Words for a Deaf Daughter.
by Paul West.
Harper and Row. 188 pp. $5.95.
What can you say of a man who writes a book celebrating the deafness of his own child? Or of a culture that accepts and applauds such a book on its own terms? This book and its reception assume the kind of inversion of values we slide over from familiarity and from the fear of being thought unsophisticated: deaf is better, though it’s obviously worse; we are all handicapped—most especially those, the “so-called competent,” who are so graceless that they don’t even know it. But the truth is we are not all handicapped the way Mr. West’s young daughter is, and if we pretend that the distinction is irrelevant, or are seduced into believing that there is a spiritual or aesthetic superiority in imaginatively appropriating some of her misfortune, we romanticize ourselves and callowly underestimate both her integrity as a person and her suffering, which by its nature must exceed our own social malaise or various autobiographical dissatisfactions.
Mr. West’s daughter, Mandy, was born deaf, brain-injured, and possibly autistic. None of this was discovered until she was already two years old—itself suspect, simply from what parents are ordinarily accustomed to observing in their children’s development. Yet this kind of wishful, hopeful denial or disregard is common and understandable, because beneath it, insistent and awful, is the obligation to come to terms with a piece of life that is truly unassimilable, and still must daily be dealt with: what to do with the pain, and with what is never mentioned, the guilt. What Paul West has chosen to do is to push it off and view it through so many coy, overdressed, and dizzying removes that the reader (and probably the writer) can lose sight of the basic anguish and the basic fact: that this little girl is not a “juggler” or a “mystic,” not an “imperious queen” or “Miss Rabelais,” not “Canute, Boadicea, Mistress of Mini-Babel,” as he variously, distractingly pleases to call her, but Mr. West’s seven-year-old daughter who cannot hear, cannot speak, and cannot as yet make the necessary childish sense out of a world that’s been known to throw even some of “the inhumanly ordinary.” That West so frequently indulges in such aggrandized, poeticized name-calling not only denies the child’s reality as a child and a separate person, but gives a very good clue as to what the book is really about.
Although it purports to be an account addressed to Mandy of her early years, a letter she might read when her “years of infant Sturm and Drang” are behind her (this form itself arch), the child and the book become a playing field for Mr. West’s virtuosic, self-indulgent excesses in language and in attitudes. Mandy’s handicap, the author tells us, is something he has come to “welcome” as her “special gift.” For whom is it a gift? Not Mandy, clearly, for so cut off is she from the ordinary and essential means of human interchange that to try to understand the function of everyday objects, to give them some kind of place in what is for her an especially confusing world, she must “smell at a pencil newly sharpened, inhaling from the beechwood its own sour-soot bouquet, or trace with addicted fingers the corrugations on the flat of a halved cabbage before eating it raw with the same naturalness with which you [Mandy] drink vinegar, steak sauce and mayonnaise, and sniff glue.” It’s so interesting to be handicapped! So interesting, in fact, that “I [West addressing his daughter] tag along on your voyages of exploration,” and “steal your condition . . . like the mystic borrowing the lover’s terms, the lover borrowing the mystic’s.” Steal? A Robin Hood of sorts, Mr. West, spiritually slumming, is willing to steal from the poor to give to the guilty rich.
West’s notion of the handicapped child as having and becoming a special gift—she confers grace because she is out of the ordinary—not only suggests an eerie detachment but is profoundly misleading and simply untrue to life. It’s the kind of book that can make people wish that they, too, had a “special” child: it would lift them out of the humdrum, give them a chance to prove their sensitivity, and open them up to worlds of fascinating, unique experiences and “exquisite perceptions.” All very much like having your own little artist-in-residence, or as Mr. West puts it, “a small envoy to conventional minds.”
For the world an envoy, for West an occasion to air some self-congratulatory, fashionable musings and newly-arrived-at ideas—new because it is through the Child that he has been led to unexpected self-discovery. Excoriating on the one hand an apparently incompetent dentist, “a Caliban of the needle,” who “assumed that because you are deaf, you can be punctured like a Sunday joint, being inarticulate,” Mr. West, assuming the same inarticulateness, assigns to his daughter a host of attitudes that no seven-year-old child could reasonably be expected to hold. Describing some of her rituals—rituals involving a consuming need for sameness and order, which are in fact common to, and even symptomatic of, most deeply disoriented children (here described as ventures into elegant and exotic splendors), West concludes: “You’d have understood Samuel Johnson’s having to touch all the hitching posts as he went down Fleet Street.” When Mandy does not react to physical pain, again a sad and baffling effect of her condition—this when she placed her finger in a pencil sharpener and sharpened it until it bled, West explains: “An antagonistic and often histrionic compassion is your life style, as if you think we are all hurt and although you’re willing to salute the fact in a civil and sensitive way, loathe all vulnerability.” Loathe vulnerability? West positively canonizes it. Mandy, because of her handicap, is related “more closely than most people to Nature.” And Nature, being capitalized, and so freed from science, reason, and other shameful blunders of civilization (when Nature goofs, it’s mysterious, beautiful, and interesting, like Mandy) has got it far over people, who, except for the “spiritually awake,” turn out to be mostly “good folk.” You know them, “good folk”: sometimes called bad guys; should you reject the scheme of this book, you might one day look into the mirror and find yourself one of them.
“Somewhere between flower power and satori, a place for the mentally hindered.” Somewhere over the rainbow. How different is this from the old all-those-nuts-in – their – own – world – and – nothing -bothers-them? An easy and thoughtless dismissal of difficulty other than one’s own, it suggests that such a condition, being preferable, should be irremediable, and implies at the same time that the “mentally hindered” are a species so apart that empathy would require mental convolutions that only a near-religious passion could bring about. If this were true, the future for children like Mandy would still be as bleak as it once was.
Somewhere, Mr. West knows this: “Not only do I want you to be the supreme Romantic . . . I want you also to be able to go and buy a pound of butter.” The most telling inconsistency in this book is that now and then there is the recognition that everyday skills, however much they may interfere with “unsurpassable dreams” and spiritual awakening, are not so undesirable. “‘Words,’” West admits, quoting Samuel Beckett, “‘have their uses.’” Why, then, misuse them, as West does, so that meaning becomes an anachronism and language is only a toy? From the spiraling, purposeless catalogues and gaudy, luxuriant descriptions, it is impossible to know what life with Mandy is really like, or how much she can actually understand.
It seems a strange greed, this coveting of mental dislocation. Once, people recoiled from the handicapped, thinking them inferior and repulsive, but inverting an old prejudice is no less of a prejudice, and, as such, does a service for no one.