Trigger Warning: Mentions of substance abuse, domestic abuse, and the Holocaust may be triggering to some readers. Please exercise care when reading.
Disclaimer: Throughout this piece, the term “Deaf” is used to denote the community or culture surrounding Deafness, whereas “deaf” is used to denote the medical condition of hearing loss. The term “D/deaf” refers to both the community and the medical condition. I have done my best to use the correct capitalization based on context and the term each author uses when describing their memoirs.
April is Deaf History Month, a time to celebrate Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals and their unique culture. It is also a time to acknowledge the struggles these people have faced historically and still endure in their fight for equal treatment amid the stigmatization of their disability. As a hearing person with limited knowledge of the Deaf community, I wanted to learn more about Deaf culture from those who have lived experience with deafness or as CODAs, also known as Children of Deaf Adults. Therefore, here are five memoirs by Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and CODA authors that demonstrate the spectrum of hearing loss and its impact on the lives of these incredible individuals.
Deaf Utopia: A Memoir – And a Love Letter to a Way of Life by Nyle DiMarco
This 2022 celebrity memoir features DiMarco’s upbringing as a Deaf child in a multi-generational Deaf Italian-American family in Queens to his time on reality television, winning both America’s Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars. Despite only being in his thirties, DiMarco details a very interesting life in his memoir, from being an athlete and math major at Gallaudet University to a candid discussion of his journey with his sexuality. Told through various anecdotes that are alternately humorous and heartwarming, Deaf Utopia truly serves as a love letter to Deaf culture, American Sign Language—DiMarco’s primary language—and the joyous and beautiful community created and shared with Deaf individuals.
Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism by Elsa Sjunneson
Media Studies professor Elsa Sjunneson has bilateral hearing aids and partial vision in one eye and is thus classified as deafblind. Since her condition lies at the crossroads of sight and blindness, hearing and deafness, she has noticed she confuses people who don’t understand the spectrum of disability. In this “part memoir, part cultural criticism, part history of the deafblind experience,” Sjunneson analyzes the portrayals of deaf and blind characters in books, film, and television, especially in genres like horror and romance, and deconstructs pop cultural notions of disability to reveal the facts amid the myths of these conditions. Sjunneson’s writing proves why accurate representation in media matters for those with disabilities, as this media is responsible for shaping public understanding of these conditions and can either contribute to or decrease ableism in society.
Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life by Gerald Shea
In this memoir, published in 2013, Shea recounts his unique experience of not learning he was deaf until age thirty-four. Having lost a significant amount of his hearing as a young child after contracting Chicken Pox and Scarlet Fever simultaneously, Shea found creative ways to learn language, such as focusing on the sounds of vowels as consonants were difficult to hear. He went on to study at Andover, Yale, and Columbia Law School and became an international lawyer before realizing that not everyone struggled with hearing and understanding what others were saying. After this revelation, Shea gets hearing aids and must relearn how to navigate a world of new sounds while educating the reader on the history of D/deaf education. Song Without Words uses Shea’s experience to create a witty read with interesting commentary on oral and signed communication as a whole.
I’ll Scream Later by Marlee Matlin
Arguably one of the most well-known Deaf actresses in Hollywood, Matlin’s 2009 biography discusses her childhood as she lost her hearing around eighteen months old to her rise to stardom in Hollywood. Matlin was the youngest woman to ever win the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Children of a Lesser God, and has since gone on to become an activist for D/deaf and Hard of Hearing people around the world. In her memoir, she is honest about the highs and lows of Hollywood fame, her struggles with substance abuse, as well as the abuse she faced in relationships with some high-profile actors of the time. Written in a manner that artfully reflects ASL grammar, Matlin presents a compelling narrative of overcoming adversity and making a positive impact by pursuing one’s dreams.
Signs of Survival: A Memoir of the Holocaust by Renee Hartman and Joshua M. Greene
This 2021 memoir, written largely in the oral storytelling tradition, follows Jewish sisters Renee and Herta as they and their parents attempt to evade Nazi capture in 1940s Czechoslovakia. As the only hearing person in her family, Renee must alert her parents and sister when she hears the Nazi soldiers approach so they can hide. However, one day their parents are taken away, so Renee and Herta run away before they are eventually captured and taken to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Relying on sign language to communicate in the camp, the sisters must depend on each other in order to survive the horrors of the Holocaust. Told from both sisters’ perspectives and intended for a middle-grade audience, Signs of Survival offers a window into life as a CODA and is an excellent depiction of life, love, and humanity in one of the darkest times of human history.
As Deaf History Month comes to an end, I highly encourage you to check out these books and to be cognizant of the experiences of Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and CODA individuals year-round. Through the narratives of these authors, be inspired to choose kindness and demonstrate empathy for everyone, as celebrating diversity in humanity is what makes stories like these so valuable.
For more recommendations for books by Deaf and Hard of Hearing authors, click here!