I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey through the Science of Sound and Language by Lydia Denworth.
Dutton, Penguin Group, Random House, 2014.
Adult nonfiction/memoir, 390 pages including index.
This is the story of one mother who discovered that her third son was deaf. Since she is a science journalist, this combines her family’s personal journal with research and interviews that she dove into in an attempt to better understand her son’s world.
I did purchase this book but at a steep discount since it had been remaindered. While most of my Deaf culture/ASL reading has been from an #ownvoice or sympathetic viewpoint, I was curious as to how hearing people with no exposure to deafness or Deaf Culture react.
Thanks to this book, I did learn quite a bit about cochlear implants, and some of the audiology information was new too. While the book strives for balance in both memoir vs informative writing and hearing vs Deaf culture, neither is quite reached. The informative sections outweigh the personal, although the chapters are nicely divided in a way that makes either fairly easy to skip.
While Denworth includes Deaf perspectives from fairly early on in the book, it’s clear that they didn’t enter her personal story until much later. The audiologists, surgeons, teachers, and scientists she meets are all hearing – so is the only other mother of a deaf child she meets just after the diagnosis, who is heavily influenced toward oral methodology.
She does have a few friends who suggest ASL, but they are hearing friends familiar with it through the popularity of baby signing. Denworth had never met a Deaf adult, and while she doesn’t explicitly state so, it’s likely they were strongly encouraged to raise their son orally. It’s not until an incident leads to a total breakdown in communication that she begins to understand that Alex will always be a deaf person, and that ASL could be a useful part of their lives.
This seems to be a common journey for hearing parents of deaf or hard of hearing children, however it could be painful for a Deaf adult to read, especially the numerous times when she cites poor English language skills and discusses educational outcomes among the deaf (not taking into account access to their first language).
Denworth also allows fear of her own poor signing to prevent her from using it with Alex. This is common among parents, but studies are now showing that most children will ignore grammatical mistakes, and provided that they have access to other models (numerous in New York City), they will develop the other language just fine.
There was some swearing at points which felt out of place (it was infrequent and not necessary to the story). Some readers may also dislike the descriptions of medical procedures, although I didn’t find them upsetting. Aside from these and the hearing/Deaf issue, I didn’t notice any other triggers.
A hearing mother learning that her son is deaf is typically writing from a place of fear, and that’s not necessarily the best introduction to Deafness. While I didn’t have any major issues with the writing and there certainly is a use for this book, so many better books about hearing, Deaf culture, and being deaf exist that I can’t generally recommend this.
Hearing parents of deaf or hard of hearing children could find solace here, and those who work with said hearing parents or extended family members or friends might also consider this useful, but it doesn’t have the broader implications that the author and publisher were likely hoping. The specific information about the development of the cochlear implant was what I found most interesting and new. Most of the other concepts were familiar and I didn’t need the rehashing or biased viewpoint.