The Shape of Sound
Fiona Murphy
Text Publishing 297pp

Unlike the well-known author Helen Garner I was unable to devour this wonderful book in a single day, but like her I was ‘fascinated, enlightened, moved’, and like the many other writers who have praised it, I found it a ‘brilliant memoir’, ‘wise, generous and perceptive’, and ‘utterly gripping.’

On the surface, the book is not a hard one to describe, being the author’s account of almost a lifetime of near or complete deafness, first noticed during swimming classes at an early age: ‘Eventually the instructor approached Mum and said that I seemed to be having trouble hearing, that I rarely followed her instructions and was either in distress or drifting aimlessly through each lesson.’

The water is a perfect analogy for hearing loss, as ‘Sound travels in waves. More often than not, when people actually hear sound it’s at the moment of impact: when waves collide with the eardrum… [however] Silence can be just as chaotic and momentous.’

Raised in Sydney, Fiona Murphy was identified as having hearing difficulties in Year Two and taken to an audiologist for testing, the diagnosis being that she was profoundly deaf in her left ear and ‘not all in her right’.

This would significantly influence the course of her life, although not always in predictable ways. For example, she studied to become a physiotherapist, a profession requiring close observation of patients and a laying on of hands, but also the ability to listen to the feedback of those being treated. 

As may be expected, the author’s own medical treatment is the subject of close attention, such as whether hearing aids might be the ‘magic cure’ of popular thought and what is the experience of using them, the answer being unsatisfactory in the view of many users. Or whether surgery such as having a metal bolt screwed into her skull is an advisable course of action. 

Is accepting deafness, even embracing it, and developing a proficiency in Auslan signing a better way of surviving in a world that presents infinite extraneous noise and visual impediments for those attempting to lip read? And how does a person, deaf or not, deal with the endless racket that tinnitus generates in one’s head?

Generously, the author shares such personal experiences and takes us on a journey unimaginable to those without hearing loss. For example, the challenge of speech.

‘At school I became weary of speaking,’ she explains. ‘I tried to keep my voice on a tight leash. Even so, I didn’t know when it was booming or retreating… Unable to control my deaf accent, I persisted in trying to persuade people it was a quirk of inheritance. I needed to make sure that as few people as possible knew I was deaf.’

This would continue for many years until the deterioration of her condition and an increased confidence born of maturity convinced her that she had no choice but to come out (my term, not hers).

As if hearing loss wasn’t enough of a challenge, she broke her wrist at age 28, forcing her to cut back on physio work. Not long afterwards one of the screws in her wrist severed the tendon of her left thumb. Amidst this perfect storm, inspired by the Auslan interpreters at media conferences and a writer’s festival, she enrolled in an evening class to explore whether she might ‘use my hands in different ways… A feeling of lightness rose in me for the first time in twelve months. It was a while before I recognised it as hope.’

Her descriptions of signing and its origins are a fascinating gateway to a world few of us will experience. Hospital – two hands moving from your shoulder to your waist, like the long lapels of a doctor’s white coat; nurse, a tall, crisp cap placed on your head; physiotherapist, the right hand rubbing the left forearm, knuckles angled low in a bruising motion.

The learning was never easy. ‘Then a woman with black hair waved for my attention. She spelled S-L-O-W before running her finger up her forearm. I’d already stuffed up. I nodded – yes, then raised my right hand to my chin and brought it forward – thanks.’

Her analysis of how Australia regards deafness is disturbing, calling it ‘a strike against your name… the overall employment rate of Australians with hearing loss is fifty-eight per cent.’ Considering her own work, ranging through part-time, ‘short spurts of full-time… stretches of burnout, and overall limiter career progression’, she concludes that ‘I am a deadweight. It’s likely I will always be one.’

On the evidence of this exceptional book, that seems unlikely, although her general point holds, and those able to address the issues raised should regard this as a blueprint from a truly knowledgeable insider.