Book Review: Deafness Down (Michael Uniacke)

Reviewed by Raymond Luczak

Since each reader inevitably filters through her own experiences and bias through each book she reads, particularly if the book in question reflects her own background in truly significant ways, I should state my own upfront. Even though I’d lost much of my hearing at the age of eight months (which wasn’t detected until I was two and half years old), I grew up being taught to lipread and rely on my bulky hearing aids to fill in the gaps of what I couldn’t understand. I also spent five years in a Catholic school system.

Thus reading Michael Uniacke’s memoir of growing up hard of hearing in Australia during the 1960s felt like a homecoming of sorts. Uniacke was born into a family that seems to have a strong genetic strain of deafness. He has three sisters (one who is more hard of hearing, the other more deaf, and the third fully hearing) and a deaf younger brother. Their parents are hearing. (It’s unclear just where in their family’s ancestral history, whether paternal or maternal, deafness became genetically inherited.) Much of the book focuses on his experiences dealing with deafness and his hearing aids in a Catholic school environment. This following passage describes beautifully the challenges of being deaf in a hearing environment where teachers and students aren’t informed of the quirky nuances of hearing loss:

The nuns said that while we were waiting for confession we had to pray. I tried, but to pray you had to keep your eyes shut, and when my eyes were shut, the world became a harder place of unknown noise and thuds and sniggers and words that made no sense. I squinted, so my eyes looked shut but I could still see. I hoped that Cecelia and Clare and those other girls would each tell the priest they were mean to the deaf boy [Uniacke himself]. That was a mortal sin. Through squinting eyes I surveyed the church in the filtered morning light, seeing schoolkids moving about with heads bowed, and nuns gliding along the lino passageways between the pews. [page 24]

The book uses an interesting—almost innovative, actually—technique to convey the challenge of lipreading a person who’s not easy to understand.

"Three εαρσ three εαρσ three εαρσ," [the girls] chanted.

I backed away. Three—three years? Why did they want to know how old I would be in three years time? I stood firm, counted carefully in my head and shouted back. "I’ll be nine."

The girls screamed with laughter, doubled over and clutched their middles. Cecelia straightened up and turned to the others.

"Ηεσ μενταλ." [page 13]

Just out of curiosity, I tried using the phrase ("Ηεσ μενταλ") via Google’s translate feature; it came out as "les mental." Huh. This takes the clichéd saying "It’s all Greek to me" to a whole new level. As long as you don’t know Greek (and I’m not even sure if the Greek letters used could actually be understood by those fluent in Greek), it works really well.

There was an occasional solid paragraph of nothing but spoken "Greek." These paragraphs didn’t work for me not because I don’t know Greek but because, as all lipreaders know, speechreading works best when context is clear. It’d have helped to see a few visual possible clues inserted throughout these longish "Greek" passages. This way we could experience the narrator’s trying to decode such a wall of babble.

Deafness Down describes the many adaptations that a deaf person must make in order to survive in a hearing school. I often found myself saying: Yes, yes, yes! The following passage provides a great example of what I’m talking about.

Without a hearing aid I was fully deaf and as wise as the wolves. I positioned myself about one-third down the line. I would not go first because I would not know what he told us to do. I avoided the end of the line because Ernie sometimes liked to reverse the order of the line and get the last ones, the unconfident and uncoordinated ones, to go first. And I would not place myself at the middle of the line, because Ernie sometimes divided us into two teams, and the two boys in the middle may have found themselves captains and be expected to start doing something, like a relay race. No. I was further down the line, where it was anonymous and distant enough, from where I could study the actions of the boys who ran, leapt and jumped, on, in and around the vaulting horse. [pages 119-120]

As a big fan of Michael Uniacke’s work ever since reading his wonderful piece of historical fiction "This Incontestable Superiority" (available in John Lee Clark’s anthology Deaf Lit Extravaganza), I was not surprised by the overall quality of his writing. However, there were two elements that stopped me from feeling fully engaged with the book. The verb tense used wasn’t always consistent: the story is told in the past tense, and yet some incidents are conveyed in the present tense. That threw me off a few times. The other distraction was the occasional section that acknowledges the reader directly, usually to explain what’s just happened with hindsight. I did not want to be taken out of the story’s timeframe at all, so such intrusions proved to be unwelcome. For instance, he rather suddenly explains the usage of Greek in the text; this would’ve been better addressed elsewhere, perhaps in an afterword.

It’s a writing conundrum. How do I use the visual medium of text to convey the sensation of hearing a voice being spoken, but not the words?

I considered a series of asterisks, but that would have made the words too opaque. I decided to invent a spoken exchange, type it, and then substitute Greek letters. This seemed the best way. The impact of deafness is subtle. It is not nothearing, and it is never silence. It is the art of deciphering sounds that you know are words formed by human voices. The reader must decipher the Greek letters, just as I had to decipher sounds that I knew meant words. From the aggressive set of these girls, their piercing stares, and the nasty edge to their laughter, I knew they made words that stung and hurt. [pages 14-15]

More importantly, I really wanted to see Uniacke explore his unique family’s dynamics more. Think about this: two hearing adults are outnumbered by children whose hearing loss isn’t the same across the line. I’ve heard anecdotally how many hearing people in power over deaf children find themselves gesturing a lot more even though they didn’t know sign language. There were a few incidents, such as family trips to visit his grandparents, but they didn’t really convey enough of how hearing loss has affected their relationships, and how each member have dealt with deafness. While I understand that this is a first-person memoir, I didn’t feel that treating his family members as secondary characters in the book was effective. If anything, it made me doubly curious about them. It’s my hope that in the memoir’s forthcoming sequel, we’ll get to know his family better. (For the record, I come from a hearing family of nine children, and each sibling has viewed my deafness differently, which is why I’ve brought up this question.)

The table of contents listed an afterword, a "short commentary to come," but the review copy that I was given didn’t include it.* It’s my hope that the afterword will somehow tie up enough loose ends and pique our interest in reading the second part of his memoir.

Nonetheless, the book does contain beautiful evocations of what it’s like not to hear fully and not fit in as a result. I’d like to close with these words of his:

Voices were like dragonflies. They darted and flitted about. They hovered and swooped. Sometimes they darted within reach of my hearing aid, sometimes they remained distant, and sometimes they were both, like the chatter around me that I heard but which now receded … [pages 29-30]

Title: Deafness Down
Author: Michael Uniacke
Publisher: TUG Publications
Publication Date: August: 2015


*Editor’s note: Wordgathering occasionally reviews books that are still in the process of being published to give readers a glimpse at new work to come. Deafness Down is one of these. In response to a the lack of an Afterword for the review above, Michael Uniacke writes, "The Afterword is three short (800-1200 words) articles from each of three specialists in the areas of deaf education, audiology and genetics. I've asked them to comment on the book in terms of their area of expertise, and tell readers what is the present stage of their disciplines. I've asked the geneticist to explain how it could happen for deafness to appear in four out of five children with hearing parents."


Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of more than fifteen books, including Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life (RID Press). His four collections of poetry include St. Michael's Fall (Deaf Life Press), This Way to the Acorns (Tactile Mind Press), Mute (A Midsummer Night's Press), and Road Work Ahead (Sibling Rivalry Press). His novel Men with Their Hands (Queer Mojo) won first place in the Project: QueerLit 2006 Contest. His most recent book From Heart to Art: Interviews with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Artists and their Allies was just published by Handtype Press. A playwright and filmmaker, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His web site is