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October 10, 2004

Memoir tells of life with deaf parents

From:, KY - Oct 10, 2004

By Reviewed By Judith Hatchett

Robert H. Miller's Deaf Hearing Boy is subtitled A Memoir. That description can seem deceptively simple, however, for the story Miller weaves.

Born in 1938 in Defiance, Ohio, Miller was the oldest of four hearing boys born to deaf parents. Therefore he and his brothers were and still are identified in the deaf community as CODAs -- children of deaf adults.

Miller, recently retired from the English and humanities programs at the University of Louisville, recounts with heartbreak and humor the extent to which being a CODA shaped the psyche of a bright young boy who loved his parents fiercely but was often embarrassed by them, belonged to the deaf community but was not fully of it, and was too keenly aware that he carried within him a double consciousness regarding his mother and father. They were at once the bright, sociable and capable people he knew them to be and the handicapped, simple, incapable people the hearing (including even his grandparents) assumed them to be. Beginning at a very young age, Miller had to straddle the two worlds and the two views.

Miller relates events dating from his birth in 1938 to 20-year-old deaf and jobless parents until his leaving for college in 1956. This leave-taking also signaled his final departure from the deaf world for that of the hearing, a momentous break for a man who still considers his first language to be American Sign Language.

Father Richard Miller was essentially a tenant farmer and mother Elizabeth struggled against loneliness and her mother-in-law's refusal to learn sign language. A move to Toledo brought better times, modern schools, convivial Silent Clubs, and good wages for Richard -- until returning soldiers reclaimed his job, forcing a defeated return to the harsh farm life. As Robert Miller puts it: "The country had used the willing labor of deaf people and then hung them out to dry."

Deaf Hearing Boy is a text with many layers. Certainly the title bears the predominant one, the complexities of being a hearing person with a deaf identity. But the story is also the story of this country and its dramatic social and economic changes brought about by Depression and war. An important impetus in the story of the Miller family is the harsh poverty and ultimate failure of a family farming enterprise and the necessity of selling out a way of life.

The contrasts in educational opportunities are also significant. Miller attributes much of his parents' financial woe to the inadequate preparation provided by the state school for the deaf, and he contrasts his progressive, inclusive schools in Toledo with the one-room schoolhouse he attended after the return to the farm. All along the way, however, attentive teachers recognized and nurtured his intelligence, leading ultimately to his ability to attend college and graduate school.

The memoir is also a coming-of-age story, wherein deaf parents loom as an often excruciating complication. In addition to the "regular" agonies of being a teenager, Miller had to cope with parents who refused to let their daughters date him because they feared having deaf grandchildren.

But Miller, at least at the time, didn't view everything about his situation as a disadvantage. He and his brothers also enjoyed unfair power over their parents because they could be unacceptably loud, choose to give their own versions of messages from the hearing, and sometimes succeeded in sneaking out of the house while their parents slept.

Hearing readers will appreciate yet another dimension of the text, an opportunity to receive an education in deaf culture. For example, the foreword by Robert Hoffmeister emphasizes the impact of a central statistic of the deaf-hearing divide: "More than 90 percent of deaf people have hearing parents and then again, 90 percent of deaf parents have hearing children."

The resulting children resemble the children of immigrants, translating at very young ages between two worlds, belonging fully to neither.

Finally, Deaf Hearing Boy embodies a thoughtful commentary on memoir itself. Miller explains that he is telling his own story based on his own memories and acknowledges that family members might disagree or be pained by his words. And it is with obvious regret that he traces his evolving role in the intergenerational conflict between his parents and grandparents.

Drawn to the hearing world of his grandparents and the advantages gained through them, Miller, the translator and link between the two couples, for a long while enabled his grandparents to usurp his parents' proper roles. As he matured, Miller realized that his participation in this "conspiracy," as he calls it, damaged everyone involved.

Miller finds liberation, it seems, in at last being able to analyze his parents' individual personalities, their weaknesses as parents and their many hardships, while celebrating their resolve to survive, their ambitions for their children, and their determination to be understood and appreciated. Judith Hatchett is chair of arts and humanities at Midway College.

© 2004 Lexington Herald-Leader and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.