- The Shape of Sound by Fiona Murphy
‘The body is a disjointed poem of mixed metaphors and similes,’ writes Deaf author Fiona Murphy in the prelude to her memoir, The Shape of Sound. ‘The spinal cord lashes out in a wild tangle – cauda equina – the horse’s tail. Blood flows through the heart’s atrium, the communal space in ancient Roman houses where the hearth burned hot and bright.’ Meanwhile the ear ‘cradles the smallest bones in the human body – the malleus, incus and stapes – all three can sit together on your fingertip like a speck of dust.’ Their common names – hammer, anvil and stirrup – follow their shapes. When vibrated by sound, they ‘beat and thump the eardrum. In stillness their story continues, nevertheless.’ In her attention to the names of body parts, Murphy draws on her training as a physiotherapist. It is an introduction to her careful attention to the ways that bodies – and particularly her Deaf body – navigate the world, and manifest in the English language.
I’m a Deaf writer, and much of this prelude – and the book itself – resonated with me. When I was four, a doctor in Tamworth Base Hospital inserted a needle into my spine to withdraw cerebrospinal fluid and test it for meningitis (which it was). When I recovered from the illness, an audiologist found that I had lost all the hearing in my left ear, and half of it in my right. Cauda equina – the bundle of nerves extending from the spine – evokes the anxiety and nervousness of being a Deaf person in a hearing world, as well as existing in the same place that the needle entered. Like Murphy’s, my heart is housed in a body that is judged for being ill-mannered or slow when I cannot hear people speaking to me, and like her, the architecture of the culture through which we move causes me immense stress. My life story, like hers, is affected by the movement and stillness of hammer, anvil and stirrup – and indeed these three tiny bones caused our lives to intertwine. There are so few Deaf writers in Australia that, when Murphy was awarded a mentorship with WestWords and requested me as her mentor, her invitation was both wonderful and inevitable. Our friendship, then, also informs this essay, as does our insistence on shifting narratives about deafness from deficiency to plenitude.
As research by scholars and writers has revealed, many readers are unaware that famous people have disabilities. Judith Wright’s deafness had a clear impact on the themes and expression of her poetry, but only three entries out of some 540 in Austlit, the Australian Literature database, reference her deafness (and of these, only one addresses her disability with any substance). Henry Lawson’s deafness influenced his writing (Amanda Tink notes that sixteen of the 26 stories in the Penguin Henry Lawson Short Stories make no mention of sound, and the rest have only one or two generic references) but is little remarked upon in association with his work. Likewise Les Murray’s autism influenced the themes and content of his poetry, but is rarely mentioned in literary criticism. In The Shape of Sound, Murphy describes the deafness of British prime minister Winston Churchill, and wonders – because it is not detailed in his biographies – if his increasing hearing loss had a bearing on British democracy itself.
Churchill argued that the Chamber of Commons be restored to ‘an adversarial rectangular pattern’ after it was destroyed in the Blitz, rather than a horseshoe shape. He insisted that the narrow space was essential to parliamentary democracy because of its adversarial layout, although, as Murphy notes, ‘historically, democracy has flourished in the round: large assemblies of people able to converge and see each other.’ She also observes that Churchill was going deaf by December 1943 and that ‘it seems no mere coincidence that his recommendations benefited someone who was hard of hearing.’ Given that none of Churchill’s biographies mention the relationship between deafness and the Chamber, Murphy makes this deduction based on her own experiences. It makes Churchill’s famous phrase, ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our building shape us,’ Murphy observes, ‘more literal than poetic.’ Whether or not he was motivated by his hearing loss is beside the point, she concludes. Rather, ‘it is who decides how buildings are designed that is relevant. These decisions happen behind closed doors; they are conversations of power, the outcomes of which literally shape what happens to our society and our bodies.’ Murphy’s own body bears this out.
Murphy’s hearing loss was not diagnosed until she was in primary school. Her teacher, seeing the blank pages of her workbooks, suggested that she be tested for a learning disorder. One of these tests assessed her hearing and revealed that she was profoundly deaf in her left ear. Her right ear was unaffected. When, back at school, Murphy relayed her new condition to a handful of friends, they lined up and screamed into her ear to test the truth of it. It was at this moment, aged six, that she began to accumulate ‘sensations of heaviness and discomfort’.
Murphy embarked on a lifelong project of ‘passing’ as hearing, which required considerable effort from her Deaf body. The house of the hearing, after all, has many rules. Having seen films that depicted the ‘troubled look of deaf characters, their expressions exaggerated and clownish to the point of comedy,’ Murphy arranged her features into expression of cheerful unconcern. She monitored the intensity of her gaze, because watching people – necessary to pick up cues and work out what is happening in an environment – makes them feel uncomfortable. Used to speaking in fragments, because this was the way she received information, she trained herself to deliver whole sentences. This control was not something she exerted over her body, but her life. She sought silence, and particularly loved the unruffled time of early morning, because in spaces and times without noise she feels that she ‘think, rather than react or recoil.’
Such vigilance was (and remains, because the body learns these habits from a young age) exhausting. Murphy describes the secret of her deafness as a weight, noting that ‘numerous studies have found that secretive people tend to experience more physical and psychological pain than others.’ Without Deaf friends or a Deaf role model, she was profoundly isolated. Her body registered this in its cells. Loneliness, Murphy found through her research, ‘troubles the blood.’ The cellular changes caused by loneliness, referred to by scientists as an ‘accumulation of deficiencies,’ increase vascular resistance. This, I know from experience, is a deep, abiding and pervasive feeling, which Murphy captures perfectly:
even when warmly ensconced with company, loneliness lingers. The physical memory of it remains fresh, easily accessible, a cauterised edge on a deep cellular level. Even when I am not actively feeling lonely, I know that loneliness is still in my blood.
This description reminds me of a comment made by Deaf filmmaker Sofya Gollan, the daughter of writer Jean Bedford, which I encountered in the Good Weekend when I was 22:
You always carry this loneliness of being different to everyone else … It’s a thing I cannot change about myself, no matter how much I want to.
It was the first time I made a point of connection with another Deaf person, recognising their traits as my own.
Meanwhile Murphy’s heart, that atrium, was compromised too. She notes that hearing loss is associated with a higher risk of premature death due to cardiovascular disease, writing that her own heart ‘is so used to thrumming through the tight grip of anxiety that I only notice my hyper-vigilance, my rapid pulse, my jittery temperament, when I see family and flatmates unwind with a level of ease that feels unsustainable.’ Murphy experiences her fear and anxiety not just in social settings, but in the workplace. She describes how ‘disabled people conduct an informal risk assessment before making any workplace requests. Will the answer most likely be yes? Has anyone else at the organisation got a disability? If so, has that person received an accommodation? How will my colleagues react?’ These questions are habitual – not just for her, but for so many people with disability – and Murphy’s fear ‘feels corporeal, so full of consequence.’ An acknowledgement of disability leads to fewer job prospects, particularly given the vague wording of the Disability Discrimination Act and employers’ failure to comply with their legal responsibilities. Murphy, like so many of us, is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is not surprising that her body finally snapped: she slipped in the shower and broke her wrist. During her rehabilitation, one of the plates put in her hand to support its recovery severed the tendon attached to the thumb, requiring surgery that left a thick scar.
A physiotherapist, Murphy is well-versed in the language of hands, but when her thumb tendon snapped, she could no longer practice. ‘When I touched someone,’ she writes, ‘my hands were asking and answering, acting and reacting, instructing and listening. I missed feeling a treatment have an effect – the soft sinking when a knot dissolved; the sudden freedom of a stiff joint moving; the light, feathery sensation of a nerve gliding smoothly through muscles.’ At the same time, her broken hand opened up space for her to have a badly-needed conversation with herself.
Murphy was trained to see bodies using the medical model of disability – which sees a person with a disability as ‘in need of being fixed or cured. From this point of view, disability is a tragedy and people with disability are to be pitied. The medical model of disability is all about what a person cannot do and cannot be.’ The social model, by contrast, sees disability as ‘the result of ‘the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers.’ To remove these barriers, society needs to adjust to accommodate disabled bodies, for example through hearing loops, ramps for wheelchair users, and universal design in classrooms. As Murphy’s hand healed for the second time, the scar pulling together sutured skin, she began to reflect on and write about her experiences of trialling hearing aids as ‘a compulsion, a distraction from my current situation’ in which her hand – and by implication her self – was broken. Although she ‘hated the process of dredging up memories … the act of framing [her] feelings with punctuation felt galvanising.’ She finished her essay on hearing aids and sent it out to a literary journal.
This idea of ‘framing’ resurfaced when Murphy signed up for a comedy workshop for women with disability. She had assumed that it would help her focus on her writing craft, but during the first session she realised, with horror, that she would have to develop a comedy routine to perform in front of an audience. The comedian running the workshop explained to the participants that they needed to find a way of explaining what their disability was, otherwise the audience would be confused. But first Murphy needed to articulate it to herself. What is my story? she wrote in her notebook. Answering this question required confronting the identity she had kept secret from other people, and even from herself. She wondered if she could ‘even call myself deaf, given that I could hear? I felt as if I resided in a serrated in-between place: half-hearing and half-deaf. Instead of two halves making a whole, each half rubbed up against and eroded the other.’ Murphy battled through each of the workshop sessions, and she was fortunate that the workshop facilitator knew what was happening. This comedian, Murphy writes, ‘understood what many of us didn’t; that we were struggling to find a language for our bodies that wasn’t diagnostic and solemn. She pointed out that most of us had been describing our bodies as a set of symptoms, limitations and malfunctions. As important as this was, it mostly added up to specific clinical information, the sort that medical teams tended to focus on. “But is this really your whole story?” asked the Comedian.’
This use of the term ‘whole’ is significant given that Murphy found it difficult to reconcile the hearing and deaf parts of herself. Revealing her deafness through her performance at the comedy workshop left her with what her friend termed a ‘vulnerability hangover’ – bodily exhaustion from the adrenaline rush of revelation. If this was what honesty felt like, she asked herself, how would she cope ‘revealing [her] deafness from day to day if the consequences were so obliterating?’
If mentioning her disability was one hurdle, being believed was another. Invisible disabilities engender suspicion. If a deaf person does not display stereotypical markers of hearing loss, such as difficulty with speech and the use of sign language, the people with whom they engage often do not understand how hard that person is working to communicate with them. When Murphy began to write about her deafness, and people discovered that she was deaf, many of her acquaintances were surprised and some, even after they had read her essay on hearing aids, responded with, ‘“No, that can’t be true, you can’t be deaf.”’ Little wonder, then, that explaining her deafness was so daunting.
Nevertheless, she continued. Like Deaf writer and artist Donna McDonald, whose memoir The Art of Being Deaf (2014) sprang from an essay in the literary journal Griffith Review, Murphy began to frame and express her Deaf self through a series of essays. At the same time that she was creating a new home for herself and her heart through writing, she began to pay attention to people who signed Auslan on the television or at writers’ festivals. This was prompted in part by her injured hand, which she needed to exercise so that the scar wouldn’t be rigid and so that her fingers would be restored to their previous flexibility. It was also impelled by her recognition that the powerful emotions that she saw when she saw the translators – jealousy, and ‘something closer to rage’ – masked ‘a deeper, more persistent loneliness and self-hatred, a desperate need to belong, and a fear about [her] future’ – all emotions that emanated from her perception of her body as something that needed to be fixed. She enrolled in Auslan classes and felt, for the first time in a long time, ‘a feeling of lightness’ that, after a while, she recognised as hope.
Breaking out of a chrysalis is slow and hard, the skin scraping as you slough it off. Your new self is raw and uncertain in the air. While the Auslan lessons briefly allowed Murphy ‘to consider [her] body as something other than abject’ and to ‘recognise that the vast silent spaces within [her] had been waiting to be filled with language,’ learning that language was more difficult than she anticipated, not least because it meant acquainting herself with the part of herself that she had hidden. It was also because another circuit had been laid: the difficulty with learning language at all.
When Murphy’s deafness was diagnosed, there was little point in fitting her with hearing aids because there wasn’t enough hearing in her left ear to be augmented. The audiologist explained that Murphy would ‘just have to work hard to match letters with their sounds’ to become literate. This work didn’t just fall to Murphy, it also fell to her mother who, every night while her other children played or watched television in another room, sat with Murphy in an armchair and showed her flashcards to teach her the sounds of words. Like so many other parents of disabled children undertaking hours of unpaid labour to shoehorn their children into a society dismissive of disability, her mother fitted these reading lessons around ‘nursing shifts, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and looking after [Murphy’s] siblings.’ Through laborious lessons of breaking down words and repeatedly correcting pronunciation, Murphy learned to read and write. It was just as hard for Murphy as it was for her mother, and when she came to learning Auslan, the anxiety-laden memories of learning language ‘continued to resonate: the grinding repetition; the dullness of constantly circling back to the basics; the flush of embarrassment whenever I made a mistake.’ For Murphy to move from blank copybooks at school, to writing a book, is testimony to her persistence.
Perhaps she would have abandoned the Auslan classes and Deaf community altogether had she not been diagnosed with otosclerosis. This is a condition in which the stapes, the tiny ear bone shaped like a stirrup, hardens and cannot beat against the eardrum to transmit sound, causing hearing loss. Murphy and her family, after all, had viewed her as successfully ‘overcoming’ her deafness because she had learned to read, until she realised that a disability is not something that can be overcome (however much able-bodied people love these narratives and their neat resolutions). The diagnosis brought yet more decisions and anxiety: whether to have a Baha hearing aid drilled into the bones in her head, and what to do about financial security in a role that relies upon hearing. Murphy muses:
It is not easy being deaf. It never has been. Our lives are shorter. We experience mental ill-health at far greater rates than the general population. Our brains and bodies are continually stressed by the demands of having to live in a hearing world. Our access to language, education, healthcare and secure work continues to be curtailed both by legislation and by ignorance. We are simultaneously held to extraordinarily high and frustratingly low expectations. It is exhausting.
Even so, people like Murphy and I remain privileged. We are white, we have had access to education, we can pass. For First Nations peoples and people of colour, who must contend with racism as well as the obstructions of an ableist society, being deaf can be much more difficult.
As the bone in Murphy’s ear hardens, she writes, ‘so too does my resolve’. She will gain fluency in Auslan and gather the Deaf community around her. She has learned to let go a little, to realise that the emotions associated with deafness cannot be corralled – as she has perhaps tried to do with the structure of her book, which she segments into the lifespan of a sound – attack, decay, sustain, and release. She also recognises that she must embrace the shapelessness of deafness, for it is ‘a vast and complex continuum without borders and hard edges.’
For a person whose life is predicated upon the need for control of her body and life, this is a huge step. It is one that shows the creativity and flexibility of disabled people, as well as the idiocy of those who perceive disability as deficiency. Murphy’s reference to the words of disability activist Eddie Ndopu are apt:
Survival demands imagination from people who exist on the margins. To exist at the centre does not require nearly as much imagination because the centre functions to cocoon its inhabitants. Centring the imagination of the marginalized is key to saving society itself.
A writer’s first book can be the most difficult, and I have watched Murphy wrestle with her manuscript while simultaneously holding down a full-time job and managing the exhaustion occasioned by that job. Sometimes the strain shows: the themes eddy rather than stride forward, and on occasion there is a profusion of metaphors – secrets are described as both a weight and a splinter in the body, for example. On reflection, I understand why Murphy mobilises such a range of imagery: when you have an invisible disability, sheer frustration means you do all you can to make it visible. Deaf people are predominantly visual thinkers, as they rely on their sight to translate the world. This may account, too, for the range of imagery, as well as the poetry and precision of Murphy’s writing, which sparkles like morning light on a diamond ring.
The loveliness of her writing does not obscure the seriousness of her subject. When I finished reading her book, I was left with the overwhelming sense of a body distorted by public policy and the exhortation that we force disabled selves into functioning units, capable of producing capital. I felt for her deeply, and wished that I had known her earlier to offer help or reassurance. I could see, too, her devotion to other people; her kindness in constantly thinking of and putting them ahead of herself. As she writes, ‘deaf people control their focus when socialising by being wholly present and attentive to others. What a rare gift we give.’
In a conversation with Murphy, we reflected on our need for Deaf time – the time to uncurl the body after the tension it holds as it moves through the world. It’s time to be alone, without demands from fellow humans, to let our minds rest after hours of unrelenting processing. Murphy found this time after she moved from Melbourne to Tamworth to take up a new physiotherapy role and try a slower pace of life after a busy and taxing time in Melbourne. In the long car drives between appointments in New England, beneath a ‘sheer expanse of sky, so broad and blue that even a cavalcade of clouds failed to shield the sun,’ and past paddocks that were ‘bald, weather-beaten’ after the savage drought, she found time to unwind and decompress. For me, Deaf time is making a cup of tea after I come home from work, depleted, and slip off my heels and lie on the couch. It is holding a fellow Deaf writer’s words in my lap – a gift.
When socialising is difficult for Deaf people, reading can become a lifeline (though not for all of us, as not all Deaf people read). As Murphy slowly re-assessed her position in the world, she encountered the writing of disability scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thompson in the New York Times. Garland-Thompson explained that ‘Becoming disabled demands learning how to live effectively as a person with disabilities, not just living as a disabled person trying to become nondisabled.’ Reading these lines allowed Murphy ‘to clearly see the vast and shocking amount of mental space [she] devoted to trying to be nondisabled.’ Connecting with another disabled writers helped her to see herself more clearly.
I made my first Deaf friend, Donna McDonald, in my early thirties, after an introduction from a mutual friend in Brisbane. McDonald asked me if I would write about deafness in my work. At first I dismissed her suggestion, thinking that the subject was too easy to write about, but as I contemplated her words over several years, I was prompted, like Murphy, to find and acquaint myself with my Deaf self through the research and writing of my hybrid memoir, Hearing Maud. McDonald writes about our encounter at the university in her memoir The Art of Being Deaf, a book which was a beacon for both Murphy and me, particularly as we are all what is known as ‘oral deaf’ (that is, we are deaf but communicate through speech rather than sign). When McDonald reflects on our lack of deaf adult role models, largely because we were assimilated into hearing culture, she writes, ‘Now I realise that one blue swallow does not make a summer.’ One connection between Deaf writers does not make a tradition.
These lines came to me as I read Murphy’s meditations on birds in Tamworth. As she hung out the washing after work, she watched a flock of cockatoos fly over the backyard. They returned each evening, and Murphy ‘began to wait for them, [her] body unwinding whenever [she] watched them wheel through their air’. At the same time she began reading the work of New England poet Judith Wright, who also became deaf from otosclerosis. Murphy had, a while before, read a poem of Wright’s ‘describing birds flying on the wing’ and as she watched the flocks in Tamworth’s skies she ‘felt a sense of awe whenever I saw birds, feathered and full, moving through the air.’ I wonder what it is that attracts her to the birds, and I suspect that it is their fluidity of movement: their ability to travel through, and indeed mobilise, their environment with grace and ease.
But the swallows and summers are coming. McDonald’s book, mine, and Murphy’s, form a community of Deaf writers. We seek our bodies in each other’s works and find ourselves, reassuringly, reflected back. We are not outliers; we are part of a flock, finding currents that carry us through an atmosphere that is not our own.
McDonald, Donna. The Art of Being Deaf: a Memoir. Gallaudet University Press, 2014.
Tink, Amanda. ‘Deafness: A Key to Lawson’s writing.’ Southerly, 76 (2), 2016, pp. 141–154.
—. ‘If You’re Different Are You the Same?’: The Nazi Genocide of Disabled People and Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune. In Marczak N. & Shields K, Genocide Perspectives VI: The Process and the Personal Cost of Genocide, 2020, pp. 69-85. https://utsepress.lib.uts.edu.au/site/chapters/e/10.5130/aaf.e/
White, Jessica. ‘Silence is my Habitat’: Judith Wright, Writing and Deafness. The Routledge Companion to Australian Literature, ed. Jessica Gildersleeve, 2020, pp. 243-253.
—. Hearing Maud. University of Western Australia Publishing, 2019.