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March 2006
Deaf Hearing Boy: A Memoir
by R.H. Miller

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Interview with R.H. Miller

Bill Goodman, host of bookclub@ket, talked with R.H. Miller about his memoir Deaf Hearing Boy in February 2006.

Bill: Dr. Miller, thanks for coming in to talk with us.

Miller: Delighted to be here.

Bill: Why did you write this book?

Miller: I wrote the book because I had been a great admirer of another book along similar lines called A Loss for Words by Lou Ann Walker that had been published some years back. She was the child of deaf parents and lived in Indiana. I thought that this would be an opportunity for me to talk a little bit about my situation with my deaf parents. I felt that what I had experienced was unique, and I really didn’t know of anyone else who had really talked about it in the way that I thought it could be talked about. It was my intention to delay writing the book until my parents were gone, because there were some rather delicate issues that I wanted to bring up in the book. But as my parents got older and I got older, I quickly realized that this book had to be written. So I went ahead and wrote it. At that time I had planned to kind of bank the book, but an associate of mine got wind of it, and I also somehow managed to get an agent at about the same time, and very quickly the book proceeded toward publication.

Bill: This is something that obviously you lived with all of your life. And I guess the question, which you partially answered, is: Is it something that you wanted to write earlier but you, because of respect for your parents or some things that you wanted to say, didn’t think that you should publish it until the right time?

Miller: Well, I think ... You know, as I said, Lou Ann’s book, Ms. Walker’s book, really triggered my interest. And then another book that came out not too long ago by Professor Leonard Davis—I think it’s called My Sense of Silence, also a book by a CODA (as we use the term—child of deaf adults)—also kind of triggered my interest, too, because he talked about his parents. Of course, he grew up in New York City, and he also had a very different experience from mine, but there were points of contact between the two. I really did feel that this was something that I wanted to talk about. I really began the book quite naïvely, believing that I had had a certain kind of life, which I talk about in the book, and then I discovered as I wrote the book—this was a kind of talking therapy, in a way—that I had really lived a very different kind of life. I had to basically restructure my whole interpretation of my childhood and adolescence as I began to think a little more deeply about the things that I had gone through.

Bill: As I said, this is something that you lived, and you wrote from that source within yourself—your upbringing and your growth and your relationships. Is it something that welled up in you in such a way, at times, that you were frustrated that you weren’t able to write it or had decided to put it off? I mean, keeping it inside ... It was so personal to you. Was that difficult?

Miller: Not really. As I said, I had a kind of naïve perspective on my childhood, and somehow I grew up with the idea that there was nothing particularly unusual about my life. I think that there was a tremendous amount of suppression involved—there’s no doubt about that—but my parents were equally of that attitude. They never felt there was anything particularly unusual about being deaf. They were just different from other people. But in practically every other way they considered themselves to be quite normal. Of course, that in itself was a certain kind of delusion, I guess you could say. They didn’t realize that they had themselves suppressed certain aspects of their own lives as disabled people.

Bill: You said you came at it with some naïveté. When did you lose that and realize that there was more to your life and your life as a CODA?

Miller: When I wrote the first draft of the book, very early, in almost the beginning pages as I began to talk about the background of my parents and my parents’ parents—that is, my grandparents, who were hearing persons—I realized that my grandparents had really defined their children, my mother and my father, in particular ways and that, as a generation of Americans who didn’t really quite understand the psychology of the deaf, they looked at their own children as somehow not quite normal. And yet their children, as they were growing up, were determined to identify themselves as normal, because I think that they understood that they really couldn’t live their lives without doing that. So there was a lot of prejudice, I think, on the part of my grandparents. I don’t think there was anything particularly hurtful in it, in and of itself, but there was a lot of prejudice. I think that they looked on my parents, for example, as mentally deficient to some extent, and that this was simply a result of their deafness. I think what they didn’t really understand was that this was a matter of language deprivation. My mother and my father never really had any kind of language experience on a sophisticated level until they went off to the institution, where they were taught what is called speech reading, or what a lot of people refer to as lip reading. But they also learned, as I said, this clandestine language—this thing we call American Sign Language, which they were forbidden to use in school.

Bill: Tell me more about the sign language aspect of it: why they were forbidden and how you communicated with them through sign language.

Miller: Well, I think this goes back to the latter part of the 19th century, when there was a shift, really, from an approach to deaf education which did stress the use of sign language to an attempt to try to develop some type of oral method of communication on the part of the deaf. I think there was a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of harm that was done to deaf children in this effort to use a strictly oral approach. I think there are certainly tremendous opportunities in the oral approach as well as in the other approach, which we call the manual approach. But at the time that my parents were in school, the emphasis was on what we call “oralism.” The idea was that deaf children, and deaf people generally, will never really be a part of the culture, which is predominantly Hearing, unless they can function along with hearing people—and of course that means trying to use and trying to understand spoken English. What the deaf recognize, and have always recognized, is that we’ve had signing systems from time immemorial. What they realized was that they could have a language experience much more quickly with sign language. Even though the school told their parents ... For example, none of my grandparents really had any facility with sign language, and that was a result, I think, of the system of education, which basically told the parents, “Don’t use signs. We’re trying to teach your children to function in a spoken society, and if you sign to them, you’ll simply defeat that purpose.”

Bill: Tell me, then, about the system that you worked out with your parents—sometimes clandestinely from your grandparents, I understand. And if you would, demonstrate how the sign language you used with your parents might be different from the taught sign language that is sort of a universal practice.

Miller: Well, I don’t know whether I can do that. I mean, I can use the universal; I can use, of course, American Sign Language. But that kind of home signing that my parents and I had was such a part of my early childhood that it is completely lost to me. Of course signing as such ... I just came this weekend from visiting with my parents, my brother and I. My father’s had some serious health problems, and my brother and I, my mom, and my dad sat in the living room and signed while a visiting nurse was just sort of amazed by this facility. I think what people don’t realize is that American Sign Language is a language. It’s not simply a code. It’s an actual language with a grammar of its own and certain signalers in the grammar that are just as functional as the kinds of things we have in spoken English.

Bill: The language that you practiced when you were a child with your parents—did it create a special bond between you and your parents? And did you feel you had to keep it from your grandparents?

Miller: No, there was never that. I think my grandparents began to realize rather quickly when they saw ... I was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. So as I was growing up, here was this little 3-year-old, 4-year old kid signing. I think my grandparents quickly realized that they had missed out on something very important to the bond that could have existed between them and their children. But they were too old and too embarrassed to really try to learn some signing. Now, my mother’s mother did, but she was the only one of the four. My dad’s parents never made any attempt, and my mother’s father never made any attempt, either. But my maternal grandmother, Grandma Sowers, as I refer to her, she really did make an effort, and so did my mom’s two hearing sisters make an effort to do it. But beyond that, there was really no attempt to try to learn it.

Bill: Were there times when you were growing up, maybe when you got into adolescence, that you yourself became embarrassed about your parents? Did you feel uncomfortable when you were with the Hearing community and you were with your parents? Was there some reflection in the book about some of those feelings?

Miller: Well, I think every CODA, every child of deaf adults, shares a kind of feeling of guilt, I guess, as you interact with the Hearing community and you realize you have a very unusual kind of life and a very unusual kind of background. But in my own personal experience ... I talked about this with my three brothers. We all agreed that whatever there was of that, we lost very quickly. We became extremely aggressive in announcing, almost, or identifying that we came from a deaf family, so there would not be the sort of surprise where friends of ours would suddenly discover that we had deaf parents. And since we were constantly used as interpreters for our parents with hearing persons, there was never any problem about that. I think that whatever there was of that in my life, any ambivalence I had for my parents, I somehow understood that this was something I was not supposed to feel, and that I was supposed to be proud of my parents and I was supposed to treat them as if they were members of the community—hearing, deaf, whatever.

Bill: But there were repercussions from that. When you describe about dating ... The parents of the person you were dating would suddenly think, “We’re going to have a problem if these two ever get together and have children; they’re going to be deaf children.”

Miller: Yes, and this is an example of something that I learned as I was writing the book, because I never realized that when I was going through it. I just thought, “Well, you know, I just strike out a lot.” What I really discovered from reading the experience of other CODAs is that there was this kind of stigma attached to being the child of deaf parents and that there was this fear. It was expressed by my own in-laws when I was dating my wife. My mother-in-law was fairly straightforward about it and said something about that she worried about my wife, Diane, having a deaf child, and I basically was kind of shocked. I hadn’t thought about this as being a problem, and I kind of passed over it. But as I looked back and thought about what Lou Ann Walker had to say and what Leonard Davis had to say and Ruth Sidransky and some other writers who had written books about being children of deaf adults, I suddenly realized that yes, that was the problem. I was considered bad marriage material, I guess you would say.

Bill: How far have we come and how far do we have to go as a society in learning to deal with, talk to, treat, school, educate hearing-impaired persons?

Miller: Well, I think that we have come a tremendous way. I really do. The world my parents grew up in is totally different than the world that deaf children grow up in today. They have all kinds of opportunities, and the attitude toward American Sign Language has changed. And we have, also, technological developments like cochlear implants that bridge the separation between spoken English and American Sign Language. And what I’m seeing, particularly in movies, for example ... The one that sticks out in my mind is Mr. Holland’s Opus, with the musician who has a deaf child. That movie reflects current thinking about educating the deaf, in which there is a kind of melding of the oral tradition and the manual tradition, so that we can really enhance the language experience of these deaf kids. Because that’s really the key, is getting them into the language. I don’t think we’re fully educated in what it means to be deaf, but I do think the situation is much, much better than it was. My parents agree with that, too.

Bill: I’ve asked you to look at a selection. Would you tell us what you’re going to read from and read for us, if you will?

Miller: I’m going to read a passage from the very end of the book. I had another passage in mind, but I think this one maybe speaks to the issue of the conflict in my family between being deaf, using sign language, and suchlike. And this is a passage that describes the funeral of my dad’s mother, Grandma Amy.

It is June 4, 1973, a Monday, the day of Grandma Amy’s funeral and the day before Diane’s and my 13th wedding anniversary. As we prepare to drive to the funeral home in Oakwood, the family gathers at the farmhouse where my parents still live. This occasion is the first time my brothers and I have all been together in several years. John is back from his Army service in Korea, and Dick and Art have both returned safely from their tours of duty in Vietnam. Because of my blind eye and my age, I am the only brother to be passed up by the military. I am deeply anti-war, but discreetly avoid the topic. Diane and I have driven up from Louisville, where I am now an associate professor at the university.

Grandma is laid out in a billowy peach-colored bit of chiffon, quite out of keeping with her preference for plain garments. Several people comment on the skill of the undertaker. “She looks just like she did 20 years ago, just like she’s sleeping.” She does look more like herself than she did in those last years at the nursing home. Uncle Will Miller, Grandma’s brother-in-law, has come from Bellevue, driven over by his daughter and Dad’s cousin Betty Burson. He is still hale at the age of 92 and will live on for almost six more years. I wonder how he has lived so long when his brother Henry, my grandfather, died in his 40s.

Mom asks me whether I will interpret for her, Dad, Aunt Dorothy, and Uncle Warren, and I agree. I sit on a wooden chair next to Reverend Eichenauer of the Junction Bible Christian (formerly Methodist) Church, a pleasant man. But unfortunately, he knows nothing about my grandmother and keeps asking me for bits of information about her.

As I begin to interpret, I realize that I have forgotten the signs for Christ and God and holy and the other host of religious words I used to know, but gradually they come back to me. As I sign, I notice that not only my parents and my aunt and uncle but also everyone else is watching me instead of the preacher. I begin to realize that, through signing, his clichéd utterances take on an eloquence they do not have in the vocalized world and that, somehow, the gestures give a spiritual meaning to the voicings, as if I am speaking in tongues through my hands to a Hearing world that can truly understand me. How ironic it is, Grandma, that you are celebrated in death by a language you could never come to terms with in life.

Bill: Very nice. And that’s certainly appropriate to what we discussed.

Miller: Yes, I really think it does get at that separation of worlds and how unfortunate it was that they didn’t come together.

Bill: Thank you very much for reading, and thank you very much for coming in.

Miller: Thank you very much.

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