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Shanta Everington reviews ‘A Loss for Words’ by Lou Ann Walker, an autobiographical account of her life as the hearing daughter of profoundly deaf parents. (Review first published in Audacity Magazine, June 2006)
Walker’s memoir, written from a hearing person’s perspective, explores the dynamics between deaf and hearing culture and the unique role occupied by children of deaf parents, who move between deaf or hearing worlds, often feeling as though they don‘t fully fit into either.
Through her open disclosures, Walker does not shy away from tackling difficult issues, addressing the frustration and pain that she often felt as a child growing up.
For example, the book opens with Walker discussing how, as a little girl, the day after her grandmother sung her a lullaby, she asked her mother to sing to her, even though she knew she couldn’t.
Walker’s writing style is honest and frank: ‘My parents are deaf. I can hear. And the fact of their deafness has made all the difference.’ She talks about sadness in her childhood, acting as a guide and interpreter for her parents, and about how she had to grow up too soon.
The book makes for educational reading for those unfamiliar with deaf issues. Walker details her family history - how her parents became deaf (both following illness in infancy) and the often abusive treatment they received at the hands of their families, health professionals and the school system alike - as well as exploring the ’secret society’ of deaf culture.
An illuminating example of insensitive treatment is when Walker talks about her own birth. The doctors performed a crude hearing test and then pointed to their ears, nodding and smiling at her mother: ‘Everyone in the delivery room was relieved I was a "normal" baby.’
The hearing professionals were oblivious to the impact of such an offensive attitude and showed no understanding of the pride often felt by deaf people about their culture and community.
Walker also describes the domestic and practical aspects of living in a deaf household, such as the use of vibrating alarms and flashing lights, and describes American Sign Language signs for common words, such as ’mother’, ’ice-cream’ etc.
In my opinion, Walker’s real skill lies in the dissection of her intimate family experience, whereby she manages to paint a deeply moving portrait of parental relationships.
She writes affectionately about her mother’s ‘love pats’ and about her parents’ concern for her as a hearing child, being worried about her learning to speak well to fit in with the hearing world.
She explores the family dynamics between her parents, her two sisters and herself, about how she looked after her little sister and talked to her a lot to help her speak.
Walker talks of how she protected her parents by hiding things from them, such as dirty phone calls, which she pretends are wrong numbers.
But she comes to the realization that her parents "knew well, better than I, how harsh the world is" but decided to be optimistic rather than bitter about it.
In addition to touching on her parents’ often stressful experiences at school, Walker also deals with her own feelings of not fitting in within the education system.
At school, she quickly learns that certain aspects of deaf behavior are regarded as unacceptable. There are many examples of how she felt alienated from her peers, who did not understand the culture and language barriers faced by deaf people, for whom American Sign Language is their first language.
Early on in the book, Walker talks about leaving home for the first time to go and study at Harvard. She returns to this later, when she refers to receiving a letter from her uncle and aunt, addressed to their ’nice’, rather than ’niece’. Embarrassed by their poor literacy, Walker hides the letter from her roommate.
At a college party, a boy approaches her and asks her what her father does. When she tells him that her father is a linotype operator, he soon loses interest and walks off rudely.
Walker has to come to terms with a whole other world at Harvard, where people use convoluted language that she is not familiar with, words ‘as decorations, extra flutes and hand motions to trick the ear into thinking there was more substance to answers than there actually was.’
She goes on to talk about her early adulthood as a teacher for the deaf, a teacher of sign language and an interpreter, where she is immersed in her familiar deaf-hearing world. Through these experiences, she comes to see herself as a ‘robot’ and needs to find her own identity.
The epilogue is set at Walker‘s sister, Jan‘s wedding, a beautiful occasion where deaf and hearing people come together to celebrate the essence of family.
Here, Walker sums up the process of growing up and coming to terms with her relationship with her parents: ‘For me, the past had finally emerged from being a horrible, dark secret to being an unusual family’s history.’