The Hearing Eye by Catherine Coppes

It’s not often that I venture into the local history section of my public library. While I appreciate that people like to pen their own works after completing research in newspaper archives and by doing interviews, the quality of writing lacks in many cases. However, I gave it a go with The Hearing Eye by Catherine Coppes (she/her), a woman from Nappanee, Indiana, which is 30 miles from my South Bend. Coppes was born in 1917, and The Hearing Eye was published in 1976. After a quick Google, I see she had an “autograph party” a a local bookstore, which is sweet, but not much else is written about the author.

Unfortunately, that means it’s unlikely you will be able to read The Hearing Eye. Unfortunate why? Because Coppes’s memoir is one of the best that I’ve read that explains the process of losing one’s hearing, the feelings of frustration and confusion, how to get used to hearing aids, and how family members want to be accommodating but aren’t.

The Hearing Eye begins with a story of the local Women’s Association meeting in the basement of the church. Although the minister’s wife spoke clearly to a small-ish group, Miss Daisy proclaimed the pastor’s wife a mumbler, and that if she can’t be polite in her speaking she should just be quiet. Miss Daisy storms out as fast as an elderly woman can. Catherine Coppes is at that meeting, and when she returns home to her husband and four sons, she has a jolly time at dinner acting out what happened, and they all enjoy a laugh at the absurd situation.

What we all see coming is that a few years later, Coppes begins accusing people of mumbling. Having been trained in theater, she prides herself on annunciation, articulation, and voice projection. Then problem is “kids these days” are sloppy talkers. One of her four teens had a heart condition as a baby, leaving his voice a bit higher and breathy, and he’s the one she truly cannot hear. In an effort to fix his breathing, which would improve his voice and give him the ability to play sports, the son chooses a 50/50 surgery on his heart. He dies, and though I didn’t know him well enough in the book to mourn his death, I felt a sad connection that perhaps Coppes’s denial of hearing loss led to his choice to have a risky surgery.

There are several moments in The Hearing Eye that in a few short sentences cut right to my emotions. At only 83 pages, Coppes accomplishes much with her clear writing style and trims all excess. After her husband makes a joke about getting his dear wife an ear trumpet (the author suggests he’s trying to be funny because he’s actually exhausted by repeating and shouting), she visits an audiologist. Yes, her hearing is only about 50% working in both ears, but the audiologist does not recommend a hearing aid because she “gets on.” I was surprised. And yet, Coppes writes about attitudes toward handicaps, signs of aging, and a 1070s societal attitude toward perceived weakness:

Men, particularly in executive positions . . . are acutely afraid to admit hearing loss. They will often defer getting a diagnosis, fearing that if hearing aids are worn, someone will suspect how poor their hearing is, perhaps suggest retirement or finding a job elsewhere, a job where hearing is not a vital ingredient to their everyday work. Perhaps in the library stacks?

After more years of not hearing, of exhausting herself, her family, friends, and church members with requests to speak up and repeat themselves, Coppes is given the go-ahead on hearing aids, for which she must visit South Bend. The hearing aid specialist there is the type of medical person you hope to meet: patient, kind, and helpful. Here is where the memoir really got interesting for me: everything is too loud with new hearing aids. Although, loud isn’t really the right word. It’s that a hard-of-hearing person is hearing things they couldn’t, but had in the past if they had good hearing before.

Consider how loud a turn signal, a heating vent, or a closing refrigerator door are (as I write this I am insanely aware that the cat is licking herself). These are sounds that people with full hearing block out because it doesn’t add to information sourcing we do naturally. A person with a new hearing aid must learn that brain process all over again. I speak from experience when I say it’s wild, confusing, overwhelming, and scary. We tell loved ones to stop shouting at us when we were the ones who taught them to shout. They tell us to stop whispering at them, because now we sound resoundingly noisy to ourselves. Volume is never right in the beginning. Coppes captures this journey perfectly, and dare I say with both fear and humor? I felt so seen.

She also recreates beautifully the experience of listening as a full-body experience. My time limit on talking to someone one-on-one or listening in a group setting is capped at about 75 minutes. I’m listening with my ears and hearing aids, with my eyes, with my catalog of what’s considered normal body language, all to gather up what you said, process it, make sense of it, and then say something back. It’s like running Windows 98 in 2022, and thus I get overheated (sometimes literally with a headache and low-grade fever). Coppes describes turning her hearing aids off at a party and sitting back to watch everyone. I believe I’ve done this a time or two myself!

But the real issue, which Coppes describes both fairly and sternly, is how to train everyone else to communicate. Basically, communicating with a hard-of-hearing person means following polite rules, but because we love our family, know our co-workers, and trust out friends, they sometimes lapse into more casual conversation mode. Laying out some basic rules, Coppes gives readers information they can share: be in the same room when you speak to each other, get the person’s attention with their name or tap on the shoulder before commencing speaking, don’t speak while chewing food or covering your mouth. These are all quite simple and polite, yes, but Coppes laments that even after “training” her husband for five years, he still goofs up. Nick and Biscuit can attest that this is also something they’re working on (my dad has hearing aids, too!), but that it is never, never done with malice.

If I could get this slim book into everyone’s hands, I would. Think of it: over 30,000,000 people age twelve or older in the U.S. has hearing loss in both ears (NIDCD). 1 in 6 Australians have hearing loss (AGDH). In the U.K. it is 11,000,000 people who have hearing loss (gov.UK). What this means is the chances of you not interacting, perhaps daily when you’re out and about, are so slim. Should we, as a community, understand the journey of people who have hearing loss regardless of the stage — denial, hearing aids, no hearing aids, profoundly deaf, and some people who realized as adults that they’ve always had hearing loss! — then we can fight the stigma of existing in a body that works differently and be good neighbors.

23 comments

  1. I had not, until this moment, thought about how freaking loud the bar we were in together probably was. I mean, it was pretty loud to me, so it must have been very disconcerting for you. Next time, I will make the whole bar quiet down and if they don’t, I will slap their knuckles with a ruler. Not to make you feel better, but because I want to slap knuckles with rulers. 😛
    Randomly, I hate mouth sounds. You mention your cat licking, I have three lickers and they all get told to stop when they start. It’s unfair to them but they usually just move to another room and commence licking again. When humans eat with their mouths open, my head wants to explode.

    Like

  2. This does really interesting and illuminating. I hadn’t given much thought to how overwhelming the world might be to someone getting used to hearing aids but of course you would have to retrain your brain about what to pay attention to. I have a higher-pitched voice and as a kid my grandpa was always talking over me and we realized it was because he actually couldn’t hear my voice. Now when I notice people having trouble hearing me, I try to intentionally lower my voice!

    Like

    • Now I’m trying to match my idea of a high-pitched voice with the photos of you on your blog, and I’m struggling! I always assume moms have loud, demanding voices out of necessity, lol.

      Hearing aids are weird because they are unlike glasses. Maybe glasses you put on and they’re bizarre for a moment, but then you’re fine all the time. I process hearing differently in the morning, when I first have my hearing aids on, later in the day with them, right when I take them out, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I can definitely be loud with my kids when I need to be. Though I am not generally a yeller and try not to be with my kids. It is not uncommon for telemarketers and such to ask to speak to my parents!

        I never thought of that with hearing aids. But it makes sense since it’s also about how your brain is processing and filtering everything, right? So surroundings and fatigue etc would all make a difference.

        Like

          • That would be an interesting comparison. I know that I can find myself getting overwhelmed with too much background noise, especially with the kids. Like if the dryer is going and the radio is on and the girls are running around, I’ve come to realize one of those needs to be quiet.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh this sounds really interesting! My husband wears hearing aids, got them a couple years ago for hearing loss due to multiple sclerosis. I still forget and try to talk to him from other rooms of the house, or yell at him when he is sitting across from me at the dinner table. It was pretty funny when he got his hearing aids because he had been giving me a hard time for years because I’d complain about how loud the humidifier in the bedroom is at night and how loud a small fan he liked to run at night in the bedroom is. Once he got his hearing aids he looked at me in astonishment and said, you are right, they are loud! 😀

    Like

    • We had an entire heating unit for an apartment BUILDING next to our apartment’s living room wall that I could not hear that nearly drove Nick insane. He also used to say that one of our cat’s had diarrhea, and I was like, “Um, stop being weird??” By the time I got hearing aids that cat was gone, and for that, I am grateful. He said it sounded like the last of a ketchup bottle.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, that is so sad about her son. I also had not considered how overwhelming what I think of as background sounds would be to a person who is gaining hearing. It’s too bad this book didn’t get a wider publication because it sounds like a valuable memoir for many!

    Like

  5. Gosh I am so appreciative of you exploring and educating me on this topic Melanie, it’s fascinating, I learn so much in these posts! I had no idea hearing aids have that learning curve, it sounds quite awful actually, no wonder you get a headache.

    Also, if I had hearing aids, I’d turn them off at parties too! Why not?

    Like

    • Several folks have commented on the part during which someone new to hearing aids needs to allow their brains to adjust, but I also wonder what readers thought about Coppes first making fun of a hard-of-hearing woman and then becoming one herself. It’s a hard spot to realize you don’t hear like others do because it’s not easy to compare and some people DO mumble.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds fascinating, as are your comments and the comments from others (sometimes it’s good to be behind on your blog reading!). What a shame it’s not more widely available. My father in law turns his hearing aids off when there are multiple people around and I can understand that better now.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Karissa Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s