Shelve with Oliver Sacks. In Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found Bella Bathurst has written a fascinating and illuminating book on deafness. Of what it’s like to lose your hearing – and in her case regain it after a 12 long years. On the world of the deaf and the deafened. On loss – not just of the sense of hearing but of much to which it is allied, such as spacial awareness, and which we take for granted. On isolation, the feeling of being “stupid”, and of being consigned to the invisible world of the old.
Like Sacks, Bathurst tells stories of deafness in others: the military for example, though the MoD really didn’t pay serious attention to the problem of servicemen made deaf in the course of duty until very recently and neither pilot nor RAF has much interest in declaring unfit for service someone who has been recently, and expensively, trained. She writes of sufferers from pseudohypacusis – those who have suffered a trauma, “who have heard something they find so horrifying that their brain has temporarily suspended its capacity to hear”. And extraordinarily she tells of those who – for various reasons, including a sort-of Munchausen’s Syndrome – have decided they won’t, or can’t, hear. Go online, and there are discussion groups of people wanting to pass themselves off as deaf, who sometimes want to deafen themselves (“this is how you puncture your eardrum”), and others who are “turned on by the feel and sight of myself in hearing aids”. Another version of those people who feel that this or that limb is surplus to requirements and seek an amputation.
Then of course there is the deaf community, those born without hearing, not infrequently to deaf parents, who (for obvious practical reasons) have great difficulty acquiring speech and who grow up in the world of Deaf, signing their way through life. Some of these people regard themselves as “special” making cochlear implants, which can give (and restore) hearing, a controversial issue. A betrayal almost.
Bathurst, award-winning author of The Lighthouse Stevensons, begins her memoir-cum-investigation with a description of a trip with friends on a Scottish sea loch. She’s no stranger to sail and sea, but no expert either. Even with her powerful hearing aids, the crash of waves, the roar of the wind, the creaking and cracking of ropes and lanyards make it difficult to hear and when one of the aids fails as the weather turns dirty she is in trouble. At the wheel while her two shipmates grapple with the sails, she can neither hear nor see to lip-read their instructions. Not all the deaf want to put to sea, but you get the sense of how life-limiting, and perilous, being profoundly deaf can be.
Bathurst was in her twenties when she began to notice a diminution in her hearing. Like most people, she spent some time in denial. She was 27 when an audiologist informed her she’d already lost 40-50 percent of her hearing and fitted her with hearing aids, to which she was resistant. (A few years later, further loss left her no choice; by then hearing aids had gone digital and tiny). There was no obvious explanation and – the inner and middle ear being inaccessible – nothing, apparently, that could be done. She, and the doctor, agreed that two major whacks on the head – one as a student on an unforgiving off-piste ski run, the other in a car on black ice – had probably done irreparable damage.
As a journalist and author, whose job involved talking and listening, life for Bathurst became increasingly difficult, made more so, as she eventually came to acknowledge, by her refusal to discuss the problem. On the one hand she felt shut out, suddenly excluded from the lives of her hearing friends (and of course not part of any deaf community) and wanted a measure of sympathy and understanding. On the other she pushed back against those who offered it. When she looks back through the notebooks she’s kept throughout her life – “jottings… thoughts or questions, bits of research, ideas” – she finds no mention at all of her deafness. “I worked harder and harder and faster and faster, but not one single word of it had anything to do with the thing often uppermost in my mind.”
Every day, for seven years, she thought about dying – not about suicide, but about “passive exits”. Relationships foundered under the pressure and as friends got married and had kids, she slipped into depression. Eventually she showed up in A&E and asked to be sectioned. She’d hit the bottom: the only way was up. So Bathurst allowed friends to break through the walls she’d erected. She asked for help. She negotiated a route back to sanity by researching and writing about the problem she’d tried so long not to acknowledge. And then one day, during one of her regular check-ups, the doctor put a name on her condition: ostosclerosis, bone build-up in the middle ear which means the various microscopic moving parts that enable us to hear can’t function properly. A doctor in France was operating, with a high degree of success…
Sound is an eminently readable tour through the world of hearing loss that deserves a wide readership. In structure and approach, it compares more to Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, but it’s up there with Sacks.
One cavil: the obvious person to speak with in the chapter on music would have been percussionist Evelyn Glennie who embarked on a career in music despite being profoundly deaf from age 12 and “hears” with parts of her body. Perhaps she might review it.
Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst (Wellcome Collection and Profile Books, £14.99)