Deafness In the Family Tree: You Must Hear This Story
I read If a Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard, by Jennifer Rosner, in one big gulp and loved it. As the parent of a special needs child who required an army of early intervention specialists along with a battle plan, I loved how Rosner got so many of those details right. How it’s heartbreaking, yes, but also thrilling and surprisingly fascinating, like enrolling in a graduate program you never applied for. There’s a million books to be read and theories to research. Rosner’s daughters are born with congenital hearing loss, ostensibly a disability that has little in common with autism, which my son has, but I was struck by one similarity that Rosner uses to great effect. Oftentimes, a child’s autism diagnosis prompts parents to look a little closer at their own family tree and find threads of the disorder throughout—the unmarried uncle who rebuilt toasters all his life, the aunt who recited facts at every family gathering. It’s a way of understanding the mysterious people we’ve known all our lives and never understood. Rosner’s take on this is stunning because it involves such heartbreaking secrets, kept for reasons we can’t fathom today, and her own mother who becomes a beautifully rich and complicated character.
Cammie: You do such a beautiful job of writing about all kinds of isolation that goes along with raising a child with special needs. I especially loved how you wrote about your own mother, and the distance you felt from her, partly owing to her own hearing loss and partly owing to all the complicated emotions surrounding it. You write about her with honesty and also a great deal of compassion. When I tried to write a memoir about the early years after my son’s autism diagnosis, I found it too hard to wrestle with all the attending aspects (my marriage, career, own childhood, etc.) and ended up using the material to write fiction instead. What was the hardest aspect of encapsulating so much for you?
Jennifer: Certain passages were especially difficult for me to write. From an emotional standpoint, writing about my mother was hardest. I wanted to be honest, but not hurtful. It was doubly difficult, because my childhood memories were often elusive—grounded in emotional truth rather than the details of “scenes.” I felt I had to create mosaics in places, rather than narrative storylines. I’m certain, though, that the writing process helped me to understand my mother’s experience (with hearing loss and other losses) and to gain compassion for her in ways I hadn’t before. It also helped me to gain a clearer understanding of my own challenges as a parent, and to gain compassion for myself as well.
From a craft-based standpoint, establishing the overarching structure of the memoir was hard. Trying to balance the narrative threads (the contemporary story of raising my girls, the story of growing up with a hard-of-hearing mom, and the storyline of my deaf ancestors) and to braid them together—this was a huge challenge.
Cammie: Some of my absolute favorite sections of your book are the imagined storylines of your deaf ancestors, especially in the second half after they first come to America. How did it feel to write these sections and do you have any plans to give these characters their own book at some point? Or write more fiction perhaps?
Jennifer: Inventing stories about my deaf ancestors was very cathartic for me, because the pages of my writing journal became a screen on which I could safely project my worries and hopes. I’ve considered continuing on with the historical account. I’d like to explore the evolving distance between Nellie and Bayla, and their mother, Pearl, as they settle more fully into their lives in America. But at the moment, I am at work on a novel filled with contemporary characters.
Cammie: What writers—especially memoirists—inspired you as you wrote? What do you think are the most important qualities to effective memoir writing?
Marilyn Abildskov, author of The Men in My Country, has been a great inspiration, and has taught me a lot about creating scenes and braiding storylines. Other writers who have inspired me (particularly in the course of my writing of If A Tree Falls) are Catherine Newman, Jo Ann Beard, Lilian Nattel, Ivan Doig, Geraldine Brooks, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Safran Foer. They are all writers with wildly different talents (and many of them write fiction). Yet, in addition to beautiful prose, round characters, and sensitivity to language and place, there is an emotional honesty in their work. I think this is a crucial element for memoir and fiction writing.
Cammie: Your girls come off as wonderfully resilient and resourceful creatures. How old are they now and how are they doing? What are recent challenges they’ve faced?
Jennifer: Sophia is 9 and Juliet is 6, and they are both flourishing. Juliet has taken up violin (and Sophia has taken to turning off her hearing technology when Juliet practices). Right now, many of the challenges are “social”—Sophia has just started to have friends sleep over. She doesn’t sleep with her hearing aids on, so her friends need to remember that she wouldn’t hear (and that she would be excluded) if they were to whisper once the lights go out.
Cammie: How conscious were about the how your family and the people you were writing about would react to this material?
Jennifer: In early drafts, I tried to allow myself to write whatever I was moved to write, without censoring for any particular audience. As the material started to take shape as a book, I have to admit it was hard not to be sensitive to the fact that my family, as well as deaf people of varying philosophical outlooks, would read it. In the editing phase, I worked hard to stay true to the feelings expressed in the early drafts, even if in places, I softened the language a bit.
Cammie: What are your future writing plans?
Jennifer: I’ve started a novel that explores the notions of home and of exile. It takes place in Haifa, Israel. I’m at the very beginning.
Top photo of Juliet, Jennifer’s daughter, from Wondertime
Photo of book and photo of Jennifer from The Feminist Press
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