All Eyes
A Memoir of Deafness
Bainy B. Cyrus
(Bainy B. Cyrus)
If you are deaf or (as Cyrus is) very hard of hearing, you don't speak to people with bright lights behind them. You can't see well enough to lip read. And it is hard work. One doesn't just look at the lips, one watches the cheeks, the movement of the tongue, the eyes, and the language of the body. You also try to sit at round tables, not square ones, so you can observe everyone equally well.

You look for people with "readable lips." Group conversation with people who are not hearing impaired is just a "swarm of words flying around."

    I just pretend to listen, my eyes secretly darting around for body language.

When Cyrus was growing up, working on being with people who were not deaf, the most difficult times were at slumber parties. Why? "Hearing kids in a gathering don't ever fall asleep once the lights are turned out. They just keep yapping away no matter how sleepy they are."

For the deaf (as many old people learn) paranoia can become part of your life. "I couldn't hear what people said behind me, and I kept thinking they were talking about me."

    All the way through high school and college I became testy whenever people walked or stood behind my back.

There was (and still is) great conflict in the deaf world about "oralism" (lip reading) vs. "signing" (sign language). It eventually split Bainy from some of her closest friends. She was educated at a prestige school for the deaf, when oralism was at its peak. "Sign language was considered repulsive."

But "I found that, after graduating from Clarke, many of my friends were miserable or unsuccessful in the hearing world ... After recognizing sign language as a definite remedy for miscommunication, these friends angrily felt that they had wasted time on oralism." Some of her friends eventually retreated from the "normal" hearing universe, marrying people who were signers, living in isolation from non-signers, "a world with its own language and culture."

At reunions, she reports, "I couldn't help feeling isolated when everyone was signing."

    One guy turned to me with a sheepish shrug and said that he wished I could sign ... I couldn't handle staying much longer and announced that I was heading back to the hotel.

All Eyes is a frank autobiography, and it was a tough world Cyrus grew up in. Because she entered public school after her first few years at Clarke, she came into the third grade when she was twelve years old, "on the brink of puberty." Her further feeling of isolation in college caused drinking problems. She hated being identified as "handicapped."

She also discovered that the bridge between the hearing and the deaf is a frail one: she read in one study that only 3 percent of "hearing-deaf marriages actually work." She showed that article to her husband Steve (who is not deaf) and

    the next day he came home with a dozen red roses and announced that he was delighted and proud "to be in the 3 percent."

--- Patty Wright, M. A.
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