The Deaf House by Joanne Weber (she/her), a Canadian author, is a work of creative nonfiction. Profoundly deaf, Weber was coached by her mother in pronunciation and speaking skills. Weber suggests that if you heard her speak, you’d never know she was deaf, as she does not have a deaf accent. She read voraciously, mainly out of necessity. She couldn’t hear her instructors in school, so she would look like she was paying attention and then go home and not only read the textbook, but any book she could get her hands on about the subject to be even more knowledgeable than her hearing peers.
As a girl, Weber was paraded around as an example to parents of deaf children; this is what your child could be if only they double down on oralism and avoid sign language. Yes, Weber could pass as hearing, but that doesn’t mean she could hear. It wasn’t until she went to Gallaudet University (“the world’s premier academic institution for deaf and hard of hearing people”) that she learned ASL, but Weber’s identity around deafness remained rootless.
The Deaf House is not told in linear fashion. We begin with Weber reuniting with Murray, the father of her daughters, whom she has not seen in nine years. It reads randomly: how did she suddenly find this guy, where has he been, and how do they so quickly become a family like no time passed? Over the course of the memoir, we learn about Weber’s school days, how she went to college several times, and where she met Murray — now we’re told he was a married man with children who has an affair with Weber. Previously, Murray couldn’t choose between Weber and his wife and decided to keep seeing both until Weber ran away from him.
Woven through this narrative is the current timeline, when Weber and Murray are married. She feels left out of her own family because even though Murray knows ASL, their daughters do not. Weber feels like a stranger in her own home, removed from the daughters she raised alone. Although I was ready to hate Murray for being a cheat and leaving a Weber with two children, he is a sympathetic person, understanding and supportive in his new marriage to Weber.
It is Weber’s past as a single mother, moving from home to home to home, and the struggle against her identity — Deaf or hearing — that creates strife between in the present. She still has the urge to “run away,” to move, to see if she feels at home some place else. If only she had a Deaf House, she thinks, she could finally stop moving. It would be an open space (walls can be problematic for Deaf people) and there would be “a balanced economy of silences and languages.”
The jumping around of timelines felt unnecessary to me. Instead of adding layers and depth, Weber’s choice created a chaotic feeling. Perhaps that’s what she intended? Instead of seeing the author grow and develop, she comes off as impetuous and indecisive, oscillating from one feeling to the next unless I sat and rearranged the narrative in my head.
Encouraged by Murray, Weber takes a job in Deaf Education at a local school where she meets some languageless students and several who can barely speak but are encouraged for speaking. The students are functionally illiterate because they can’t hear, and they don’t know ASL, so they have no true grasp of language. Here, at the school, Weber feels encouraged to make people learn ASL and turns away from the hearing world. But, she still passes as hearing and doesn’t want to be left out at home.
In these sections, the author wonderfully captures the variety of experiences d/Deaf people have in education, which are largely shaped by hearing people and what they think is best. While Weber was praised for her ability speak clearly and is proud of her voice, her students are celebrated for their muddy mumblings as progress, which astounds her. They have a tool of communication available, ASL, so why is no one using it? On the other hand, Weber also feels Deaf people exploit hearing people, which we see in a conversation with Murray:
But there’s something vampirish about deafness. We live off Hearing people, off their good will, because we can’t hear well enough to participate in anything, everything is so complicated all the time, you’d have to interpret everything for me if I were to be involved. I just live off you.
On the other hand, Weber is highly educated, all through hard work and determination. She has two Bachelor’s degrees, a Master’s in library science, and a PhD in Education. Contrasting her feelings with her accomplishments gives readers a good sense of how navigating society as a Deaf person can a tender thing.
A challenging memoir that attempts to gather up the Deaf experience in a hearing world and make sense of conflicting feelings and experiences.