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Song Without Words, by Gerald Shea - review

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway through Life Gerald Shea

Da Capo Press, pp.320, £17.99

At the age of six, Gerald Shea had scarlet fever. The sounds of birds passed into memory to be replaced by the sound of locusts. Not only had Shea developed tinnitus, he had lost the ability to hear high frequencies.   Broadly speaking, he could only hear vowels, not consonants. If you can hear vowels, you can grasp the intonation and the feel of what is said, but not get much meaning. He calls this his ‘language of lyricals’. Neither Shea nor his family realised that he was now partially deaf, and thus slightly out of sync with the world. My own experience of deafness is different: I was born deaf, so having ears that don’t work is ‘normal’ for me. And unlike Shea, I always knew that most people could hear, whereas I could not.

Shea’s young life was outwardly successful. Athletic ability admitted him to a good school; his quick brain got him into Yale, where, still able to appreciate music, he joined the illustrious (and wonderfully named) a capella group the Whiffenpoofs. Meanwhile, without realising it, he developed coping mechanisms. If he lost the conversational thread, he would tell an amusing anecdote or burst into song. Assuming that everyone else was better at understanding lectures than he was, he spent many hours reading to fill the gaps.

After Yale, Shea joined a high-powered New York law firm and life became increasingly difficult. By day he would write down what he thought he was hearing; by night he would make sense of his jottings. Time spent decoding the world meant that his romantic and social life suffered. The strain resulted in the unhappy Shea developing gastric ulcers.

He finally found out that he had severe hearing loss after undergoing a medical when applying for a new job. I was genuinely puzzled as to why it was not discovered earlier — surely someone, sometime, would have noticed, not least Shea himself? But presumably it was a one-way problem. Shea had lost his hearing when he already had speech. People could understand him, but he couldn’t consistently understand them. He just wasn’t quite deaf enough for it to be picked up. I suspect he came across as a bright person who was occasionally away with the fairies.

Diagnosis made Shea’s life easier, but only up to a point. He was working in an environment which appeared to think it was better to be an alcoholic than to be deaf. At one point he and his boss (who was in the know) were on a private jet for some important negotiations. The latter covered up for Shea’s inability to understand by saying that Shea couldn’t work without a drink. Drinks were then ordered, giving Shea time secretly to put on his hearing aids.

When I was a lawyer, the fact that, unlike Shea, I have a ‘deaf voice’ meant that the option of blending in wasn’t available. I did, though, find that the main difficulty was my colleagues worrying about clients perceiving me in a negative light, rather than any objective evidence demonstrating that this was the case. Negative assumptions are difficult to challenge, and can be catching.

Shea took early retirement, due to the stress of communicating in such a high-powered environment, and embarked upon a deaf odyssey, learning sign languages in France and the USA. He becomes comfortable with who he is. However, he realises that he is neither a full citizen of the land of the deaf, nor of the land of the hearing, but inhabits the borderland.

Because of this, Shea is not convinced of the benefits of cochlear implants for deaf children, believing that this hearing technology could leave them, too, betwixt and between, or even without language. Deaf children, he maintains, should be taught in sign language, so that they can have access to a complete language. This is a controversial position: not only will many hearing parents not want to lose their child entirely to the land of the deaf, but research has shown the benefits of a bi-lingual approach, using both sign language and English.

Readers after a well-written, amusing insight into living with hearing loss are best off starting with David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence. At times, one isn’t sure if Shea is being descriptive or pretentious: sign language is ‘language of the light’; spoken language ‘language of the air’, hearing aids are ‘auricular lyres’. That said, despite the commonness of the condition, there aren’t many books which explore what it is really like to have partial hearing loss. Shea’s story, fascinating and unusual in some of its details, gives a valuable insight into the experience of many.

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