even if I wouldn’t want to hang out in real life.

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  6. This does indeed sound like a LOT, as Karissa says! I wasn’t entirely sure about the deaf/Deaf distinction, though had some idea of that, so your review is valuable for that but I’m not sure I’ll be racing to the book!

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  7. I knew this review would make me feel things because of both the theatre and deaf/Deaf angle. I didn’t read this book and I have complicated feelings based on your review alone. Even more so when I read the author’s website. When I lived in New York state and worked in theatre back in the day, there was a lot of discussion about the Deaf community based in Rochester, NY and separate discussions about disabilities in performance in general. I understand folks not wanting pity for being Deaf or disabled. But I have to admit that I feel like hearing loss does make me disabled. I am losing elements of life that I enjoy. It was both a relief to finally be believed and a crush to realize how the deaf label was going to change parts of my future. And you and I have talked before about how even though I want to hear, the hearing aids overwhelm me so much sometimes cause DANG the world is loud. It’s complicated. I would be interested in reading more of the author’s points of view about how her cochlear implants have impacted her life now. But it looks like she only has a live show about that. I recently met an installation artist who works with sound and has an awesome talk with her about her work and hearing loss in general. Long comment I know. But this post has made me thoughtful.
    x The Captain

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    • I really like Lou’s comment above about how she doesn’t engage with the autism community because many have an “us vs. them” mentality that make the community exclusionary. From what I know, as a hard-of-hearing person and not a Deaf person, sometimes the Deaf community can be exclusionary based on whether a person has any residual hearing. I’m not sure where that stems from, but the community has been affected drastically by hearing people making decisions for them. They have a slogan now: Nothing About Us Without Us. So, perhaps it’s about trust and Terry Galloway either didn’t want to do the work or she felt like the door closed in her face and she wasn’t welcome to do the work.

      Hearing loss for me has made me realize how rude people are. People who try to talk to me from another room, from more than 10 feet away, who try to whisper while wearing a mask, who are looking at a computer but start talking to me without 1) looking at me and 2) saying my name first. I spent two years at a job where literally every day I had to tell my co-workers, “I can’t hear you when you whisper. I can’t hear you when you look down from the floor above and shout things at me. I can’t hear you when you don’t get my attention first.” They made no adjustments other than to say my name first.

      To be honest, the world is frighteningly loud, and I believe it took me years to get used to it. In the past, I would only wear hearing aids if I was going out, which led to many years of my spouse having to raise his voice at me all the time. Part of what I realized is that my hearing aids were older and the technology changes so fast, always improving.

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