Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Mother Father Deaf: Living Between Sound and Silence

Posted by nliakos on November 25, 2014

by Paul Preston (Harvard University Press, 1994)

Paul Preston is an anthropologist who also happens to be the hearing son of deaf parents. Interested in investigating the implications of this fact, he conducted an extensive study of other hearing adults who were raised by deaf parents. The resulting book reads a bit like a Ph.D. dissertation (perhaps it was), with numerous references to the research of others (although not much research has been conducted on exactly this topic–one of the reasons Preston felt compelled to do it, I suppose) and a chapter on methodology. For months, he drove around the country interviewing 150 subjects for the study. Many of the subjects only agreed to talk to him when they discovered that he was one of them; apparently, “Ooh, what was that like?” is a common response when one learns that someone grew up in a deaf household. There is a rather new organization, CODA (Children of Deaf Adults), which is forming a community of people whose parents were deaf, but for many of Preston’s subjects, it was the first time they had really reflected on the impact their parents’ deafness had on them and been asked to assign a meaning to it.

There were some surprises for me. For example, I assumed that anyone raised by deaf parents would be fluent in American Sign Language; but some deaf parents were not fluent signers themselves, and some refused to sign with their children, not wanting to compromise their entry into the hearing world, while other children depended on siblings to interpret for them. This reminded me of immigrants’ children who never become proficient in their parents’ language. One wonders at the impact the resulting lack of communication must have on parent-child relationships. I also learned that many deaf children acquire sign language at residential schools, where they also grow up away from their hearing parents and siblings, with a resulting lack of affect in some cases. And just as hearing parents may react with horror when told that their baby is deaf, deaf parents may expect and hope for a deaf child to inhabit their world with them and be disappointed when the child turns out to have normal hearing: “I thought, Oh, my God, she’s hearing! What am I going to do? . . . I don’t even know how to talk to her. . . . It never occurred to me that my child would be hearing. I was surprised. I was scared. . . . The Hearing world and the Deaf world are such separate worlds. I worried that we would never connect, or that we would drift apart.”

In the book, Preston distinguishes between deaf and Deafhearing and Hearing.  Many informants felt strongly that they were Deaf despite being hearing. One poignant quote is from someone whose father told him at age 18 that he belonged to the Hearing world. “I looked at him and [signs, ‘What do I know about the Hearing world? I hear, yes. I speak, yes. But I thought I was Deaf”]. My father smiled and said [signs, “true, you’re Deaf, but you’re Hearing too”].  I grew up Deaf. I guess now I’m Hearing. But some part of me still feels Deaf.”  From this and other quotes, the reader is able to enter the bicultural world of hearing people who grew up within the deaf community, which, for better or for worse, is isolated from the hearing community–even within an extended family, where deaf members may not participate fully in family life (at celebrations and holidays, for example, when extended families get together). Hearing children of deaf parents are often called upon to interpret or facilitate communication between their parents and hearing relatives or with the “outside world,” meaning that these children carry heavy responsibilities from a young age. As adults, Preston’s informants looked back on these unusual responsibilities, some matter-of-factly, some with resentment, and some with gratitude.

The book is academic and therefore somewhat dry, but it’s a fascinating topic and therefore I stuck with it.

Publisher’s website: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674587489

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One Response to “Mother Father Deaf: Living Between Sound and Silence”

  1. […] « Mother Father Deaf: Living Between Sound and Silence […]

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