Archives for posts with tag: Deafness

This film was highly rated at the 2012 London Film Festival. I saw it yesterday, in a relatively packed auditorium for a Saturday midday screening.
I was hugely impressed. This is great, and essential, cinema. Shocking? Yes. Distressing? Yes. But some truths need to be told, and told again, and again, until they get the attention they deserve. Tragically, atrocities within the Catholic Church just don’t go away.
Mainly focusing on sex scandals within the Catholic Church in America, much of the film deals with the sexual abuse of deaf boys by Fr. Murphy in a school for deaf children in Wisconsin. Years later, the adult victims began a campaign to have Fr. Murphy removed from the priesthood. While this did not happen, the campaign achieved much to bring the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church into the open. The campaign continues to gain strength.
The reason why priests who abuse children remain not only active as priests, but continue to have open access to children, is beyond comprehension, yet it appears to be how the Catholic Church deals with such heinous crimes (at worst the ‘offenders’ are deemed ‘sinners’, never criminals). The hierarchy within the establishment mostly responds to allegations of sex abuse against its priests with silence. A sad irony indeed, as we learn in Mea Maxima Culpa of the abuse of children who were already vocally silenced and isolated by their deafness.
The intricacies and complexities of the conspiracy within the Catholic Church at the highest level to publicly ignore the suffering of the abused is astounding. As is the money – billions –  the institution pays out annually via ‘fixers’ to ‘settle’ sex scandal cases.
There is an on ongoing movement, led by the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson, to remove the Vatican’s right to exist as an independent state (granted by Mussolini…the Vatican’s position in the war is surely the stuff of another film…), a status that currently gives it diplomatic immunity and puts the Pope outside the jurisdiction of the law. It is truly absurd, and wrong, that such a situation exists. It is also absurd, and personally shocking, to see clips of various Heads of State paying homage to the Pope during their special audience…
Nonetheless, I do have a sense of the Vatican imploding. I hope that I am not being overly optimistic…


This programme was initially broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday December 4 (it remains available on iplayer).

The composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley’s life has revolved around music for as long as he can remember.

Since childhood, he has had problems with one of his ears, but which did not appear to impede his career in music. Then, in 2010, as a result of infection with the common cold virus, he lost his hearing in the other ear, and as a result he is now one of the 9 million in the UK with partial deafness.

The radio programme was primarily about Berkeley’s coming to terms with his experience of living with deafness, but it was also about raising awareness of the fact that what happened to him, and presumably to many other sufferers, was potentially avoidable and treatable in its early stages.

We follow Berkeley as he awaits the performance of one of his own compositions at the proms. He shares his anxiety that what he now hears, and what he composes, may no longer be the same as that heard and perceived by those with normal hearing. The basis of this anxiety must be impossible to prove, or disprove.

Berkeley uses hearing aids, which are technologically so much more sophisticated than those of even five years ago. Nonetheless, they too distort sound.

When he initially lost his hearing, the composer wrote a newspaper article on his experience. He was contacted shortly afterwards by an ENT surgeon with a special interest in music, who believed that with the correct treatment at the time of the event, deafness could perhaps have been prevented. Too late at this point for Berkeley, he remains determined to raise this issue, as it may benefit other sufferers in the early stages of deafness.

Berkeley stopped playing the piano when he became deaf. Confused as to whether he should trust his fingers or his ears, he lacked confidence in what he was hearing. So too, he initially stopped listening to music. The experience of it was too painful, a reminder of what he had lost, plus the renewed shock he experienced each time when listening, akin to a bereavement.

It is difficult for newly deaf musicians to be open about their loss, and there is the immediate fear that others will lose confidence in their ability to make and perform music. The reality, however, is different. Those who have heard, and later develop deafness, retain the memory, as Beethoven did so famously.

Berkeley reads movingly from a letter written by Beethoven, when he seemed suicidal, a ‘hopeless case’, as his deafness took on the appearance of chronicity, a ‘lasting malady.’ On the verge of despair, Beethoven believed that only art kept him from suicide.

Berkeley, as he himself states, is an optimist, and he claims that there may even have been some positive aspects to his deafness. He believes that he now values music more intensely, and that it has become even more precious to him. He also feels that he hears and listens better than ever, which could be explained on the basis of brain plasticity, a rewiring of sorts, reflecting the brain’s capacity to adapt.

For Berkeley, as for Beethoven, the music map was already there, and the memories had been laid, prior to deafness. Thus, hearing loss occurred for both when they were already hearing with their brains, and perhaps less so with their ears…

Berkeley’s compositions now are undoubtedly different to those written prior to the onset of his deafness, but difference does not necessarily mean inferior. If anything, he believes that his work is now more focused.

We tend to take our senses for granted. Deafness is a particularly invisible impairment, yet one which can acutely and dramatically change the sufferer’s perception of, and interaction with, the world.

There is also the sobering statistic that hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline. Keep hearing well, and you may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Listening to Berkeley’s programme, I thought of Anne Stevenson’s poem On Going Deaf, and her pragmatic approach to losing her hearing:

‘I’ve lost a sense. Why should I care?

Searching myself, I find a spare.’

The poet had originally studied the cello in college, and later switched to literature. Although she suffered an acute and progressive hearing loss, her poetry comes from the sounds of music. For her, as for Berkeley, deafness has not been a place of silence.