When Rosemary Pryde was four years old, 63 years ago, she lost her hearing. No one knows exactly why: maybe the high fever, maybe the medications, maybe genetic – her father and his mother lost their hearing as adults. She didn’t lose her hearing completely; she had some residual in both ears. When she was five, she got a hearing aid and rode her bicycle up and down the driveway, ringing the bell for the pleasure of hearing it. She learned to lip read. And it wasn’t all bad: her family’s TV often lost sound and even though the youngest, she was the only one who could lip read I Love Lucy. But she didn’t understand why everyone went outside at midnight on New Year’s Eve and seemed excited; and she couldn’t learn if her teacher talked while facing the blackboard; and she eventually lost hearing completely in her right ear. She grew up and made a career in the helping professions — employment counsellor, executive director of a charity, group facilitator – and was good at it: when you lip read, you focus hard on other people.
But her hearing slowly worsened and a hearing aid’s volume can go only so high. About 30 years ago, she was sitting by a lake with friends, watching the dusk and drinking gin-and-tonics, and somebody said, “Listen to the loons. What a beautiful sound they make,” and she heard nothing. With the years, the concentration necessary to follow a conversation had become so tiring, she was going out less. She stopped going to movies; five years ago, she gave up lunch with her large group of friends and saw them one or two at a time instead. She arranged for her workshops to be smaller, then noticed that she had trouble even in a group of two or three. Finally, in the winter of 2011, she was approved for a cochlear implant in her right ear, and in late August, 2012, she had the surgery. And after that, she had to learn to hear.
Normal hearing is a house that Jack built: a sound wave — which is a physical wave like a water wave but in the air — gets converted by membranes and bones into a mechanical vibration; which hits the fluid in the cochlea and gets converted into fluid vibrations; which in turn vibrate the cochlea’s tiny hair cells which convert the vibration into an electrochemical impulse; which the auditory nerve carries to the brain. Rosemary’s hair cells were damaged, so the whole house fell apart. A cochlear implant ignores the middle of the process: a sound wave hits a receiver and processor worn around the ear and is converted straight to electric impulses by the implanted electrodes and then sent directly to the auditory nerve.
It’s ingenious but it’s not perfect. An implant has maybe 20 electrodes and delivers a fraction of the sounds – the pitches – that the hair cells do. So each pitch in effect broadens out and a middle C is a sort of blur that could be heard an octave lower. The brain has to learn to resolve the pitches and fill in the gaps. She had already learned to hear with her hearing aid but now her brain has to learn to hear what the electrodes are saying. This is where magic happens.
The first time Rosemary’s implant is activated, she turns off the hearing aid in her left ear, and hears an angry buzz, then low sounds with pauses – buzz, pause, buzz buzz, pause – then sounds she thinks might be words. Her audiologist is talking to her, so she lip reads and then thinks she really is hearing words, though her audiologist sounds like Darth Vader, a deep, robotic monotone, with the middles of the words fuzzy and the edges of the words somehow frayed. Then she hears computer keys clicking and a carrying case being unzipped, but these sounds too are just buzzes that she identifies only when she sees them happening. When she gets home, her dining room chair creaks – she had no idea it did – and she hears herself loudly crunching toast. Then within days the computer keys stop buzzing and go click, click, click.
At the end of the second week, she plays Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano, and the notes sound all the same, like a regular, static-y beat, not like music at all. Two weeks later, she tries Twinkle Twinkle Little Star again and this time it sounds like a song – an octave too low, still fuzzy, but a song. “On to Chopsticks,” she thinks. A couple weeks later, voices are still sounding like Darth Vader, as does her own and for a while she has to stop singing in church. She goes to her regular doctor and while waiting in the examining room, she hears shoes walking, the paper cover being torn off the examining bed in the next room, a door closing, the snap of latex gloves, all sounds so loud they were distracting. Her brain was still learning to separate important from extraneous, signal from noise. Whether she wants to or not, she hears everything.
Three months after the implant is activated, sounds are still robotic and low, but during a brain-training exercise in which she reads aloud to herself, for the first time she hears her own normal voice. She still hears the Darth Vader version too, and the normal voice is faint, but it’s there. Her brain will take a year to learn to hear but she’s in for the long haul. Just the other day, she was dusting the piano and heard the notes sounding crisp and right where they should be. And she went to lunch again with six friends and this time lasted 30 minutes.
I learned all this from Rosemary Pryde herself and from her blog, Read My Lips Blog. Go read it, it’s more interesting than this summary; in some cases I outright plagiarize her. Rosemary grew up going to regular classes, reading lips, and expecting to fit in with hearing people; and though she’s lived highly sociably, she also says she has felt isolated. The feeling started when she was young and never went away, she just learned to live with it.
Decades ago, I substitute-taught in a district’s special education classrooms. I learned many things – like, if a little girl with no arms is not feeling sorry for herself, I shouldn’t feel sorry for her either – but the most unexpected was what I learned with the deaf kids. They were very little kids and they weren’t Rosemaries — they didn’t have hearing aids, they were still being taught to sign — and their regular teacher could control them but I couldn’t. They couldn’t hear, they wouldn’t look at me, they were wild, they were unsocialized, they were all but feral.
Later I thought about those kids, what it must be like in a world where you can talk only visually. And all you have to do to shut out the talk is close your eyes. I thought how much harder closing your ears is, and how talking then has some sort of urgency, some sense that whether you will or no, other peoples’ words are happening in your head. And being deaf, maybe you could feel, even more than everyone already feels, that you’re fundamentally the only one and alone, isolated, insular, literally an island. What I learned then is that we’re not so much a species that sees as one that talks. We’re a flock animal that talks and listens and keeps talking and never shuts up, and so keeps the flock together.
Girl dancing, by George Zimbel, 1957, taken at the Keller Cottage for Blind-Deaf Children, Talladega, Alabama; via jjuulliiaann
Girls talking, by AstridWestvang