A Man Without Words by Susan Schaller

Back in August when I started school to work toward my American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreter for the Deaf certification, I realized that part-time classes don’t sound like a lot to do. Of course, there was the mini foray into bakery employment that didn’t last long. After I quit, I decided I could use my time to read more by and about Deaf/deaf people. Each day I have an hour on my calendar that says, “Deaf Book Project.”

Why haven’t you heard more about it? My first book, Mindfield by John Egbert, was a work of fiction about a lab-made bacteria that spread like a virus, causing meningitis. For those who survived, the permanent effect was typically deafness. Surprisingly, though published in 2006, Mindfield read much like the response to COVID-19. I kept telling my spouse, “Listen to this!!” and reading government responses in the book that mirrored reality.

Then, I moved on to Deaf World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook, edited by Lois Bragg. This chunky academic book was broken into sections containing topics that pertain to D/deaf people. Each section was then organized by chronology. You may start with an essay from the late 1800s and end in the 1990s. The authors vary quite a bit, as do the length and depth of each essay. Some read like opinion pieces in a newspaper, while others had footnotes and graphs, charts, and other source material. Slowed down considerably by how dense Deaf World could be, I was fine returning it unfinished to the library when it was due, even though it was valuable.

One result of a slow read is that I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything. I turned to A Man Without Words by Susan Schaller (she/her), a memoir about a hearing woman who loved learning ASL, but was sort of pushed into becoming a registered interpreter while she looked for other work, and that’s how she ended up being assigned to a class of D/deaf adults. One student, an adult Mexican man identified as Ildefonso by his uncle, though not much else is known about him, sits with his arms crossed, observing other adults who use ASL to varying degrees.

Readers learn that Ildefonso is a languageless adult, someone who has no language. Although academics study languageless children, Schaller soon learns there are no resources on adults with no language. She attempts to work with Ildefonso each day, which is challenging. He doesn’t know his name. He doesn’t know what language is. He’s curious because at twenty-seven, he knows that all these hand gestures and lip flaps and papers with squiggles mean something important to people, but has no way to understand what.

After weeks of work together, Schaller is able to make Ildefonso understand that the ASL sign for CAT, a picture of a cat, the written letters C-A-T, and an actual cat are connected. There is the animal, and then there are different ways to symbolize cat, and that means you can communicate about the cat. It comes to him what language is. What is this, he gestures at a book. She signs BOOK. What about that, he points to the door. She signs DOOR. Realizing how much he’s missed, Ildefonso breaks down in tears.

The challenging aspects of a languageless adult is that the person has years of experience and no way to name it, frame it, or explain it. Instead of following rigorous lesson plans she designs, Ildefonso leads Schaller, setting the agenda for the day based on what he wants to know more about. When a baby learns a new sign or hears a new word, everything about it is new to them. This is not true of a man approaching thirty, who has to recontextualize everything.

Two parts stood out to me in this riveting memoir. First, how challenging it is to teach the concept of time, and what it really means to people. Schaller notes that even children struggle to understand time (I’m reminded of my niece and nephew at Thanksgiving thinking it was Christmas because there was snow on the ground). But explain “past,” “tomorrow,” “three weeks in the future” — this is all unbelievably hard for someone who has only begun to learn nouns and isn’t sure about verbs.

Eventually, Schaller is able to explain to Ildefonso that he has a birthday, something he has seen celebrated his whole life, but for which he had no clue as to the importance of or why of the food and fanfare. It will be in X number of days and they can count down to it. Once he understands, he becomes nervous that others will forget to celebrate his twenty-eight birthday. The way Schaller sees Ildefonso’s anticipation and fears and writes about them builds tension leading up to what is Ildefonso’s first celebrated (with him) birthday.

The other aspect I found fascinating in A Man Without Words is the deep divide between academia and social action. Professors and scholars at universities had no information about languageless adults; however, teachers, counselors, and organizers often sat in rooms full of languageless adults, and those adults had friends on the street with no language, who still communicated to some degree through gestures. Even the border patrol agents Schaller interviewed said that they “run across languageless persons all the time.”

Schaller, after a long, fruitless search with professors, found through social programs an entire group of people thought to be the stuff of myth. Although I am myself the product of academia, both as student and teacher, I find myself forced to ask tough questions about the chasm between academic pursuits and a general public. Whether it’s the esoteric vocabulary or the paywalls behind which academic papers live, a lot of research in higher education serves to grant PhDs, not better the community with the community.

A Man Without Words by Susan Schaller is a compassionate look at language, deafness, and friendship, including some use of outside sources, and it’s written in an enjoyable memoir format. A very brief film was made of Schaller and Ildefonso, which you can watch for free.

CW: N/A

22 comments

  1. It is astonishing how far you are carrying us forward as you research d/Deafness. Today we are looking at the philosophical (and of course practical) question of what it means to be entirely without language. And yet people live, animals live – I wonder how they store ‘thought’. What will you have us looking at tomorrow, I wonder.

    I wonder too about university research, especially in the social sciences. And yet so much that looks esoteric proves valuable. Last week, under the cover of Xmas, our right wing federal government cut peer-reviewed funding to projects that didn’t meet the government’s concept of ‘common sense’. Where to next for academic freedom?

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    • I read in the memoir Lab Girl by Hope Jahren that her studies had to meet common sense-type laws in order to receive funding. I think that the goal there is to convince researchers to not only move forward with curiosity, but also with society in mind. If the public is going to fund a project, shouldn’t the public see something, anything, in return? I believe Jahren also argued that having a common sense law was stifling but her reasoning was more that sometimes it’s hard to prove at the outset that a discover will make an impact on society.

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    • Our government, seriously, hates universities, whom it sees as opposition. It had already changed the rules for the independent research grant body, to include “in the national interest”, but then vetoed six further projects the minister personally didn’t like and attempted to conceal the decision by releasing under the cover of Christmas and Covid stories.

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  2. I had heard about this book before and it does sound fascinating and sad all at once. I didn’t know there was common-sense type laws but it does seem to make sense that public funded research should have practical purposes – at least it sounds like it should. But I wouldn’t begin to understand how physics or medicine really works so how can a regular person be able to judge the long running benefit of a study. A lot of progress seems like sci-fi or crazy at the beginning. Complicated.
    x The Captain

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    • There are obvious projects that benefit the public, vaccines for example. But then what if someone is studying the decline of an uncommon mold spore, or something like that. How do you sell it to the public? Will the food chain be disrupted in a significant way? Or are scientists sad that the mold spore is dwindling and want us to care? I remember reading a thing about a rare frog that only lives in this one waterfall in, if I remember correctly, South America. They tried to bolster the population in other areas, in zoos, etc., but nope. This frog species likes one waterfall. How should I feel if Mr. One Waterfall Frog becomes extinct?

      Where did you hear about this book before? I’m curious if it’s popular in a large audience, academia, etc.

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  3. This sounds amazing, and is something I’d really like to read. How fascinating. I completely understand about the gap between academia and society. When I was doing my Library and Information Science Master’s, most people were planning to do their dissertation on some arcane thing about search philosophy or a very small corner of a very technical thing. Mine was on how to get information to women experiencing domestic violence, and one of the true regrets of my life is that I didn’t get to finish it and write it up. The things I was working towards identifying did come good in the end (info on the back of toilet doors (happens regarding human trafficking and forced marriage at the airports here), or in women’s magazines and on soap operas, but I might have been able to get that out there a little earlier.

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    • Aw, Liz, that’s so cool! I’m so glad you chose a project that makes a difference! I’ve seen signs like the ones you describe, but they are mostly about stalking and sexual harassment, and I see them in the back of toilet doors in colleges (especially women’s colleges). I think about how many college libraries are brimming with copies of dissertations no one has ever read (my own included), and what all that work and thought was for. Thank you for sharing 🙂

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  4. This sounds absolutely fascinating. It’s hard to imagine making it to 27 without language. I’d be curious about those around him (you mention an uncle so was there more family?) because while I can imagine there are many reasons he remained languageless, it’s hard to imagine being satisfied with not being able to communicate with a member of my own family.

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    • Yeah, part of the reason he was frantic once he learned that language exists is because he realized he could reach out. I mean, his family must have been gesturing or something. They spoke Spanish (they were from Mexico). I just finished another book in which I learned that many students who are deaf in public schools may remain functionally languageless if they don’t have access to a signed language early on (as a result of their family, teachers, doctors, etc. focusing so heavily on oralism).

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    • OMG, I just. Hmmm. I hate it and I get it. Deaf people are the ones who use it. I hate the word “deafies,” too, which deaf people also use. I think it’s because we can just using hearing and deaf, and adding “ies” is too cutsey for my brain.

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  5. Your point about academia and real life is an interesting one – I think that, from a health sciences point of view, it’s really difficult to tell what projects are going to have real world impact at the start. Lots of basic science takes a long time to get translated into clinical science, a long time again to get through the peer review process, and then yet more time to get adopted into policy and implemented in health settings. The lab science at the start is just as important as the Phase I trials at the end – it’s just much more difficult to communicate why to someone who doesn’t already have a science background. I don’t know nearly enough about sociology to comment, but I wonder if they have a similar issue as a profession?

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    • I’m not sure. I’m not super knowledgeable about what the process is for an academic to get research started, but I do know that when Schaller talked to people at colleges and universities, they were under the assumption that there has been a languageless person in over 100 years, and since then I’ve read two books in which different people in different countries both comment on how languagless people are all over the place, especially in public schools that do not focus on a signed language.

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  6. So I just watched that documentary with my husband, how fascinating! What an incredible man, to keep trying like that, it’s hard to imagine how difficult his life must have been before meeting Susan. And yet, the beauty he finds in the gardens is so inspiring too – thank you for introducing me to this!

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    • I love that he not only makes these gardens beautiful, but if he sees a doctor or nurse looking troubled, he makes a note of whatever place they’re looking AT and adds more plants to that exact place. He must have spent 27 years just watching people. The story about his birthday damn near broke me.

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