It's been a long time coming, but last night I watched the documentary Sound and Fury, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2000. For anyone who has not yet seen this film: please, please do. Run out and get it, in fact.
Sound and Fury explores the story of two brothers, one deaf and one hearing, and their families as they expore their decisions and feelings about cochlear implants. Chris Artinian is hearing, and he and his wife Mari (also hearing, but has deaf parents) have just found out that their young son is deaf. Peter Artinian, Chris's brother, is profoundly deaf, and he and his deaf wife Nita live very much in the Deaf world with their three deaf children. When Peter's 4-year-old daughter Heather begins asking for a cochlear implant, and when Chris and Mari decide to implant their deaf son, chaos breaks out in the extended family. Essentially, the hearing families in the film feel, implanting a deaf child is a necessity for giving the child viable opportunities to succeed in the hearing world. Withholding the gift of the implant, and therefore the gift of sound, verges on "abuse." On the other hand, the Deaf families believe that cochlear implants threaten Deaf culture, sign language, and Deaf identity. They feel that the choice to be implanted, and thus to reject one's deafness, should belong to the child and the child alone. Furthermore, the Deaf families feel, implants are another means of condescension by the hearing world, which treats the Deaf community as inferior. Cochlear implants, in this film, are not simply a "quick fix" or "medical miracle." On the contrary, the decision to get an implant boils down to the question of identity.
This film is well-known and extraordinarily well-done, and I've wanted to see it for a while. I'm glad I didn't see it before I was implanted, though. Before taking that first irreversible step, I did not need any more doubt or controversy thrown into my decision. Plus the video clips of the CI surgery were not something I needed to see before I went under!
Really, the entire documentary was heart-wrenching - even more so because it made me reflect on myself and the path I, and my parents, have chosen. The controversy and sentiments surrounding CIs were not news to me. Rather, witnessing them in this format refocused my perspective. I saw my own struggles reflected in the film's deaf people. When the little girl, Hannah, tried to interact with hearing (or implanted) children who did not sign, I felt her frustration and bewilderment. It came to me in the form of a memory - which, of course, it is. When the deaf father, Peter, told about keeping to himself as a boy because his hearing peers could not reach into his world, I saw myself there too. I recalled an excellent quote from Helen Keller, which a friend reminded me of just yesterday: "Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people."
But what I did not feel, watching this film, was the full extent of the Deaf adults' bitterness. I have somehow escaped that. Because I have many wonderful hearing friends, it hurt to see these Deaf people so sequestered from everyone who did not sign. It hurt even more to realize that this was not their own fault, that they'd never had the opportunities that I have. Despite their protests to the contrary, they were isolated - just as, to a lesser extent, I have been. Does their frustration justify their hostility to everything "hearing"? I do not know. I only know that this film stirred the old identity crisis within me. Within the first ten minutes, in which the anger of the Deaf parents toward CIs had become apparent, I sank my chin into my hands and said, "Now they're going to make me feel like a traitor."
And, in their eyes, I am. It's been a long time since I interacted with Deaf people. I understand sign language very well, but my own sign is no longer good, because I don't use it. I found myself relating more to the hearing families in the film. Strangely enough, though, this was fine with me. Perhaps I have chosen to occupy that odd "cochlear-implant world" in between the hearing and the deaf worlds, but this is an extension of how my life has always been.
In this film, I also saw my own parents, faced with the enormous challenges of deciding how to raise a deaf child. What decision would I make in their place? It's complicated. I do believe that the decision to get an implant should be a child's personal choice, rather than a parent's decision. In this way, I do not regret my upbringing in the least - even if a CI would have saved me some of my struggles, it would have been my hearing parents' projection of their desires onto my identity. I had to discover and decide that identity for myself. Thus, my decision to get a CI, even after a lapse of 20 years, has been self-empowering rather than imposed. However, I don't know that I could ever make my own kids go through what I did. I don't know that I could deny them the opportunity to function more normally, especially when the CI is most beneficial within that narrow language-learning window.
I do think there is a middleground, however, that no one in this film saw. It doesn't have to be either-or. Sign language or speech. The doctors, schools, and hearing families who advocate the CI at a young age also urge parents never to sign to their deaf children. They argue that sign language functions as a "crutch," so that the child will never learn spoken language. What these professionals do not realize is that children are such astonishingly adept learners that they can learn more than one language at a time. And denying children the access to any form of communication that they can understand, whether verbal or visual, is abuse. When I was young, one doctor told my parents to do exactly this, to implant me and not sign - words cannot articulate my gratitude that they had the sense not to listen. One of the implanted deaf girls in this documentary, even at five years old, had never heard of sign language. She was perplexed when she saw it. She did not seem to realize that she was deaf. I found something sad, something intolerable about that. Her hearing parents had decided, from her birth, that she must be hearing, like them. And, as a result, a huge shard of her identity was forced to vanish. I am no Deaf rabble-rouser, and there is also tragedy in the deaf child who cannot connect with her world, but still - how awful.
To the readers of this blog: just watch this film. And, after watching, what would you do?