‘Song Without Words” is Gerald Shea’s brilliant and thoroughly engaging, if often painful, account of his passage through childhood and youth. This journey seems an almost impossible achievement, a heroic triumph of determination over adversity. A complicating factor was that the hero did not recognize himself as a hero. He thought he was intellectually challenged and therefore had to work harder than other people to achieve his goals.
In fact, Shea was and is a highly accomplished individual, a bright student, a singer and an athlete, a graduate of Andover, Yale and Columbia Law School. He is also partially — but severely — deaf, something he did not know until he took a routine physical exam in his mid-30s. A bout of scarlet fever in early childhood destroyed the epithelial cells in the lower part of the cochlea, “the most complex, sensitive and vulnerable component of the ear.” He became unable to hear most spoken vowels and some consonants, though he was not conscious of the change in his hearing at the time. He was 6 years old and thought that everybody heard the way he did, but that others were better at understanding what they heard.
One of the most appealing things about this book is Shea’s amiable, matter-of-fact tone, his lack of self-pity. Another is his lifelong love of language and communication of all kinds: the English language, the French language, the language of the law, the glorious language of music, the sign language employed by the profoundly deaf, which Shea calls “the language of light.” He remembers the sounds of nature he knew as a child (birdsong, wind, waves) retreating from his experience early on, “short-lived but graced with a fading, irresolvable beauty.”
Most seductive and most necessary to him was what Shea calls “my language of lyricals, my second tongue.” He coined the term “lyricals” to refer to the nonsense words and phrases he hears instead of what people are actually saying. When he arrived at Andover for the first time with his mother, Shea heard the headmaster tell all the new boys, “That you Arthur Dobbs super sense of the country.” His mother asked young Gerry, “Aren’t you proud?” He said, “Very,” having quickly figured out that the headmaster must have said the students were in the top 2 percent of the country.With the help of lyricals, Shea could make transitions that brought understanding: Arthur Dobbs/are the dopps/are the top, super sense/2 percent. In this way he habitually translated what he heard from nonsense words to conventional speech.
Shea’s lyricals are commonly known to the hearing world as mondegreens, after the words in an old ballad, “laid him on the green,” which were misheard as Lady Mondegreen. Most of us know comic stories in which children pledge allegiance by saying “I led the pigeons to the flag” or intone “Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy” for “Surely, goodness and mercy” in the 23rd Psalm. For the partially deaf, these mondegreens — Shea’s lyricals — are not a joke but a lifeline.
Lyricals took Shea through Andover and on to Yale, where he sang with the university’s a cappella group, the Whiffenpoofs, and excelled in written work and in small-class discussion. Larger lectures in echoing lecture halls presented baffling difficulties. “I attributed the problem to a slower intellect,” he writes, “and I considered myself lucky to be at a great university, with a lurking suspicion that I didn’t belong there.”
He fell in love, but the girl he loved worried that he didn’t seem to listen to other people. Later she thought that he was in some way detached, “always adrift.” She finally left him to marry another man.
Law school, inevitably, was more difficult than college, but here Shea’s lyricals came to his aid. He learned to write down verbatim the nonsense words that he heard in class, then spent most of the night translating these into plain (legal) English. By working twice as hard as his law school classmates — believing he was half as smart — he maintained top grades and was recruited by a leading New York law firm, where the pace threatened to overwhelm him. Again “the problem seemed to many, including myself, to be intellectual, notwithstanding all those lyrically assisted As in law school.” He began to get ulcers, to take valium, to work through the nights again and finally to say to himself, “I wish I were dead.”
Throughout “Song Without Words” the author candidly describes his dark, even catastrophic moments of perceived failure — failure to hear, failure to understand and interpret correctly, failure to connect, failure to keep up — but despite all this, the book sings a long, clear note of success. It is not a complaint but an exploration, not only of one man’s unique path to self-knowledge but also of the nature of communication itself. Shea has studied the physics of sound, the biology of hearing and the complex, often bizarre history of education for the deaf. A man who has practiced law internationally, has married a Frenchwoman and now lives in Paris, he still loves languages and believes that “everyone needs . . . to be able to use his own language, the one in which he can most effectively express himself and understand others.”
To read “Song Without Words” is to appreciate the poetry and clarity of Shea’s language, resonant with hard-won experience, wisdom and stunning courage.
SONG WITHOUT WORDS
Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life
By Gerald Shea
Da Capo. 308 pp. $25.99