Sound familiar? You’re fifteen, sixteen years old and your father or mother is constantly chiding you. “Turn up the light, reading in the dark will hurt your eyes,” they say. Or this, typical of any of us born since the rock and roll era: “that music is too loud: it’ll make you deaf.” If you’re anything like me, you turned a, well, a deaf ear to that kind of parental criticism or worry. With the hubris of youth, we were sure WE would never have such problems.
In Shouting Won’t Help, Katherine Bouton doesn’t spend much time ruminating on whether her youth was misspent, aurally or otherwise. But in her compelling memoir about how she slowly, at first imperceptibly, and then all-too-perceptibly lost her hearing, she sheds some light (sorry, these seeing/hearing metaphors are hard to avoid, which is kind of the point) on what we’d like to think are old wives’ tales. In fact, your mom or dad might have been right, at least about the deafness part. (There’s still no evidence that reading under the covers ever damaged my, or anyone else’s eyes.) “Ears are most vulnerable to noise damage when they’re young,” Bouton reports. How young? Well, eight weeks in mice, which correlates to—get this—twenty years in humans, just about peak loud concertgoing, iPod-using time.
Bouton—who was a writer and editor for the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times for decades—clearly knows how to put together a story. Every chapter contains nuggets from her copious research into the science of hearing, the medical developments, the news; every chapter ends with a mini profile of an accomplished person—musician, chef, athlete—who has suffered some loss. But what ties all of this sometimes complicated and nonlinear information is the story of Bouton’s personal experience: of the accident while on assignment in her thirties that may (or may not) have triggered the hearing loss, of the way she hid, obfuscated, and denied the problem until it got her fired from her job, of the way people treat the functionally deaf (like drunks or idiots, or both), and finally, of her own experience with hearing aids, Cochlear implants and other developments.This kind of hybrid memoir—half reporting/half memoir—isn’t always easy to pull off. You run the risk of failing to elevate the personal to take on political or global significance. “Wow, that could have happened to me,” you start off thinking, as you frantically turn pages. But as the differences between you and the writer emerge, so does your interest in finishing the book dissipate.
I wanted to read Bouton to the only partially uplifting end not just because, like so many people she meets in the course of the book, I have my own hearing issues. (As many as 50 million of us, by some counts, do.) I found the book equally compelling because it did what only the best science-based books do for the lay person: taught me something without making me feel stupid about what I didn’t know. (I had no idea a Cochlear implant has to be “activated.”) And, as I read, it made me want to know more. I guess that’s what happens when you have an author who casts her intellectual net wide, who is curious and brave and relentless in her quest for information. Katherine Bouton may be severely hearing impaired, but she’s obviously a very good listener.
Some other books Shouting Won’t Help made me think of:
Gerald Shea’s Song Without Words, an engaging memoir of coming to terms with deafness in middle age.
Brain on Fire, journalist Susannah Cahalan’s memoir of a brain stem infection that temporarily turned her into something out of the Exorcist