Get Alert
Please Wait... Processing your request... Please Wait.
You must sign in to sign-up for alerts.

Please confirm that your email address is correct, so you can successfully receive this alert.

Book Reviews   |    
Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life

by Gerald Shea; Boston, Da Capo Press, 2013, 291 pages

Reviewed by Roger Peele, M.D.; Nicole Sakla, B.S.
Psychiatric Services 2014; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.650110
View Author and Article Information

Dr. Peele is with the Department of Psychiatry, George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Ms. Sakla is with the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park.

text A A A

At the age of six, a young boy named Gerald Shea contracted scarlet fever and was left partially deaf as a result. Remarkably, however, for nearly three decades he did not realize he had a substantial hearing handicap. Instead, he thought he had a cognitive disorder that he addressed by testing the “melody” of vowels in words that he would hear until the choice of consonants made sense. These constructed vowel melodies are what Shea referred to as “lyricals.” For example, when Shea heard “Gerry, when you’re in a baa you’ve got to taa to pee,” using lyricals, he eventually translated what he had heard into, “Gerry, when you’re in a box, you’ve got to talk to people.” Unfortunately, conversations would typically carry on before he could make the translation. Despite this substantial handicap, he was among the top students at Andover, Yale, and Columbia Law School and had a successful international practice in law in the United States and Europe that often required him to hear accurately.

Within those three decades, he worked 16 hours a day trying to make sense of the world around him. After discovering that he was deaf, he noted that his handicap led to “time lost as a child, a student, a lover”—as a fact, and not with any self-pity.

The most imperative lesson to be taken from this autobiography is that the knowledge of being hearing handicapped does not solve or in any way eliminate the problems experienced by the 30 million partially deaf citizens in this country. When Shea finds out what his real handicap is, challenges remain. In addressing these challenges, he meets a psychiatrist, Peter Melanson, who was training to be a brain surgeon and slowly became deaf beginning in his mid-twenties. Dr. Melanson realized his deafness could have lethal consequences in an operating room and switched to the field of psychiatry, which he could successfully practice with mechanical aids. Dr. Melanson suggests that Shea be sensitive to what a life of lyricals can do to Shea’s life if he insists on not recognizing the limitations of his hearing. He ends their only meeting by giving Shea a bear hug.

This candid and charming memoir reminds us that our brains are a language acquisition device. Partial deafness can lead to a limited life, or it can lead to a constant search for the meaning of life’s endless mysteries. Shea’s life is defined by the latter.

The reviewers report no competing interests.




CME Activity

There is currently no quiz available for this resource. Please click here to go to the CME page to find another.
Submit a Comments
Please read the other comments before you post yours. Contributors must reveal any conflict of interest.
Comments are moderated and will appear on the site at the discertion of APA editorial staff.

* = Required Field
(if multiple authors, separate names by comma)
Example: John Doe