Good memoirs are about more than just the person writing them. They’re a broader account of things that we can all relate to, sometimes unexpectedly.
‘Hearing Maud’ by Jessica White is her account of growing up deaf in outback Australia, after losing her hearing through a bout of meningitis at age four. Jess was sent to school with the rest of her brothers and sisters and encouraged to continue talking. But hearing loss meant she could never keep up, never really integrate, felt left out of conversations and social situations. She retreated into the world of books and reading, and then writing. In adult life she became an academic. But it took a long time to find her feet in the world.
In ‘Hearing Maud’ her own story is interwoven with that of another deaf Australian woman, the daughter of a 19th century novelist. Maud Praed grew up being made to speak despite being profoundly deaf, and was then confined to an institution for the most part of her adult life, until she died, and from the descriptions you’d have to say she went barking mad, the poor woman.
This book looks at how people with hearing loss and deafness have been ‘handled’, for want of a better word, by our cultures. How they’ve been forced to learn to speak, and not taught to sign, because that would set them apart, and not enable them to ‘fit in’. This can mean a lifetime spent on the fringes of hearing society. Whereas signing, the true language of the deaf, enables them to talk at speed and fluently, and join with other people.
My husband is entirely deaf in one ear, the result of a childhood accident on the arm and then a flu shot three years ago (he developed tinnitus and lost the last vestiges of his hearing in that ear two hours after the shot. Try googling ‘tinnitus, flu vaccination’ – it’s an eye-opener.) He backs up Jess’s summation of what social situations and conversations are like when you’re deaf: constantly having to guess parts of what people are saying, feeling stupid if you get it wrong and respond incorrectly, missing things and struggling to keep up. And how exhausting all this is.
But I found much to relate to myself even though I’m not deaf, and that’s the secret of a good memoir. You can imagine how lonely and isolated Jess felt during her teenage years. Well this is a good book for a woman with a teenage daughter to read; it was a reminder to me of the isolation I felt myself at that age, simply because it’s an awkward age when you want to fit in but may not do so, for any old reason.
And in Jess’s analysis of how deaf people are forced to assimilate and use a dominant culture’s means of communication and expression, and how this parallels Aboriginal experience in colonial culture, I found parallels again with women’s experience in a patriarchal culture. Being a ‘wife’ has become about fitting in, having it all, raising children and having a career, trying to be women and men, often subverting our own desires in service to a family. I write about finding my own identity as a woman, a wife and a writer in my own memoir Apple Island Wife, and I found much to relate to in what Jess was saying.
It’s a very successful mix, this book, of academic research into a historical figure and analysis of her experience and what it can teach us, and a sensory, personal memoir. Jess’s descriptions are often fluid, even poetic, as she evokes life in the bush and later in big cities.
I recommend this book for anyone who loves reading memoir for its capacity to take us into another person’s world, show and tell us things we haven’t expected, bring us small moments of enlightenment, and stay with us. Books that do that are jewels in the canon. This one is a small, heartfelt gem.
Fiona Stocker is the author of rural memoir Apple Island Wife – Slow Living in Tasmania, published by Unbound. It’s the story of what really happens when you leave city life and move to the country, of finding your feet and your identity, as a wife and a rural woman. It is available in all the usual places online, and to order in bookstores in the UK and Australia.