The Grain of Sounds
If one exposes his cattle to the sun, or he places them in the custody of a deaf-mute, a fool, or a minor, and they break away and do damage, he is liable.
—Early Hebrew law
When I lay in bed at night, I did not experience what most children feel: that sense of security and comfort, of being in the lap and bosom of the family. Instead, I lay terrified and cold. I had to listen for every sound, because my parents could not hear any danger. Even were I to call them from my bed, they could not hear me. I was alone, small, and helpless.
An early memory, so early I cannot be sure it was in fact my own, is of hearing my parents making love next to me in the dark. I am an infant. My crib is next to their bed in our one-bedroom apartment, while my ten-year-old brother, Gerald, is fast asleep in the living room. I hear groaning, slurping sounds rising out of the blackness, as if the bed were eating my parents. I cry and scream, twisting in my bedclothes right next to them, but out of reach. They are making love while I wail in terror—and even though they are inches away from me, they are totally unaware. The barrier of a few feet, insignificant to the hearing, becomes the widest abyss possible. As my mother's odd voice climaxes, my wails meld into hers.
A child of the deaf may become hypervigilant. This is a word I heard used on the radio to describe soldiers returning from war: they lie in their beds at night, hypervigilant. They wait for the bomb to drop, the shell to explode, the friend to drag his limbless torso into the trench. That was my experience of childhood. I listened for the burglars that my parents could not hear, for the robbers, the monsters, the flash fire, the cracking sounds of a ceiling collapsing. I was the guard, and it was all war.
(Last night I lay in bed listening to the mice running through a farmhouse where I am vacationing. The lights were off; my wife was asleep; I lay in rigid awareness. When I hear sounds in the night, I still panic. My heart pounds. I never wake my wife, and I never woke my parents. I lie, now as then, in silent terror.)
My bedroom overlooked a dark alleyway where the garbage was kept. Every night the feral cats of the South Bronx gathered there, reenacting a feline West Side Story, overturning the cans, engaging in spitting fights, and emitting yowls of indescribable horror. One particular sound, perhaps of a male cat in rut or a female in heat, sounded to me like a witch crying. Because my parents were deaf, there was a giant dictionary of sounds for which I had no names. This was one of them. I knew never to ask my brother about the witch sound because he would use the opportunity to terrify me further, adding lurid details about how she ate small children. When I discussed the subject with my friends in the building, they never seemed to have heard the caterwauling.
Because it was nameless, the feline yowl was full of dark dread. I was convinced that it was the shriek of an old lady wandering the streets, a constant reminder of the pain of life and the proximity of death. The sound terrified me, but it also accustomed me to its horror. I thought an actual woman who lived around the corner was the very one who wept and screamed under my window. She had the face of an old crone or a withered pansy, and whenever I saw her I ran away.
I never told my parents of the sound and the fear. How could I explain? They would only say it was nothing—which it was, to them. So I learned early to keep fear to myself. And in the end the screams, the weeping, the snarls, and the hisses became my own.
* * *
I was born on September 16, 1949, at Wadsworth Hospital in Washington Heights. My first intersection with language was managed by my father, who typically insisted on his own English-language competence despite his deafness. My father worked as a sewing-machine operator in the garment district, but his passion was race-walking. He decided to name me after an obscure Swedish race-walker whose first name was Lennart. My father changed the "t" to a "d" to Americanize the name, but he retained what he fancied was the Swedish pronunciation. I was called "Lee-nard," a name no one has ever, in my entire life, both pronounced and spelled the way my father intended it. My father decided that my middle name should be Jack, in honor of his uncle. He had never learned that Jack was a nickname.
My parents lived in a one-bedroom walk-up apartment at 1883 Clinton Avenue in the East Tremont Avenue section of the Bronx. Morris and Eva Davis were both completely deaf—"stone deaf," my father used to sign. That puzzled me. Was his ear like a stone? Cold, hard, chiseled, like that of a statue?
By most standards we were poor, but my father, whose motto was "Never say die," thought we were middle class. We did not own a telephone, a car, a record player, or an air conditioner—the consumer products that my friends' parents owned. When I was born we had no television, but my parents bought one shortly after. The story in our family was that Gerald was asked whether he wanted a little brother or a television set. Given this Hobson's choice, the nine-year-old opted for the living object, but when I was born he quickly grew bored with the sleeping, bawling mass of flesh. Soon the television entered the apartment.
We possessed little else. My father was an abstemious man. (When he died in 1981, he had saved over $100,000, no small feat for a factory worker.) The occasional ice cream cone was, to us, a special treasure. We never ate out. We never took long trips.
Perhaps my earliest memory is of being pushed in my baby carriage. A heavy, spring-cushioned carriage, dark blue. The fragrance of warmth and comfort, the sun heating my covers luxuriously. My blankets clutched up around my neck, the shade of the carriage bonnet creating what seemed a small, safe world inside. My eyes are fixed on my mother's torso bobbing up and down as she pushes me along. Her face is hidden by the bonnet of the carriage. The yellow five-story apartment buildings of the Bronx and an occasional tree move along the periphery of my vision.
A few years ago I realized that this memory was in fact not pleasant but nightmarish. I had blocked out the negative feelings, like a person who tries to convince himself that an injection will not hurt. One night I was flying in a particularly bad storm. As the plane lurched, I began to feel trapped and helpless. Suddenly the baby carriage appeared to me. No longer was I warm and comfortably cooing; instead, I was screaming, bound in my blankets, twisting and caught, as my mother's torso implacably rose and fell. I could see her, but she could not see my face or hear my cries.
A second memory is of myself walking, no longer bound to the carriage. I leave my mother in the kitchen and wander into the bathroom. There the window above the toilet beckons to me. I climb onto the toilet and then pull myself up to the narrow ledge of the window sill. I survey the bathroom from this dizzying height and grow terrified. The tiles of the floor loom like so many hard slabs waiting to receive the gift of my crumpled body. I cannot move. I scream one long call for my mother. Silence. Another call. More silence. After what seems like a day of screams, my mother appears. She lifts me down off the window ledge as I cry. "I came because I wondered why you so quiet," she says, my screams only silence to her. I can still feel the terror of that abandonment. I have always been susceptible to movies in which heroes hang over tremendous cliffs, with villains stomping on their knuckles, or in which actors traverse high parapets and narrow walkways far above the city traffic.
A further memory of separation. In a closet between the living room and the bedroom my parents keep a whip as a threat to my brother and me. I sneak into the closet to explore, closing the door to keep out unwanted eyes. But there is no doorknob on the inside, only a stump of metal. I am trapped in utter darkness, with things draped on me like pendant moss from the wild woods or the suspicion of fingers in the night. I call to my mother. Then I scream but nothing happens. I hear her feet walk within inches of me as I pound on the closet door. I can't remember if I finally opened the door by twisting the small remnant of the knob, or whether my mother decided to look in. To me this is an essential but unanswerable question: Did help come from within, or from without?
I also locked myself in the bathroom. Normally we never latched the bathroom or any other door, but on this occasion a girl had come over to play with me and my alphabet blocks, and when I went to the bathroom, in a moment of prudishness, I locked the door. When I tried to unlock the door, I was not strong enough to turn the lock handle. My playmate heard me crying and directed my mother to the bathroom. My mother tried to instruct me through the door, but she could not hear my questions. I struggled with the handle, crying, and finally the door opened.
One day I went with my mother to the Crotona Park swimming pool. My brother and his friends used to call it "The Inkwell" because it was mainly patronized by African Americans. I was too young to understand racism and to go along with its attendant crass humor, and too young to swim, so I spent much of my time looking into the water to see if it really was dark as ink. My mother was asleep tanning on a lounge chair, so I went to the toilet alone. On the way back I stopped to look into the depths. As I was staring below the churning waters and writhing bodies, actually beginning to think I could see dark hues, a boy came up behind me and pushed me in. I remember the moment clearly: suspended under water, one arm rising languidly above my head, watching with a strange detachment as breath escapes in ellipses from my mouth like comic-book thoughts and rises through the silent water. A calm, blue-green, peaceful feeling enveloped me as I watched my life slip away in the bubbles. I knew I was going to die in the beautiful, silent water. How would anyone ever see me under the violent froth of noisy, screaming children? The water imposed an abrupt deafness on my world, a deafness that felt familiar and right.
Suddenly a hand grasped my hand, the one floating above my head, and pulled me from the blue silence into the noisy, fractious air. I was born again, this time like Venus in the Bronx. I burst into tears then and ran to find my mother. I can't remember what she said; perhaps she cautioned me to be more careful. I realized then more clearly than ever that my screams could not be heard, that in this noisy world I must rely on my own wits and hands, and on the kindness of strangers. I always regretted that I never thanked the owner of that hand for pulling me out.
My first "word" was "milk." I said it in sign language, reaching my little hands out from the crib. The sign for "milk" in my family was two closed fists rubbing knuckles together up and down in a loose imitation of milking a cow. I was six months old, according to my parents. That I signed before I spoke proves what scientists now have discovered: children of the deaf babble with their fingers, just as children of the hearing babble with their tongues.
Sign was my native language. It is a language inextricably tied to my inner feelings, more so than speech. To a native signer who can also hear, there is a strong and nostalgic feeling about sign language that is inextricably connected to earliest childhood. To this day if I sign "milk," I feel more milky than if I say the word. When I make the sign and facial gestures for "hate"—a face contorted with anger as both hands hurl the hate with flinging fingers—I feel the kind of hate a child feels, emotion unmediated by polite adult expectations. Likewise "love," indicated by crossing arms against chest and giving oneself a hug, feels far more encompassing and visceral than the word "love" stated with the lips.
My feelings toward sign language are now tinged by the fact that, for me, it is somewhat of a lost language. My parents are both dead, and I have few people with whom I can sign. I feel like the expatriate wandering the boulevards of Paris but hearing with the inner ear the lost language of home, the music of the Russian steppes or the Polish countryside. Although sign is actively spoken among the Deaf, my contacts with Deaf people have only recently been reestablished. I am no longer part of that community, but part of me wants to go home to it.
Hearing people who see sign language may think of it as a substitute language inferior to speech. Research by Deaf and hearing linguists has proven that sign language is neither a substitute for English nor impoverished speech. The abbé de l'Epée, an eighteenth-century priest, is generally regarded as the "father" of sign language. He did not invent it; rather, as the story goes, he stumbled upon two deaf girls in the countryside talking to each other. His mission, as he saw it, was to codify and render "grammatical" the natural language of the urban deaf of Paris. He and others attempted to make the grammar of sign language look like that of French or English. But languages do not need grammarians to rectify them; they are self-contained systems. Wherever deaf people are thrown together, sign language will arise. The deep structure of the human brain contains language that will come out, whatever the medium. For people who are prelingually deaf, it is difficult to acquire spoken language. Language, like water, will find the path of least resistance, and words flow through their fingers.
American Sign Language was a variant of the French version, imported by Thomas Gallaudet, an American who visited the abbé's institute and brought back a deaf teacher, Laurent Clerc, to Hartford, where the first U.S. school for the deaf was founded. American Sign Language does not resemble English, and in many cases its verb structure is richer and more complex than that of English. Grammatically and structurally, ASL displays different uses of tense, case, word order, and morphemes than English. As a child I did not know this, nor did my parents. In fact, we did not really think sign was a legitimate language; we were taught that it was a kind of pidgin, a systematized use of gesture. So I simply tended to enjoy the physical nature of sign language, its sheer muscular energy and pictorial poetics, although I felt it was inferior to speech.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, hearing teachers of the deaf have had a strong aversion toward the use of sign language in schooling. Earlier, when all teachers of the deaf were deaf themselves, they taught in sign. But at the now infamous Milan Conference of 1880, sign language was banned from educational institutions throughout the world. After that, the hearing taught the deaf. I remember my mother's stories of having to sign in secret at her residential school in England, avoiding the patrolling eyes of her teachers.
Signing is like speech set to dance. There is a constant pas de deux between the fingers and the face. Since the features must express tone and volume, the face is continually mirroring the meaning of the fingers. There are combinations of small-motor skills, quick finger darts, and large sweeps with the arms and the body. Those who do not know sign language can only see the movements as distant and unnuanced. But those who understand signing can see the finest shade of meaning in a gesture. Like the pleasure some hearing people take in the graded distinctions between words like "dry," "arid," "parched," "desiccated," or "dehydrated," so the deaf can enjoy equivalent distinctions in the gestures of sign language. Appreciating these is like appreciating the differences between certain sopranos singing famous arias or the subtle flavors in food. Even to this day, as I walk along the street and observe hearing people, I see them speaking a sort of language with their hands. Like monkeys at typewriters or like raving schizophrenics, they are making occasional sense in random ways.
I recently came to a series of uncanny revelations about sign language. For years I thought I knew sign language, although I never really used it except at home. After my parents died, I never used it at all, except when I might want to recall some special childhood feeling or simply talk to myself in an intimate and private way.
When I became involved with CODA and saw other hearing people signing, I found it hard to understand much of what they were saying, and I was reluctant to converse in sign language. Then I began to be convinced that I could not speak sign language at all. Some experts told me that what I was speaking at home was really "home-sign," a combination of sign language, speech, gesture, and whatever worked to get my parents to understand me. Did that mean my communication with my parents was always faulty? Had I actually created my own language, instead of receiving one that had been worked out for me by millions of signers long dead? (Another example of having to take care of myself?) Perhaps the seeds of thought that germinated in my mind lacked good earth to grow in. Instead, they welled up inside me. I could ask for a hug, food, daylight; but I could not say what needed to be said, except imperfectly. No wonder writing has held me in such a thrall.