I lost my hearing one early spring day in 1978. I was at home, writing about a trip I had made to Turkey the summer before. I had been part of an archaeological dig in southwestern Turkey, the site of a former Classical Greek and then Byzantine city. I hoped to write about the experience in a feature article for The New Yorker. Although I had worked at the magazine for eight years, since graduating from college, I didn’t discuss the story with an editor or ask for an assignment—only for a three-month unpaid leave. I don’t think a man would have been as reticent, or a young woman today. But it was 1977.
The dig was an adventure and the archaeologist in charge a vivid and controversial character. After I got home, I started writing. I was excited, happy, and slightly anxious, the way you are when you’re on the brink of something that could change your life.
At some point in the morning, the phone rang and I picked it up. “Hello?” I said. “Hello????” Why couldn’t I hear the caller? I tried the other ear, the right. It worked just fine.
I went over the explanations that come to anyone with sudden hearing loss. Maybe I had wax in my ear, an infection; had I forgotten some loud noise? Once before, I had lost my hearing for almost a day after being at a loud rock concert (The Who, Madison Square Garden, March 1976). It came back on its own. So would this, I thought. Or a doctor would fix it.
As the day went on, I was dizzy and my ear was crackling. Loud noises were uncomfortably amplified and startling. I went outside to clear my head, but a city bus going by whooshed its air brakes and the sound was so loud the impact felt almost physical. At home, the ring of the telephone was high-pitched and shrill; my hairbrush made a jangly clatter when I dropped it. In the evening, my soon-to-be husband, Dan, came home. He puttered around doing ordinary things—rustling paper, setting a dish on a counter, watching TV, scraping a chair on the floor. Nothing sounded like what it was, and everything sounded painfully loud.
Eventually, over the next few weeks, the crackling receded and the sensitivity stabilized. But I never regained my hearing. A doctor couldn’t fix it. A doctor couldn’t even figure out what had caused it. It would continue to deteriorate in fits and starts, as unexpectedly and mysteriously as that first time, with increasing frequency. Thirty years later, I was profoundly deaf in my left ear and headed in that direction in my right.
* * *
There are many things I have failed to hear, but one stands out from the others. My father died in 2010. I had been with him a lot during his illness, but I wasn’t there when he went into the final stages of dying. The last words he said to me were on the phone. I didn’t hear them.
My father was six foot five, 230 pounds. He wore a size 15 shoe. He’d been in the Navy in World War II and Korea, and was always trying to persuade my mother to join him on a cruise around the world—the sea was the only place big enough for him. During my childhood, he traveled every week, as a salesman. Like Willy Loman, sample cases in hand, he called on Macy’s and Hutzler’s, Abraham & Straus and Bloomingdale’s, selling Arrow shirts, taking buyers out to dinner and drinks. As Willy says, the success of a salesman depends on being liked. My father was successful.
He was also fiercely independent once he retired. He and my mother lived at home well into their eighties, and his job, in retirement, was taking care of her. As he eventually accepted the need for care, the house filled up with nurse’s aides and hospice workers, visiting nurses and social workers. He managed to find humor in the situation, joking as he answered the phone, “Bouton Nursing Home.”
He didn’t like the phone. If he answered when you called, you were lucky to get three sentences: “Hey! How you? Your mother’s right here…” The sicker he got, the weaker his voice got and the less I could hear him. His main concern about dying was what would happen to my mother—his “bride.” Corny but sweet. At eighty-six, she had back problems, heart problems, memory problems. He took care of her on his own long after his cancer diagnosis. During my visits, he’d draw me aside, hoping my mother wouldn’t hear his worries, but not a word escaped her, even when she was in another room. If we talked about the possibility of her moving north with me, she’d shout from the other room, “I want to stay right here.”
Just before my father died, I called to say I was flying down the next day. The nurse held the phone to his ear. “I love you, Dad,” I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” As I waited for the nurse to take back the phone, I heard his voice, barely audible: “See you soon.” At least that’s what I think he said.
* * *
I got married at twenty, unwisely, to my high school boyfriend. We split up five tearful years later. I went from my unhappy marriage into a difficult and tumultuous romance with someone involved with someone else. It was the seventies, and to get back at the man I wanted, I had casual retributive sex with other men. I discovered opera, full-blown melodramatic Italian opera, listening to La Bohème and La Traviata, music that elevated my own unhappy life into tragic romance.
I worked at The New Yorker. I had walked in one afternoon, résumé in hand, and said I was looking for a job in magazine design. At The New Yorker, that department was called Makeup, and it was all men. Would I like to apply for the typing pool instead? It paid $106 a week.
There were a dozen of us in the typing pool, known as Walden Pond after Harriet Walden, the fifty-ish supervisor who hired the young women (and later young men) who constituted the lowest of the editorial ranks at the magazine.
We typed. We typed handwritten manuscripts from writers who didn’t know how to type. We typed revised manuscripts. We typed edited manuscripts. We typed and retyped. We filled in for absent secretaries and receptionists, which meant we met everyone who came and went. We were young, well educated, and available. Life at The New Yorker as I remember it in those years was one long flirtation.
As assistants and receptionists, we overheard and couldn’t help seeing what went on around us. Senior editors and writers and cartoonists had affairs with each other and with us. Some of them drank too much. They married and remarried, sometimes each other. Maeve Brennan, an Irish redhead and alcoholic, and a venerable Talk of the Town writer (where she was known as the Long-Winded Lady), slept occasionally in the nineteenth-floor ladies’ room on a couch tucked away in an anteroom. Her former husband, St. Clair McKelway, also an alcoholic, was said to have thrown a chair through an office door.
William Shawn, the august editor-in-chief, was famously eccentric. He was known as a devoted husband and father, yet he also had a decades-long relationship with the staff writer Lillian Ross, which she later wrote about in Here but Not Here. We’d see her in the office with her little poodle, Goldie, going in to visit Mr. Shawn. Sometimes she would come to the office with Erik, the tall, handsome son she adopted in Norway—who we fantasized was actually Mr. Shawn’s son. (Given the almost uncanny family resemblance in Shawn’s sons Wallace and Allen, who have the same sloped shoulders, round faces, and short legs as their father, this seems unlikely.)
The New Yorker offices had doors, which could be closed. The hotel down the street, then a dive, had a steamy reputation: “lunch at the Royalton” had a different meaning then. A charming and funny cartoonist (married) left flirtatious drawings on my desk. An editor twenty years my senior (also married) suggested we take a day off and go somewhere and have sex all day long, an idea that terrified me. (We didn’t.) Meanwhile, I flirted with Dan Menaker, who was then a copy editor.
Every February, The New Yorker had a party to celebrate its anniversary, at a ballroom like the St. Regis Roof or the Plaza. Food and drink were plentiful, and there was always a band. Spouses were not invited. After one party in 1974, Dan and I shared a taxi back to the West Side. He held my hand. That was it. Not even a kiss. I left my husband six months later. Dan was in a long-term relationship with someone but we dated sporadically, intensely at times, neurotically always. I listened to tragic operas and wept. Finally, in 1977, as my thirtieth birthday approached, I moved in with him. Six months later I left for Turkey.
* * *
Even after the episode of my hearing loss, although I took time out for doctors’ visits and an MRI, I kept writing compulsively about my trip to Turkey. A few months later, without so much as a by-your-leave, I handed Mr. Shawn an eighteen-thousand-word manuscript and asked if he would read it. He looked surprised, but accepted the pages I had in my hand. Two days later, he came back to me. “This is very good,” he said, adding that he thought I needed to add a passage about such and such. “And, Miss Bouton,” he said, “don’t ever do this again.” Next time, ask first.
The article appeared in the magazine as “A Reporter at Large” in 1978, my first New Yorker byline. I was thrilled. And the check seemed huge. I gave a portion of the proceeds to the New York Public Library—the first time in my life I had enough money to give some away.
Later I proposed other stories, some of which Mr. Shawn published and others which he bought and, to my frustration, held indefinitely. (He was so possessive about writers that this was a regular practice. When I left The New Yorker, there were some two hundred nonfiction pieces on the magazine’s bank of stories to be published. The introduction to the New Yorker archives at the New York Public Library says that some stories were held for as long as twenty years before they were reedited and published, or killed. One such story of mine, on the bank for a mere three or four years, was later repurposed as a cover story for The New York Times Magazine.)
In the fall of 1979, a year and a half after my initial hearing loss, Mr. Shawn let me accept a National Science Foundation grant to travel to Antarctica. I wrote about it in a piece that ran in the magazine under the title “South of 60 Degrees South.” I also sold some fiction to The New Yorker. One of my fellow Antarctic travelers was the NPR science journalist Ira Flatow. When we met afterward, he mentioned to my husband that he thought I was having trouble hearing. I knew that, of course, but I was embarrassed to realize that he did.
In February 1980, Dan and I got married. I think I heard my wedding vows: the chapel was an intimate space, and I was only half deaf then. We wanted to have children and set about trying. All too soon, it became clear we couldn’t. Several years of fertility problems, three tries at IVF, surgeries, grief, anger—hearing issues were easily eclipsed.
In many ways, infertility is like hearing loss. The sufferer is reluctant to acknowledge it publicly. The terms used to describe it are harsh: “barren,” “sterile.” I kept my reproductive problems a secret, even through three catastrophically terminated pregnancies, each involving a week in the hospital. Only my closest friends knew. Much later, when I began to mourn my hearing loss, I at last allowed myself to mourn my lost fertility, and my lost babies as well.
At the time, though, I shoved grief aside. Dan and I started the adoption procedure, another distraction from hearing issues. Our son, William, was born in August 1983; our daughter, Elizabeth, in November 1986. We adopted each of them as infants—Elizabeth was just three days old; Will was twenty days old. They were the silver lining of my infertility, the blessing that would not have been without that grievous experience.
Did I hear their first words? Does anybody really hear when “ma-ma-ma” and “ba-ba-ba” turn into Mama and Dada? I remember two-year-old Will pointing his chubby finger and saying, “What’s dat?” Then, later, “backhoe,” “front loader,” “construction site.” As for Elizabeth, a feisty girl right from the start and tormented by her brother: “Don’t bother me. Leave my lone.”
As they got older, I heard less and less. I had trouble at teacher’s conferences. One of the kids or my husband would fill me in. I missed most of what was said in school assemblies. I never heard a single graduation speech. There were times when my hearing loss was wrenching. I missed confidences, murmured fears, muttered anger. I never heard the backseat chatter and gossip between my children and their friends.
In 1988, when I was forty and my children were two and five, I went to work at The New York Times Magazine as an editor. I wore a headset for the phone, I worked with writers sitting on my right, and I always ensured that I was in the best position to hear at meetings. My colleagues at the magazine and in the various departments I worked in over the next two decades (science and the Sunday New York Times Book Review, bookended by two stints at the magazine) may well have known about my hearing loss, but we never spoke about it and I never acknowledged it.
* * *
Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses, parses the origins of the word “absurdity,” derived from the Latin word absurdus. Absurdus means out of tune or silly or senseless, and comes from ab (“away from”) and surdus (“deafness”). She goes on to write, “The assumption in this etymological nest of spiders is that the world will still make sense to someone who is blind or armless or minus a nose. But if you lose your sense of hearing, a crucial thread dissolves and you lose track of life’s logic.” I think she’s wrong on this: life’s logic can make itself apparent, even to the deaf.
But I can’t disagree with her next thought: “Sounds thicken the sensory stew of our lives, and we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us.”
I hear voices, but I don’t always hear words. Speech is visual. I read lips, I respond to gestures and body language. My mind supplies the words I don’t get—or sometimes it doesn’t. My son and his girlfriend were moving. “She’ll have to give up Nona,” Dan said. “Nona?” A grandmother? A dog? What? “She’ll have to give up Nona,” he repeated. He has trouble remembering the need to rephrase. What he might have said the second (and third and fourth) time was “She’ll have to give up the place where she takes yoga.” Context is everything.
So is close attention to the speaker. Jess Dancer, an emeritus professor of audiology at the University of Arkansas, recently noted that “it’s not unusual for speech intelligibility to increase from 20 percent when listening in noise without vision, to 80 percent or more when the speaker is seen as well as heard.” Writing in an online professional hearing journal, he went on: “This four-fold performance improvement is based upon the principle of ‘bisensory integration,’ in which combining two senses produce[s] more information together than would be predicted from merely adding the performance of the two senses separately.”
“Bisensory integration” is also known as the McGurk (or McGurk-Macdonald) effect, after the two scientists who first happened on the discovery in 1976 that speech perception is multimodal. I’m a fair lip-reader, but I am a very attentive listener. Like many hearing-impaired people, I intuitively practice the McGurk effect—“hearing lips and seeing voices,” as they put it. This bimodal effect can also be achieved by reading captions or lyrics while listening.
Dancer feels that paying attention to the speaker is far more important than structured lipreading. Speechreading (the correct term these days) was the core curricular component at schools for the deaf until well into the twentieth century, when American Sign Language was finally recognized as a mode of communication. At the Center for Hearing and Communication in Manhattan (formerly the League for the Hard of Hearing), speechreading is an integral part of hearing rehabilitation.
I’d like to be a more fluent speech-reader, but the courses are time-consuming and the results varied. I was tempted after reading about the professional lip-reader Tina Lannin, deaf from birth, who managed to pick up much of the (predictable) conversation between Kate Middleton and Prince William at the royal wedding. “You look beautiful,” William said to Kate at the altar, later asking her several times if she was okay. The Queen, however, sounded peevish when she was “overheard” by Lannin saying: “I wanted them to take the smaller carriage.”
Even face-to-face, and with training, lipreading can be difficult. Researchers estimate that only 40 percent of the sounds of speech are visible on the lips. The letters b, m, and p look exactly the same. Then there are those troublesome mustaches and beards, or people who speak with their hands in front of their mouths, ashamed of their teeth perhaps, or while chewing, or looking down at their BlackBerry or rummaging in their purse. Oliver Sacks quotes a deaf woman in The Mind’s Eye who reads lips. When he turns his head away from her while talking, she says, “I can’t hear you.”
I have the great advantage of having heard for most of my life, which means I know what language sounds like and I can put the sounds I hear together with the sounds I expect to hear. It’s the unexpected that trips me up. Out walking with my dog, people ask, “How old is he?” “What kind of dog is he?” “What’s his name?” The questions are all the same length, and caught in the rustle of wind and the hum from the West Side Highway, they all sound the same to me. How old is he? Tibetan Terrier. What kind of dog is he? A year and a half. What’s his name? I usually get that one right. But when I reciprocate, “What’s your dog’s name?” Marley comes out as Paulie, then Barley; Fargo as Margo; Morris as Norris, Moreth, Norman, Mormon, etc.
Dan likes to talk in non sequiturs—his mind tends to race and he enjoys wordplay and leapfrogging through thoughts in conversation. I’m totally lost. In a noisy place—a dinner party, the street, a restaurant, the lobby of a theater, a waiting room with a television on, my book club, a room with a noisy air conditioner—I can’t pick up even the expected.
I’ve often wondered if I hear in my dreams. I sense that I hear voices, tone and pitch and intonation, as precisely as I once did. In dreams, it turns out, I am on level ground with those who hear. “When we hear voices, spoken language, in dreams,” Freud writes in The Interpretation of Dreams, “we are all abnormal in the sense that there is no actual source of sound around; all the voices are silently generated by our minds, not by some external entity.”
Sometimes I take my hearing aid and implant off and just relax into silence. Wearing them is tiring. Listening is exhausting. From the time I turn out the light till daybreak, I am essentially blind and deaf. My husband acts as my eyes and ears when he’s around. My dog fills in when he’s not. He barks when someone knocks on the door or, at our house in the country, when someone comes up the driveway. But like many people with hearing loss, I feel vulnerable at night. I think I would hear the smoke alarm right over the bed. I think the dog would bark or jump on me if someone tried to break in. I hope. There are devices designed for the hearing impaired—alarm systems that work with vibration or strobe lights—but for the moment I’m taking the low-tech dog route. (As it turned out, this too was a form of denial. See the last paragraph in the notes for this chapter.)
What do we hear when there’s nothing at all to hear? George Prochnik, the author of In Pursuit of Silence, went in search of the quietest place in the world and eventually found himself in the basement sanctuary of the Trappist New Melleray Abbey, in Iowa. The monk who showed him the way warned him, Prochnik writes, “that the silence of the room was so intense that it was likely to ‘take me outside of my comfort zone.’” Some people from big cities, the monk added, find themselves “physically unable to remain in the chapel for even five minutes.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t as quiet as it might have been. There was another monk in the room, “a large man sitting with his legs wide apart and his hands on his thighs, breathing quite loudly.” But that doesn’t seem to have disturbed Prochnik’s sense of the deep silence. The monks, he observed, listen to silence for self-knowledge. Far from being out of his comfort zone, he was disappointed when it was time to leave.
Prochnik doesn’t describe what silence sounds like, but I can. It’s noisy. The brain creates noise to fill the silence, and we hear this as tinnitus. Perhaps only someone with profound deafness can achieve this level of silence, so paradoxically loud. As Brad May, a professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University, explained to me, once the auditory machinery that would ordinarily be transmitting sound to the brain stops working, the synaptic balance in those neurons goes haywire, because nothing is regulating it, “nothing is pulling it down into its proper level of activity.” And so the brain starts generating its own activity in that pathway, and the result can be ringing, or buzzing, or humming—all of which fall under the catchall term “tinnitus.” Sylvia, in Nina Raine’s Tribes, says of going deaf, “No one told me it was going to be this noisy … It’s this buzz. This roar and outside … it’s all—black.”
I have it easy, and in fact kind of like my tinnitus: it changes pitch from time to time, an ethereal deep outer space keening.
* * *
Anatomically, the inner ear is one of the most inaccessible areas of the body. In addition, the structure of the inner ear is complex, delicate, and well protected by its bony casing. The result is that we know very little about what goes on there. As the Stanford University researcher Stefan Heller wrote in 2010, “We continue to lack nondestructive means of diagnosing or manipulating specific pathology for even the most common disorders.”
I spent years requesting tests and searching out far-fetched explanations. I repeatedly asked my ENT doctor, Ronald Hoffman, if there wasn’t another test or procedure we could try. Not impatiently, but with a certain weariness, he said, “We could do an autopsy.” An autopsy may well explain what went wrong in my inner ear, and why. But for now I am left with “idiopathic,” a word that sounds uncomfortably like “idiot,” which is how you often feel when you’re hearing impaired.
VOICES: BEN LUXON
The British opera singer Ben Luxon denied his hearing loss until he couldn’t anymore. That moment happened to be during a recital. The program was a Schubert cycle. “I sang the first song,” he told me. “I could see from people’s faces … hmmm … something’s not good here, and then the second song, I couldn’t even start. This was the pattern for the next five or six songs, until at last I just had to stop and say to people, ‘I can’t submit you or myself to this any longer, something is seriously wrong with my hearing,’ and so that was that. That was on a Friday evening…” By Sunday he was totally deaf in one ear and sound was seriously distorted in the other.
I visited Luxon in his comfortable kitchen in rural Massachusetts, birds on the feeder just outside the window. Luxon had continued to sing for some time, he said that day, even after he began to notice that things seemed out of whack. He was cast as Papageno in The Magic Flute for the English National Opera. During rehearsals the conductor mentioned that his voice was “a little sharp” in places, just above the correct pitch, but ENO wanted him to do the role anyway. “I couldn’t hear the orchestra—the orchestra sounded like people banging on big iron pipes in the bottom of a pit, it was just so distorted,” he said. “And the soprano, when I was singing the duet with her, that beautiful duet in Act 1, once she got above an F or G, her voice split like a cat yowling. It went in two directions, and I thought, ‘My God, this is really wild, bizarre.’”
A few months later, he was scheduled to sing the Schubert recital. Warming up before the concert, he said to the pianist, “I have no idea … I can’t hear where the pitch is.” He didn’t know where to sing. He stood beside the keyboard; he tried standing at the end of the piano; he moved around, looking for the maximum connection with the sounds from the piano. They went ahead with the concert anyway: “I thought for the concert, with a little adrenaline I’d probably be okay.”
He spent the following year being treated with steroids and a treatment involving chemotherapy. He got a hearing aid, and with 55 percent of the hearing left in his other ear, went back to his professional career on a reduced schedule. Eventually, after another two years, the stress and isolation of not being able to hear what was going on around him in a performance proved too daunting. He stopped singing.
These days, he’s turned to recitations and acting. To anticipate his cues, he roughly memorizes the whole play, so he can “feel” the length of speeches. We talked that afternoon for several hours, and quite often, to illustrate a point, he would break into song—a Rex Harrison half-singing/half-talking voice rather than his full-throttle operatic voice. With the aid of a cochlear implant and a hearing aid, in addition to his recitations and acting, he also teaches.
Luxon said he can hear the quality of a voice—he can tell whether a singer is using the voice properly, breathing properly, and so on—but not the pitch. “I had a lesson this morning with a very good singer, very nice. And so I’m perfectly fine, I play the piano as well. Hearing harmonics on the piano is difficult and I can play wrong notes all over the place, but I’m usually blissfully unaware.”
Luxon and his wife, Susie Crofut, have created a magical garden around their big house, which is a welcoming sprawl of rooms. On the day I visited, the house was full of children and grandchildren from their combined families. Susie’s late husband, the singer and composer Bill Crofut, whose music encompassed jazz and folk, had as part of his eclectic career collaborated with Ben, among other classical musicians. It is a musical family, and Ben participates in family music-making, but not using his operatic voice.
“I hear the birds,” he said. “I was sitting out on the deck the other day, it was so beautiful, and there was this damn bird that was going [he imitates the bird whistle], so I can hear the pitch and imitate it pretty accurately, but I couldn’t locate the bird. I didn’t know where to look.”
He laughed as he told me this, his Cornish accent and cheerful, resilient personality making everything seem really, actually, not so bad. “Location is gone, for anything … If I hear Susie calling … sometimes I get flashes of mini-fury, ‘For God’s sake! Where are you? Are you bloody well upstairs or downstairs!’” He laughs again. “That’s a funny one.”
He told me he had worked with a man in Boston named Geoff Plant, who had helped him recover his speech perception. Plant often works with musicians. “We did an experiment where I tried to sing properly with fairly full voice, and I sang all over the place. But then, if I sang lightly and fairly quickly, I sang in tune. I was convinced I was singing in tune both times.” He urged me to visit Plant, and to watch him work.
Ben Luxon has suffered a major setback; his singing career is over, the turn his professional life has taken is permanent. But of all the people I met while researching this book, he is the only one—myself included, I think—who has truly come to that elusive state of acceptance.
Copyright © 2013 by Katherine Bouton