We’ve all kept things to ourselves while we figure them out. And often, the figuring has most to do with how to negotiate our peculiarities in a hostile world. As a child, Galloway was confronted with a number of circumstances that caused her silent contemplation. Now that she has a few things figured out, she’s telling the story. And the ways she’s navigated the shames and epiphanies of her early life will prompt you to see your own social negotiations more clearly too.
These are the quick facts of Galloway’s tale: an experimental drug injected during her mother’s pregnancy caused Terry to see visions and begin going deaf in childhood. Her boyish nature was curtailed by disability, but that didn’t stop her burgeoning desire for other girls. Galloway discovered the value of drama in managing her life, but she quickly learned that theater is more business than art. A deaf woman was not expected to take the stage. Some of these circumstances caused Galloway confusion, pain, shame, frustration and yes, meanness. You can relate. I know you can. She also gained strength from isolation. This quote, from Galloway’s introduction, makes a promise, on which she delivers: her myriad fascinating complexities will help you know yourself.
“Until they turned menacing, I kept my visions strictly to myself. I took to thinking of them as fragile wonders… If I didn’t keep them private, shield them from idle prying, ridicule or disbelief, they’d wither into dust, the same way my own secret heart would wither if I ever admitted aloud the longing for other little girls that was growing there.” (xiii)
Okay, but let’s talk about the mean part of the Mean Little Deaf Queer. Blessedly, the disabled-child-as-hero is absent from Galloway’s history. But neither is there a focus on personal bitterness. This memoir, among other things, is a study in the nature of meanness – how it exists in the individual and in every corner of the world. Galloway turns from the personal to the political and back again with ease. She reveals those who discriminate (consciously or not) against disabled people in this way
“Their insufferable self-regard and trumped-up cultural standards are a shallow disguise. Look deeply enough into their eyes and you’ll see the smoldering loathing of their own flesh that flares fast into meanness toward you.” (9)
One of the most compelling aspects of the focus on meanness (for this femme dyke at least) involves the emergence of Galloway’s angry butch dyke. Her analyses of gender – through the storytelling – are flawless as she conveys her friendship with a group of local boys. “I might love the girls but I lusted for power,” (39) she shares. Galloway developed the compassion that comes from being both oppressed and oppressor – seeing the weakness in another as she conquers it, while still feeling conquered as well.
The “Performance of Drowning” chapter is oft quoted, and it’s clear why – her childhood experience of wanting to win, even when the prize is of dubious value, wanting to feel worthy, based on external praise is so basic to the human experience. And, I wished every chapter were as brilliant. The prose is at its best when exploring the intersections of disability, sexuality and gender. She points out that “Passing as hearing took such a toll that passing as straight was a piece of cake.” (101)
The Drag Acts chapter offers more solid, reflective storytelling – from butch-femme desire to the personal negotiations of what is “real” rather than “performed” in intimate moments. These stories revolve nicely around theatrical ventures and the personal relationships that accompany them. And then, the story lags a bit through the final third of the book. I would’ve been happier with a focus on her theatrical ventures, how they invoked and portrayed gender, sexuality, madness and disability. Instead, the last third of the book tries to do too much. It encapsulates a whole life since childhood rather than focusing in on the most compelling aspects of the story. Still, piecing a memoir together is an artistic venture and so I want to allow a bit of unruly passion. The many brilliant chapters make Mean Little Deaf Queer well worth the read.
MEAN LITTLE DEAF QUEER:
by Terry Galloway
Paperback, $15 ($23.95 hardcover), 248p