Dreaming for Freud

The internal conflicts

On Bringing Up a Deaf Child

What is important in the upbringing of a deaf child?

Looking back on my earnest but often misguided attempts to drag my deaf child willy-nilly into the hearing world, I can only say it was thanks to her good mind, her determination, and her good heart that we both came through so amazingly well.

Cybele was born in the sixties. We discovered she was deaf only when she turned fifteen months old. A clever little girl,  she would turn her head as she climbed up the stairs knowing I would call to tell her not to.  Before that, I had mentioned her high- pitched voice to our elderly pediatrician, saying, “Is that normal?” he frowned at me and said, “What is normal?” Cybele was fitted with heavy body aids, which she wore in a bodice, tipping forward like a little teapot. They enabled her to regulate her voice but did not make words intelligible. She was profoundly deaf.

Still, I was advised to “Talk to her, don’t stop talking to her. Don’t use your hands. Don’t give her the ice cream until she says the word, ice cream.” I followed the rule religiously, putting the little girl into her high chair for her lesson every morning where she would scream and beat her hands on the tray, while I showed her pictures of a baby and said, “Baby, baby, baby, ” or gave her a wooden puzzle with lambs which went “Bah! Bah! Bah!” which she put in her mouth and tried to swallow.  Next there were the plastic cups which went “Up, up, up,” which she would knock down onto the floor, where they went “ Down, down, down.”

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I, a writer, read her books while she tried to tear them up or threw them across the room.

Yet she did somehow learn to speak and read voraciously though her first word was not baby or up or even Mummy but a word I, with my English background, had never taught her to say, a word of greeting,  “Hi!” a miraculous word said to a little boy in the park.  Above all she learned most expertly to read lips, which she tells us is mostly guess-work, going first to nursery school, and later  to the American school in Paris where we were living, and eventually on to Yale University, where she studied art and met her husband, another wonderful and caring Yalee.  They now have three beautiful daughters.

The question that comes up these days, of course, is the cochlear implant. My daughter is now fifty years old and has managed so remarkably all these years as an artist in a hearing world. She hesitates to undergo the operation.   Her daughters say,  “Oh,  don’t do it Mummy, then you’ll be able to hear what we say!”

The modern world is in some ways easier for a deaf person because of e-mail as, of course, she cannot use the telephone.

I can only tell her to do what seems right to her, which is what she has done all her life, my beautiful and brilliant daughter who has taught me that the important word is love. 

Sheila Kohler teaches at Princeton. She is the author of many books including Dreaming for Freud, Becoming Jane Eyre, and Cracks, which was made into a film with Eva Green.

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