Book Review

The title of Raymond Luczak's book, Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life operates on a number of levels. As the "Acknowledgements" indicates, the book is constructed from a number of previously published pieces upon which the author has expanded. It also advertises Luczak's awareness that any attempt at life writing is an artificial construction that the author has arranged to present himself in a particular light. Finally, the "notes" let readers know they are not to expect Augustine's Confessions.

The structure that Luczak imposes upon his notes is tripartite. On the macro level, the book is divided into three sections, projecting the general trajectory of the book: Discovery, Connecting, Identifying. Each of these sections is divided into smaller parts that, when listed in the table of contents with their descriptions, take on an appearance of the arguments of eighteenth century autobiographical works like Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative. The first listing in the Discovery section, "Little Winks Everywhere", for example, is accompanied by the description:

Attempts during my growing up years to decode the sublimated signals of gayness through hearing culture have made clear why my personal gay-identified icons are often different from others.

Within these subsections are the notes from which Assembly Required is constructed.

In Assembly Required, as in his plays, one of Luczak's accomplishments is the portralal of the individual caught between the hearing world and Deaf Culture. Born into a hearing family, Luczak announces in the opening of the book:

IT WASN'T JUST the hearing aid harness I wore under my shirt like a bra that made me feel different. I didn't know how or why or what, but I knew I was different. All my childhood I was constantly ashamed - although I hadn't quite grasped precisely why at the time - to be deaf and to have imperfect and very nasal speech.

Having to survive education in the Catholic school of a small rural town through lip reading and a hearing aid, Luczak was thrilled to arrive at Gallaudet University where, watching everyone communicating in ASL, he felt he had finally found a sense of identity.

What Luczak soon realized, however, was that even after becoming fluent in sign language he would never really be accept totally into Deaf Culture. Much like the Yankee moving into the deep South, he was always going to be suspect because of his background and never really to be trusted.

As Luczak puts it, "THE IRONY IS that while we Deaf people complain about being misunderstood and mislabeled by the hearing world, we still misunderstand and mislabel each other." One of the most interesting images of the workings of the Deaf Community is what Luczak calls the crab metaphor.

The "crab theory" - widely maintained by many signing Deaf people to explain the virulent backstabbing in their community; the metaphor decribes a bucket in which crabs keep reaching up to pull down those trying to climb out – implies that we Deaf people would rather see our own kind stay at our level than at their level of accomplishment. After all, what do we really know about the world outside of our figurative bucket.

Luczak proposes that Deaf Culture broaden its definition of itself to include not just Deaf signers, but deaf oralists, hard of hearing people, hearing children of Deaf adults, ASL interpreters and everyone affected by deafness to a significant degree.

If growing up deaf was difficult, Luczak's gradual realization that he was gay was in some ways an even more difficult journey.

There is always the tendency to superimpose presently held perspectives on past experiences. Luczak recognizes this in looking back to try to pinpoint just when her realized that he was gay. In a time when it was not automatically assumed that every boy who enjoyed musicals was gay, there were no names for the feelings that he felt. What he did realize was that he often felt lonely and isolated.

The first real clues came after high school when he found men staring back at him, who recognized in him what he was not able to see yet in himself. While attending Gallaudet, he encountered the Lambda Rising Bookstore, a gay book store. For the next six months, he read through the books that he bought there, until one day he "held his breath and wrote perhaps the three most galvanizing words of my life: ‘I am gay.'" Luczak notes, "it wasn't just words I'd read earlier that afternoon that compelled me forward, it was the knowledge that being gay wasn't a choice to be, but more of a willful choice on how to live."

Whenever one reads the memoirs of a gay man, it is almost inevitable that included in that story will be friends or lovers who have died of AIDS. Assembly Required is no exception. "Appearances and Disappearances" is the chapter of the book devoted to the gay men who pass in to his life, exert a profound influence on him, and pass on again. Each in some way helped Luczak to become the writer he presently is and now, as a writer who bears the fruit of their influences, he wants to contribute to the telling of their story. As he closes the second portion of the book, the one devoted to "Connecting", Luczak reflects:

Just how truly different is it now to be a Deaf gay man than in the days of Stonewall? So many died way too quickly, without passing on all those stories about the innocent exuberance of their gay lives and their struggle for acceptance in the larger straight Deaf community.

As much as Assembly Required is about the discovery, connecting and identifying, it is also a story of the development of a writer. By the end of the book we see Luczak as a poet (St. Michael's Fall), a playwright (Whispers of a Dangerous Kind) and an anthologist of gay/Deaf literature (Eyes of Desire), but the path to these accomplishments was not a straight-forward one. One wonders if the path to creativity ever is. One of the great virtues of Assembly Required is its accessibility. Not only is it written in clear prose divided into comfortable segments, but there little academic jargon to provide a stumbling block to the reader who might be venturing into Deaf or gay literature for the first time. For those few terms that may need defining, such as the distinction between "deaf" and "Deaf" the author provides a very brief foreword. Moreover, the reader rarely feels that Luczak is proselytizing. Out of his life experience he creates an engaging and insightful narrative from which the reader will learn a great deal. There may be no better introduction to the Deaf gay life. Assembly Required is available from RID Press.