Hearing Happiness. Deafness Cures in History

Virdi, Jaipreet
Anzahl Seiten
XIV, 331 S.
$ 27.50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Anja Werner, Historisches Seminar, Universität Erfurt

“For years, I was stuck in the limbo between two worlds,” Jaipreet Virdi remembers in the introduction to her book, she was “never quite deaf enough or quite hearing enough to perfectly fit in one side or another” (p. 5). Hearing Happiness is as much a personal memoir as it is a contribution to science, technology, and the history of medicine in North America from roughly the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. It presents a history of medical and technical approaches to curing hearing loss – or to making it invisible. Two major red threads guide the reader through the book: One is the thin line that divides medical and surgical cures from quackery (Chapters 1, 4), the other a search for identity on the basis of a person’s (changing) hearing status as opposed to the public image that comes both with hearing and with selling hearing aids (Chapters 2, 3, 5). These different aspects are told by a succession of anecdotes about persons who provided deafness cures, and those who took advantage of them, both with rather varying degrees of success. Virdi also includes pictures of advertisements and objects from various medical collections, including the Historical Health Fraud Collection of the American Medical Association.

Intertwined with the episodes are Virdi’s personal recollections of her own experiences with hearing loss and cures for it. Virdi explains that by “anchoring myself in this historicity, I outline how the model of normalcy that constructs deafness as an impairment reinforces notions of able-bodiedness and audism.”1 This leads to a suppressing “hearing variety” as well as to stigmatization. For Virdi, one way out of this is “occasionally” to juxtapose “my experiences of hearing loss with past actors discussed in these chapters.” In doing so, she offers “a way of thinking about history, particularly how we think and talk about deafness and hearing loss within the constraints of medical intervention, including how to frame deafness – and disability more broadly – as an oppression of difference rather than an impairment” (pp. 8–9).

Reflecting one’s own position in the context of one’s research is a refreshing approach that might be of interest for historians generally. Virdi is an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware. She was born hearing, but at the age of four, then living in Kuwait, she contracted bacterial meningitis, which permanently damaged her hearing (p. 1). For most of her life, she was told to be “hard-of-hearing” when, in fact, audiologically speaking, she was “profoundly deaf.” This led to “struggles of identity formation” while growing up (p. xiii). Virdi and her (hearing) family subsequently underwent stages of despair, assigning blame, and seeking answers from traditional herbal medicine to Western doctors. She admits to her own sense of guilt, isolation, and struggles to “pass” as hearing (pp. 1–5). Only in her late thirties (p. xiii) did she begin to deal with the “history of negotiations over unstable identities as much as over informed consumerism regarding health care, the interplay of professional interests, and the expansive role of advocacy” (p. 8). The result was this book.

Virdi explicitly writes “about oralist experiences of deafness, hardness of hearing, and hearing impairment, not cultural Deafness, though that is not to say that the Deaf do not figure in the story” (pp. xiii–iv). Hearing people do not necessarily recognize hearing-impaired persons who communicate orally as “different.” But even if a person has notable residual hearing, and even if a person wears hearing aids or has implants – that person still does not become a “normal hearing” person.2 Issues of identity are likely overlooked when discussing the “recovery” of hearing. Virdi shows, however, that users of hearing aids in the past were “not passive recipients of a medical device.” They were “active participants who evaluated, modified, and in some instances, even designed their own prosthetics.” Using “acoustic aids,” Virdi argues, “enabled them to craft new identities that allowed them to control, if not define, the discourse surrounding their deafness.” In this capacity, prosthetics “became culturally symbolic, part of the user’s quest for ‘functional normalcy,’ that enabled them to assert their autonomy, personhood, identity, and self-presentation” (p. 79).

Yet this autonomy was liable to change as hearing aids changed as well as the image that came with them. For instance, into the early twentieth century, hearing tubes could be a part of a person’s identity and thus be conspicuously displayed in portraits or photographs, as was the case with British-American artist Dorothy E. Brett (1883–1977), who affectionately called her hearing tube “Toby” (pp. 79–89). By contrast, since the 1930s (p. 201), with the coming of smaller hearing aids that could be attached to one’s clothing, advertisers illustrated how women could hide their aids in stylish hairdos or behind fancy jewelry, while men were depicted to be able to smile again as their “secret” aid „restored“ them to society (pp. 214–236). According to Virdi, “the implicit message in these advertisements was that not wearing an aid was a failure of self” (p. 209).

Virdi illustrates how deeply ingrained the idea of hearing is in Western societies. The more curious, then, that so little historical research is available about its history especially with regards to its cultural meanings and interrelatedness with medical notions of health and normalcy. Virdi starts filling the gap for instance by relating how chiropractic medicine and osteopathy both developed as cures for hearing loss. On 18 September 1895, Daniel David Palmer took thirty minutes to manipulate the spine of African American janitor Harvey Lillard, who had been deaf for nearly seventeen years after having hurt his back. Lillard’s hearing was restored and chiropractic medicine born (pp. 167–173). By contrast, osteopath Curtis H. Muncie developed a method of “finger surgery” to cure deafness after his fingers had slipped accidentally into a young boy’s Eustachian tube in the course of an oral examination, effectively restoring the boy’s hearing. Muncie’s method would be highly contested (pp. 173–184).

The central challenge with hearing loss is not the need to restore hearing but to restore communication. As Virdi remembers, her mother was mostly frustrated by her inability to communicate with her daughter after her hearing loss (p. 265). That is a perspective of hearing persons, which deserves just as much attention as Virdi’s, who feels “connected to the distant past, to people who felt the same as I did, who experienced the same stigma, and who, in their own ways and own negotiations for a cure, found themselves” (p. 267). This monograph is a highly readable exploration of medical history on the basis of sound archival resources, exploring the question of what hearing means for identity formation.

1 “Audism” refers to discrimination and prejudice towards persons with a different hearing status. Deaf scholar Tom Humphreys coined the term in 1977. Tom Humphries, Communicating Across Cultures (Deaf-Hearing) and Language Learning, dissertation, Union Institute and University 1977. See also Harlan Lane, The Mask of Benevolence. Disabling the Deaf Community, New York 1992, p. 43, p. 246.
2 In German, I use the term “andershörig” [alternative hearing] to refer to persons with a Cochlear Implant (CI) or hearing aid. Anja Werner, Lautsprache, Gebärdensysteme oder Gebärdensprache? Sprache und Partizipation bei unterschiedlichen Formen von Hörschädigungen, in: Bettina M. Bock / Philipp Dreesen (eds.), Sprache und Partizipation in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Bremen 2018, pp. 193–210.

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