Could a full generation have already passed since four brothers, ages 7 to 13, first trooped onto an Andy Williams show to lift their voices in song and captivate a nation? Since that 1962 network showcasing, the Osmonds have redefined wholesomeness—and in the process built an entertainment empire. Mixing Mormon temperance, showbiz pizzazz and bottom-line savvy, the brood has mined enough gold records (24) to qualify its Orem, Utah base as an annex of Fort Knox. They’ve starred in their own TV series, headlined in Vegas and merited a telebio to air next fall that will dramatize their rise from obscurity. Yet for the oldest two sons among the nine Osmond siblings—Virl, 35, and Tom, 33—the applause has been distant and often disheartening. Born with severe hearing impairments that seem to be genetically caused (a cousin and a nephew are similarly afflicted), the pair have struggled at limelight’s edge to establish their identities. Today Tom, father of four, is a printer at the Osmonds’ multimillion-dollar TV production center in Orem; he also teaches sign language at nearby Brigham Young University. And Virl, father of seven, is a graphics designer and typesetter who has been studying video editing and animation at night It is Virl who has written for PEOPLE a poignant account of dealing with their handicap—and with secondhand fame.
People usually meet our famous brothers and our sister, Marie, with excitement. Eventually, if Tom and I are around, they will be introduced to us and learn that we, too, are part of the Osmond family. Then they will be told, often apologetically, that we are deaf. The fans will politely shake our hands, usually speak to us too loudly, give us a look of pity and then quickly go back to our brothers and sister. For Tom and me, this has always been humiliating and depressing. We’ve felt left out, displaced. Anyone who has ever been in the background of a successful relative’s life can identify with what I am saying. Yet the hardest part for us was that our obscurity wasn’t our fault, but caused by a simple act of God: We were born deaf.
Our parents didn’t discover that until I was 2 and Tom was 1. I should explain that my brother suffers from an 89 percent hearing loss. I am more fortunate. Though I now have no hearing in my left ear, my right-ear loss is 75 percent. I can understand conversations by lipreading and using a hearing aid. It is possible to lead a nearly normal life. But in the late 1940s many parents with handicapped children were still being encouraged to institutionalize them. Our parents wouldn’t accept this and actively participated in our learning and adjustments. They spent many hours working with us on our speech and encouraged us to try many experiences that some educators of the deaf considered foolish or useless. For instance, my mother played the piano and saxophone; and when she taught our brothers to play these instruments, she taught us, too. We weren’t as good—our timing was off a lot—but I believe the lessons definitely helped us in identifying sounds and developing voice pitch.
Tom and I attended the Utah School for the Deaf at first. But then ear specialists discovered that my hearing lapse was not as severe as his, so my parents sent me to regular public school. It was a mixed blessing. Where before I was sheltered and protected, in public school I had to face the harsh reality that I was different. I was fitted with hearing aids. Not today’s subtle, behind-the-ear models, but ones with big plugs and wires trailing down to a receiving box strapped conspicuously across my chest. I was taunted and mocked, and the plugs were pulled out of my ears again and again. It was painful.
My only refuge in those days was my family. We lived on a large farm in Ogden, Utah, and there I was free from criticism and embarrassment. There was love, closeness and mutual support. Those were great moments that left great memories: We hoed sugar beets, harvested apples, canned peaches, milked cows, fed chickens, weeded the garden—and were always together.
Then came the day my father discovered my younger brothers had a real aptitude for music. He began to teach them to sing. For the first time, Tom and I did not participate in a family activity. In the beginning it wasn’t so bad; mostly they sang at home or at church. But soon they became serious and competitive. And when they began to enter contests and” be paid for performing, Tom and I began to feel the pain of separation.
One evening when I was about 14, the family was driving home from one of the many competitions my brothers entered and won. I sulked in the front seat and finally said, “I wish I had some talent.” Those words caused my parents shock and heartache. The next day they enrolled Tom and me in a tap-dancing class to try to help us overcome the gap we felt between our brothers and ourselves. Soon our self-confidence increased—but other events were taking place.
Shortly thereafter, fate brought the family into contact with Andy Williams; the Osmond climb to fame had begun. When the family pulled up roots and moved to California, Tom and I shared in the excitement. But as we watched, our brothers’ lives changed. Public schooling gave way to tutors, and soon they were rehearsing and taping shows seven days a week. Everyone fussed over them, and naturally so did we. However, because of our deafness, our roles became little more than those of companion and chauffeur.
When Tom and I became 19 and 21, respectively, we went off to serve as missionaries of the Mormon church and worked among the deaf in Calgary, Alta. For two years we felt success, joy and self-worth. But then the mission was over. And the world we returned to was chaos.
As the family had become well-known, the pace of life had increased tremendously. The phone was always ringing. People were forever stopping by the house for business, interviews, pictures and autographs. Tom and I would stand out of the way and watch, bewildered. Not being able to hear well, I depended a lot on lipreading. But with everyone in such a hurry and things happening so quickly, it got to where I couldn’t keep up. I’d get frustrated. I’d grab members of my family and yell, insisting that they take the time to tell me what was going on. They tried hard, but it was impossible. And the more popular the group became, the more alienated I felt.
I wanted to be included, respected, self-reliant—not tolerated, protected and sheltered. But after a decade of standing in their shadows, I was insecure and reluctant to test my own capabilities. My family had always done what it could, offering me a job, income and sanctuary from the world. By accepting all that, essentially I had been saying, “I can’t take care of myself.” It had whittled away at my pride. I knew I had to discover the abilities I did have, and develop and use them to find fulfillment. I was no longer content to ride on the tail of my brothers’ good fortune. I wanted to be known for myself, liked for myself.
And so, timidly, naively, I began. Since childhood I had enjoyed art; I loved to create on paper what I imagined in my mind. I wanted to use this interest to make a career for myself. I ventured into architecture, but after three years of on-again, off-again training in college, I failed to catch the enthusiasm. So I tried advertising, publishing and even mail-order. These efforts were all failures, both emotionally and financially. My family was very concerned every time I fell on my face. Their inclination was to rush in and pick up the pieces, to take me back into the fold and protect me from more hurt. Sometimes, discouraged, I let them, but that’s when I didn’t grow. Only when I picked myself up and started over again did I make any real personal progress. After many attempts, I hope I’ve finally found my niche, in video electronic editing and animation. It is an incredibly difficult field with large amounts of computer programming knowledge required, but I love it.
My handicap has become a stinging blessing now, a “thorn in the flesh,” as the apostle Paul refers to it. It spurs me on, makes me reach above myself: I must work harder at everything, because even the simple task of expressing myself is a challenge. I have also learned that there are more than just physical handicaps. There are handicaps of attitude, which wasted many years for me—years that could have been productive, but were not because I spent too much time feeling sorry for myself and jealous of my brothers’ and sister’s success.
If I could give a message to the physically disabled, it would be this: Overcome self-pity by reaching out to others like you and giving them courage and support. Lift others and you lift yourself. Meet each challenge that your handicap brings with faith; don’t give up, no matter what. Be as independent and self-reliant as possible. Educate yourself. And lastly, discover your talents and use them!
To the family and friends of the handicapped, I say: Do not expect any less of them than you would of yourself. Don’t sell their abilities short. Give them freedom, encouragement and room to grow, and they will surprise you. If they try, and fail, don’t be too quick to pick them up.
In The Sound of Music, the character Maria says, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” That’s especially true with a handicap. Every weakness has a compensating strength. It just requires us to try a little harder, a little longer.