Friday, January 4, 2013

The Art of Hearing Loss

I finally saw Tribes. A play about a man who grew up deaf in a hearing family. But not just any hearing family. An enmeshed family of opinionated artists who never really slowed down enough to notice that just because he (the deaf son) adapted to living with them, doesn't mean that they've adapted to live with him.

He grew up reading lips, and never learning sign. He meets a young woman who great up hearing in a family with deaf parents, and she has known sign her whole life. She inherited a genetic hearing loss, and is rapidly losing her hearing.  It's a play about belonging, identity, language, community, limitations, and just a tad (a lot) of defensiveness, all around.

It's a stunning play and a fantastic production.  And it brought up a lot of feelings for me. I was born with a genetic hearing loss. If you know me, you either know that or you don't, because I hear a lot, and I read lips. But I miss a lot too.  Some of my friends are more bold about pointing that out, and others are more baffled. If you want my attention and you're trying to get it from behind me (this happens at my office a lot) you might wonder why I don't turn around when you call my name. If you hear my phone ring but I don't move, you might wonder why I'm ignoring it. If I look at you with a bit of a blank look (that David is good at catching) you might think I'm a little thick, or that you just said something banal, but it's more likely that I am in the process of guessing what rhymes with the words I thought I heard. And if you see that I am just really freaking frustrated, you might think I have a short fuse, just imagine what it is like to tell people again and again that they need to speak louder, sometimes within the span of 5 minutes, sometimes even 1 minute, and for them to not shift their voice modulation one bit. Yep, I have a short fuse.

(Wasn't this supposed to be a post about joy? I did find joy -- in the incredible artistry of the play and entire production. I truly did. And also in the serendipity of what I realized while in the play.)

As it turned out, without even thinking about it, I bought tickets to this play the day before my annual hearing test and meeting with the ear doctor, which I'll be going to today.  I have a genetic hearing loss called Waardenburg Syndrome, which includes my silver streak and premature gray hair on its genetic chain. (When I was diagnosed, my doctor reassured me that I didn't have the cognitive problems that can go along with it.) Anyhow, I think it was a great move to see the play before the doctor's visit, because the play called attention to how being deaf (or going deaf) is not actually very quiet. It's actually quite loud. This made my hyper aware of the constant tones and swishy sounds inside my head (which I think I am better off NOT thinking about too much.) But I am going today to a new doctor—one who comes highly recommended—and I am grateful for the heightened awareness as I head in to talk with him.


  1. Interesting, Jenny. I've been diagnosed with this also. I have the white streak (currently dyed), as does my sister. I've worn hearing aids since the age of 60. My sister and I (my daughter also, who went prematurely gray) had hyper acute hearing when young. Did you have that? The hearing aids are not perfect no matter how much one pays for them. They're better than nothing, that's all. I'd love to see this play! So happy you went and reported on it.

  2. I need to find a theater that's playing Tribes and bring my brother along. He's gradually losing his hearing (which wasn't very good to begin with) and is feeling quite frustrated about it. I definitely think he'll be able to learn something from it. Hopefully, he'll leave with a better outlook while we wait for him to get fitted with hearing aids. Thanks for sharing, Jenny! :)