The Blurb (from Goodreads):
Hearing Maud: a Journey for a Voice is a work of creative non-fiction that details the author’s experiences of deafness after losing most of her hearing at age four. It charts how, as she grew up, she was estranged from people and turned to reading and writing for solace, eventually establishing a career as a writer.
Central to her narrative is the story of Maud Praed, the deaf daughter of 19th century Queensland expatriate novelist Rosa Praed. Although Maud was deaf from infancy, she was educated at a school which taught her to speak rather than sign, a mode difficult for someone with little hearing. The breakup of Maud’s family destabilised her mental health and at age twenty-eight she was admitted to an asylum, where she stayed until she died almost forty years later. It was through uncovering Maud’s story that the author began to understand her own experiences of deafness and how they contributed to her emotional landscape, relationships and career.
I love creative non-fiction, particularly when it weaves personal memoir with an in-depth examination of some aspect of human culture. And I’ve been interested in deafness and sign language ever since reading about Helen Keller as a child. So as soon as I heard about this book, I knew I was interested in reading it. I then saw Jessica White speak at the Heroines Festival in Thirroul, and found her story so fascinating I bought the book right then.
In brief, Jessica White lost most of her hearing from meningitis at the age of four. I contracted meningitis when I was two, along with encephalitis, but I was lucky enough not to be left with permanent hearing loss (though I was left with a debilitating stutter).
Jessica’s family lived in the country, and there was no support for a deaf child growing up in a hearing and speaking community. She had to learn to lip-read and to understand non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions to understand what was happening around her. School was an endless struggle, and her painful isolation and loneliness cut very close to home for me. Jessica found solace and escape in the world of books, in reading and writing, as I did as a child too. After finishing school, she travelled overseas to study. It was during this time that Jessica met another deaf person for the first time. She discovered a whole community of people who lived without sound, communicating easily and fluidly with sign language, and at last began to find a way to live in this world.
It is around this time that Jessica first heard the story of Maud Praed, the deaf daughter of the 19th century Australian novelist Rosa Praed. She was deaf from birth, and – like Jessica – was never taught to sign. A clever, curious child, she found herself shunned by society and increasingly isolated – her own brother suggested that it was too embarrassing being seen in public with her as she struggled to articulate sounds she had never heard. The breakdown of her parents’ marriage and her mother’s intense friendship with the spiritualist medium Nancy Harward caused Maud emotional and psychological distress, and she was committed to a mental asylum at the age of 28. Despite all her pleading letters, she remained there for the rest of her life, dying in the asylum at the age of 67. For most of those years, she lived in utter silence, unable to communicate except in the occasional scribbled notes – pens were not given to inmates for fear of self-harm.
Maud’s story is utterly tragic, and Jessica relates it with great sensitivity and compassion, linking it to both her own life and struggles, and to the history of deafness and sign language. I found it all so fascinating that I was constantly telling people about the book while I was reading it, and I’ve gone on to read more on the subject since.
One of the best creative non-fiction books of the year.
You might also like to read my review of Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams: