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A brilliant lawyer's memoir based on loss of most hearing at age six but thinking that his was the normal condition until a hearing test proved otherwise when he was 33.

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"You're always singing -- or speaking...But you seldom seem to -- listen."

  • Mar 15, 2013
I am always happy to learn new words. So warm thanks to Gerald Shea, author of 2013's SONG WITHOUT WORDS: DISCOVERING MY DEAFNESS HALFWAY THROUGH LIFE. For lawyer Shea introduced me to the word "cophosis."

This word is mentioned in passing in Chapter 18. Thirty-something Gerald Shea, recently numbed by discovering during a routine pre-hiring physical examination that he was VERY deaf, travels to New York City's League for the Hard of Hearing to begin a six-week course in lipreading. There Gerry was first  interviewed by Jane Sommers. He learned that he had the hearing of a 150-year old. When Mrs Sommer first said "cophosis," Gerald heard it as "GOVOTIS."

She corrected him, noting almost in passing that "A total absence of sound, total deafness. is called cophosis ... it's very rare." Even Daniel, a born deaf signer whom Gerald had just met in the hallway "hears almost nothing, virtually no sound. His own language is signing and in that language Daniel is fluent."

Earlier two girl friends had come closest to discovering that Gerald was largely deaf.

In high school, girl friend Elizabeth had told Gerry: "You're always -- adrift, it seems to me, thinking of things beside the point! (Ch. 4). And also: "Gerry, your eyes and your mind are traveling separate ways" (Ch. 19).

A few years later Yale college girl friend Mary put things as follows: "You're always singing -- or speaking...But you seldom seem to -- listen. ... Very often you seem to be preparing your own thoughts when other people are talking. ... With a bit of an absent look. ... you follow the drift ... then break in with your own thoughts or suddenly sing a ... song. A wonderful song. But there's often no -- no continuity. You're not a ... a continuous person" (Ch. 5).

But the years went by with Gerald not knowing what made him so different.

As soon, however, as he had learned of his large deafness, Gerald Shea began to review his career to date as a successful lawyer. He told himself: "I serve my clients -- and yet, and yet -- I don't hear them -- I figure out what they say. Is that enough -- for my clients? (Ch. 24).

Eventually, he would decide that it was not enough.

The turning point came when a hearing expert at Louisiana State University in New Orleans introduced Gerry to a colleague Peter Melanson, onetime brain surgeon, now psychiatrist. Finding his hearing going at age 25. In the operating room, said Melanson to Gerry, "I was wholly inventing what others were saying ... with the lips of the others masked" (Ch. 23). It broke his heart but Melanson gave up his first love: surgery and its need for instant life or death decisions based on excellent understanding of what others were saying around and to him. He turned instead not to research or publishing but to hands-on psychiatry, to sitting face to face with a patient, lip reading. doing whatever it took to help the patient right in front of him to a better place.

I have stressed  SONG WITHOUT WORDS as an autobiography, as a memoir retracing an implausibly drawn out  discovery of self as a partially hearing person, with all the wasted time that rapid "decoding" instead of straightforward hearing had entailed in a successful career of lawyering.

But there is much more to SONG WITHOUT WORDS than recounting one brilliant man's life. There is also much clearly expressed description of mankind's ears, hearing, brain, lip reading, hearing aids, cochlear implants and sign languages. The author comes down firmly against people like Alexander Graham Bell and others who refuse to let the deaf learn signing, insisting instead that they make their primary language as close to normal speech as possible. Yet, left to better theories, Shea argues, to hand signers, soundless visible signs then become their true "music." And they communicate instantly and as self-confident creative  equals in the shared world of fellow signers.

A very rich book this SONG WITHOUT WORDS: DISCOVERING MY DEAFNESS HALFWAY THROUGH LIFE! You do not have to be hard of hearing to profit from and enjoy it.


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March 18, 2013
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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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