Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Joining the Diaspora of Deaf Memoirists: A Personal Account of Writing Deafness

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Joining the Diaspora of Deaf Memoirists: A Personal Account of Writing Deafness

Article excerpt

Now close to 60 years of age, I have had a long lifetime of people asking me questions about my deafness. I have not always liked this. When I am asked about my deafness, I feel myself flinch. The questions always act as a trigger to be wary, even when they are asked with respect or the mildest of benign curiosity. According to my mood at any given moment, I have resisted, objected to, evaded, and even answered those questions. When I was a child, I complained to my mother; as an adult, I bristled. So when a long-ago psychologist half-stated, half-asked me, with the sureness of someone who felt the advantage of being hearing, "Your deafness, it must have a big impact on your life?" I was irritated.

However, despite my first inclination to shrug my irritation aside, I found myself mulling over the psychologist's question. The upshot is that shortly after my 52nd birthday I enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Queensland, in Australia, and set about writing a memoir of my deafness called The Art of Being Deaf (McDonald, 2014).

While writing my memoir, I learned that my mother was right when I was a child when she said, "Just answer their questions. They are interested; they just want to know." Today, I am still obeying my now elderly mother and still answering other people's questions. But I also discovered that the questions about my deafness I most needed to answer were my own. Until I set out on my search to understand my deaf self, I did not give voice to the questions / wanted to ask. I held them close, not giving myself permission or granting myself the nerve to explore, test, and perhaps even drop inflexible habits of understanding myself.

Having first read many memoirs by other deaf writers and novels with deaf characters, most of which are written by hearing writers (see McDonald, 2012), I faced the task of composing my own narrative of deafness in a fresh way. I wanted to disrupt historically persistent perceptions of deafness and what it means to be deaf. In this essay, I describe how and why I tackled this challenge, and its impact on my sense of identity.

Getting Started

I had a confused relationship with my deafness ("moderate-severe, sloping to profound; unknown etiology"). I could live with this, but it created a minefield for others to negotiate. I came reluctantly to the task of getting a handle on the meanings of my deaf experiences, my deafness, and my "being deaf." I made several false starts in my exploration and could not understand what was holding me back from finding, and then telling, my story of deafness.

I thought for a while that this reluctance was because I felt threatened by the task, and I wondered why this should be so. My fears had nothing to do with shame or the desire to disown my deaf status. They sprang from my experiences and observations. Seeing how many hearing people treat and talk crudely about deaf people, I nursed the fear that / might also be treated and talked about in such a way, with devastating consequences: lessened career prospects, compromised friendships, and conditional love. In a tiny, dark, and faraway corner of my heart was also the fear that perhaps I was a lesser person in some way, because here I was, routinely inconveniencing so many people because I couldn't hear properly and didn't say every word properly.

Admitting this fear to myself, let alone to anyone else, was hard. When I realized that my silence was acting as a brake on my ability to live authentically, and as a brake on other people's understanding of the variety of possibilities for deaf people's lives, I shook off my restraint.

Defining the Boundaries of My "Self" in My Memoir

I was daunted by the prospects of breaching my own privacy as well as intruding upon the privacy of others. This was a troubling hurdle. I did not want my memoir to be an exercise in disability tourism for the curious but merely idle reader; nor did I want to hurt people or breach good faith in my friendships. …

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