Jennifer Rosner’s memoir, If a Tree Falls, weaves together the autobiographical story of what it’s like to mother two deaf daughters alongside the imagined story of her two great-great aunts, who were also deaf. Rosner’s book is a meditation on the ideas of hearing and being heard and how these inform connections between mothers and daughters, and individuals and the world.
Rosner’s work has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, the Jewish Daily Forward, Faster Times, Wondertime Magazine, Good Housekeeping, and the Hastings Center Report. She holds a BA from Columbia University and PhD in philosophy from Stanford University. She is editor of The Messy Self.
She lives in Leverett, Massachusetts, with her husband and her two daughters, Sophia, 10, and Juliet, 7, who attend the local elementary school. Rosner spoke with freelance writer Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser about parenting, hearing, being heard, and discovering her story’s meaning.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser: You’re a hearing woman and you’ve written a memoir that focuses on deafness. Did you worry about a critique that you, as a hearing person, could not tell this particular story?
Jennifer Rosner: I wrote this book from my own perspective: a hearing mother of deaf children. Like all mothers, introduced to the world anew through their children, I came to view the world through my daughters’ experience. Their deafness — as far as I could understand it — certainly shaped this.
In the story line about my ancestors, I do write from the points of view of my deaf great-great aunts, but I make clear that this story line is imagined — a strategy for enabling me to work through my hopes and fears for my daughters.
SWB: What did you do when you found yourself a parent to a deaf daughter — and then daughters? How did you research options and decide on the best approach?
JR: I felt like we’d stumbled into a minefield! I was just a stunned, brand-new mother, wanting to make the best decisions for our child. Sophia was diagnosed just after birth and Juliet, too. We learned all we could by talking to audiologists, teachers, and parents of deaf and hard of hearing children. We read everything we could find, and searched the Internet. We also corresponded with deaf adults. Once you begin to research options for a child with serious hearing issues, you learn that there are major tensions surrounding “communication choices” — speaking versus signing; using hearing technology versus a purely manual approach — and that for many, they’re political.
SWB: How are these choices political?
JR: The culture of deafness has been dependent upon a set of choices and as more — and newer — possibilities unfold, the landscape changes. The notion of “identity,” even hearing or not hearing, is now wrapped up in these choices.
Being deaf is, for many, far more than a purely audiological state; it is a cultural identity. The thought is that a Deaf person who Signs understands and experiences the world differently than a person who hears. With this, comes politics: a challenge to the notion of deafness as a disability; the fight for rights to have access to what hearing people have; etc.
There are Deaf people who believe that a baby born with audiological deafness belongs in the Deaf Community, along with its distinctive culture and a language. I don’t agree with this as a blanket statement. As a hearing parent of audiologically deaf children, I wanted the chance to teach my girls the world as I know it. I also wanted to give them the biggest opportunity set possible. Of course, I will support my girls’ later choices of whatever communities they choose to join, and I will work to learn whatever languages and cultures they seek to immerse themselves in.
SWB: In the book, you write about your mother’s own hearing loss, and the sense that she had difficulty hearing you. How did that affect you early on in motherhood?
JR: I went into parenthood afraid I would not be able to hear my daughters, and my concerns hadn’t been just literal! Because my mother has a hearing loss, I often felt unheard, literally and emotionally, although it’s impossible to know what was literal as a child. I feared that I wouldn’t know how to tune in to my children yet I was desperate to be connected and attuned. The metaphors of hearing and deafness were already central in a whole other way to my personal fears surrounding motherhood.
SWB: How quickly did you connect your mother’s hearing loss to your daughters’ hearing loss?
JR: I was always led to believe by my mother that her hearing loss, which occurred in infancy, was due to a series of mastoid ear infections and surgeries. Initially, I did not see her hearing loss as connected to my daughters’ genetic deafness. It is possible that she had a genetic, progressive hearing loss. If this were the case, her hearing loss would be related to my daughters’, but she doesn’t believe that this is so, and she hasn’t been tested. The genetic hearing loss of my great-great aunts is from my father’s side of the family. Regardless of her hearing loss’ origin, one thing I write about in the book is that through my daughters’ deafness, there is identification on my mother’s part with their experiences, and for me, a chance to begin to comprehend how much her inability to hear — physically, literally to hear well — affected her ability to hear me metaphorically. With those issues more openly “on the table,” we have found connections we hadn’t been able to make when so much was shrouded with silence.
SWB: In your book, you mention your leather-bound journal quite a few times. Before Sophia was born, did you keep a journal?
JR: No, I’d never kept a journal. The only writing I’d done was academic. I started writing when Sophia was born and we discovered that she had a hearing loss. At the time, I felt overtaken by grief. When I started to write creatively, the grief gushed out. Unlike writing about philosophy, which is so careful and constrained, this writing was extremely freeing.
Writing the narrative lines of the book — the contemporary story of raising our deaf daughters and the historical story of my deaf ancestors — helped me to process my experiences mothering my children. Writing out the scenes of our lives, after a bit of critical distance and time, helped me to gain clarity and sometimes perspective about all that we were going through. It was very nourishing work.
SWB: How did you discover the story of your great-great aunts?
JR: I learned there were deaf ancestors in my family when my father faxed me a family tree that denoted deaf ancestors going back to the 1800s. Two were sisters — Nellie and Bayla — and I became obsessed with them. I desperately wanted to learn their stories. I uncovered a few details about them, through Census Reports and other records. But I longed for more. I began to invent the stories that I could not uncover.
SWB: Did you realize the fiction you were writing was so tied to the experience you were living?
JR: Often, when I walked over to my writing workshop, I would be thinking about what was happening with Sophia and Juliet. Then I’d sit down and write about Nellie and Bayla. That the themes and feelings were spilling over, I wasn’t always so directly aware of, but I know that’s what happened.
Eventually, I came to view the imagined story line as a screen onto which I could project my fear and hope for my own girls. Working this through with fictional characters was very therapeutic. I could delve into my concerns more safely than when I let myself worry about my daughters’ future.
SWB: Did you begin to do research when you realized that, through Nellie and Bayla, you were delving into historical fiction?
JR: I did a lot of reading, books like The River Midnight, The Ministry of Special Cases, Tevye the Dairyman. I learned about Jewish laws pertaining to disability, which were not generous toward people with deafness. I examined ancient texts, mainly The Mishna and the Talmud, and learned a lot from the book Judaism and Disability by Judith Abrams. I found all this disturbing as I struggled with my own fears about my daughters’ future.
SWB: Meantime, although you wrote about your ancestors for one thread of the book, the story you tell is hardly only that set of imaginings; you write about your own experience of motherhood, too.
JR: Yes, the main story line is about raising our daughters, and our journey with them into the world of sound and speech. But most of the vignettes or scenes about parenting my girls didn’t make it onto the page right away. Often, there was a lag. It took time before I could approach my experiences with critical distance, rather than reacting to the moment that had just passed.
SWB: Was envisioning that these different threads could be woven together into a book as easy as looking at each strand and realizing they had to be interconnected?
JR: I perceived the two narratives — of Nellie and Bayla, and of my two daughters — as intertwined: two stories of deaf sisters. Then I went to a workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa in Iowa City (my absolute favorite writing city). I had a chance meeting with a teacher, Marilyn Abildskov. She’s a wonderful writer, the author of The Men In My Country. She asked what I was working on. I replied that I was writing a story about two sets of deaf sisters, my ancestors and my own girls. She pressed me further on what my story was about. I stumbled awhile, and then told her of a detail that my grandmother had passed along to my father, a detail I found most significant: my deaf great-great aunts tied strings from their wrists to their babies’ in the night; when the babies cried, my aunts felt the tug on the string and woke to care for them. “Oh, so it’s about connection, about mothering,” she said. It was! I realized that my search into the lives of my ancestors was a search for strings, for strands of connection. My mother had had difficulty connecting with me, and I feared I had no string to provide for my daughters. Through this brief conversation, I came to a deeper understanding of my project.
SWB: The book certainly becomes richer with a theme like that, versus two separate, coincidentally interesting stories.
JR: Understanding the role of my childhood experience with my mom, and my longing to connect to my children — that was much more dynamic and had more depth than two stories of sister experiences.
SWB: You and your husband moved across the country to be near the school you felt could help Sophia. At that time, you were teaching philosophy.
JR: Yes, I had just finished graduate school and I was teaching at Stanford. When we moved here, first to Northampton, Massachusetts, I taught at Mount Holyoke College. After Juliet was born and diagnosed as profoundly deaf, I decided I needed to put my attentions to Juliet’s development full time, and I stopped teaching.
SWB: The Feminist Press is publishing your book. Were you surprised that this publisher took the book?
JR: The editors at the Feminist Press saw the book as one about choice: our choice about how to raise our daughters, within the fractious community of the deaf, where technological advancements mean parents can determine whether their children are able to gain access — through hearing aids and cochlear implants — to the hearing world. The notion of choice extends to our children, too: they can choose to turn their hearing on or off.
SWB: How would you feel if your children turned off their ability to hear and joined a signing-centered deaf world?
JR: I’d feel fine with it. I’m just glad that the choice is theirs to make. Our biggest worry, early on, was that they wouldn’t have choices, that their opportunities would be constrained.
As it is, the girls do have many moments in a day when they take off their sound: for the bathtub, for quiet reading, for sleep. It’s amazing that they can turn sound on and off.
SWB: Since the book came out, are there any book-related developments?
JR: I recorded an excerpt of my book for a trailer — and I want it to go viral!
SWB: This was your first book. Are you writing something new?
JR: I’m hard at work on a multi-generational, family novel about love and wholeness.