The Deaf House by Joanne Weber

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.

Gorgeous cover by Deaf artist Susan Dupor

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.

CW: ableism

17 comments

    • She never signed to them, and I think it’s because she can has some residual hearing with hearing aids and had been applauded her whole life for passing as hearing. Using ASL is a “giveaway” that a person may not be hearing and thus disrupt the ability to pass.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What Laila said! Weber seems to go out of her way not to be part of the Deaf community.
    With so much of her life bound up in books I could see though why she might want to experiment with her writing. No one serious wants to write the same boring old stuff as everyone else.

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    • From my understanding, be part of the Deaf community can be complicated. It’s not always you’re in or out. One thing Weber mentioned that I did not include in my review because it didn’t quite fit is was the author’s attitude toward Deaf President Now. Gallaudet University had never had a Deaf president. When they had several candidates to choose from, including a Deaf person, they chose a hearing president. The students started a protest that shut the campus down. At the time, Weber was a student. She did not protest because she felt (this is how I interpreted what she said) little loyalty to the Deaf community because when she got to Gallaudet, the other students were cruel to her because she could speak and was proud of her speaking abilities.

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  2. This sounds interesting though the timeline does sound a bit chaotic. Does she make a conscious choice not to teach her daughters ASL? Does she say why? The more I learn about d/Deaf people and language and the more you share about the books you’re reading, the more I wish ASL was taught in schools and offered widely as a language option.

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    • I think because she had some residual hearing with hearing aids and got very good and reading lips that she chose not to teach her daughters ASL. Weber is one of those interesting folks who go between communities. She’s part of the Deaf community, but it seems like she rejects that community, too. She wants to be in a community of all Deaf people so she can live in her Deaf body (is how she phrases it), but then she’s not in a community of all Deaf people and passes as hearing much of the time. It almost reminds me of people I’ve met whose parents are both from a Spanish-speaking country (usually Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic) who refused to speak or teach Spanish to their children born in the U.S.

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      • That makes sense, when you think of it as similar to parents moving from one country to another and wanting their children to speak the language of the new country. Especially given that she could move between communities.

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        • Weber certainly does a lot of “catch up” to move convincingly in both groups, though, such as the example of her not hearing anything in class and then going home and reading all sorts of books on the topic to become more knowledgeable than any other student.

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  3. Like the others, I’m wondering why her children don’t know ASL. I am also curious if she examines how her mother forcing her to pass as hearing has affected her sense of self, if she she has resentments, how does she think deaf children should be raised, etc. She has had a challenging life made all the more challenging it seems by what others, and she herself, has imposed on her way of being in the world. She is clearly very smart, but not everyone is as smart as she is and doing what she did to get by might be impossible.

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    • It seems to me that there is this contrast between her wanting to live in a place with all Deaf people vs. her living in a hearing world with an almost non-existent Deaf community. The students she works with frustrate her because their neither capital D deaf nor can they speak well like she does. This middle ground is the driving force of the memoir, I would argue. I wonder if part of her not teaching her children ASL is that she can pass as hearing, or if she doesn’t feel like there is space for her to be Deaf in a hearing world, even at home. That might suggest why she keeps moving to new houses in search of that “Deaf House.”

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    • I was especially curious to read a variety of memoirs by D/deaf people and CODAs after I took Deaf Culture class because every time the students, myself included, asked a question about the D/deaf community, the teacher responded, “It depends.”

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    • I think a lot of parents have the good intention of helping their deaf child survive in “the real world,” without considering the repercussions of mimicking “the real world” instead of thriving in it while demanding equity.

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  4. I find it really fascinating reading your reviews on these books because it really proves how the experience of deafness can vary so drastically between people. Those who are surrounded by ASL, those who weren’t even allowed to learn it as children, etc. The fact that this person could ‘eliminate’ her deaf accent is shocking, but also sort of sad? Like, I find that deaf accent so soft and comforting myself, that distinctive sound is sort of…like softer on my ears in a way? I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. I can see why certain people would want to eliminate it because it makes them stick out…but I also find it sad that our society is so difficult for people with differences to fit into.

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    • Oddly, this author was from the same place as the characters in The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour. She kept mentioning Regina and Saskatoon and Saskatchewan. I forgot to mention this for the Canadian readers!

      Yes, it is the drastic differences in experiences that has driven me to read more and more memoirs. I don’t want to convince myself one community has a monolith.

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