“I was calm with our newborn baby girl nestled in the crook of my arm,” Jennifer writes on the first page of her recently published memoir, If A Tree Falls: One Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard. “I hadn’t expected to be calm in new motherhood. Yet, here I was with Sophia. Soaked and happy. Anchored by her gaze.”
But when her newborn fails a hearing test a few hours later, Jennifer’s world is turned upside down. Though both Jennifer and her husband are hearing, they find out that Sophia has “severe sensorineural hearing loss,” and that the loss is probably genetic.
And thus begins the quest that Jennifer details in her book to learn more about her ancestry, understand what it was like for some of her Jewish relatives in Eastern Europe to live in silence, and decide what to do to help her child.
When Jennifer cannot find the details about her mother’s family that she seeks, she makes them up, traveling back to the 19th century to imagine her family’s struggles. These musings are interspersed throughout the book, written in the third person, offset by italics.
As Jennifer, Bill, and Sophia fumble to learn American Sign Language together, Sophia is fitted with hearing aids that cost thousands of dollars (and that she delights in taking out of her ears). The family moves to the East Coast where there is an excellent school for the deaf and Sophia gets lots of early intervention with hired tutors.
Then Jennifer and Bill’s second daughter is born.
Juliet is more profoundly deaf than Sophia, her deafness so severe that is not correctable without cochlear implants.
Jennifer is devastated.
“My baby couldn’t hear me,” she writes. “And she wasn’t looking at me either. Whatever competence I felt as a mother the second time around–I was skilled now at newborn feeding and diapering and bathing and swaddling–was undermined by Juliet’s inexplicable arching, by her distant gaze, by the unknown degree of her hearing loss …
“How were we going to relate to each other? All my worries about motherhood were back, strong as ever. With Juliet here, I’d be less available for Sophia. Juggling two, I’d be less focused than with one. And my girls’ deafness, on top of everything else, was like an enduring signpost of my own impediments to hearing, to connection and closeness.”
Though Jennifer renews her determination to learn to sign, the lessons don’t go well. Bill, who has had trouble bonding with this second daughter, sits through the weekly sessions barely moving.
“At some point Bill’s hands became cracked and torn, and no amount of lotion, cream, or even prescribed medication could heal them. It may have been the bottle washing, compounded by the New England dryness. Or it may have been my anger–at the way his hands weren’t signing with Juliet–that had its way with them.”
Jennifer and her husband agonize over what to do for their second born.
“Once again, we faced a decision between manual and oral communication approaches, between Deafness and Hearing, as we had with Sophia three years ago. But whereas Sophia’s hearing loss was ‘severe,’ Juliet’s was ‘profound.’ To be ‘oral,’ Juliet would have to undergo the cochlear implant surgery, and then, with extensive training, her ‘hearing’ would proceed electronically. Still, there were many considerations that we faced in Sophia’s case that were the same in Juliet’s: only .02 percent of people in US are fluent in American Sign Language, compared to the 99.98 percent of people who used spoken language. If we could place Juliet in the hearing world, we would be giving her the chance to communicate with the larger, hearing population. And not only with the larger population, but with Sophia, who was acquiring some Sign, but it was clear that she learned–and flourished–as a hearing, speaking, ‘oral’ child. And with us: we wanted our relationship, our intimacy, with Juliet.”
Cynthia, the family’s Deaf teacher, believes they are making the wrong decision. Here’s what happens after Jennifer tells Cynthia they have scheduled Juliet for cochlear implant surgery:
“Cynthia froze her face. Actually she froze half of it. Somehow, she immobilized the left half of her face, while the right half took on distorted, changing forms of expression. Her right eyebrow arched, her right cheek dimpled, her right lip curled down, all while the left half of her face remained expressionless and flat. I knew she was illustrating the paralysis that the implant surgery could cause. The surgery is done in the vicinity of a facial nerve, and the surgeon cited facial paralysis as a rare but possible side effect. I felt my own face freeze in response to Cynthia’s illustration, and we said a rushed goodbye.
“After that Cynthia stopped coming. She didn’t answer our emails, our faxes, or our TTY calls. Almost weekly, Sophia would ask, ‘Where’s Cynthia? What happened to Cynthia?’
“We didn’t explain to Sophia that our decision to give Juliet surgical access to sound was an offense to Cynthia. An insult in its suggestion that deafness was something to fix–eradicate, even–no matter its risks. Selfish of us, according to Cynthia, presumptuous to ‘change’ our baby, to embark on a surgery, when she was healthy and well.”
If a Tree Falls is beautiful, raw, painful, hard to read.
I found the flashbacks a little jarring and overwritten but the front story narrative is totally compelling.
I especially appreciate how honestly Jennifer explores her relationship with her mother, whose own hearing loss is made manifest by her granddaughters’.
I loaned the book to my friend, Marisa Soboleski.
Marisa’s reaction to the book was very different than mine, and she graciously gave me permission to publish it here:
I finished the book you loaned me. Jennifer writes very beautifully. She truly is a very devoted mother. Some parts were quite hard for me to swallow–seeing the way a hearing person would view a deaf child. It’s not the way I look at the world. I felt like she was very focused on her daughters’ ability to hear/speak and how they would participate as functioning members of society. I understand her fears, but most of the words she chose made it sound like her children weren’t whole (and even outright said so in one part). I am certain she intended for it to come across that way. Sometimes we don’t realize the (let me think of the english word for this–I can only think of the ASL way for this) layers of expectations we as a society put on our children.
I try to remind people to avoid using words like ‘impaired’ or ‘hearing loss’ unless the person was late-deafened. People who were born deaf, like me and the author’s two girls, haven’t lost anything. There have been discussions about deafness and how we are viewed in this society. I believe it has much to do with self-image. Some people could look at me as if I’m missing something or as if I have less of something. But in fact,-when someone doesn’t have one of their senses, all their other senses are so much stronger. I’m very aware of my surroundings. I’ve also learned where to step up to assert myself and which battles to let go of. I’ve stopped pointing to my ear and telling people that I can’t hear–and instead I’ve started telling them that I sign and communicate with my hands/body and I am pleased with the response I get now.
Culturally, we could really use a paradigm shift in the way we view things.
And that brings me to a point.
I remember doing a search on Mothering.com for anything related to deafness. I found an article a deaf woman’s lament on about how she’ll never hear her child’s voice, the birds sing, and that sort of thing. It made me frustrated that she was so focused on what we couldn’t do rather than what we CAN do…and because of that, I really wanted to write an article about how beautifully attachment parenting works for people who are deaf, blind, or disabled. I guess that will be a goal somewhere down the road. (One cool fact– the blue international breastfeeding symbol was designed by a deaf man.) (and another cool fact-there is a statue/sculpture of a little boy with the ‘i love you’ handsign in downtown ashland.)
I know that the use of invasive technology really depends on the person. It works fine for some people, as long as they have full access to whatever resource/way of communication they need. In this case, it’s my own view on insurance companies and big pharmaceutical companies and their intentions. They won’t cover accommodations like hearing aids, but will cover $40-80,000 experimental surgeries on babies that may require repetitive surgeries, infections, re-mapping, errors, recalls, and so on…and not to mention the dependency on batteries.
Nearly all of my (adult) friends who were implanted as children don’t wear them at all anymore, and wished that their parents waited until they could make that decision for themselves because they’re the ones who have to live with a scar.
Sierra can decide for herself (after extensive research) when she is much older.
I prefer to focus on her self-efficacy and esteem rather than how well she can hear or speak (that part is up to her).
Many doctors argue that the younger the child is implanted, the better the outcome. That is a myth.
In the author’s case–decisions have already been made and her kids will grow up just wonderfully. She is very involved, devoted, and passionate. The outcome will always be good–it’s not the technology or the accommodations that make up the child. It’s the investment and energy the caretaker puts in.
I see that you have traveled/lived internationally. I have as well. The way I see it, many deaf people are culturally different from your typical American–nothing more or less. I had an easier time communicating with people all over the world than I do with my own neighbor here in the US. I think it’s the exposure to various cultures and languages make people open up and connect on a different level.
This book made me realize how much I care about communicating with other people, and helped strengthen my resolve to learn to sign.
Reading about Jennifer’s struggles also saddened me, not because her girls were born deaf, but because she was so hard on herself as a mother, and so worried about how they would fare.
I won’t tell you what happens with Juliet’s surgery. For that you’ll have to read the book! But I would love to hear your thoughts on cochlear implants, learning to sign, oral versus manual communication, or what it’s like to be hearing with a deaf child or deaf with a hearing child. I hope you’ll share your ideas in the comment section below.
Disclosure: Jennifer Rosner and I met a million years ago when we were both teaching at Mt Holyoke College (she in Philosophy, I in English). She was pregnant with Juliet. I went to Juliet’s baby party when she was just a few weeks old. Jennifer sent me two free copies of the book.