“I was an adult before I was a child,” says Lou Ann Walker, 34, author of A Loss For Words: The Story of Deafness in a Family (Harper & Row, $15.95). Born with normal hearing, Walker was barely out of the crib when she took on serious responsibilities as a go-between with the outside world for her parents, Gale and Doris Jean, who have been profoundly deaf since infancy.
Caught between two worlds, Walker found herself trying to insulate her parents from the ignorance of outsiders. “Not once,” Walker says, “did I convey the questions asked literally hundreds of times: ‘Does your father have a job?’ ‘Are they allowed to drive?’ Those questions carried an implicit insult to a family such as ours, which was proud, hardworking and self-sufficient.” Even though as a child Walker found comfort in an unusually warm and loving relationship with her family, for years all the slights toward her parents festered inside her, waiting to erupt.
Married last September to author Speed (No Laughing Matter) Vogel, Walker splits her time between a country home in Sag Harbor, N. Y. and a loft apartment in Manhattan. She discussed her struggle to come to terms with her parents’ deafness with assistant editor David Grogan.
When I look at old snapshots of my mom and dad pushing me in a baby stroller or giving me a bath, the two of them look as if they were about to burst with joy. They were just like all other proud parents, although being deaf they had to make some special arrangements for my care. Before I was born, they paid $65, a fortune in the early ’50s, for a baby cry box. As I cried, the box transmitted an impulse to a lamp by their bed, which flashed on and off until I paused for breath. Every night they were privy to their own special light show.
Since Mom and Dad communicated mainly in sign language, I learned to sign before I spoke. My first word was “apple,” an inscribed dimple made by twisting the joint of my index finger in my cheek. To help me develop verbal skills, my parents bought one of the first television sets anybody had ever seen in Montpelier, Ind. It had a big speaker and a tiny 6-inch screen which I watched endlessly, mimicking the words I heard expressed.
Even before I started school, I served as my parents’ guide in the hearing world. I interpreted in sign language for my mother when she went to the doctor. I dealt with the store clerk if anyone in the family needed new shoes. I was the one the mechanic would growl at when we had problems with the car’s transmission. I loved the challenge. But it involved a strange role reversal. Usually people ignore children and talk to adults. In our case, people would bend down and talk to me, while sometimes treating my parents as if they were cigar-store Indians.
When I was 6 we moved from Montpelier, a small town where we knew everybody, to Indianapolis, a big city full of strangers. From the moment we arrived, I sensed people peering from their windows whenever we walked out of the house, and I couldn’t understand why. Gradually, by observing neighborhood kids who stared open-mouthed at Mom and Dad, I figured it out. These people had never seen a deaf person before. For the first time, I started to realize that my parents were different from other people.
Not long after, I got the crazy notion that Mom and Dad must be spies sent by some unknown master to check up on me. They were pretending they couldn’t hear but in fact knew everything I was saying and would someday denounce me. So I started testing them. While Mom read the newspaper, I’d shout at her to see if she would respond. I’d stand behind Dad and say something snotty like, “Your shoe is untied.” I’d even place the telephone cord in a special way before I went to bed, thinking I could detect the next morning if they called in to report on me. Despite my cleverness, I never caught them.
At night as I waited for sleep to come, I’d watch yellow-gray shadows from the moonlight dance on my walls, and listen intently to the breeze rustling through the trees. One summer evening, I was just drifting off when I heard scuffing noises next to my room. I rushed upstairs to wake Dad, who grabbed a flashlight and walked outside as I stood on the porch and watched him get swallowed up by darkness. After an eternity, he returned. “Nothing. Sorry,” he signed, rubbing his chest with a curled hand.
I heard the same scuffing noise periodically for three years and sent Dad out dozens of times to check on it. I felt guilty, knowing how easy it would be for someone to sneak up on him, but he never complained. Finally, while watching a shadow slither around the ceiling one night, I heard what sounded distinctly like a man’s voice. Having long since convinced myself I must be imagining things, I didn’t get Dad. Then I heard a shotgun blast. I tore out of bed and ran upstairs, this time waking both Mom and Dad. The three of us rushed outside where we were greeted by our neighbor, Mrs. Simon, holding a smoking gun and muttering about a Peeping Tom who lived across the street. The whole thing was very upsetting, but in one sense I felt relieved. I no longer had to mistrust my hearing. If anything, it was too acute.
While other adolescents I knew were going through a rebellious stage, I felt a tremendous need to be protective of my parents. Instead of running away from home, for example, I’d hide under the bed or in the closet when I was feeling mischievous. Like my parents, the last thing I wanted to do in public was draw attention to myself, so I was very shy. I dressed neatly and cleanly and never made trouble. When I graduated from high school in 1971 I enrolled at nearby Ball State University and visited my parents nearly every weekend. Then two years later, on a whim, I applied to Harvard. To my surprise, they accepted me as a transfer student.
The long drive to Boston with my parents was very tense because my mother was not happy about me going so far from home. After she and Dad helped me unpack I wanted to avoid an emotional scene, so I sent them off to their motel right away. But that evening, after my roommate went to bed, I felt terribly lonely and went out to try to see my parents one last time. As I stood outside the door of their room at the Holiday Inn, it suddenly dawned on me that knocking would do no good. I knew they were awake. I could hear the television. I took a piece of notebook paper out of my purse and bent down to shove it underneath the door, working it in and out. There was no response. I pounded on the door, thinking they might feel the vibration. Again no response. I must have stood there for 20 minutes hoping Dad might come out to get ice from down the hall or retrieve something from the car. But he didn’t. When I finally turned to leave, I felt devastated. Years later I learned my father kept the television on that night to hide the sound of my mother’s sobbing from strangers.
Harvard was a real culture shock for me. I’d never tasted yogurt. I didn’t know what granola was. Yet I found myself listening at a dining table to erudite discussions on esoteric topics that were beyond my ken. One time a guy came up to me at a party and asked me about my family. When I told him my father was deaf and worked as a Linotype operator, he just turned around and walked away. But it was very rare that I ever talked about my parents’ deafness. That was something I just put aside for awhile.
When I graduated in 1976, I moved to New York to try my hand at journalism. While working during the next few years at low-paid editorial jobs for a variety of magazines, including New York, Esquire and Cosmopolitan, I moonlighted as a sign language interpreter for the New York Society for the Deaf. During evenings, weekends and lunch hours, I found myself entering the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. I had to break the news to a man that he was dying of cancer. My hands were the ones a gentle deaf-blind woman held when she learned she’d lose all perception of light. I coached a deaf mother through the birth of a baby. I was the conduit in court for accused arsonists, rapists and murderers.
Very often I went home angry because the deaf person had been rude or the hearing person condescending. One time, for example, a college professor hired me to translate a lecture he wanted to give to his deaf teenage daughter. In long, scholarly sentences he told her that if she didn’t buckle down and improve her grades, she would not make it into college. Then when she excused herself to go to the bathroom he hissed, “That lazy bitch isn’t going to amount to anything.” Imagine someone talking about their daughter like that to a stranger. Thinking about it made me wonder how many times people had talked behind the backs of my parents. I was furious.
I was leading a strange kind of double life. Having taken a job in 1980 at Diversion, an arts and leisure magazine for doctors, I had a lot of responsibility and worked long hours. Nevertheless, if I got a call from a night court for an arraignment or if a hospital telephoned and asked me to help with an accident victim, I would cancel dinner with a friend to go. The more I did for one person, the more I felt guilty about not being able to do more for someone else. Everything became more, more, more.
One day I was called to a mental hospital to act as translator during a psychiatric session. I was tired. My neck hurt and I’d pulled a muscle in my hand. While interpreting for a disturbed young deaf woman, I repeated her words mechanically until I heard myself saying, “I am the Virgin Mary.” Suddenly the craziness of the whole situation hit me. All my life I had been a robot of words and sounds for people, caught between the world of the deaf and the world of hearing people. And for the first time I just wanted to cry out, “This isn’t me!” As I marched out of the hospital I caught myself finger-spelling, swiftly, angrily: “I am not the Virgin Mary.” Then I looked down at my fingers and shoved my hand to the bottom of my pocket.
That night I had a pair of nightmares. In the first, I was protecting Mom and Dad from something. I was covered with blood, but they were all right. In the second dream, they were bloody, and I was protected. I tried hard to scream, but nothing would come. I woke up in a cold sweat.
The next few months were awful. I quit my editorial job, stopped doing any interpreting work and started acting like an immature teenager. Growing up, I had always been dutiful and obedient. “You must be a good girl,” I had been told. “Your parents are depending on you.” And I had been good. But now I was suddenly spewing venom. I hurled vases to the floor. I slammed my fists into walls. I poured out all the anger and rage bottled up inside me from all those times when I’d carried the burden of deafness on my shoulders, for all the obligations I had taken on because I could never make Mom and Dad whole. Whenever anyone asked me about my parents, I’d burst out crying.
Finally after months of brooding, I decided it was time to see Mom and Dad again. At first acting cheerful was a strain, but within days I found their unfailing optimism infectious. One day in a department store, Dad and I were walking past a display of electronic typewriters and he stopped to try one out. On a practice sheet, someone had tapped out, “The quick brown fox…” Underneath Dad typed, “I love my daughter, Lou Ann.” Another day, while Mom shucked corn for a picnic, I entertained her by using very dramatic gestures to sign the words to the song New York, New York. When Dad took us for an evening ride a few hours later, Mom threw her head back and pretended she was playing a guitar and serenading us. “When I was at school, in my room, and nobody else was around, I used to pretend to sing,” she signed, laughing shyly. “Nobody else knows that.”
I don’t think I’d ever felt closer to my parents than I did those few days. I used to mistake their innocence for unsophistication and had grown angry thinking about all the times they didn’t fight back when they were mistreated. But it was slowly dawning on me that their innocence was a protection. They knew very well, certainly better than I, how harsh the world was. And they realized early on they had one of two choices: to be bitter, or to enjoy their lives. It was an invaluable lesson for me to learn as well.