When Katherine Bouton was 30 years old she suddenly lost the hearing in her left ear. As she notes in her new book, a mix of memoir and reference guide for the hearing impaired, Bouton was suddenly among the 48 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population, who have some degree of hearing loss.
In “Shouting Won’t Help,’’ journalist Bouton puts a human face on these numbers by chronicling her own long, steady descent into deafness — a word that she claims to describe her “invisible disability.’’ Using her own personal narrative as a kind of locus, she explores the medical and environmental causes of deafness, the social stigma attached to it, technologies to help, and professional challenges faced by those with hearing loss. To broaden her tale she ends each chapter with a short piece titled “Voices,’’ which profiles the stories and hardships of various other sufferers.
In Bouton’s case it took almost three decades to come to terms with what was happening to her. But, as she reports from the front lines, denial is pervasive among people when they begin to lose their hearing. A statistic from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that only one in five people who would benefit from a hearing aid uses one.
Bouton stubbornly refused to acknowledge how difficult it had become for her to hear. Hearing loss and its consequences invariably bring on stages similar to grief. Denial gives way to anger and family often bears the brunt of that anger. Bouton almost lost her marriage while she tried to keep her hearing loss and the inevitable depression that went along with it at bay.
Next comes acceptance. But before Bouton gets to acceptance she gives her readers a bevy of statistics that illuminate but occasionally slow down her book. She’s at her best when she addresses her dilemma through her own story.
The reader struggles beside her as she goes deaf and scrambles to hear what’s being said at a work meeting or a Broadway show. “Even when I do understand what is being said,” she writes, “the effort of trying to hear eclipses my ability to think. My brain is so preoccupied with translating the sounds into words that it seems to have no processing power left over to dig into the storerooms of memory for a response.”
Bouton eventually got a cochlear implant in her left ear and spent many frustrating visits to her audiologist upgrading the hearing aid in her right. She freely admits that she’s not a cooperative patient. The implant was slow to take, and she was embarrassed to have it embedded in her skull.
Her vanity, she reports, “exasperated” everyone around her and she had a hard time wearing the implant. Her persistent denial led to her departure as culture editor at The New York Times, where one boss questioned her ability to be “a team player.” And still Bouton could not bear to think of herself as a person with a disability and consider the protections and prospect of accommodations guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It’s understandable why Bouton studded her book with studies and statistics. She has taken it upon herself to educate the public about hearing loss and fittingly ends with a description of a collaborative project dedicated to finding a biological cure for hearing loss over the next decade. But her fascinating memoir deserves more attention because she has an equally important life story to impart.
Published in the February 18, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe