Physician's novel "Four Days in Michigan" builds bridge between hearing, deaf
“Do you know anyone who’s deafblind?” asks Dr. Philip Zazove. He goes on after I shake my head, “We all know one, right — Helen Keller? When she was asked if it was worse being deaf or being blind, she said deaf, because that cuts you off from people, whereas being blind cuts you off from things. And every deafblind person I’ve known has said the same thing. But when I ask med students (whose hearing and sight are intact) which they’d prefer, they almost always say they’d rather be deaf.”
The point he is illustrating, that the communication gulf between the Deaf (more on this capitalization later) and the hearing is so wide that even a concentrated exercise in empathy has difficulty bridging it, is the subject of this Dexter family physician’s first novel, “Four Days in Michigan” (Durban House). He says that his first book, the 1993 memoir “When the Phone Rings, My Bed Shakes” (Gallaudet University Press), which details his remarkable journey from being one of the first publicly-schooled deaf kids in Chicago to one of the first deaf physicians in the country, still prompts people from all over the world to thank him and tell him how it’s helped them, and he’s come to think of its theme as “you can do it.”
But for this one, he “thought it would be nice to educate people by putting facts into a story,” helping hearing people understand “what it’s like” — to be deaf, to be a part of the Deaf community, to interact in the hearing world, to stand in a certain relation to the members of your species who happen to have one more sense available than you do.
Actually, to a certain extent it would be more accurate to say “what it was like.” Set mostly in 1942 Springville, Mich., the story spends four days with Sandra Horowitz, a young woman trying to come to terms with the fact that her deafness is really going to keep her from her lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian, while her probable fiancÃ© spends a couple of months out of town learning his family business. A head-clearing walk and her interest in the game of pool conspire to make her acquaintance with a hearing soldier named Rudy who’s about to be shipped off to Europe, and the romance that flares between the two may seem a little unlikely to modern sensibilities. But it borders on flat-out incomprehensible to the story’s other characters.
Sandra, her parents, her fiancÃ© and all of her friends are “culturally Deaf,” in which the capital D signifies that that their education, communication and social contacts primarily take place within the community of people whose hearing is impaired. Their contact with the hearing world is as limited as they can make it, and it only takes a few examples of the routine and casual use of the word “dumb” to understand why. In an effort to avoid a possible post-breakup “that’s what you get for messing around with a hearing guy,” Sandra never mentions Rudy to her friends, and the parents who clearly wish nothing but the best for her are unwavering in their belief that he isn’t it. For their part, nearly every last one of Rudy’s friends betrays his naÃ¯ve confidence in their open-mindedness, and his own anti-Semitic parents almost seem more taken aback by Sandra’s deafness than by her Jewish faith.
Some of these interactions provide the same kind of smug satisfaction I get from a good episode of “Mad Men,” one in which we get to look back at life, say, before the Americans With Disabilities Act and congratulate ourselves for embracing change so thoroughly that we’re now appalled by any reminder of how life used to be. But others, particularly between Sandra and Rudy, highlight a chasm between their experiences that can’t be resolved with any amount of goodwill, kind intentions or even wildly-blossoming passion. When Rudy casually asks a bus driver the fare amount, Sandra considers what a taxing ordeal it would have been for her to get the same information. When she mentions driving, Rudy can barely conceive of that as a safe activity for either the deaf person or those sharing the road with her. When he shares his love of poetry with her, he finds he has to start by explaining the very concept of cadence.
These differences in perspective come across even though Sandra and Rudy share a language — Sandra is an expert lip-reader whose late-deafened father has insisted on intensive speech therapy for her. But many members of the Deaf community share no language at all with their hearing neighbors: American Sign Language is not a translation of English into hand motions but rather based on a system learned at France’s first free school for the deaf in the early 19th century. Gallaudet University reports that about half of the 17- and 18-year-old Deaf students they studied are reading at the fourth-grade level.
I’m surprised when Zazove alludes to a statistic similar to this last one in the course of a conversation about helping students compose medical school admissions essays and stop him to ask why that is, since it seem like reading and writing would be minimally affected by hearing loss. Choosing his words carefully, he explains that schools for the Deaf, a powerful socializing agent for the community, have sometimes regarded English as the province of the hearing and therefore chosen instead to focus on American Sign Language. It’s a view that’s in keeping both with its slightly separatist bent and with its focus on celebrating, rather than denying or disparaging, Deafness.
When I ask what he thinks about that, Zazove constructs his answer with even more care. He isn’t Deaf: Although diagnosed with profound hearing loss at the age of 4, his parents fought to have him “mainstreamed” into Chicago Public Schools, and his job and primary relationships are all in the hearing world. Cochlear implants have rendered him considerably less deaf than he used to be, too, although getting them in adulthood has meant that his brain doesn’t receive the signals from it in the same way it would have if he had gotten them while his neural pathways were still forming. But it’s clear that he has a deep respect and affection for the community, which makes it hard to simply point to his own history and say that he thinks it’s the better path. He finally says that if a person’s goal is to be successful in the same way he has been, then he believes a firm grasp of English literacy is critical.
Both mainstreaming and medical advances have contributed to the shrinking of the Deaf community; Zazove says that it isn’t a culture in peril just yet, but it may be headed that way. Increases in hearing impairment due to the aging Baby Boomer population and damage done by loud music may well keep pace with any improvements medicine makes, leaving unchanged the statistic that 1 in 10 of us can be described by some form of the word “deaf.” It’s a big number, and if we as a society have decided that separatism is no longer the only available response to those whose auditory nerves are different from the general population’s, then we will have to find some bridge over that communication gulf if we wish to remain connected to each other. Zazove’s book is an excellent exercise in shifting perspective so that we can at least see the other side.
But his very presence is maybe a more powerful one. I begin my conversation with him with a fact I am sure will come up at some point during the interview, although I certainly had no intention of mentioning it here: that I too have moderate hearing loss for which I wear hearing aids. “Are you culturally Deaf?” he asks. No, I say with a laugh, it wasn’t diagnosed until I was 20, and I’m the deafest person I know.
The next question stumps me. “How do you know that?” As I ponder a more intelligent-sounding way to say “Because I just do,” he tells me that he is continually surprised at the number of people he meets who are clearly deaf but adamantly refuse to admit it. Or if they do admit it, he says, they don’t want anyone to know and will drive their family members crazy asking them to repeat themselves before they’ll get any help.
This strikes a chord with me, since although I never refuse to talk about my hearing loss, I have a rather inexplicable hatred of doing so and find myself unconsciously girding every muscle in my body if I think it’s going to come up, then exhaling a tense breath I didn't know I was holding when the conversation is over. Sweeping his arm in a warm gesture that includes everyone enjoying a cozy morning at Zingerman’s Next Door with us, Zazove says, “I’m willing to bet that at least one or two of the people in this room are clinically hearing impaired.”
I look around at our neighbors hunched over computers, passing through, ogling pastries and chatting with friends, then back at Zazove. “Besides us, you mean?”
He laughs. “OK. Maybe only one.”
Philip Zazove presents "Four Days in Michigan" at Nicola's Books at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 29.
Leah DuMouchel covers books for AnnArbor.com.