Mean Little Deaf Queer

Terry Galloway

Beacon Press
June 2009, Paperback, 248 pages

The Other CIty

Reviewed by Dawn Raffel


I first encountered Galloway’s work as a performance artist in the early ‘90s, when she was doing one-woman shows at New York’s legendary PS 122. Galloway, who lost her hearing when she was nine, lip-reads, speaks almost flawlessly, and has a penchant for pratfalls and physical drama; she was the most darkly funny/outrageous/terrifyingly brilliant performer I’d ever seen. (After one show, I literally dreamed of skeletons flying out of the closet.) Galloway’s subject, in high-wire monologues such as “Lardo Weeping,” and “Out All Night and Lost My Shoes,” is difference, outsider-dom (“We need our freaks,” she chimed). In that dank, claustrophobic performance space, the audience was on seat’s edge wondering what scary, true thing this woman would dare to say next about our collective prejudices and personal isolation.

In Mean Little Deaf Queer, Galloway is both hilarious and devastating in recounting her life story. Born on an army base in post-WWII Germany, where her father was spying for the US Army Counter Intelligence Corps, she suffered fetal nerve damage as a result of experimental antibiotics her mother had been given while pregnant. The family moved back to Austin, Texas, where at nine Galloway’s hearing began to vanish; she also had episodes of feeling herself flying out of her body and watching from above. By ten, she was a self-described “child freak” with bulky hearing aids, heavy eyeglasses, and an even more burdensome rage; she also had an intense craving for attention. Sent in 1960 to the Texas Lions Camp for Crippled Children, she faked near-drowning to prevent “One Leg” and “Blind Girl” from winning a race for which she’d missed the starting cue. (“There I was once more—my own tubby, ill-favored little self in a messy competition with two other cripples who were going to beat me in a pathetic water race for a plastic two-handled cup. …Forcing yourself to drown, willing yourself to sink isn’t as easy a thing to do as you might imagine. But I did it.”)

In high school, a perceptive teacher figured out how to channel Galloway’s need for recognition into a quest for excellence. She helped Galloway to reclaim her speech, which had begun to slide, and to develop a deep understanding of language and sound. (“When my voice slipped into a flat, monotonous drone, she’d tease me, trying to coax me out of my habit of thinking how I ought to be hearing so I could concentrate on how the sound was actually moving through skin and bone. She meant to help me find the root physicality of hearing.… She’d press her fingers against my windpipe just hard enough for me to feel the pressure of my own breath as speech in its rawest state.”) Galloway practiced relentlessly, and discovered—perhaps not surprisingly--a passion for theater. In this she persisted despite an advisor at the University of Texas who dismissed her with two words: “You’re deaf.” She went on to become a fixture in Austin’s alternative theatre scene, performed everything from Shakespeare to her group’s own ad hoc shows, and eventually moved to New York.

This is no Hallmark success story. Desperately lonely in New York in the era when a deaf person couldn’t use the telephone (now there’s phone-enabling technology, plus, of course, text messaging and email), flat-out broke (she had to play up her disability in order to get new “welfare hearing aides”; the caseworker thought she was mentally retarded) and further marginalized as a lesbian, she wound up in a psych ward.

Only gradually, with more than a little help from her friends, lovers, family, work, and travel, and with a lot of soul-searching, did Galloway find her place in the world, albeit on tricky ground. The introduction of vastly superior digital hearing aides has been bittersweet, bringing not only benefits but also disquiet (literally) and sadness over time lost. But while depression and uncertainty are never banished, neither is the thrill of true companionship, of telling a story, of making art, of cracking a damn good joke. When she was growing up, Galloway’s family liked to play a hide-and-seek game called “Scare.” Here, she has raised “Scare” to an art form: Rooting around in the dangerous crannies of her psyche and her particular difference, she finds what is universal; exposing her desolation, she makes us less alone.