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A Man Without Words

A Man Without Words

Susan Schaller
Foreword by OLIVER SACKS
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 2
Pages: 221
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  • Book Info
    A Man Without Words
    Book Description:

    For more than a quarter of a century, Ildefonso, a Mexican Indian, lived in total isolation, set apart from the rest of the world. He wasn't a political prisoner or a social recluse, he was simply born deaf and had never been taught even the most basic language. Susan Schaller, then a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, encountered him in a class for the deaf where she had been sent as an interpreter and where he sat isolated, since he knew no sign language. She found him obviously intelligent and sharply observant but unable to communicate, and she felt compelled to bring him to a comprehension of words. The book vividly conveys the challenge, the frustrations, and the exhilaration of opening the mind of a congenitally deaf person to the concept of language. This second edition includes a new chapter and afterword.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95931-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-10)
    (pp. 11-16)
    Oliver Sacks

    ALL OF US, in some sense, take language for granted. Why should we not, since we acquire it as children in early life? We acquire it by speaking, speaking with our parents, without the least difficulty, and without any need for explicit instruction. All human beings acquire language in the same automatic fashion; all of us, that is, except those who are deaf. But for those who are born profoundly deaf, the acquisition of language may be a much more difficult and chancy matter, because they cannot speak with their parents in the usual way: they cannot take in language...

    (pp. 17-20)

    I ALWAYS TELL PEOPLE that meeting Ildefonso, the hero of this book, was the most exciting event in my life. Until I met him I had never imagined that a person could live without language. But there he was, a man cut off from the rest of us, who didn’t even know that such a thing as language existed. He was sitting alone in a corner of the room where I was supposed to be interpreting for deaf students. A room where I wasn’t needed because all of the students were deaf, and everyone could sign. Except those, like Ildefonso,...

  4. 1 CHAPTER
    (pp. 21-28)

    THE MORNING AFTER I HAD SIGNED UP with the local registry of interpreters for the deaf in Los Angeles, they called me with my first assignment. The community college district had requested another interpreter for their newest campus. They did not tell me the name of the class, simply that I was to show up in Room 6, Bungalow D.

    I took an early bus so that I could locate the deaf student or students before class began and have a minute to pick up any technical vocabulary I needed if the subject was unfamiliar to me. But before I...

  5. 2 CHAPTER
    (pp. 29-45)

    I BEGAN TO LOSE CONFIDENCE as soon as I crossed the green lawn skirting the buildings. How wide was the gulf between us? Could we build a bridge? In front of Bungalow D I stopped, looked up to the very blue sky, and drew a deep breath. Inside, the classroom was just beginning to fill up, and the teacher for once was alone.

    “Good morning, I’m Susan Schaller.”

    “Hello, I’m Elena Johnson.” Her smile was refreshingly genuine.

    “I was hired to be the interpreter for your students, but it doesn’t look as if that’s what you need. How can I...

  6. 3 CHAPTER
    (pp. 46-57)

    RIDING HOME ON THE NUMBER 3 BUS, everything seemed unreal. People acted as if nothing had happened. I felt the streets should have been full of cheering crowds. An innocent man had just been released from a life of imprisonment. Back in the apartment, I waited anxiously for John to come home so I could shout out my news: Ildefonso had escaped. He was no longer alone.

    John arrived exhausted and weighed down with ten-pound medical books. “He did it!” I cried. “Ildefonso understood today. He realized language.” John, now prone on the couch, was happy that I was happy,...

  7. 4 CHAPTER
    (pp. 58-66)

    IN TEN DAYS, ILDEFONSO HAD TRIED to vault over the wall that had separated him from the rest of the world for almost three decades. But despite his first running start, he remained outside of language. I began to wonder if it were possible for an adult to travel from languagelessness to all the rules for manipulating symbols and the complicated structures of language. Were we both deluding ourselves? Perhaps I had simply opened the door far enough for me to join him in his prison where we both were trapped.

    That Friday night, Ildefonso’s crying haunted me. If it...

  8. 5 CHAPTER
    (pp. 67-75)


    “Ildefonso, me?”

    “Yes, you, Ildefonso student,” I repeated and mimed reading a book while frowning as if trying to figure something out. “Student (learner,literally) you.”

    “Me? Ildefonso.”

    “Yes. Ildefonso, you.”

    And that was that. Room 6 felt like a prison with its lack of windows and its wandering inmates. Yet Ildefonso and I chose to remain together sharing the same stale air. We mimed, gestured, and made faces at each other more than we signed. We misunderstood messages. We played charades for hours and guessed and guessed and guessed. Usually, I started the game by introducing...

  9. 6 CHAPTER
    (pp. 76-82)

    DURING MANY DISCOURAGING DAYS, I wondered what kept us working. In the first few weeks of our work together, Ildefonso’s progress was not great enough to encourage the student in him or the teacher in me. What pushed us every morning to face each other? It’s obvious now, in retrospect. When I look back, I don’t recall the student Ildefonso, but Ildefonso, my friend. As friends, we pushed each other to explore. Without understanding any specific objectives or direction, we knew we were involved in an adventure together. Our work included discovery of the self, the other, and possibilities—the...

  10. 7 CHAPTER
    (pp. 83-91)

    ONE DAY OUR USUAL CLASSROOM TABLE was taken, so Ildefonso sat at a corner of a table next to the door. We were constantly distracted by the sudden brightness outside as the door opened and by students bumping our shoulders as they passed. We could not concentrate with our usual intensity, and the dialogue bounced slowly between us.

    Then the door swung open, and the outside glare momentarily blinded us. After the door closed, a blurred dark profile took on colors and features. Only inches away stood my old friend, Cal, who had convinced me to interpret while I was...

  11. 8 CHAPTER
    (pp. 92-101)

    MY WORRIES ABOUT HOW TO CONTINUE finding ideas, materials, and lesson plans for Ildefonso proved to be unnecessary. He himself demanded his long-awaited feast. He was starved for all the information that language could feed him. His brain, full of twenty-seven years of experience and stimulation, had kept busy, building as much sense of the world as an isolated mind could. He had the tools of a scientist: observation and deduction. Like a scientist, he had collected information through his senses and figured out a good deal, but, like the first scientist, he had no previous records and no information...

  12. 9 CHAPTER
    (pp. 102-113)

    ILDEFONSO’S ONE-SIGN QUESTIONS gave me a hint of the capacity of an individual human mind that had always thought in isolation. I knew that I would never be able to imagine that kind of isolation, and I daily wished that he could learn language faster so that I could learn more about his unique conclusions and impressions.

    I continued to try to fathom what his thinking had been like without language, to imagine his aloneness. The closer I could get to understanding his world, the easier it would be to explain mine to him. Where, I wondered, could I find...

  13. 10 CHAPTER
    (pp. 114-115)

    ONE MORNING AS I CONTINUED an exercise to practice the preposition signs “on,” “in,” and “under,” Ildefonso interrupted. He made signs and gestures in the air, then wiped them out by quickly shaking his hands back and forth while frowning. He pointed to some paper, placed it in front of him, and picked up a pencil, looking at me expectantly. He wanted to try words again. A new list began to form.Cat,of course, headed the column, and I showed him the words for the signs I had just taught him.Onandinwere short and easy, but...

  14. 11 CHAPTER
    (pp. 116-124)

    WHILE I WAS ALL TOO AWARE of time passing, Ildefonso showed no concern, as if our talks and mornings together would continue forever. He had no concept of time as we learn it.

    The subject first came up during our second week together—Ildefonso’s first week of language. His vocabulary, with the exception ofcat,was the names of things in view: chair, table, book, door, and clock. Without thinking, I signed “clock” (literally,timepiece) along with furniture names and parts of the room. During that week when Ildefonso met his first names, I was too overwhelmed to reflect on...

  15. 12 CHAPTER
    (pp. 125-131)

    THE STUCCO BUNGALOW WAS AS UGLY and squat as usual, and the Los Angeles sky, blue and cloudless as usual, offered no clues to the season. In Room 6, however, red streamers, giant snowflakes, blue and silver aluminum bulbs, Christmas cards, and a Christmas tree replaced books, paper, and one of the big tables. Elena and three students stood on tables and chairs hanging the decorations. The man with the Afro and two other students struggled to put up the tree next to Elena’s office. Mary Ann was smiling and directing people with pointing, waves of her hands, and her...

  16. 13 CHAPTER
    (pp. 132-147)

    ALTHOUGH I NEVER FORGOT ILDEFONSO, gradually, during the routine tasks of getting through the day, he became a kind of dream, alive during an evening conversation, lost in the next day’s traffic jam. More than seven years passed, my marriage ended, and I returned to California, but my curiosity about languageless people remained. Whenever I had the time and the opportunity, I would look through a book about learning language, or ask someone in linguistics, psychology, or adult education if anyone had written about or discussed languageless adults. I found nothing. No one had heard of a languageless adult who...

  17. 14 CHAPTER
    (pp. 148-157)

    THOROUGHLY DISCOURAGED after my dismissal by Dr. McKinney, I decided to write down my memories of Ildefonso, to retrieve all of our first conversations and relive the experience. I had written only two pages when a friend showed me a newspaper article about Dr. Oliver Sacks’s new interest in the Deaf signing community. I had recently read his bookThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hatand been impressed by his refreshing curiosity and humane interest in people. He reminded me of the scientist one sees in a five-year-old, curious about everything—all the details—and questioning everything,...

  18. 15 CHAPTER
    (pp. 158-166)

    WHILE READING ABOUT LANGUAGELESS Victor I became increasingly anxious to find Ildefonso. I had to see if he had continued to improve. I packed my VW Rabbit and drove over four hundred miles from the San Francisco Bay area to southern California. I searched out interpreters, Deaf friends, teachers, any signing resource I could find, and asked all of them if they knew of any language-teaching programs, rehabilitation counselors, or vocational-training programs that might be serving languageless deaf adults. Invariably, I had to explain that “languagelessness” meant lacking signed as well as spoken languages. Many Deaf people have inferred from...

  19. 16 CHAPTER
    (pp. 167-180)

    A COUPLE OF MONTHS LATER, I crossed half of California again to meet Ildefonso. In addition to seeing his garden, I wanted to ask him more about his past life and languageless thinking. I found him hard at work, and at first he didn’t see me. He was carefully covering the roots of a plant. Even his peripheral vision couldn’t pick up my arm waving. I had to jump over a small bench and touch him on the shoulder to get his attention. He started and stared at me.

    “Where did you come from? Where? Where?”

    “I had to come...

  20. 17 CHAPTER
    (pp. 181-188)

    I WATCHED MESMERIZED as they communicated for hours in mime. To the right of Elena was a middle-aged man of slight build with wiry arms that had grown strong from years of hard labor and skin that was leathery from decades in the sun and wind. The others seemed to defer to him, and the fact that he sat in the only chair appeared to be evidence of their respect. On the bed closest to the door sat the youngest, who could have been in his twenties but looked like a teenager. His bright eyes looked out from a smooth...

    (pp. 189-202)

    “ILDEFONSO,” I ASKED, “HOW ABOUT you sign the last chapter and I’ll translate it? You could say anything you want to the world.” Without blinking an eye, he declined. He told me to write whatever I wanted, after signing that I knew about that world. Ildefonso conveyed “that world” by sending a glance to a distant place, very far from him but close to me, with more than an implication that the far place was “my world.” He now had access to language, American Sign Language, but didn’t know enough English or Spanish grammar to read more than practical, telegraphic...

    (pp. 203-214)

    ILDEFONSO IS NOT ALONE. Since over 90 percent of deaf babies are born to hearing parents, and over 90 percent of doctors (ear specialists) say “Don’t sign,” most deaf children learn little or no language for years. Treating deaf babies as only a pair of ears and a mouth to be “fixed” is called the medicalization of deafness: seeing what is “wrong” with the child instead of the human child. Medical protocol is now invasive brain surgery for infants and Audio-Verbal Therapy, that is, hiding your mouth behind your hand so the profoundly deaf baby can’t see any lip movements....

    (pp. 215-218)
    (pp. 219-219)