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.