Katherine Bouton

What I Hear

A Different Way of Hearing: The Language of Lyricals

Gerald Shea's "Song Without Words" tells a remarkable story.

Posted May 28, 2013

This long rainy Memorial Day weekend I picked up a book that was published just shortly after mine, “Song Without Words,” by Gerald Shea.

Shea’s story is different from mine. He lost the majority of his high frequency hearing as a child, after a bout with chicken pox and scarlet fever. Amazingly, no one seems to have noticed. Shea was given a hearing test as a child and then not again until he was in his 30’s, as a routine part of being hired as an international lawyer by Mobil.

Perhaps the family chaos—his father died just a year later, leaving his mother impoverished and with four young children—got in the way of diagnosis. But young Gerry was precocious and brilliant. He went to the prestigious boys boarding school Andover on scholarship, then to Yale, where he was recruited by the elite singing group the Whiffenpoofs, then to Columbia Law School. After that he was hired by the blue-chip law firm Debevoise and Plimpton.

Shea himself did not realize that the rest of the world heard differently, though he knew enough to give his comprehension of spoken language a word that was specific to himself: lyricals. “I love my language of lyricals,” he writes, “my second tongue. When others speak I and millions of others like me, hear only the contours of an elusive language to which, in the rapid course of conversation, we endeavor to give meaning.”

Even though I hear somewhat as Shea does—partially, imperfectly—I don’t quite understand how his lyricals help him understand the spoken English (or French) that they relate to. “They have no intrinsic meaning of course. They’re keys to other words.” A transitional language, as an audiologist suggests.

Shea describes it this way: “When others speak, I and millions of others like me, hear only the contours of an elusive language to which, in the rapid course of conversation, we endeavor to give meaning.” Two examples he gives early on suggest the methodology: “what’ll happen when Nora leaves” becomes the lyrical “water happens after coral reefs.” “Her way of speaking gently” becomes “arrays of seas he lent me.”

These are phrases out of context and as anyone with hearing loss knows, context is everything. So too for Shea.

For a while he works as a lawyer for Mobil in the Middle East, working out complex legal agreements.

“How can we germinate – cat or if we want?” a colleague asks.

Shea translates simultaneously from lyrical to English: germinate = terminate, “cat how we can get out” = “how can we get out.”

“But we grieve our intetment or enable” the colleague responds.

Lyrical: Intentment = investment. Ah, “leave our investment on the table.”

“What if dayosee terminates?”

Lyrical: day day K KOC. Ah, Kuwait Oil Company. “What if KOC terminates?”

I was exhausted and fearful for Shea just reading this. He himself developed ulcers. Even with hearing aids, which he finally gets in his 30’s, and something he calls the “Wolseyphone,” an early assistive hearing device, an omnidirectional microphone, he hears very imperfectly.

It gets worse. His description of a meeting in Washington with representatives of the Hungarian Ministry of Energy, as well as a Japanese negotiator and another from Singapore, left me feeling physically ill – how did he do it? The night before, at a Heathrow hotel waiting for a flight, he slept through a fire alarm (which turned out to be a bomb threat). In the confusion he left his Woolseyphone in the hotel. In Washington, a friend contacts SHHHH, the predecessor of the Hearing Loss Association of America, to drum up a loaner.

Nevertheless: After the greetings: “Gomorrah,” and “Sodom to you,” the meeting begins.

“Sakakida asked me whether I had a DIEddee diedee you have to put a nightie on Aphrodite to keep all the married men home – accent dieDee deep treep nice trip.”

He did finally retire, living in France with his beloved French wife and bi-lingual children. Oddly, he found ordinary life with hearing loss far more unsettling (at first) than his high-flying corporate life had been. “When doing errands I would quickly become lost in common exchanges with a grocer, a pharmacist, a dry cleaner. After a while they would see me coming, stiffen a bit while preparing to make exaggerated lip movements, and assure themselves that a pen and notepad lay at hand.”

Many of us with hearing loss are masters of denial, but Shea trumps anyone I’ve ever met. He writes beautifully, and his reflections on partial hearing loss are insightful and often very moving. I often wonder how I did it – faking my way through 22 years at The New York Times – but I am truly astounded at how he did it. Talk about triumph over adversity, and in fact it does seem to have nearly killed him. "Song Without Words" is compelling reading, a little like watching a train wreck. In the end, though, true catastrophe is averted. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when he finally retired. 

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