Disability Studies Community Blog
Interviewed by Ellen McGrath Smith
Over a decade ago, while I was organizing an event on my campus related to the publication of Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos, 2011), one of our grad students introduced herself to me. She told me she was interested in researching and writing on Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts to replace sign language with oralism in the education of deaf Americans. She shared details about her mixed deaf/hearing family. In subsequent years, Katie joined our faculty, plugging away at what was now a book project, under contract with Simon and Schuster. In 2017-2018, she was a John W. Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress, delving deeply into documents that would help her to piece together the story she was trying to tell. Along the way, she published shorter pieces centering deafness and her relationships, as a hearing person, with deaf family members as well as Deaf researchers, activists, and friends; these can be found in Harper’s, Vela, The Believer, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (with DeafBlind writer Cristina Hartmann). Booth first learned to sign as a child being cared for by her maternal grandparents then, after losing fluency, received more formal training in ASL. She works to raise awareness of hearing privilege—in herself, in the mainstream, as well as in our history.
Early in 2021, Booth’s book The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness was published. As soon as it arrived in my mailbox, I became engrossed in the story it told, one in which Bell’s path to becoming a powerful proponent of oralist deaf education was carefully traced. In it, Bell’s humanity, hard work, and aspirations were honored but with this difference: His oralist crusade and pedagogical practices are shown to be responsible for depriving generations of deaf Americans of language, and his oft-stated belief that deaf adults should not marry one another is implicated in the eugenics movement of his time. The following is a transcript of a conversation we had on the book and its reception.
Writing The Invention of Miracles was a 15-year process. Can you touch on the major stages of that process? Why, for instance, did you decide to focus on a narrative biography of Bell, rather than on your experiences in a mixed deaf and hearing family?
There were a lot of stages of that the book. It started out not being about Bell but, rather, being about the Clarke School for the Deaf, which is where many of my family members were educated. Kind of midway through the project, I got to thinking about Bell as a possible sort of center to this narrative because I realized that, when I was talking about this history to other hearing people, Bell seemed to get them interested. They seemed to perk up and pay attention when they found out that this man who they knew of as this neutral-to-good character in history—the telephone guy—was tied to Deaf culture, and in a pretty complicated way. Their eyes widened, they paid more attention; it was a narrative that grabbed the people I most wanted to have a greater appreciation for this history. And once I started looking at Bell,
I realized that a lot of the complications about oralism that I wanted to explore existed inside of his story in complicated ways, so it just seemed like a neat and tidy sort of organizing frame for the book. Plus, there’s just tons and tons of archival information about him because he is an influential white, hearing man. People had immediately recognized Bell’s historical significance and saved a lot of materials about him. There was a lot to draw from, whereas, if you look at Deaf history, a lot less has been saved.
So, once you made that shift in focus, was there a lot that you had to do differently?
Yeah. I mean, I had done a lot of research on the history of the Clarke School, which was founded for Mabel Hubbard, who had been Bell’s student and later became his wife. So, after this shift, when I wrote early drafts, with material really focused on her family and on the sort of peripheral characters in the founding of the Clarke school, I held on to this idea of starting the narrative way too early, with the ancestors of the woman who was going to marry the main character.
But, interestingly, a lot of it ended up making its way back in because Mabel was so important, and her family was so important. But a lot of it didn’t. There were other stories of people around the Clarke School that I really cared about; they didn’t directly make it into the final book, but the research I did—the alumni that I talked to during those very early stages— absolutely transformed my ideas about the landscape of oralism and deaf education. [Their recollections] just made it so much more complicated, and I think my appreciation of the complications carried through.
Why was it important for you to delve into Alexander Graham Bell’s (or “Alec’s”) childhood in Scotland and the UK rather than beginning the story in North America?
I think Bell’s roots are really important. He came from a big elocutionist family; the closest corollary we have today is speech pathology, but even that doesn’t really get at it, because speech is not the same thing as it was in the nineteenth century, when speech—elocution—was much closer to ideas of literacy. Today it’s not seen that way. The character of Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady, was based on the Bells’ work. So these really foundational ideas of class and what it meant to be like a citizen—and their connection to speech—are there, beginning with Bell’s grandfather. I wanted to delve into that. It’s also important to understand his early experiences teaching deaf children and his early experiences with his mother who was deaf. All of those earliest moments took place in Scotland and England.
Can you talk about the importance to your book of narrating all the twists and turns of the telephone invention process? How does it tie into Bell’s devotion to oralism?
That was a difficult thing for me because my interest is not in the telephone. I tried to skip it, but as it turns out, that story, as my editor kindly pointed out, was important. Part of it, I think, is that Bell’s struggle with the telephone shows us how much he cared about deaf education.
It was really his financiers who were pushing the telephone. He saw the telephone in those early days more as something that could make him enough money so that he could get back to this other work of teaching deaf children to speak, which was not paying the bills, not paying him enough. So that sort of desire for financial stability is there for him. The pressure was really coming from the man who would become his father-in -law.
That’s one reason. Another reason is that the telephone put pressure on him in ways that distracted him from his work with deaf people. That’s important because I sometimes wonder, if his attention wasn’t split, what could have been possible. Could he have had more flexibility with his thinking if he wasn’t constantly under major pressure about the telephone, I mean Supreme Court-level pressure, while he’s trying to revolutionize deaf education?
Finally, the telephone’s the thing that conferred upon him such inordinate amounts of power. It allowed him to convince people that he knew what was right, even if what he was trying to convince people of had nothing to do with the telephone but, rather, deaf education and, later, eugenics. He had money, he had authority, he had connections. All of that comes through the telephone, and all of it pushes into his work with deaf education.
There are ways in which Bell’s story reads like a fictional narrative. Clearly, you pored over a lot of personal correspondence and journals. It seems you felt very close to these people—Alec, his parents, Mabel—in the way that a novelist becomes close to their characters.
It’s very hard to become that close to a man you grew up hating. I don’t know that I recommend it. I took that approach for a number of reasons. First of all, that’s what I want to read. It’s what brought me to nonfiction: narratives that remain close to the people that they’re describing. But there was also a strategy involved in this, because I wanted it to be a story that could reach hearing people, who can have a lot of defenses up around their hearing privilege because most of them have never even begun to think about it. And when you haven’t even begun to think about your privilege and someone comes in and starts yelling about it, defenses go up.
Part of the complexity of Bell is that, especially early on in life, it’s very easy to empathize with him. He really is a complicated person and, in many ways, a good person, one who is trying and seeking and making effort, so it’s easy to like him early on. I saw an opportunity there to take my hearing readers along with me on a journey of sorts where they would empathize with this character, this person they would grow to like, to feel his ways of thinking were like their ways of thinking. And then, [I wanted] to sort of pull the rug out from under that and show them where that thinking goes. So, in order to try to disrupt hearing people’s sense of their own privilege, I wanted them first to empathize with Bell and then realize how much darkness there is in those assumptions, those worldviews, and those paradigms. I hoped that the process would shift something inside of them, inside of the way they think about their own assumptions about deaf people and hearing privilege.
It certainly created a definite shift in me because, for the first time in my life, I understood at a gut level the linguistic violence that was enacted on entire generations of deaf people, and that continues to be active. Are you also thinking of contemporary trends like cochlear implantation and the related regime of not letting kids sign when they get the surgery? In your Afterword, you write, “The deaf children who struggle are those who cannot easily access language, and this includes children with cochlear implants. Cochlear implants can be a helpful tool for deaf people, but they are not a cure. The most consistent liberator of the deaf is not cochlear implants, but total language access. Sign is language deprivation’s preventative medicine. And yet, less than 8 percent of deaf children grow up with regular sign language access” (321).
Cochlear implants are a tool that many people choose to use, and I have nothing against them in that context, so it’s not for me to weigh in on that. But, too often, the promotion of cochlear implantation is piggybacked on pre-existing paradigms of oralism which are grounded in fear of difference. CIs have also reinvigorated oralist ideals in the classroom, and the suppression of sign language perpetuates language deprivation among deaf children. It’s been a crisis for over a hundred years now. “Crisis” might not even be a big enough word to describe how catastrophic language deprivation is to deaf children, to deaf people, to the community as a whole. . . . It’s not the CIs themselves that are the problem; it’s the systems around it, the use of fear to perpetuate the violence of language deprivation.
Let me open this question with a quote from The Invention of Miracles:
English was not a fully accessible language to most deaf children, and the time they spent floundering to learn it was time that their language acquisition window was closing. If they missed the window, they became language deprived. They would never get that neuroplasticity back, and would likely never have the ability to fully learn any language. Today, this is understood by experts as irreversible brain damage. (189)
Especially in relation to your grandfather’s illiteracy and undereducation, your book reflects the multigenerational consequences of oralism. What was it like for you when you found the neurological developmental articulation for what you witnessed in your grandparents? And do you worry that hearing readers and reviewers might miss this key point about language deprivation? He
I hope they don’t. I learned a lot about it from Wyatte Hall, a Deaf researcher at the University of Rochester. He was the one who really snapped it into place for me. It’s just astonishing, and I really wanted to draw that line from historical oralism to today’s language deprivation crisis, to make it very evident in the book. It seems to me that that hasn’t been lost. I hope it’s not. And I think this is where I struggled a lot, because my grandfather was language deprived. Yet it wasn’t really until the sensitivity reader for the book pushed back on the way that I was portraying my grandfather that I really, really had to internalize what that language deprivation meant—because my grandfather was my hero. Growing up, I was so close to him. He was like another parent to me. I spent my days with him; a lot of people don’t grow up with their grandparents quite the way I did. But he was my hero, and when he died, that was cemented; I was still a child. I didn’t have trouble communicating with him at age seven or eight. So I didn’t really see the ways he was language deprived or the ways that had shaped him. And, of course, my mother was very close to him too. He was her stepfather, but he’d really stepped into her life in a big way, and she revered him just as I did. None of us thought of the ways he was, in fact, permanently damaged by this method of education. We saw the evidence, but having to go back and really internalize that understanding before I ended the book was difficult to do.
So that was a late-stage thread that you worked into the manuscript?
Yeah. I mean my grandfather was always there, but a real reckoning with his language deprivation wasn’t. It’s so transparent now that I’m almost embarrassed I made it that far before it hit me that this was language deprivation. That’s what happens when you’re very close to the material. I needed my reader to help me see it, and I’m really indebted to their work.
It really comes through. In your Prologue, there’s this really moving passage:
On my grandfather’s deathbed, he told my mother that he wouldn’t be going to heaven. “God doesn’t love me,” he said, “because I am stupid; because I am low. Because I sign.” (11)
My great aunt said things like that too. My grandmother, though—my grandmother thought highly of herself, or that was her persona at least. I wonder what was underneath that?
Your position as you wrote this was challenging. As a hearing writer, how did you work against the sense of speaking for the deaf community?
That’s a huge challenge because it’s such a hearing paradigm. I’m of course always speaking for myself and from a hearing perspective, but hearing people often have this idea that deaf people can’t speak for themselves. We don’t always embrace their stories. We have these ideas that deaf people cannot communicate because we don’t hear them, essentially. We don’t listen. I tried to stay close to the work of Deaf researchers, historians, and also scientists who have worked on language deprivation. I tried to do as much historical research as I could on the deaf characters who were in the book, which was difficult since, as I said before, the archives just don’t lend themselves to that.
It’s also another reason I chose Bell as a central character. I don’t know that it would be right for me as a hearing person to try to write the story of a deaf historical figure. They are in my book, of course; I would not erase them. The second biggest character is Bell’s wife, Mabel Hubbard Bell, who is herself deaf. But I wanted to be really clear about this being a book about hearing people, about the things we get wrong. It’s part of why the Prologue and the Afterword are written very much from my own perspective, making explicit a part of the journey that I went on in writing this book, which was to really reckon with my own privilege and the ways I am complicit in a hearing-dominated world. I wanted to foreground that as a way of being very clear that I am researching and writing from a hearing perspective, or a hearing identity at least, while also trying to undermine the dominance of that perspective as much as I could.
I think you handle it really well. And I think that the Prologue and the Afterword are so important to this book. People who think prologues and afterwords don’t mean anything, who just jump into the “meat” of the book would be making a huge mistake. The way these ends of the book frame the rest of it is, I think, very honest, very ethical.
If people skipped the Prologue and Afterword, they would be reading a different book than the one I wrote.
Regarding your inclusion of Helen Keller in this narrative: I mean that must present a sense of overwhelm. Once you bring Helen Keller in, there’s always this risk; her figure is so dominant in almost any kind of discussion of deafness or disability that it’s hard to keep it to scale.
In the same way as I did with Bell, I think I tried to keep it to scale. First of all, she is framed by the introduction of another historical figure who preceded her and was a sort of “Helen Keller before we had a Helen Keller”—that was Laura Bridgman. Before you ever get to Helen Keller, you know the story of Laura Bridgman, and I also tried to tell that story in a way that was a little different. People tell the story of Bridgman as a typical savior narrative, where Samuel Gridley Howe, a very questionable historical figure at best, scoops her up, gives her education, gives her language, and everything was fine—when that was super-not her story. In fact, the person who’s erased from that most often is this other man, Asa Tenney, who had a language disorder. And we’ve seen him portrayed as just an eccentric in their town, but he was Laura’s most trusted confidante, and he was the one who started signing with her. Another thing that’s always absent from Helen Keller stories is Anne Sullivan’s blindness. I am astonished at how often that is erased. I tried to focus on the things that are erased, especially whenever there is a disabled person assisting another disabled person. Usually, either one of their disabilities is erased, as in the case of Anne Sullivan with Helen Keller, or that other person is just erased, as with Asa Tenney, who signed with Laura Bridgman.
I knew the narrative of Helen Keller, knew the sort of bullsh** around her, and I tried to resist that. Helen Keller’s own writing is amazing, and nobody ever talks about her as a writer. Sometimes it’s angry, though nobody talks about her anger. So I wanted to bring that in. I wanted to lift out the other disabled people who were part of her life. Also, she was also on board with eugenics; people don’t talk about that a whole lot, either. Hearing people don’t talk about the fact that she was promoting oralism, which was incredibly damaging to the deaf community.
I guess I wanted to further an understanding of how these simplified narratives that are perpetuated are damaging. I wanted to counteract those narratives with what I included about Helen Keller.
I like how she comes in, as just one of like a cast of characters that Bell worked with, without the usual fanfare.
So much of her story in the mainstream is meant to provide solace to hearing, nondisabled people. My friend Cristina Hartmann, who is a DeafBlind writer, is writing an essay now [since published] about how, when she found out she was going to become blind, she picked up a biography of Helen Keller. So many hearing and sighted people think Keller’s story is so inspirational, but Cristina read it with horror. So Keller’s story brings solace, for some reason, to hearing-sighted people, but I’ve yet to meet a DeafBlind person who’s found solace in it.
I’ve talked to blind people who find that she “ruins it” for everyone—because she’s so exceptional, and her story is used in this way of saying, “We don’t need to adapt because, you know, there’s this person here who …”. As Jay Dolmage explains it in his Disability Rhetoric, Keller would be an example of the “supercrip,” who “overcomes their impairment through hard work or has some special talent that offsets their deficiencies.”
Keller’s just one person, and one whose narrative was tightly controlled from the time she was a child. She wasn’t able to live her life, wasn’t able to marry the man she loved (who was run off her property with a shotgun). You can’t look at Helen Keller’s story as a reasonable story. Her story was under control by people who understood the power the story of her life could have. It is a story that was framed as a narrative while it was happening; it’s unrealistic at its very core. And yet it is used to justify ableism at every turn. Exceptional individuals from any kind of marginalized or oppressed group often are held up as a reason why the legitimate grievances of the oppressed group are not legitimate.
Yes, it’s like people using the fact that Obama was president to argue that there’s no racism now.
Bell’s “model school” that he established in Washington, DC, brought together hearing and deaf children, but as you point out, “his vision did not include the idea of hearing people signing” (262). In Bell’s school—which his own (hearing) children attended for a time—hearing and deaf students were taught separately but were brought together to encourage deaf children to learn to speak; it was never for the hearing kids to come together with the deaf kids to sign together. In truth, given what we know about children, neuroplasticity, and that very fertile language acquisition window, wouldn’t having schools where everyone learned ASL be ideal? The deaf students could use it to learn English and other subjects, and the hearing students could become bilingual. Do you know of any such schools in the U.S. where hearing children and deaf children come together and everyone signs?
Right, at that school, the deaf kids weren’t allowed to sign either—although they still did. And then Bell’s own child started signing, so Mabel took her out of the school. Well, I don’t know of a school where that happens today although most of my knowledge is historical. That said—and I talked about this a little bit in the book too—on Martha’s Vineyard in the nineteenth century, there were whole communities that used sign language. Everyone in those communities could sign because there was a high incidence of genetic deafness on the island. There were enough deaf people in the communities that it just made sense for everybody to sign.
At least one reviewer of your book said that you have an axe to grind basing this claim on your own experience in a mixed deaf and hearing family. Here’s a quote from Andrew Solomon’s New York Times review: “Though she [Booth] attempts to wave the flag of impartiality, she is deeply invested in her subject.” How do you respond to that?
That assumes that white, male, hearing/abled, straight history isn’t also working from a
background. It’s like that kind of background is fine because it doesn’t exist, it’s just “normal,”
whereas if you come from any other kind of background, suddenly you “have an axe to grind.” I mean, sure I have an axe to grind. My grandfather was language deprived. My family suffered.
My family was traumatized; there was tremendous loss. And if I wasn’t transparent about it, I would have been both dishonest, but also, it would have been doing a great disservice to the deaf community that I come from, to my ancestors. Their stories deserve to be told. This perspective deserves to be out there. We need a lot of perspectives [on the Bells]. We need Brian Greenwald’s book; we need Brenda Jo Brueggemann’s. We need so many other perspectives on Bell that are from deaf people, and we need to lift up the ones that are there already. Both of them [Greenwald and Brueggemann] have also published shorter pieces on Bell that deserve a wide readership.
Another thing that’s come up in the reception of the book has to do with this quote, in the Prologue:
… when my grade school social studies book said that Alexander Graham Bell was the inventor of the telephone, it sounded as absurd to me as introducing Adolf Hitler as a vegetarian who once ruled over Germany. Bell didn’t just want my family’s language and culture to be obliterated—he wanted us as a people to be obliterated. I didn’t understand how he could arrive at that idea, and even less could I understand how he could get away with it. (12)
Yes, that has come up a bunch. First of all, that was framed in the book as how I understood it as a child in a mixed deaf/hearing family. Also, there is a direct connection between American eugenics and Nazi Germany; what happened in Germany was based on American eugenics precedent. They copied us. You can’t say that this is not part of that legacy.
—Ellen McGrath Smith