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The Hearing and the Deaf

Listening in on two worlds

What does it mean to have a voice, to hear a voice, to give voice in public to private thoughts? Those questions carry particular significance for Jennifer Rosner, the hearing mother of two daughters who were born deaf. In her unusual and affecting parenting memoir, If a Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard ($16.95), part of the Feminist Press’ Reuben/Rifkin Jewish Women Writers Series, Rosner grapples with practical medical issues while also pondering her family’s history of silence and secrecy.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the family secret is a generations-long history of deafness. It is only after the arrival of Rosner’s older daughter, Sophia, that her father presents to her, without comment, a copy of the family tree on which the names of six relatives are marked with an asterisk standing for “deaf and dumb.” In addition, Rosner begins to question if her mother’s progressive hearing difficulties — she had started wearing hearing aids while still in her thirties — was the result of the early adulthood illness she always claimed, or also had a genetic basis. And then there is Rosner’s own sense that, throughout her childhood and growing up, her mother had never “heard” her, whether literally or emotionally.

In a style that balances straightforwardness with delicacy, Rosner details the struggles and strategies that she and her husband underwent in figuring out how to bond together as a family that belongs to two worlds — the hearing and the deaf. They relocated from California to Massachusetts to have access to specialized schools and hired tutors who could teach the entire family sign language. And before deciding to say yes to a cochlear implant — a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound — for their younger daughter, Juliet, whose deafness is even more profound than that of her sister, they versed themselves in the controversial issues centering on the very way we think about deafness: Is it a disability that physicians should treat through surgical implants or hearing aids? Or should we respect deafness as a culture distinct from that of the hearing world — and condemn surgical implants as a weapon of destruction of the deaf community? For Rosner, a practical middle ground based on her children’s particular needs clearly trumps narrow ideology, and she is not afraid to stand up to those who would second guess her.

Rosner intertwines this narrative with her search for information about her mostly forgotten deaf relatives, now deceased. Unable to uncover more than a few facts even with the help of a distant cousin, she decides to write a fictional account of their lives in a Galician shtetl in the late nineteenth century and on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth. In imagining how they resolved practical problems arising from their deafness, and religious questions about God’s intentions, she believes she will find ways to help her children as they face their own challenges. Rosner clearly derived solace and comfort from this exercise, but the writing is not altogether convincing as fiction. What is striking nonetheless is Rosner’s determination to discover an authenticity and individuality to her own voice. For only then, she suggests, will she be able to teach her daughters the importance of making themselves heard, both metaphorically and literally. It is an issue to which Rosner, throughout her memoir, speaks loud and clear.

Diane Cole, author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, is a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report and book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker.