What's That Pig Outdoors? a Journalist Explores the Humor and Hazards of Growing Up Deaf

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Early in life Henry Kisor came to the conclusion that being deaf, as he had been since toddlerhood, was just another attribute "like freckles, blond hair, double-jointedness or the ability to teeter along the top of a board fence." It was an outlook inherited from his tough-minded, supportive parents who, determined to help their child find his place in the hearing world, taught him to lip-read and speak instead of shipping him to an institution. Their efforts paid off. "I was just another kid on the block, "Kisor says. "For a remarkably long time, I never felt different from my peers." When Kisor eventually became aware of the limitations his disability imposed, deafness became "an adversary to be defeated."

Kisor, 49, has prevailed. He graduated in 1962 from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and, two years later, from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern in his hometown of Evanston, Ill. In 1978 he was named book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, and he has interviewed such authors as Bernard Malamud, Tom Wolfe and William Styron.

Kisor's experiences on the job and at home with Debby, 45, a librarian and his wife of 23 years, and their sons Colin, 20, and Conan, 17, have taught him that "deafness can be very funny at times." He recalls a day in 1974 when he was suffering from a "typhoon in my bowels" and broke wind. Colin, then 5, asked, "What's that big loud noise?" "What pig outdoors?" Kisor asked. The lip-reader's error—he thought the child had asked, "What's that pig outdoors?"—provided the title of his recently published autobiography. At his Evanston home, Kisor talked with correspondent Giovanna Breu about the disability that has never stopped him.

I am the second of three children. My parents told me I was extremely precocious and began speaking earlier than most children. When I was 3½, contracted meningitis and encephalitis, both at the same time. As a result of the meningitis, I became totally deaf. My mother was a resourceful woman. Her father was a diplomat, so she grew up in a lot of unfamiliar places and learned how to cope with difficult situations. When I became deaf, she would never take no for an answer. My parents were extremely stubborn, and my wife says I am a pretty stubborn person myself.

The experts in deaf education told my parents to put me away in a school. They would not do that. By a stroke of luck, my mother saw a magazine advertisement for a private teacher of the deaf, who, at the time, was considered to be a quack. Her name was Doris Irene Mirrielees. She believed deaf children could be taught to speak and read lips if they were taught first to read. She also believed that the best teacher was the child's own mother. Miss Mirrielees's method was both very simple and very complicated. My parents would take me to a farm and show me how the cow ate hay and produced milk. Then they would write out words, "The cow eats hay and gives milk," and draw a picture of the cow doing just that. By repetition, I learned to associate the words with what the cow was doing.

Within a couple of months after becoming deaf, I forgot how to talk. I understood no language, therefore it ceased to have conscious meaning for me. I remained speechless for about eight months. But this constant work with words somehow broke through to my memory, and I realized I remembered what speech was like. It was like the story Helen Keller wrote about saying her first word, "water," when Annie Sullivan pumped water over her hand. It was an epiphany for me, but we can't remember what the word was. It would make a better story if I could.

I never knew another deaf person until I was in high school. So to get along with my friends, I had to speak, had to read lips. I was very lucky because I had a knack for lip-reading. I thought my childhood was perfectly normal, although my parents had to talk school principals into taking me. When I was 4½, my father spent hours patiently teaching me how to ride a bicycle. Along with my loss of hearing, I had lost my sense of balance—I would look down at my feet and flop over. It must have taken great courage for my parents to let me ride in the street. Other parents were horrified. More than one of them called up saying, "I almost hit Hank this morning with my car. You have no right to send him out on a bicycle." My family thought those people probably didn't come within a mile of hitting me but were upset that I was not being protected. I was being protected—from dependency. Even now, when I see a road sign that says CAUTION, DEAF CHILD, I wince.

It wasn't until I was in seventh or eighth grade that I really knew others thought I was a bit different. When I was in the eighth grade, I told a friend that there was a girl I thought I'd like to go out with. He said, "She won't go out with you. You have big lips and you talk funny." I was thunderstruck. Nobody had said anything like that to me before. Since then I've been sensitive about my speech. I'm intelligible to most people in most situations, but that isn't good enough. That's why I still take speech therapy. When people ask me to repeat a lot, I know it's time to go back. It's like I'm an automobile in need of a tune-up.

I was never very good at mathematics or science in school. I was good at history, at English. During my sophomore year at Trinity, I discovered Thomas Wolfe. He was an incantatory writer. I learned that good writing sounded good, that is, the vibrations over my larynx, tongue and lips felt good as I spoke the words. From then on I would talk at the same time as I wrote, because I realized that if something sounded good, it also read well.

I had no idea what I was going to be, but I was lucky again. I had been the managing editor of my high school paper, and a family friend, who was the head of the editorial department at Medill, encouraged me to enroll in graduate journalism school there.

I am sure people think I must be brilliant to overcome my deafness and do what I do. That is not true at all. My intelligence is about what you would expect of the average newspaperman. When I am listening to a stranger, I read only about 30 to 40 percent of the words—I have to fill in the gaps, which can be very difficult. The words "hat" and "cat" look alike to a lip-reader, although if someone says "Put the —- on your head," you know they cannot be talking about a cat.

Interviewing was far easier than making dates. In high school I had to ask my mother to call up a girl to make dates for me. Can you imagine how painful that is? As a young bachelor living alone, I had to find some other way, so I started going over to their apartments. More than once the women would come to the door with their hair up in curlers, and more than once they weren't happy to see me—I had interrupted something. So instead, I wrote letters to them. If I wanted a date on a Saturday, I had to mail the letter on Monday to get an answer by Friday. If the young lady said no, there went my Saturday night. It wasn't until I was about 26 years old that somebody invented a little black box with a light on it that hooked to my telephone. With it, the hearing caller could sound out Morse code with his voice, and the code would appear at my end in the form of flashes from the light. I would then respond with ordinary speech. It wasn't very efficient, but it was better than nothing. I met Debby, my wife, shortly after I got this device. We were fixed up by a mutual friend. I think we got married because we spent so much time using it that we did not want to waste it. These days I have a teletypewriter, a computer and modem and a fax machine. Every advance in electronics has opened a whole new world for me.

Deaf people can be very demanding. I know I am. But Debby is not going to let me get away with something because I am deaf. She has an exquisite sense of knowing when my deafness really is a problem and when I only think it is. We have a good marriage. And my kids have never had to take on the incredible responsibilities that many hearing children of deaf parents take on. It takes extraordinary concentration to talk with someone unfamiliar about an unfamiliar subject, but with my children I don't need to concentrate. Our communication is effortless.

My greatest problem as a deaf adult is social. I have a great deal of difficulty making myself understood at cocktail parties because my voice is drowned out by the hubbub. When I raise my voice, my speech becomes even more distorted. I used to drink a lot to cope with this. Drinking was part of the newspaper culture. I thought it was part of my job to socialize at literary cocktail parties. I got drunk at almost every one of them. I had a real drinking problem until I was about 40. I was starting to suffer blackouts, and one day my wife said, Henry, I am going to leave you if you drink anymore." So I said, okay, I will modify my behavior. Now if I have to go to cocktail parties, I don't overindulge, and I take my wife along, I am no longer embarrassed to depend on other people.

I have never felt that my deafness has held me back. Other people's ideas have held me back. I believe that there are very few things the deaf cannot do as long as we can communicate, whether by speech, by writing or by sign language.

People ask me, if I could hear for a day, what would I like to hear? I would like to hear two things: the sound of my own voice and a Beethoven symphony, which my wife says is the most beautiful thing she has ever heard. I can't imagine what music is like. I guess it would add a great deal to my understanding of our culture if I could hear again for one day. But it has been 47 years since I lost my hearing. I am used to the world in which I live. I have made my peace with my physical handicap. In some ways, it defines who I am.

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