Guest Post by Courtney Craven
I was lucky when I lost my hearing. I was 35 and while many people who lose their hearing later in life struggle with the loss, I already knew how to be deaf. That is, I knew ASL and I was intimately familiar with what the world was like for a deaf person. I’d been with my partner, a Deaf woman, for eight years and we’d been working in the field of accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people for half of that time.
To understand the multitude of deaf experiences, one must understand Deaf versus deaf. Culturally Deaf people are those who are a part of the Deaf community, embrace Deaf culture, and take pride in their language and culture, while deaf people use the term to refer to deafness as a condition. I lost my hearing after becoming sick with West Nile meningitis in 2017. I was sick for weeks and when I lost my hearing during the earlier days of my illness, I was too busy trying not to die to care much that I couldn’t hear even a fraction of what I once could. Though I was immersed in Deaf culture, I grew up hearing, was born to hearing parents, and don’t consider myself Deaf.
The Sound of Metal, a new film from Amazon Studios, directed by Darius Marder, is about Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who loses his hearing and must learn to adapt to life as a deaf man. When Ruben loses his hearing suddenly, it impacts every aspect of his life. Being a musician, he understandably fears that not hearing will render him unable to ever do what he loves again. The loss is painful and without any Deaf people in his life, he is unaware that the Deaf community exists and that there is a large portion of the population that doesn’t believe being deaf is a bad thing or something that needs to be fixed.
Needing to learn how to be deaf and fearing that as a recovering addict, he will relapse, Ruben goes to a group home of sorts where residents learn exactly that. He is surrounded by Deaf adults and children, all of them a part of a robust and supportive community centered on their deafness that does not need to be cured.
Saying that my partner was a proud Deaf woman feels like an understatement. Her deafness was a tremendous part of who she was and she had never known anything different. Born deaf to hearing parents, she grew up being shamed for her disability. She wasn’t allowed to use her voice in her house because her parents believed it would make people think she was dumb. In her adult life, she was the antithesis of her upbringing. Most of her friends were Deaf and any hearing friends she had known ASL because she had no space in her life for people that wanted her to bend to the hearing world.
I learned ASL in high school when I had a sociology teacher that was deaf and would, on occasion, slip into signing while talking to the class. The teacher soon started an ASL club after many students asked how they could learn ASL and I joined because I had a crush on her. 10 years later those after-school lessons paid off when I met Susan and knowing ASL was a prerequisite for getting to know her.
When I lost my hearing, after I was finally well enough to return to normal life, it never even occurred to me that I could or should feel any sort of way about it. At least I was still alive, I told myself, and it’s not like it would impact my life in any real way -wow was I wrong!
On days not being able to hear caused me frustration, Susan was there to ease it and teach me a better way. And even if the frustration didn’t dissipate, I always believed letting it show that I was mad or frustrated would be a terrible affront to everything Susan was so proud of. I loved her for her Deafness, because it was such a vibrant part of her personality, so who was I to not love my own? What kind of person would I be if I talked the talk but sought help with fixing what I’d lost? Surely if I just tried harder, I could stop feeling so disadvantaged by my new inability to hear.
My frustration reached a new level in 2018 when I started school to earn my MFA in an online program, knowing full well every interaction would be video-based. I’d lived so long with hearing privilege it never even occurred to me that the videos would be inaccessible to me. I spent two years of my life pissed off every single day because nobody (save for a couple of sympathetic instructors) cared at all that I couldn’t interact with my peers or instructors without going through a lengthy and expensive process of qualifying for accommodations. When I discussed it with Susan, she assured me that I didn’t need help, the school needed help. The school needed to change.
There’s a scene in The Sound of Metal in which Ruben, well, he loses his shit. He is frustrated, angry, and has no idea how to fit in the world, how to get what he needs now as a deaf man. He takes his frustration out by throwing things and screaming in anger. That level of frustration lived silently in my head every day because I couldn’t make my school change their practices and I couldn’t fix myself to the point of not needing accommodations. I couldn’t share my frustration with my partner because the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt her and I believed that would.
I had hearing aids but wearing them hurt and keeping them in for more than an hour or so always gave me a terrible headache. I felt like I was in limbo, unable to force change at my school and unable to fix myself in a comfortable manner while also being unable to express any of my feelings without them being met with encouragement to fight, shame the school, and demand change by my partner.
I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t want to demand anything because I already did both of those things for a living. I just wanted my private life to go back to being easy.
In The Sound of Metal, Ruben eventually gets the money he needs for a cochlear implant and believes that is the key to his happiness. He returns to the group home only to be asked to leave by the man in charge. He won’t risk the upset Ruben’s CI could cause other residents. It wasn’t until that moment that I could name what it was that caused me to keep every awful feeling I had about my hearing loss and living with it from Susan. I wasn’t afraid of hurting her. Hurting her Deaf pride wasn’t something even I was capable of. No, I feared rejection. If I saw my new deaf self as not good enough, who’s to say she wouldn’t feel that I wasn’t good enough for her?
I never grieved my loss. I never grieved how much I had to change how I lived and did things in order to participate in the world anymore. It was forced on me and I forced myself to accept it because I feared having no other choice.
Ruben eventually realizes that his CI didn’t give him back what he was missing. It did allow him to hear again, though not in the way he expected it would and the movie ends with Ruben removing his CIs and sitting in silence, appreciating not being constantly inundated with sounds. He learned how to feel at home in his deaf body.
I, too, have come to feel at home with my hearing loss. I wear hearing aids for work and that’s it. Friends communicate with me in accommodating ways and not to toot my own horn but my work in video games has helped make my favorite hobby more and more accessible to me as deaf accessibility continues to improve.
My partner died in early 2019 and every time I’m exposed to Deaf characters on TV or in movies now, they feel like home. That said, The Sound of Metal felt like home too but not because it reminded me of Susan. The Sound of Metal was a mirror of my experience that I’d never managed to articulate. Ruben so humanly expressed the frustration and anger I felt but never showed as he slowly came to feel at home again with himself, just as I have. Watching Ruben’s journey was cathartic and it’s the first time I’ve felt “seen” in that way. As happy as I am that the movie shows Ruben, in the end, choosing to remove his CI, I’m even happier that the film showed me an imperfect experience in deafness that I can relate to.
The Sound of Metal is available now exclusively on Amazon Prime.