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From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

Faking Your Way Through Life

A memoir captures the tension between the deaf and the hearing worlds

James Roots

The Deaf House

Joanne Weber

Thistledown Press

274 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9781927068489

Communication is a prerequisite to belonging. Belonging to a family, a school, a culture—it does not matter the venue or context: what matters is that the first step toward belonging is communication. Two-way communication. Easy two-way communication. Easy for both communicators.

I stress “two-way,” “easy” and “both” because communication—like all human interactions—involves a balance of power. If communication is not equally easy for both parties, or obviously if it is a one-way conversation, then one party has a clear upper hand. In that case, the dominated party’s sense of belonging is imperilled; she or he may become little more than a belonging.

Nowhere is the importance of easy, equal, two-way communication more disrespected than in the Hearing world’s approach to people who are deaf. (Note: I am following Joanne Weber’s practice in The Deaf House of capitalizing “Deaf” and “Hearing” when referring to language-defined communities and using lower-case letters when referring to medically defined diagnoses.) Hearing people isolate the deafness as a sickness that must be “cured” (there is no real cure). An industry worth billions of dollars drills into the skulls of deaf babies and children to implant primitive technology (32 electrode clicks attempting to do the work of 35,000 hair-cell tones is primitive indeed), forbids them the language of the eyes—sign language—that is the most facile mode of communication for them and focuses all educational resources into “conquering” their deafness instead of into educating them.

Three kinds of deaf people emerge from this “oralist” regime. One, a minority, can be paraded as “proof” that the system works: a friend of mine, deaf and oralist from birth, is one of less than a handful of deaf lawyers and deaf investment counsellors in Canada and has even run for political office. A second minority is labelled “oral failures,” not because they cannot cope with a mainstream curriculum but because they cannot fake hearing and speaking.

Olivia Mew

The third group, by far the largest, may be called “surface successes.” Joanne Weber, author of the fictionalized autobiography The Deaf House, is one of these. (I am another.) Weber earned piles of university degrees, awards and applause as a model of what oralism can achieve. Inside, though, she was a churning mass of alienation, rage, loneliness and an inability to feel she belonged anywhere.

The Deaf House is a powerful examination of the contradictions that have made the author’s life, and the lives of those like her, a tormented search for a world in which they can feel they belong. Raised in and relentlessly trained for the Hearing world that simultaneously rejects them because they are clinically deaf, they are equally unable to integrate completely into the Deaf world because oralism denied them the passport of sign language. Coming late to signing, it cannot be their natural language even if they master it: those Deaf people who have signed all their lives immediately spot the accents that betray it as an acquired language.

Weber does an amazing job of limning the tiny, fragile things—as well as the big, glaring things—that measure out the failure to socialize fully into either world. This book is about everyday life as a Deaf woman, from the most humdrum interactions to the deepest self-analysis; it is about the power and control at play in everything people do and think and say, most particularly the language in which they do and think and say it.

All those awards and degrees? They were trophies for “overcoming” her deafness. “I’m just like the other kids,” the eleven-year-old Weber says in accepting one accolade. But even as she says it, she senses there is something wrong and dishonest about it: she is unable to hear the praises and questions of those admiring her as a model success. She has faked her way through life and school by cobbling together knowledge based on prodigious reading and “reasonable guesses” rather than from actually hearing and understanding what was being said in classrooms, in meetings, in gatherings.

She is a success by the Hearing world’s imposed standards, not by her own standards or by those standards that might be deemed natural to someone like her. The Hearing world’s standards for deaf people are wilfully uninformed; her own are as yet merely unformed, because she has not been permitted to discover her essential Deafness, her “Deaf body.”

Weber externalizes her “Deaf body” as a “Deaf house.” The symbolism is incandescently evocative. The first half of the book is a chronicle of someone who cannot stay in any “house” longer than two or three months: she moves 47 times before finding herself married to a Hearing man who is a teacher of the Deaf. Marriage and two young daughters (both Hearing) cannot settle her. Leaving her husband, she takes the daughters and continues moving: North Battleford, Wilkie, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton. After nine years, incredibly, she returns to Murray, the husband who has the tolerance of a saint. Even thereafter, she constantly flees to be alone for hours or (sometimes) days at a time, searching for new surroundings, unable to feel she belongs in any one place.

It is an obvious parallel to her endless shuttling between the Hearing world and the Deaf world, the Hearing “house” or body and the Deaf “house” or body—something that fits her, the “real” her, for now and for the future, but also for the past. She cannot reject that past because it constitutes the Hearing part of her that made her capable of speech and lip reading and thereby ostensibly capable of functioning in the Hearing world (a friend implies Weber is “a Hearing woman trapped in a Deaf body.”)

The oralist gospel dictates: if you are capable of functioning in the Hearing world, you not only do not need the Deaf world, you are morally obligated to reject it and its communication mode: “the ­Hearing house” is closed to it. “You are not a Deaf house,” Weber reacts to yet another move into yet another incompatible domicile. “You are not going to make living with deafness any easier for me.” In coruscating contrast, an important aspect of “the Deaf house” as a literal house is its use of openness. Walls are, as far as possible, done away with, corners are rounded, the entire interior has uninterrupted flow, so that the Deaf inhabitant can see what she cannot hear: the presence of others, the flutterings of light that indicate action and movement, the visible communication that streams around corners in the same way that invisible voices do. This openness is part of the Deaf culture: the Deaf world accepts all, whether they have cochlear implants or hearing aids or not, whether they can lip read and speak or not, whether they are masters of sign language or stiff-fingered, blank-faced novices.

Weber’s reconciliation with Murray does not make living with deafness any easier, either: instead, it serves to crystallize her inability to belong to one or the other of the Hearing and Deaf communities. The communication battles she faces in the outside world find reflection in the family unit. She is paranoid that Murray is “stealing” their daughters from her because the three Hearing people can chat so easily with one another, leaving her the odd member out, “a spectator.” “Well, it’s not fair to me to have to live like this,” she whines: “It’s about functioning in a group, a family, not in pairs or couples, a family … If I can’t participate in any conversations, I can’t feel that I am of significance to others.”

I just want to be connected, I don’t care how, I don’t care if I have to use sign or speech, I just want to be close to someone without being yanked away by deafness … Inability to decipher a spontaneous conversation rendered me invisible and alone.

Her frustration with her home life parallels her frustration with the school system that employs her. She becomes a teacher of the Deaf in the Regina public school system, and a grim immersion it is: the few students in her program have been deprived forever of a language, brainwashed to believe themselves able to hear and speak when in fact they are pitiably helpless to do either. They regurgitate all the oralist clichés their parents and counsellors have drummed into their cochlear-implanted heads: “I can hear perfectly,” “I have good speech,” “I don’t need sign language.” They endure hours of uncomprehending boredom in regular classes and then come to Weber expecting her to make sense of the material for them, but they lack any of the tools—language, experience, awareness of the world, self-reliance, life skills, strategies for learning—that would enable her to really guide them.

“Even those deaf kids will say they’re doing fine,” points out Weber. “Wouldn’t you say you were doing just fine if you had someone taking care of you all the time?” The reality is as she bluntly tells her students:

But teachers are giving you pity passes because they think you can’t do the work and they just want to shove you on. Or they give you high marks because they think that will make you feel better about being deaf. You know you are not doing the work. And you are manipulating the interpreters into giving you answers to questions in homework and on exams … You may hear, you may talk, you may sign, but not having a full language in either English or ASL has affected your learning.

The 1991 closing of the only Deaf school in Saskatchewan decimated the Deaf community. That province’s “no-option” oralism has been nothing short of deliberate linguistic genocide. The remnants of a once-thriving Deaf community, now old and incapable of mounting a counter-attack on a scorched landscape, know full well that this is about power: “the word Hearing had little to do with the ability to hear sound but everything to do with domination.” Weber recognizes her own unwilling complicity in the power game: “Everyone wants me to be integrated seamlessly into the Hearing world, with no, or little, effort on their part … I’m such a good lip-reader. Hearing people like that. There isn’t much effort on their part. They merely have to talk.”

That sounds bitter. Weber has earned her bitterness. It contributes to her self-portrait as a rather unlikable narrator: although courageous and honest, she is also self-obsessed, petulant, self-dramatizing, querulous, needy, difficult, constantly accusing others of blocking her out of a “normal” life whose normalness she is unable to define to her own satisfaction. She has an admirable character, not an attractive personality.

Weber is a robust writer, unafraid to use literary devices that some readers might consider gimmicky or contrived. There are sections written in the voice of her mother and sections written in the voice of Weber’s own older self, tropes such as “Little Red Coat” and “Jane Eyre,” and a habit of breaking dialogue scenes into scripts in which amusing tag-names identify the speakers: “JOANNE OF ASSISSI,” “JOANNE ON HIGH HORSE,” “DESPERATE TO SLOW IT DOWN MURRAY.” And there is almost a superabundance of literary references: classic and biblical myths, the Green Knowe books, fairy tales, McLuhan, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare. Some of the dialogues with Murray are obscure and puzzling because they reference forgotten archetypes: their talks come across as story metaphors rather than as believable conversations. Even Weber reaches a point where she laments that she is “tired of always speaking in literary code.” But these literary devices are important to the thrust of the story: Deaf people with such good English and literacy skills feel particularly split between the Deaf world and the Hearing world because they do have rare mastery of the language used by the latter.

The most effective device Weber uses is the speechless underline (“I said: ‘____________’.”) This is not pretentious: it indicates the wish to say something, even the awareness of what should be said, but the inability to come out with it, the communication barrier interfering not just with the ability to communicate but with the content of the communication.

Weber’s prose tends to run-on sentences, the nervous energy of her writing leading her to speed right through the stop sign of a period: there is too much to be said and too little time in which to say it. Even as she concedes a comma in her pell-mell dash to communicate, there are Deaf children falling irredeemably behind their peers in language and literacy development. They will never learn 
to communicate, or be given the tools with which to 
easily and equally communicate, and for Weber 
to come to a full stop in her expression of their needs would be a black irony at best, an affront at worst.

This is not a book for those who want a happy ending or a catharsis, a resolution, a vindication of some kind. It is not To Sir, with Love or Stand and Deliver, with Weber singlehandedly salvaging a lost generation.

Nothing has changed. I’ve healed no one. Many students leave just as wounded as they arrived four or five years ago … many students haven’t been able to make a healthy transition into adult life. Some leave with the idea that they are Deaf, but haven’t been able to integrate the knowledge into their bodies. Many leave, dispirited, unmotivated, fearful, and perpetually dependent on their parents for their future.

Nor has her own dilemma been settled. “Dear God, I am Deaf. I’ve not been able to hide it … All the optimism and the technology in the world will never make me into a Hearing person. Nothing will ever take this deafness away from me.” Still seeing her own deafness as a cell that marks her as a failure, she dubiously suggests, “The world will be better for knowing about how to live with failure.” But Weber herself is obviously unconvinced by that hollow platitude. Her houses, to paraphrase Rilke, are two solitudes that will not meet, protect and greet each other.

James Roots, although currently living in Kanata, Ontario, is a born and bred Torontonian. He learned photography from his father, one of Toronto’s most popular wedding and portrait photographers for half a century.