Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life

Posted by nliakos on March 10, 2015

by Gerald Shea (Merloyd Lawrence/Da Capo Press/Perseus Books Group, 2013)

Not only did Gerry Shea not realize that he was severely hearing impaired following a bout of scarlet fever when he was six; he persevered through prep school, Yale, and Columbia Law School and worked for years in corporate and international law. He was skilled enough at speechreading and using what he calls “lyricals”–bits of words gleaned from the vowels and few consonants that he could hear, which he played with and rhymed until he came to a word or phrase that made sense in the context–that he fooled not only himself but his family, his colleagues and clients, his friends and lovers, into thinking that he was perhaps eccentric but certainly not deaf. In fact, he actually thought his hearing was acute, because certain sounds were so painful to him. A chance medical exam for a new job finally uncovered the truth when he was 34 years old–after which he denied his deafness for a long time. Eventually, however, he accepted the truth and decided that continuing to practice law was too stressful. He resigned from his job and began to learn about deafness, deaf culture, audiology, linguistics, and the in-between world of the hearing-impaired–neither hearing nor Deaf. The result is this book. It was a fascinating read. I zipped through it in 2 days–I couldn’t stop.

Shea shares his “lyricals” with his readers by reporting verbatim conversations he had with people who did not realize that he could barely hear anything they said:

“It’s OK, Gerry. OK. Understand,” he said, “you do the best you can, utter her romances.

utter under



   moving shadows

   music in the night


   under the circumstances

Imagine having to go through that every time someone talked to you! Obviously, it was done lightning-fast, but I can’t imagine how he managed to keep up with the conversation. I suppose he was not always successful–but he was successful enough to have kept his disability “hidden” for 28 years.


In addition to his own story, Shea writes about other deaf and hearing-impaired people, such as Helen Keller, about whom I thought I knew, but he brings a whole new perspective to her story–how she was forced to give up her “native” language of sign, which was replaced by the awkward fingerspelling system taught to her by Anne Sullivan, and how she may never have published an original idea that did not actually come from her teacher. “If Helen had been given a teacher fluent in sign. . .,” writes Shea, “she could rapidly have developed and kept her own ideas. She would have become a writer with her own voice and perspective and a consummate speaker and listener, through touch, in her own language.” How tragic for Helen, and what a loss for the rest of us.

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