A Daughter's Book Breaks Isolating Silence for Her Deaf Parents

Times Staff Writer

Lou Ann Walker grew up bilingual, which is not unusual in this nation. But her situation was distinctly out of the ordinary: In addition to English, she used American Sign Language, the medium her deaf parents used to communicate.

Walker, 33, and her family experienced, because of her parents' deafness, many of the same feelings of those new to the land:

In a way we were outsiders, immigrants in a strange world . . . . It was as if we were clinging together for safety. There were unbreakable bonds between us. Yet there was also an unbroachable chasm . . . .

She has written a book about her parents, their problems in a hearing world and of her and her two sisters' childhood in a family that Doris Jean and Gale Walker, though deaf themselves, were determined to make as happy and normal as possible.

A Surprising Success

Her book, "A Loss for Words," (Harper & Row, $15.95), has turned into a somewhat surprising success, Walker said. It went into a second printing in the fall ("Harper & Row was really quite astounded"), is due out in paperback in September, is the Book of the Month Club's editors' choice for March and earlier this month received a Christopher Award for high standards in communication.

Its success is also another indication of a growing interest in the plight of the deaf, an indication highlighted by the Academy Award nominations of "Children of a Lesser God," a focus on deafness in segments of such TV shows as "Cagney and Lacey" and "Magnum P.I." and improved educational and employment opportunities for the deaf in the community as a whole.

On a brief visit to Los Angeles in connection with the book, Walker introduced her parents, a couple who love to travel, obviously love each other, enjoy jokes (Married 35 years? "Yes, and to the same woman," Gale Walker said, a mischievous twinkle in his eye) and share pride in their author daughter.

They are, in short, the kind of people their Hoosier neighbors in Indianapolis would call "the salt of the earth."

Doris Jean Webb Walker, now 56, became deaf after a bout with spinal meningitis at age 13 months.

Gale Walker--nicknamed "Puff" as a child for his chubby face and sunny nature--became ill at three months after being taken to a funeral on a biting cold day. Deafness resulted.

Both were sent at tender ages to the Indiana State School for the Deaf, a particularly wrenching experience for children to whom being deserted by their parents could not be explained. After graduation Doris Jean moved to Indianapolis--a daring thing for a young deaf woman to do--got a room with a girlfriend from school and a job as a keypunch operator.

She met Gale Walker, now 60, who proposed while the couple picnicked in the infield in the midst of the Indy 500 in 1950. Despite the crowd and the uproar the moment was private: Nobody could read Gale's romantic proposal in sign language.

The Eldest Daughter

They married and eventually moved from the small town of Montpelier to Indianapolis, where Walker had gotten a job in a newspaper Linotype room. They had three daughters, Lou Ann, Kay Sue and Jan Lee, but it fell to the eldest, Lou Ann, to communicate for her parents with the outside world. It was she who took the phone calls when a relative died, who made doctors' appointments, who relayed orders in restaurants, who tagged along to speak with grocers, the banker and the auto mechanic.

It was she who felt most deeply the hurt of her parents, locked into a silent world and often branded as unintelligent and incapable. It was she who kept from her parents the humiliating moments when tradespeople refused to deal with "their kind." And it was she who was exhorted endlessly by relatives to "be a good girl," to look after her parents and her sisters.

Lou Ann Walker writes in "A Loss of Words" of the isolation she and the family felt--and of the good times, too: family picnics, memorable Christmases, their father's sense of humor, their mother's devotion to making home the warm haven it was.

She readily admits the book served as a kind of emotional catharsis.

It took nearly four years rather than the 12 to 18 months she thought it would to write the book.

'It Was Therapy'

"It was a soul-wrenching experience," Walker said. "It took that long for me to understand. . . . It was therapy. There is no question about that.

"My sisters' reaction? Jan said, 'Why didn't you talk to me about these things before?' I said 'I couldn't talk about it.' "

Walker's pain oozes through the book's pages: the hurt at seeing her parents laughed at, the labeling--terrible for kids--of being "different" because of her parents' deafness (no Walker ever uses the word handicap ), the wrenching emotions of "deserting" her parents to go to Harvard University--and the foreign world she found there.

Where the emphasis on education came from is somewhat of a mystery to Walker and her sisters, all of whom went to college, two of whom became writers.

"Education meant a great deal to us," she said. "I have been trying to reconcile that myself to how we were brought up; our parents could read but not well and could not read stories to us at all. . . .

"Our parents never said 'Do your homework.' We just did it. We never had any problems in school. We all just liked it."

Walker sensed her parents' reluctance and concern about her entering Harvard University, she said, but they would never stand in their daughters' way: "My parents are very independent in very special ways. When Jan was thinking of moving to Chicago, several friends said, 'Oh, how can you leave your parents?' My parents would never want to hold her back."

A Romantic Marriage

So, after being graduated from Harvard, Lou Ann Walker stayed in New York as a writer and magazine editor. She free-lanced while writing "A Loss for Words" and continues to do so. Late last summer she married Speed Vogel, also a writer and a man who seems to fit right into the Walker clan.

"It was all very romantic: We ran away to Scotland and got married on a friend's racing yacht," she said. "I actually did grab a white dress, with lace and seed pearls! We did it and then sent telegrams. My mother cried and my father said, 'I didn't get to walk her down the aisle.'

"Well, some of our friends in New York gave us a lovely wedding party when we got back--and my father did indeed walk me down the aisle into the party. My husband arranged that. My parents like him and he's nuts about them."

She and her husband talk of collaborating on a mystery book--"the pseudonym would be 'Speed Walker' "--but so far, aside from editing each other's work, they continue to work separately. They divide their time between New York and a new home in Sag Harbor.

And while she considers future projects Walker probably will never find the same motivation that drove her to tell her family's experiences with deafness. In her book she tells of how her grandfather, who never learned sign language, tried to tell her mother that he loved her at a family Christmas celebration.

Young Lou Ann witnessed the scene, feeling that she was eavesdropping, as the Walkers prepared to return to Indianapolis after Christmas at her maternal grandparents' home. Once in the car, her mother turned to Lou Ann, puzzled:

In sign language, she asked, "What was Grandpa saying in the kitchen?"

My heart froze . . . . I signed to her what I'd overheard. "Mom, he said he loves you." . . . .

Mom turned back around, clasping her hands in her lap. She sat with her head bent, contemplating something in those hands. I turned my face to the window, hoping she wouldn't turn around again and catch the glimmer of tears welling up in my eyes.

So much had been lost.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World