“‘Do you have a bonus card?’ “Would you like a receipt?” ‘How are you?’ ‘Busy?’ People always say the same thing,” says Manon. “I am now so old that I have had every conversation at least once. I have my frames of reference, read body language and can read lips well.”
Less than ten minutes earlier, Manon opened the door as if she’d heard the bell, introduced herself, and responded to a question. ‘Coffee or tea?’ she asked and led me into the kitchen. “Tea please,” I said to her back. She made a pot of tea. For a moment there was doubt: is this woman really that hard of hearing?
This is exactly what Manon’s book is about Deaf! It took more than twenty years before Manon made an appointment with an otolaryngologist. He put her in a quiet room, without distractions, with headphones on. She needed to hear words, but heard only vowels. Was that ‘a’ for cheese or a vase? “I missed the context and so I was blown away.”
“Take away the environment, the body language and the lips and I don’t hear anything,” she says. Manon is not completely deaf, but hard of hearing with a broken middle register. She only hears vowels. Not the ticking of the clock, the hum of the fridge or the doorbell (“I knew you were coming”), but she just heard the “e” for tea, and she reached her conclusion.
Everything could be explained
The hearing loss has been gradual and Manon thinks she didn’t notice because she adapted so quickly. For a long time no one thought about her poor hearing. Her partner Paul, who is a musician, is not. Not her daughter Evi. Friends don’t.
It was easier to come up with an explanation for everything. That tram she didn’t hear coming? That was simply because it is so cold, then the sound dies. Giving weird answers when you asked her something at a party? That woman must have been ADHD. The TV that can no longer hear well? How badly adjusted the sound was! The plumber who told her that her baby had been crying for 15 minutes: she was so engrossed in her work that she didn’t hear it.
Doof is a story full of explanations about everyday things that often end in absurdist scenes. Take that one time when three women stood screaming above Manon’s bed. “I am most ashamed of this,” says Manon.
It was at a two-day book event, and she’d been knocked out that night after signing her previous book. “Writing names in books is tough when you only hear the vowels. IA, is that Ria, Lina, Linda? It could be anything, I usually just guessed and saw from the facial expression whether I was right or not.” She laughs at it, but admits that it is grueling to work like this. So after that tiring day she fell into a deep sleep. “As soon as I close my eyes, I don’t hear anything anymore. I see sound.”
Three screaming women at the bed
Manon hadn’t heard the next morning that the women had called her countless times. “After a while they came to the conclusion: she died in her sleep, that had to be done. Only when one of them put a hand on my shoulder did I wake up with a start. Three screaming women were standing at my bed in total panic. scared of me, I of them.”
And still no one thought of deaf.
“There was an explanation for everything, but not once did I look to myself.” Manon tells about her daughter Evi, who, when she was little, always stood in front of her when she asked something. “I think she was conditioned that way; if she wasn’t in front of me, I just wouldn’t react.”
Even after several examinations at the ENT and subsequent diagnosis, Manon did not believe it. “I thought there was something gross in my ear that needed to be fixed. Besides, I heard what he said, didn’t I? How could that be?”
Talking is like hangman
Context, lip reading, body language. Interpreting signals and filling in sentences, something she had been doing unconsciously for years and had so internalized that for a while she thought she was clairvoyant. “Words can lie, but body language can’t. It gives much more accurate information.”
One-on-one conversations like this go quite well. “When I talk to you now, it’s like hangman, I hear sounds and turn them into words. But it takes a lot of effort.”
After the diagnosis, the queen of hangman wanted to continue playing the game rather than say that she was practically deaf. “Out of shame I guess. Because I didn’t want everyone to treat me differently.”
Until it really got out of hand. The amount of deaf blunders piled up. Manon tried hearing aids and heard again for the first time in years. “What a drama that was! For years I lived in a serene silence and suddenly there was sound everywhere. It drove me crazy.”
Many sounds were so long ago for Manon that she could no longer place them. “I thought all the time: what is that noise? There were too many stimuli. I couldn’t think like that, could I?”
Shut off from the outside world
Yet she persevered, for months. It was her beloved dog Willem, her long-standing support and refuge, who gave Manon an important insight. “He died of old age and just accepted that. He stopped eating and drinking. When he died, I took off those hearing aids. I thought: I’ll just accept it.”
Back to the peace, the silence. “When I do Google, all I see are limitations: isolation, unemployment, hearing aids. Nothing good comes out of it. While every religion, every mindfulness course, every better-life strategy focuses on peace and quiet, on silence. Look outside, everyone walks in with earphones in and wants to shut themselves off from the outside world for a while. I just got it for free and it’s beautiful.”
Manon does not go to parties, dinners or crowded gatherings. As a writer, she can afford to spend her days in her writing room. She lives as she calls it herself as an English country woman (little side note: she lives in the middle of Amsterdam). She likes horses, dogs, gardening and cooking. “In everything I like to do, I don’t need sound. The question is, am I living this way because I don’t have audio, or is it actually my natural way of life? I don’t know.”
Honest about deafness
After years, an unprecedented change took place: she began to share the secret she had kept quiet for so long: she was honest about her deafness. What happened? “I was not seen as a pariah, which I was so afraid of, everyone was nice and helpful. People sat across from me, spoke more clearly. When I had a meeting, someone asked: do you see all the mouths correctly?”
It was good to be honest. She found out that a good and honest story about deaf had not yet been written and started a column series in de Volkskrant. That eventually became the book. But as funny as the book is written, it cuts through your soul. It gets to the heart of the pain: why did no one think of deafness? Why were so many excuses made?
Deaf is ‘a risk’
“Deaf and hard of hearing people are simply not very visible in our society, while there are 1.5 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the Netherlands.” Manon does have an explanation for it. “There is a lot of publicity surrounding this book, but some radio and TV programs are afraid to invite me. They think I am ‘a risk’, I heard from an editor. I imagine how such an editorial meeting goes: interesting , a deaf writer. To which someone else says: But what if there is a second of silence? No, that’s too big a risk. Who wants sushi?”
“It’s weird, of course I can just talk. But it makes it painfully clear why there are so few deaf people on TV. It’s a shame you don’t see more often how normal and happy we live. I accept that I don’t hear some things , that’s a disadvantage, but I also see a big advantage: silence is of unparalleled beauty.”
The book Deaf! by Manon Spierenburg will appear on October 18th and can now be ordered at bol.com.