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

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Program Transcript

Bill: R.H. Miller grew up as a CODA, a child of deaf adults. In his affectionate and revealing memoir, Deaf Hearing Boy, Miller peels away the layers of a not-so-normal and sometimes complicated young life as the oldest son of deaf parents. Deaf Hearing Boy by Louisvillian R.H. Miller is our topic of conversation today. bookclub@ket starts now.

Welcome to all to the bookclub. To Amy Williams, who is a graphic artist—glad to have you back with us. Bernie DeVille is in a reading position of his own at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington. We’re glad to have you along with us. And Edmund August, professor at McKendree College in Louisville, teaching English and some other things—you’ve been here before, and we’re glad to have you back.

If I ask you to give an overview of Deaf Hearing Boy by R.H. Miller, what comes to your mind first of all?

Edmund: Well, two things. One thing is the story, the chronology of the boy growing up. But mostly I think it’s about the almost impossible relationship between children who are trying to deal with the whole world, most of which hears, but their parents don’t. It’s just incredible.

Bill: And he does a good job, in your estimation, of explaining some of these difficulties he had as a youth?

Edmund: Oh yes, I think he does, and he also does a good job not tipping his hand. The way he talks about his youth, he didn’t really know what his life was about. I think there’s one passage, a little later in the book, that pretty well explains the concept of the book:

As I grew up, I became more and more alienated from my parents, which is natural as we assert our independence, but I also was growing less and less comfortable with my parents and their Deaf world, which daily became less my world as I began to recognize that my life lay in the land of the Hearing. The experience is one common to all CODAs, who, if they deny it, are denying the very conflict that defines them.

And that’s what I think the book is really about: Bob Miller defining himself.

Bill: Well, I think you said it very aptly—that it’s a book about his growing up, but it’s also a book about the Deaf world, the Hearing world, and where these two sometimes come into conflict. Amy, what did you think about it?

Amy: I thought it was a very good book. It seems defined to me by struggle. There were the differences between country life and city life; these were wrapped up in the story of the differences between Deaf and Hearing. There were pre-war and postwar differences—just completely different worlds between the three generations that were all in one area. And all the struggles that they all had with each other set it apart from other people’s stories. Lots of his growing up sounded like any teenager growing up, so throwing the deaf parents in there made it unique. But also those other differences, combined with the type of writing it was—a memoir of someone who I hadn’t been interested in before and had never heard of before—made it a really good read.

Bill: Bernie?

Bernie: “Struggle” would be the best word for it. CODAs seem to run into the fact at a very young age that there are different worlds. A lot of it is struggling to build your own world in the midst of the Deaf world, the Hearing world, and the parameters that they set for you. One of my favorite things that I found in common with him is that when he was living in Toledo, he would retreat to the library, the art classes, and reading—and his parents didn’t have a big library—but that became the way he would define his world when he didn’t have to interact with anybody else. And that’s kind of where he started building his core, where he would spring from. I think that’s something a lot of CODAs do. And strangely enough, in the rest of the world, a lot of CODAs really don’t talk to each other about these topics. It’s almost a solitary thing.

Bill: And you said, when you began to speak, that you had something in common with R.H. Miller. Tell us why.

Bernie: I always retreated into books; that’s how I wound up in bookselling now. It allowed me to explore, to define, without conflict—without having to translate to somebody else a hard concept that maybe I wasn’t even ready for.

Bill: But also, as a CODA yourself ... Your mother [was] deaf from birth, and your father, I think, from the age of 22. But of course all the time that you were in the house with him ...

Bernie: Exactly. And they both taught at Kentucky School for the Deaf. I was constantly surrounded by that world and dealing with my friends in the Hearing world. It became a place where I didn’t have to worry about anybody but me and trying to figure out who I was. And it seemed like he was going through the exact same thing during that period in Toledo.

Bill: So what kind of picture do you get of Bobby Miller, of R.H. Miller as a young lad growing up? Leaving sort of the CODA aspect of it aside for a minute ... I think, Amy, you said, a regular kid growing up?

Amy: It seemed like it. He seemed to push his boundaries, the way any kid would, and had a little bit easier time because he could pull fast ones on his parents. The first thing I thought when I read a blurb of the book was, how do two deaf parents hear their child cry in the middle of the night? or something like that. He didn’t really address that, but I never thought about how he would have to interpret during a teacher-parent conference. He’s the one that the teacher has to tell what’s wrong with him, and then he has to tell his mom, and he’s in the middle of that, which a child probably shouldn’t be. So you could see how he could manipulate situations to the best of his abilities for that age.

Bill: Well, let me tell you, if you don’t already know just from reading, that R.H. Miller grew up to be Dr. Robert Miller, professor emeritus at the University of Louisville, and he stopped by the other day. And I got an opportunity to talk with him about his growing up. Here’s what he had to say:

R.H. Miller (in pre-taped interview): I somehow 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, themselves, had 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?

R.H. 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.

Bill: There was real conflict, he says not hurtful in nature. But I think the book tells us that there were certainly some problems within that family unit with the grandparents, who were hearing, and his parents.

Edmund: And really I don’t understand why he was saying that it wasn’t hurtful, because there are lots of places in the book that show that it was indeed hurtful, especially to his father. His stepfather, or second stepfather, or third, as he sometimes called him, never really gave him the respect that you would give any adult. He treated him very often like a dimwitted child, even when he was right, which apparently was a lot of the time. The impression I got was that his father was quite a bit brighter than his grandfather. There was a kind of irony in that.

Amy: Or at least more educated. There was one part where there was a miscommunication between the step-grandfather and the father of the author about where to put the corn on the farm, and the grandfather spelled creek completely wrong and it looked like another totally different word, crib instead of crick. And I thought, how difficult, when writing is your means of communication and you’re not even writing well to communicate with the person. It just seemed that there was so much frustration throughout the story, and that sort of thing.

Bill: Here’s a very brief piece from page 86 where he talks about the intelligence factor:

No matter how often Dad “surprised” Grandpa with his intelligence or his extraordinary skills, Grandpa never seemed to be able to grasp the truth that Deaf people were simply Hearing people who could not hear, whose intellectual development was hindered by the privations brought on by delayed and limited language development and by poor schooling.

He immediately addressed that and recognized that as he was growing up. And Bernie, also, R.H. Miller spoke to us about the aspect of being normal, almost as if it were in quotations. Was there a struggle, do you think, for Bob to grow up as a “normal” child of “normal” parents? Or do you think, as he said, he really didn’t realize it until later?

Bernie: I don’t think you really realize how much you struggle until later. “Normal” is something that at that age ... What he went through, what I think I went through, was [that] you weren’t looking at yourself with your own eyes. You were trying to figure out how everyone around you—your friends in the Hearing world, your parents in the Deaf world, your other relatives who weren’t deaf and maybe didn’t understand deafness—you were trying to figure out how they were looking at you. And that was how you defined yourself, rather than trying to figure out what was going on within, and it generates almost your entire world for you.

Bill: I think, also, in the book we learn ... If there is a third part of the book for me, it was about learning about life in those times and the travel they had between farm and city and back to farm. Talk a little bit about that: what you remember, and if you have any pieces that really display that. I think there were times when he very clearly writes about what a struggle it was within the family.

Edmund: He was really caught in that struggle, in that moving back and forth, too. There were several factors there. The economic factor: The Depression made it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to live in the city, and yet he says that a lot of the other deaf people kind of weathered it and stayed there and became, if not prosperous, at least self-sufficient again, whereas they moved to the farm and theirs was almost less than a subsistence living. They were really at the mercy of the grandparents. There was also that division between the character of the mother and the father. The father was independent and satisfied with being alone, and the mother was just simply desperate for social acceptance.

Bill: Do you feel like sometimes Miller was in the middle of all of that?

Amy: Oh yes. I felt sorry for him. At the end of the book I really came to like him; I thought he was a really good guy. He was funny; he was very insightful in some parts. But he put up with so many different pulls in so many different directions. And for him to even end up having his own kind of, “This is what I like; this is what I want to do” is pretty amazing. When he started off, he loved going to the farm, when he was younger, where he could be with hearing adults who were taking care of him. Then as he got older and his parents were living in Toledo, he missed his friends in the city and doing things in the city. Then he had to move to the farm and actually start doing chores and go to the one-room schoolhouse, where he didn’t really fit in. There was just so much difference in that growing-up time for him. It was very interesting.

Bernie: I think it was also [interesting] how well the deaf education system prepared them for life. I mean, they went to boarding schools. It doesn’t teach them a lot about how to manage money in the city, how to do the day-to-day chores on the farm, and for that matter, even how to parent. Where were their examples?

Amy: I thought that as well. How did they relate to their children, having not grown up relating to their parents in a very good way, it seemed?

Bill: He had a hard time when they ... As you said a moment ago, Bernie, about living in the city, and being sort of driven to the library or the bookstore ... Bob Miller did that, too, and felt, even as a youngster, much more alive there. He could lose himself in books and art. And he was quite good at all of that. Then when he went back to the farm, he was really lost there for a while, and that was of course when their lifestyle was ... In fact, he uses the term “bleak,” because they were having such a struggle.

Edmund: There was a change there, too, in his thinking about his grandparents, because his grandparents were drawing Social Security, and they had this 50-50 deal on the assets of the farm and the products of the farm. But the grandparents had Social Security and their half and lived fairly well. But his parents just weren’t making it. And one of the other things that I found really telling there is the point where he realized that every accomplishment he ever had was a reflection on them, on his parents. That’s a lot of responsibility to have to carry; that’s a lot of guilt to have to shoulder.

Bill: You mentioned the school a minute ago, in the country. It was the Sherry School, just a one-room school. If you will permit me ... Because we can talk about the book in terms of CODAs and hearing and deaf parents, [but] it is also, as we have said, very well written, and the descriptions give you a real idea:

Sherry School was primitive in many ways. Its bow to technology was a blackboard, a few old maps, and portraits of Washington and Lincoln. This center of culture, which is really all we had by way of culture, was a long way away from the school, art museum, and public library I had been able to escape to in Toledo. All four grades were in the one room, with about five to six students in each grade. We sat at wooden double desks with inkwells that were not used now that ballpoint pens had been invented. We carried our lunches in metal lunch boxes that held thermoses of milk in their deep lids and kept them on shelves at the back of the school room. We hung our coats on pegs also at the back of the room, and during snowy winter days we laid our cheap, cotton work gloves to dry over the edge of the metal jacket that surrounded the coal stove.

So we find not only that there are some other humorous places in it, descriptions of his past—although I would say a large percentage of it is about this conflict and about growing up—he’s also a good writer, I think. Don’t you, Bernie?

Bernie: Beyond a doubt. His command of the language is really, really strong. There are passages that are just absolutely lyrical, as well as his ability to communicate, kind of, the anguish he felt as he watched his parents argue about whether to go ... whether to live in the city or go back to the country. Then, kind of that whole period where his parents divorced briefly, then got beyond it and almost pretended it never happened.

Amy: Very interesting.

Edmund: The narration is very interesting, too. It sets up a different duality that almost reflects the hearing/non-hearing thing, in that he has these passages interspersed through the whole thing that, unlike the main text, which is written in past tense, are written, even though they deal with past events, in present tense.

Amy: It’s reliving memories, kind of, in between these broad ideas about how he grew up and how he felt. Then you have very specific stories about a situation somehow related to that.

Bill: If we could show you a page or two, and we can’t, but the viewer would see that it’s set in a different type, also. You mentioned, and we talked a little bit about, and he mentioned it too in the interview, about the signing part of this. Bernie, you and I have talked a little bit about that. Miller will tell you that there was a conflict, even 30, 40, 50 years ago within the Deaf community about whether to sign, when to sign, signing out in public ... Talk a little bit about that if you would.

Bernie: A lot of it boils down to mainstreaming. Are you going to educate them orally, teach them to read lips so they can interact with the Hearing world?

Bill: Oralism, I think that’s called.

Bernie: Exactly. Or are you going to teach them ASL, American Sign Language, to enable them to function more completely within the Deaf world? For deaf people, ASL is definitely a more complete form of communication, but it puts that barrier there between the Hearing and the Non-Hearing world.

Bill: And it remains a conflict today?

Bernie: Yes, definitely.

Edmund: And it’s complicated, I think, too, because ... I don’t know if it’s still occurring, but there was a movement, too, to make a shift from American Sign Language to exact sign language. I had my first experience with that years ago when I was teaching at [Jefferson Community College]. I had a student, a beautiful young lady, who was deaf from birth, and the first paper of hers that I read was just horrendous because ... That’s when I learned that American Sign Language isn’t ... People think that it’s a replacement for words, but it’s like any other kind of language; it’s conceptual. She had never been pushed to write. She had communicated: She was a good lip reader, and she was a good signer. She had a translator there for me, since I couldn’t read her sign, who told me she signed with an accent. She was from near Harlan, and he said that she definitely signed with a southeastern Kentucky accent.


Bill: I would like to see that.

Edmund: Well, I’m sure I saw it [laughing], but I just couldn’t recognize it.

Bernie: A big hurdle for any deaf writer to get over is that we are very used to reading and the written form. We’ve been trained in papers. They did not learn to speak sign in exact English, so that it becomes almost really a foreign language for them to write for the academic world, and they don’t even really start it until 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th grade. By the time you get them to high school, by the time they get to college, it’s a real challenge.

Bill: Yeah. On page 146, he says—and this is reflecting back on more recent years under the title “Closure: 1999-2002”—he writes:

Most of all, I miss the use of sign language. Over the years, I have seen my skills decline. My parents never did fully immerse us in ASL and depended on a combination of oral methods and signing, a kind of home signing, probably to protect their privacy and because their Hearing families told them that ASL would stunt the language development of their children. As a result, my communication with my parents always has an aura of the infantile about it, and when I talk to them, I feel as if I have become a little boy, speaking to my parents in a kind of child language.

I think that’s written so tenderly, so lovingly. And one of the nicest, shortest (and I will not read it) passages at the very end—I’m not sure I could get through it—is when he goes back and sits with his dying younger brother, and as he’s leaving the room, the brother signs, in their own language, “I love you.” Now these are two hearing brothers, but his brother, who was very ill at the time, signed, “I love you.” And I think Miller realized the bond and connectedness between those two as if he’d never felt that before, because he was quite a bit younger.

I said to you before we started that this is probably not one of the books that I would go into Joseph-Beth Booksellers and choose off the shelf, but I think it’s really powerful. Don’t you, Bernie?

Bernie: Beyond a doubt. The strength lies both in the fact that everything here is real and the fact that he has enough command of the language to bring it to life for us. Even if you aren’t familiar with the situations, the experiences, he brings it off the page in such a way that you’re enthralled, you’re caught up, and you don’t put it down. It feels almost like you’re living it. The struggles, and when his parents are fighting—and when the deaf fight, it’s not quiet.

Amy: It’s not subtle, either.

Bernie: It’s not quiet, not subtle. And he brings it to life so vividly for me, having lived through some of that. And you could tell when my parents were fighting. You could see it 60 yards away.

Bill: I’d like to conclude our discussion today with R.H. Miller reading a passage. This is a piece at the end of the book where, as an adult, he goes back to his grandma Amy’s funeral. For the first time in quite some time, all of the family are there, his brothers and his mother and father, and just before the service begins, his mother asks that he sign the funeral service.

R.H. Miller [reading]: 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.

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