March 07, 2013
(+++) FROM TRAUMA TO HEALING
Song without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life. By Gerald Shea. Da Capo. $25.99.
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. Edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher. Da Capo. $15.99.
Like Helen Keller, Gerald Shea had a bout with scarlet fever as a child and was left with permanent hearing damage. Unlike Helen Keller, Shea lost some of his hearing, not all of it, and found ways to cope with his partial hearing for decades: he was not diagnosed with hearing loss until he was 33 years old. Shea is among 30 million partially deaf Americans, and in Song without Words he tells his story as a microcosm of the tales of others – and, at the same time, as a highly personal recounting of a life in which he simply refused to accept limitations. In truth, he did not realize he had them: he thought that the process with which he had to interpret spoken words through context was one that everyone used, but that he was not as good at it as other people were. Shea’s partial deafness affects his ability to hear high-frequency sounds and, in particular, consonants. He hears vowels and other sounds, which he calls, collectively, “lyricals.” But until he was fitted with hearing aids in his mid-30s, he had to interpret, internally, the consonantal elements that would turn the vowels into intelligible words. Shea discusses how he did this, and in the process of exploring his own situation also talks about Keller’s – and contrasts it with that of Emmanuelle Laborit, a French actress who was born deaf in 1972 and was initially prevented (as Keller was) from using sign language or meeting children or adults who signed. Laborit, however, eventually connected with two sign-language teachers, one deaf and one hearing, and became, Shea says, more of a fully formed person than Keller – although less of a symbol. This analysis and argument lies at the heart of Shea’s belief that every individual needs to find an expressive language of his or her own, and that Keller was deprived of one while Laborit was able to find hers. Shea clearly believes that he eventually found his own as well. Shea talks about methods of helping those with partial deafness in school by the creative and careful use of blackboards, other visual aids, reading primers, front-row classroom seats, and so forth – all modest and reasonable ideas. But not all of his thoughts will likely strike readers as unarguably true. It is not just his position on Keller to which some will take exception. He disagrees, for example, with the use of cochlear implants in infants who are born profoundly deaf, arguing that this now-standard procedure causes them to lose the personal language that they need to develop in order to become the most that they can be. The argument is intriguing but decidedly one-sided. He also talks about the “locusts” with which he lives constantly – Shea has a talent for labels, and “locusts” are what he calls the buzzing and ringing sounds in the ears that doctors diagnose as tinnitus. He believes that “locusts” are common in deaf people – who, under the best of circumstances, learn to live with them, but under other circumstances are tormented by them, as Beethoven was (Shea quotes Beethoven as saying that his ears “buzz and ring day and night”). Structurally, the most interesting part of Song without Words is the way Shea shows readers how he interpreted “lyricals” in everyday life: he repeatedly presents a line of dialogue with words that were unclear to him (or meaningless) in italics, then shows the variations on those words that went through his mind in an instant until he eventually came up with what the speaker was talking about. The process is fascinating and a testament to Shea’s determination and strength of character; indeed, the whole book shows that strength. Song without Words is somewhat discursive and can be argumentative (no big surprise there: by profession, Shea is a lawyer). But for those interested in the plight of the partially deaf and in one man’s unusual coping strategies – necessitated by the decades-long lack of a definitive diagnosis, occasioned by the fact that Shea hid his hearing difficulties so well – the book will be fascinating reading.
Sometimes the way to face down real-world trouble is with fiction – that is the foundational argument of Fire and Forget, edited by Iraq veterans Roy Scranton (a former Army artilleryman) and Matt Gallagher (a former Army captain). The book’s title relates to self-guided weapons such as heat-seeking missiles, and it reeks of irony, since the whole point of these 15 stories by members of the military who served in Iraq is that they cannot and will not forget. In fact, many of the stories are not about life in the war zone but about the attempt to reintegrate with civilian society after returning home: Gallagher’s own contribution, “And Bugs Don’t Bleed,” is one such, as are Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” (where a shopping mall echoes with war memories) and Colby Buzzell’s “My War” (in which finding a job after serving in Iraq becomes a major battle of its own). Both the editors are themselves good writers – Scranton contributes “Red Steel India,” a sort of absurdist buddy tale. And they have uncovered some powerful voices among their contributors, including Siobhan Fallon, whose “Tips for a Smooth Transition” contrasts official discussions of and recommendations for reconnecting with a spouse after deployment with everyday reality, and Perry O’Brien, whose “Poughkeepsie” packs one of the book’s biggest emotional wallops despite being one of the shortest stories in it. Indeed, a line from “Poughkeepsie” could stand as a motto for Fire and Forget as a whole: “Now that I’m on my own time, I don’t know what to do with it.” This is not a pleasant book and not one that will attract people interested in veterans’ war experiences per se. It is a book filled with finely constructed, generally depressing stories by people who have seen much and done much in the name of their country, and who use fiction – generally, reality thinly disguised as fiction – to process what happened to them and try to open it up to themselves and to the folks back home, who will never share, or want to share, the circumstances that produced writing like this and feelings like these.