Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2019

Hearing Maud, by Jessica White

Hearing Maud, a Journey for a Voice is a most interesting hybrid: not quite a memoir, not quite a biography of a mother and her daughter, and not quite a survey of a pioneering Australian female author. It is not quite any of these things, but it is more than the sum of its parts.  This is the blurb:

Hearing Maud: a Journey for a Voice is a work of creative non-fiction that details the author’s experiences of deafness after losing most of her hearing at age four. It charts how, as she grew up, she was estranged from people and turned to reading and writing for solace, eventually establishing a career as a writer.

Central to her narrative is the story of Maud Praed, the deaf daughter of 19th century Queensland expatriate novelist Rosa Praed. Although Maud was deaf from infancy, she was educated at a school which taught her to speak rather than sign, a mode difficult for someone with little hearing. The breakup of Maud’s family destabilised her mental health and at age twenty-eight she was admitted to an asylum, where she stayed until she died almost forty years later. It was through uncovering Maud’s story that the author began to understand her own experiences of deafness and how they contributed to her emotional landscape, relationships and career.

In the prologue, White explains the Greek concept of pharmakon, meaning that something can be both a poison and a cure. As a four-year-old, she contracted meningitis, and the antibiotics that saved her life, damaged the nerves of her cochlea, leaving her with limited hearing only in one ear.  But, she says, deafness can also be a poison and a cure, and the way the pendulum swung in favour of one or the other depended on the time and the culture in which the deaf person lived.  In this book White explores the contrast between the limited agency that 19th century Maud Praed had over her life, with her own.  For White, deafness has led to being a writer: her insularity has made her an avid reader and an acute observer of people.  Although there are difficulties and she questions some of the decisions her parents made on her behalf, she is independent, and she has a fulfilling life as an academic and a writer.

[Some of these difficulties should not occur.  There will, unfortunately, always be ignorant or difficult or selfish individuals who make things more difficult for the disabled than they need to be, but institutional disregard for legally-mandated facilities is something else again.  I was shocked to read that over an eight year period, Southbank Cinema Brisbane had at the time of this book’s publication, no hearing loop or other technology to enable deaf people to hear film soundtracks.  If this is still the situation, the owners and managers of this cinema should be ashamed of themselves for this discriminatory state of affairs in their state of the art — wheelchair accessible cinemas.  I have emailed them (and Palace, and Village) to find out which cinemas are hearing loop enabled: you don’t have to be deaf to care about this.  All of us can pressure our cinemas with a simple online query; as White’s audiologist once told her, ‘If you complain, you make it easier for the next deaf person who comes after you.’ (p.185).  If everyone reading this review took five minutes to pester their cinemas, things would change. The discrimination needs to be called out, and if necessary reported to state discrimination authorities.   There is no good reason why deaf people should be excluded from popular culture like this.  It’s completely unnecessary.]

Ok, off my soapbox…

For those who haven’t come across it before, White explains the issue of signing v speech for deaf people.  You can see it in practice in the excellent ABC series You can’t Ask That: there is vivacity, fluency and confidence in the language of the participants who sign (translated for the viewers); there are also participants who speak easily and clearly while others struggle to produce speech that hearing viewers can understand.  What White makes clear is that there is enormous effort involved in speaking for deaf people: Maud, whose mother Rosa was influenced by contemporary beliefs about what was best, was taught to speak despite having no hearing at all, but she lost this ability when institutionalised because there was no one to continue teaching her.  What makes this doubly tragic was that she retained the ability to write, and her letters from the asylum show that, at least in the beginning, she was still lucid enough to express herself and beg for help.

On the other hand, while the Deaf* community offers a sense of confidence and belonging, writing — which means so much to White and her sense of identity —  is ‘foreign’ to it:

For those who sign, writing is foreign because sign language has no written counterpart.  Spoken English also has tricks tucked into it, such as the silent ‘p’ in ‘psalm’, that don’t correlate with what is on the page.  Some deaf people are understandably resistant to a language that, as scholar Jennifer Esmail points out, ‘carries its own pejorative resonances for terms such as deaf, dumb and mute.’  (p.191)

I’m guessing, but perhaps it would be like trying to learn to write French, or Arabic, (or whatever) without already knowing the structures and sounds of it from speaking and listening to it. Somewhat like the difficulty people have learning character-based languages?

However — because her parents were determined that White should learn to communicate in a hearing world — it is hard-won speech and lip-reading (which is exhausting) that enables White to negotiate her hearing world.  She travels independently, she studies in the UK and US, and although there are many moments of intense loneliness and exclusion, she eventually finds a soulmate.   OTOH she rejects cochlear implants, though I won’t reproduce the arguments for and against here.

The structure of the book traverses time and space, not necessarily chronologically, and this is a little confusing in places.  However, this weaving of White’s memories and discoveries over time is like the way we interact with our friends.  We do not discover who they are and what they care about in a neat and tidy chronological way; we learn about them as issues and ideas crop up, in untidy but stimulating conversations.  So I liked this way of ‘meeting’ Jessica White, and of learning so much about the reality of life as a deaf person successfully navigating a world that isn’t as accommodating as it ought to be.

I’ll conclude with this episode, that follows her account of her father’s determination to hatch some guineafowl:

My father paused in his work, watching them too.  ‘Look at that, Jess. It just goes to show there’s no such word as “can’t”. If you really put your mind to something, you’ll achieve it.’

I believed my father. His words took me to America and England, and meant I never gave up on trying to make it into print.  I believe him still, but I also understand now that my determination has a huge emotional and physical cost.  People might read my story and think it’s inspiring.  If they do, they should remember the disability activist Stella Young, who coined the term ‘inspiration porn.’ People with disabilities aren’t put on earth to inspire other people; we’re just trying to get on with our day in a world that isn’t designed for us. (p. 236)

*White explains the difference between Deaf as capitalised, and not.  It has political connotations among deaf people, too complex to go into here.

PS As an aside, as well as the many other things I learned from this book, I discovered the existence of ‘finding aids’.  Researchers will already know what these are, but I didn’t.  White was pleased to find some when she was researching Rosa Praed, because they’re invaluable when there’s a huge mass of material in an archive.  A finding aid is a tool containing detailed, indexed, and processed information about a specific collection of records within an archive.  Needless to say, I’ve never come across one when I’ve been researching anything, possibly because my subjects haven’t been important enough or because the archive hasn’t warranted one!

You can find out more about Jessica White at her website. And in a remarkable piece of synchronicity, you can also read Bill’s review at The Australian Legend, published on the very same day as mine!

#Transparency Statement: Over the years Jessica White has been a great supporter of my ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, publicising it on the Australian Women Writers website and retweeting about it as well, but I have never met her and my review is not influenced at all by this minor connection.

Update, the next morning 2/8/19: I’ve had a pleasing reply from Palace Cinemas:

All Palace auditoriums are setup with the Fidelio headset & neck loop options.  These receivers are available at the box office when tickets are purchased.  The neck loop option works in conjunction with hearing aids + the headset has adjustable volume to boost the dialogue levels.

Simply check in with a member of staff at the box office and they will be able to issue you with the Fidelio headset or neck loop option for you.

I’m still waiting on a reply from Village, and have had a reply from Admin Cineplex Australia, but it’s only about the cinema at Victoria Point.  So I’ve asked them to forward my query on to Head Office, because I want to know about all their cinemas, that is, I want to know whether they are compliant across their chain, as Palace obviously is.

Update, 6/8/19 I’ve had a reply from Village Cinemas which appears to my inexpert eye to be fully compliant with its Melbourne cinemas:

We offer closed captions for a variety of movies at our various locations, where a small LED display fits into the theatre seat cup holder and displays the captions for the guest, while for other guests, it is a normal session.

There are also open captions where essentially subtitles are displayed on screen for the duration of the film (so every patron can see it) and we liase with the deaf community through an organisation called Open Captions Australia to co-ordinate these sessions for popular films at select locations. Any requests for future open caption sessions would need to be done through them.

The full list of sessions and further information can be found on our website:

Closed captions – https://villagecinemas.com.au/movies/closed-caption-films

Open captions – https://villagecinemas.com.au/movies/open-caption-films

The Melbourne specific branch of Open Captions Australia – https://www.facebook.com/ocmelb/

We also offer audio description sessions, which are available to view here: https://villagecinemas.com.au/movies/audio-description-films

Closed captions and audio description services are available for specific sessions at most of our cinemas, including Southland, whereas open captions are only at certain locations.

Update 8/8/19 I asked Jessica to run her eye over these responses and she says that Village and Palace are doing the right thing.  So that just leaves Cineplex, whose silence is starting to sound unsatisfactory.  Time for a letter to Head Office, cc’d to the Human Rights Commissioner, I think…

Author: Jessica White
Title: Hearing Maud, a Journey for a Voice
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia), 2019, 269 pages
ISBN: 9781760800383
Source: Bayside Library

Available direct from UWAP and from Fishpond: Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice

 


Responses

  1. Well, thanks for the mention. Are we commenting to each other simultaneously as well. Good on you for stirring up the cinemas, it never occurred to me. And good on Jess for putting herself out there to make the case for deaf people generally.

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    • Not quite simultaneously because I had to whizz out to physio straight after publishing, and then some domestic duties intervened as well!

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  2. I will ask my local cinema next time I attend. My father had very poor hearing for the last decade or more before his passing and it was very difficult to access support that really helped him. We have been so neglectful of the reality of the disabled and at times disgraceful in our awareness. I have a daughter who is legally blind and she has to deal with some awful situations even after informing authorities that letters are not appropriate communication they still continue to arrive. And others will respond by saying you don’t look blind as if she is misleading them. The progress in technology while beneficial for some has not shifted the ignorance that still prevails.Thanks again for bringing this book to our attention.

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    • You know, just today, as I was walking down to physio, I came across a car parked across the pavement. The driver was just about to go inside the house, when I asked him if he would do me a favour. I explained that there’s an old gent who uses a mobility scooter who lives nearby, and there are residents in wheelchairs from the group accommodation house in our street who need to access the pavement. Could he please move his car and park it on the road?

      No problem, he said, and he moved it straight away. He was a nice man — he just hadn’t thought about the mums with their prams who struggle when they have to go across the grass and onto the service road and then back up again on the other side if the pavement is blocked, and he certainly hadn’t thought about the increasing incidence of people with mobility problems. And if I hadn’t happened along when I did, he would have gone on doing it without thinking anything of it. It’s just a little thing, but it’s another example of how we all need to be a bit more aware of what we’re doing.

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  3. I’ve just read Bill’s review too.
    It seems like an interesting book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You are so right about speaking out in a friendly manner for most times you do get a positive response. And even if you don’t what does it matter for that person may talk about it to someone else. If we have the good fortune to be able bodied we must also realise some of us are not and walking in the neighbourhood is a very good way of knowing there are different folks out there not so fortunate. I will recommend it to my librarian daughter too.

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    • I’m sure that most of the time it’s just thoughtlessness, and I know that I’m probably guilty of it too sometimes and I’d rather be told than to go on doing it unaware.

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  5. […] References: Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987 (here) David Marr, Patrick White: A Life, Random, Sydney, 1991 Other Reviews: Lisa at ANZLL (here) […]

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  6. […] a voice.  In tracing the life of Maud Praed, deaf daughter of the Australian author Rosa Praed, (see my review) White sees with clarity the difficult decisions that her own parents had to make about […]

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  7. Wonderful review, Lisa (and great advocacy, too!). I’m looking forward to reading this.

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    • If I don’t get a satisfactory reply from Village and Cineplex by the end of next week, I’ll write them a proper letter. With a copy to the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, of course…it’s interesting how that little CC at the end of a letter gets prompt action, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] bought 24 books this year, 17 of them by women, but I’ll give a #ShoutOut to my library with Hearing Maud by Jessica […]

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