Mysteries of the Deaf

When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf

by Harlan Lane
Random House, 537 pp., $24.95

The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education

edited by Harlan Lane, translated by Franklin Philip
Harvard University Press, 221 pp., $20.00

Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard

by Nora Ellen Groce
Harvard University Press, 169 pp., $17.50


We are remarkably ignorant about deafness, which Dr. Johnson called “the most desperate of human calamities”—much more ignorant than an educated man would have been in 1886, or 1786. Ignorant and indifferent. During the last few months I have raised the subject with countless people and nearly always met with responses like: “Deafness? Don’t know any deaf people. Never thought much about it. There’s nothing interesting about deafness, is there?” This would have been my own response a few months ago.

Things changed for me when I was sent a fat book by Harlan Lane called When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, which I opened with indifference, soon to be changed to astonishment, and then to something approaching incredulity. I discussed the subject with my friend and colleague Dr. Isabelle Rapin, who has worked closely with the deaf for twenty-five years.1 I got to know better a congenitally deaf colleague, a remarkable and highly gifted woman, whom I had previously taken for granted. I started seeing, or exploring for the first time, a number of deaf patients under my care. My reading rapidly spread from Harlan Lane’s history to The Deaf Experience, a collection of memoirs by and about the first literate deaf, skillfully edited by Lane, and then to Nora Ellen Groce’s Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, and to a great many other books. Now I have an entire bookshelf on a subject which I had not thought of even as existing six months ago, and have seen some of the remarkable films that have been produced on the subject, particularly in England.2

One more acknowledgement by way of preamble. In 1969 W.H. Auden gave me a copy, his own copy, of Deafness,3 a remarkable autobiographical memoir by the South African poet and novelist David Wright, who became deaf at the age of seven: “You’ll find it fascinating,” he said. “It’s a wonderful book.” It was dotted with his own annotations (though I do not know whether he ever reviewed it). I skimmed it, without paying more attention, in 1969. But now I was to rediscover it for myself. David Wright is a writer who writes from the depths of his own experience—and not as a historian or scholar writes about a subject. Moreover, he is not alien to us. We can easily imagine, more or less, what it would be like to be him (whereas we cannot without difficulty imagine what it would be like to be Laurent Clerc—or the Wild Boy of Aveyron). Thus he can serve as a bridge for us, conveying us through his own experiences into the realm of the unimaginable. Since he is easier to read than the great mutes of the eighteenth century, he should if possible be read first—for he prepares us for them. Toward the close of the book he writes:

Not much has been written about deafness by the deaf.4 Even so, considering that…

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