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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 I did not become deaf till after I had learned the language, I am no better placed than a hearing person to imagine what it is like to be born into silence and reach the age of reason without acquiring a vehicle for thought and communication. Merely to try gives weight to the tremendous opening of St. John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word. How does one formulate concepts in such a condition?

It is this—the relation of language to thought—that forms the deepest, the ultimate, issue when we consider what faces or may face those who are born, or very early become, totally deaf.


The term “deaf” is vague, or rather, is so general that it impedes consideration of the vastly differing degrees of deafness, degrees that are of qualitative, and even of “existential,” significance. There are the “hard of hearing,” fifteen million or so in the US population, who can manage, with hearing aids and a certain amount of care and patience on the part of those who speak to them. Many of us have parents or grandparents in this category—a century ago they would have used ear trumpets.

There are also the “severely” deaf, many as result of ear disease or injury in early life; but with them, as with the hard of hearing, the hearing of speech is still possible, especially with the new, highly sophisticated, computerized, and “personalized” hearing aids now becoming available. Then there are the “profoundly” deaf (sometimes called “stone deaf”), who have no hope at all of hearing any speech, whatever imaginable technological advances are made. The profoundly deaf cannot converse in the usual way—they must either lip-read (as David Wright did), or use sign language, or both.

It is not merely the degree of deafness that matters, but—crucially—the age, or stage, at which it occurs. David Wright in the passage already quoted observes that he lost his hearing only after he had acquired language, and (this being the case) he cannot even imagine what it must be like for those who lack or have lost hearing before the acquisition of language. He brings this out in other passages:

My becoming deaf when I did—if deafness had to be my destiny—was remarkably lucky. By the age of seven a child will have grasped the essentials of language, as I had…. Having learned naturally how to speak was another advantage—pronunciation, syntax, inflexion, idiom, all had come by ear. I had the basis of a vocabulary which could easily be extended by reading. All of these would have been denied me had I been born deaf or lost my hearing earlier than I did. [Italics added]

Wright speaks of the “phantasmal voices” which he hears when anyone speaks to him provided he can see the movement of their lips and faces, and of how he would “hear” the soughing of the wind whenever he saw trees or branches being stirred by the wind. Though he knows these sounds to be “illusory”—“projections of habit and memory”—they remain intensely vivid for him throughout the decades of his deafness. For Wright, for those deafened after hearing is well established, the world remains full of sounds even though they are “phantasmal.”

It is another matter entirely, and one which is essentially unimaginable by the normal (and even by the “postlingually” deafened, like David Wright), if hearing is absent at birth, or lost in infancy before the language is acquired. Those so afflicted—the “prelingually” deaf—are in a category qualitatively different from all others. For these people, who have never heard, who have no possible auditory memories, images, or associations, there can never be even the illusion of sound. They live in a world of utter, unbroken soundlessness and silence. These, the congenitally deaf, number perhaps a quarter of a million in this country. They make up a thousandth of the world’s children.

It is with these and these only that we will be concerned here, as it is these and these only who are considered in Harlan Lane’s books and in Nora Groce’s book on the deaf on Martha’s Vineyard, for their situation and predicament are unique. Why should this be so? People tend, if they think of deafness at all, to think of it as less grave than blindness, to see it as a disadvantage, or a nuisance, or a handicap, but scarcely as devastating in a radical sense. (One wonders why Samuel Johnson’s perceptions were so much keener and deeper than our own—whether it was some personal knowledge of the deaf-and-dumb of London, or whether it was a reflection of the “new” sensibility, the revolution in understanding of the deaf, which was taking place in his lifetime.)

Whether deafness is “preferable” to blindness, if acquired in later life, is arguable; but to be born deaf is infinitely more serious than to be born blind—at least potentially so.5 For the prelingually deaf, unable to hear their parents, risk being severely retarded, if not permanently defective, in their grasp of language, unless early and effective measures are taken. And to be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of calamities, for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, acquire and share information. If we cannot do this, we will be bizarrely disabled and cut off—whatever our desires, or endeavors, or native capacities. And indeed, we may be so little able to realize our intellectual capacities as to appear mentally defective.

It was for this reason that the congenitally deaf, or “deaf-and-dumb,” were considered “dumb” (stupid) for thousands of years and were regarded by an unenlightened law as “incompetent”—to inherit property, to marry, to receive education, to have adequately challenging work—and were denied fundamental human rights. This situation was not remedied until the middle of the eighteenth century, when (perhaps as part of a more general enlightenment, perhaps as a specific act of empathy and genius) the perception and situation of the deaf were altered at a stroke.

Harlan Lane, already famous for his remarkable study, The Wild Boy of Aveyron,6 is clearly fascinated, as were the philosophes of the time, by the extraordinary issues and problems posed by a seemingly languageless human being—and, indeed, the Wild Boy, when brought to Paris in 1800, was admitted to the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, which was at the time supervised by the Abbé Sicard, a founding member of the Society for Observers of Man, and a notable authority on the education of the deaf. As Jonathan Miller writes:

As far as the members of this society were concerned the “savage” child represented an ideal case with which to investigate the foundations of human nature…. By studying a creature of this sort, just as they had previously studied savages and primates, Red Indians and orangutans, the intellectuals of the late eighteenth century hoped to decide what was characteristic of Man. Perhaps it would now be possible to weigh the native endowment of the human species and to settle once and for all the part that was played by society in the development of language, intelligence, and morality.

Here, of course, the two enterprises diverged, one ending in triumph, the other in complete failure. The Wild Boy never acquired language, for whatever reason or reasons. One insufficiently considered possibility is that he was, strangely, never exposed to sign language, but continually (and vainly) forced to try to speak.7 But when the “deaf and dumb” were properly approached, i.e., through sign language, they proved almost infinitely educable, and they rapidly showed an astonished world how fully they could enter into its culture and life. This wonderful circumstance—how a despised or neglected minority, practically denied human status up to this point, emerged suddenly and startlingly upon the world stage (and the later tragic undermining of all this in the following century) forms the extraordinary story that Harlan Lane tells in his two books.

  1. 1

    Isabelle Rapin is professor of pediatric neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She has worked with the deaf for many years. Her collaboration in preparing this review has been indispensable.

  2. 2

    There have been at least a half dozen major programs in England since Voices from Silent Hands (Horizon, 1980). A major new series is currently being produced by Peter Dunkeley of the BBC. Visiting England in October and November I found awareness and interest in the subject were widespread, and I could not help contrasting this situation with that in the US. At least some of the awareness has been owing to these excellent films, and to the power of good educational television. There have been some programs in the US (in particular, some excellent ones from Gallaudet College—Hands Full of Words, etc.) but I am not aware that the subject has become of national interest on the same scale.

  3. 3

    David Wright, Deafness (Stein and Day, 1969).

  4. 4

    But see the fascinating bibliography provided by Wright, pp. 200–201.

  5. 5

    See “The Effects of Early Blindness and Deafness on Cognition,” by Isabelle Rapin, in Congenital and Acquired Cognitive Disorders, edited by R. Katzman (Raven Press, 1979), pp. 189–245.

  6. 6

    Harvard University Press, 1976. See Jonathan Miller’s brilliant review in The New York Review of Books, September 16, 1976.

  7. 7

    Pierre Desloges, one of the eighteenth-century deaf writers cited in When the Mind Hears, considers that a working knowledge of sign language (usually just called “Sign”) may be acquired in six weeks. Apparently it is easier to acquire than any spoken tongue. There has, recently, been increasing use of Sign in other patients and problems, with the retarded, with the autistic (Victor, the Wild Boy, might have been either or both), with the language impaired, and with the senile. Those who have no chance of learning, or who have lost, competent speech, may still be able to acquire a very usable sign language.

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