For this assignment I chose to read A Loss for Words: A story of deafness in a family, by Lou Ann Walker. She recounts growing up hearing with two deaf parents. Once I started reading I was surprised to find that Walker grew up in Indiana! Her father is from Montpelier, her mother is from Greencastle, and the author came of age in Indianapolis.
Lou Ann’s story begins as her parents are driving her to Harvard. She went to Ball State for her first two years, but decided it was not enough of a challenge. The reader also gets the sense that she is ready to become a little more independent. This first chapter really shows how heartbreaking it could be to have deaf parents. Lou Ann gets scared and lonely on her first night in her dorm (as many of us probably did) and walks to her parents’ hotel. She bangs on the door and slips a piece of paper into the room, but her parents don’t notice. She cannot communicate to her parents that she needs them and must go back to her room, uncomforted.
The next section of the book gives some background information on Lou Ann’s parents. Her mother, Doris Jean, became deaf a little after she turned one. She had spinal meningitis, and it left her deaf. Doris Jean was taken to the Indiana State School for the Deaf when she was six years old. The worst part of this experience was that she thought she was being punished for something; she did not understand why her family didn’t want her anymore. Life at the school was a positive experience. She was finally able to communicate and make friends. The school did not want the students to sign, they were supposed to lip read and speak; however it seems like most of students signed anyways. After graduation Doris Jean moved into an apartment in Indianapolis and found a job.
Lou Ann’s fathers name is Gale. He became deaf because of a high fever he had as an infant. Gale also has a deaf older brother, who was deaf at birth. Gale grew up on a farm and was able to be helpful and active. His family did not send him to the Indiana State School for the Deaf until he was in third grade because Gale’s father had a problem with the superintendent. He went to public school for two years, with little success. Once he transferred to the school for the deaf he did very well in school. He learned how to operate a linotype machine, which is used to print newspapers, and was able to find a job after graduation.
Lou Ann has conflicted feelings about growing up with two deaf parents. She was the oldest of three girls, and they all signed fluently. Communication between the immediate family was not a problem. There was a lot of love and a lot of joking around. When you read the book you realize that this is a very normal, functional family.
However there are negative issues that come up over and over again in the book. Most of these have to do with the outside world. Lou Ann is constantly worried about how other people react to her parents. They get stared at whenever they go out and some people are not very kind. When Lou Ann brings her mom to Parents’ Day at school the teacher is not respectful. Guests generally get to sit with the teacher at lunch, but Doris Jean is forced to squish in an empty space in the middle of a bench full of little girls. Gale applies to be part of the Masons fraternal order, but is denied solely because of his disability. When the extended family is supposed to meet at a fancy restaurant one family member decides they should eat at the Holiday Inn instead, so she won’t be embarrassed by Gale and Doris Jean. This family member doesn’t even end up coming.
Lou Ann has to grow up very fast. She is basically responsible for dealing with the outside world for her parents. She writes their letters, she makes the phone calls, she orders for them at restaurants, and she talks to the people at the bank. Her parents don’t like having to ask her to do these things, but it is a necessity. Lou Ann feels a lot of pressure to be grown up and to be a “good” girl. All the adults in her life (except for her parents) are always telling her she needs to be good. There seems to be a lot of guilt that her grandparents have passed down to her.
When Lou Ann graduates from Harvard she eventually settles in New York City. She works for magazines, but becomes an interpreter on the side. She begins to interpret because she needs the extra money, but it turns into a kind of obsession. She witnesses so many deaf people who are being treated poorly by their families, by the justice system, and by the world. Finally Lou Ann realizes that she needs to stop feeling responsible for everyone and start speaking out. She talks to her sisters about what it was like growing up in their family, she reaches out to others, she learns to say no, and ultimately she begins to write about her experiences.
I really enjoyed this book. I liked how it blended information about deafness with a story of a woman coming into her own. By the end of the book I felt like I knew this family and was invested with how their lives would turn out. My favorite aspect of the book was the way Lou Ann would use short anecdotes to reveal truths about deafness or sign language that I never would have thought of. One of the most compelling stories is when she asks her father if the rumor she heard was true, if her grandfather would not allow her deaf uncle and his wife to have children. Her father confirms the rumor. He says he does not know if it has to do with his brother’s deafness or not, but he wishes they wouldn’t have listened and had children. Lou Ann then reflects on this anecdote,
“In sign language, conversations like this are incredibly hard. You must look directly at the person as you talk to him, and as he talks to you. You can’t avert your eyes to relieve the tension…You can’t escape the emotion of the story. It reverberates through you. I flinched asking my father about the decree. My father flinched as he watched me ask, and as we talked, we could both see the ache. We were speaking in feelings. Words were not enough” (p. 120).
This passage really struck me. I thought about all of the awkward conversations I’ve had with my parents; conversations when I would do anything not to look at them in the eye. Or conversations when I was trying to hide something; to pull something over on them. This would be much harder if we were using sign language. It seems that sign language makes you confront your emotions head on. You can not sign without connecting on some level with the person you are communicating with.
It was difficult coming up with a part of this book that I didn’t like. One thing I would have liked to see more of is the opinions of Lou Ann’s two younger sisters. The reader sees their names a lot and they are included in many of the stories, but we don’t get very much information about their feelings during childhood. I know this is Lou Ann’s story, but I think it would have been fascinating to see if her sisters felt the same way as she did or if they had totally different perspectives. I also would have liked to see how they viewed Lou Ann; if they saw her as another mother figure or thought she was taking on too much responsibility.
One question I would like to ask Lou Ann is what her biggest regret is from her childhood. In some ways her childhood was much happier than many. She has wonderful, loving parents. But of course there were many hardships. I wonder if she regrets taking on too much responsibility and not enjoying being a child. Or maybe she regrets not standing up for herself and her family, regrets letting other people’s cruelness affect her so much. Perhaps she wishes she hadn’t been so closed off, maybe she would have been more content if she was open about her feelings with her parents and her sisters. I would also love to ask what made her decide to write this book and what her family’s reactions were. One final thing I would really like to know is how her parents’ lives have changed now that assistive technology is so much better. This book was published in 1986 and most of the book takes place in the 1970s. I know a lot has changed since then. I wonder how different it would be to grow up with deaf parents today.
Many of the situations in A Loss for Words reminded me of the unit on bilingual education from my Education and American Culture class. Things that Lou Ann was embarrassed or ashamed of would be the same as if her parents spoke Spanish instead of ASL. For instance at one point Doris Jean goes to the grocery store and someone steals her wallet. She does not realize this until the cashier has already rung up all of her groceries. She is completely mortified and comes home in tears. This could easily happen to a new immigrant. The description of Gale in public school also reminds me of a limited English speaker’s experience, “Dad’s days at Huntington Street public school in Montpelier were a complete blur. He sat in class trying hard to pay attention and figure out what was going on” (p. 38). To me it seems like being deaf is really a disability all about communication. Unfortunately the best way for many people who are deaf to interact is sign language, not speaking or lip reading, which means they can only truly communicate with a small portion of the population. In A Loss for Words Lou Ann’s parents have limited communication with their own parents because they never learned to sign. This is a tragedy.
I loved A Loss for Words both because it was a fascinating story and it opened my eyes to the deaf experience. I think it will improve my ability to relate to students and families that have disabilities. It has reinforced what we have been talking about in class; people with disabilities are people first. They are much more like us then unlike us. A person with a disability deserves the respect and sensitivity that we would like for ourselves.
Walker, Lou Ann (1986). A Loss for Words: The story of deafness in a family. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 208 pages.