The House with all the Lights On by Jessica Kirkness

Reviewed by E.B. Heath.

Hearing … is a specialised form of touch.

Although classified as Memoir, The House with all the Lights On, is so much more, a literary Tardis. In two-hundred-and forty-pages Jessica Kirkness’ writes: a personal memoir, a brief biography of her deaf grandparents, social and political experiences of the Deaf Community, well-researched material concerning auditory biology and cochlear technology, brain adaptation to deafness, historical/current comparisons of deaf education (a minefield of competing issues) between England and Australia, deaf musicians, and, hearing children of deaf parents.

Should the above list portray this work as being a ‘dry’ documentation of deaf issues, please know it is quite the opposite.  Jessica’s writing immerses the reader into another world, from which they will hopefully emerge with an expanded perspective of humanity, in awe of the human brain.

Jessica writes an emotional evocation of living with her immediate family and deaf maternal grandparents, Mervyn and Phylliss Hunt.  Her grandfather lost his hearing aged eight, and her grandmother as a baby of eight months. Being deaf is complicated in a hearing world.  Jessica points out that the Deaf see themselves as a minority culture. Identity being a blend of personal belief about self, and what is reflected back by the dominant culture.  So, on the one hand there is Deaf Gain, and, sadly, shame.  The latter being a reflection of mainstream culture seeing only disability, not being ‘normal’.

Jessica explains how deafness has been perceived in society via frameworks within a medical model, social model and cultural model of disability.  The medical model defines deafness as a pathology needing to be cured, whereas the social model sees disability as socially constructed.  This, she says, does not deny the inequality or material reality of deafness, rather points to barriers built into the environment.  Deaf lobbyists call for more universal captioning in television and other platforms such as Netflix, and for more interpreters throughout society.  For architects to consider ‘Deaf Space’ within the elements of space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and colour and acoustics.  All of which facilitate Deaf ways of communicating.  The cultural model, includes the above, while also pointing out that deafness is a valuable form of human diversity, evidenced by unique ways of thinking and seeing.

The Deaf are known as ‘People of the Eye’.  Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes on the deaf brain, explaining that they possess a superior acuity for using the peripheral visual field.  The auditory parts of the brain become reallocated for vision.  He says: Given a world of extreme visual attention, such as deaf people have, other parts of the brain are converted to visuality.  Similarly, Jessica refers to William Stokoe’s research reporting that sign languages are complex, complete languages, and that infants developing signed language are using the same part of the brain as hearing children use for speech processing.

There are on-going debates between oralism, deaf children being laboriously schooled in verbal speech, signing, hands used in a language that has its own grammar rules, and more recently, cochlear implant training, which is long and laborious.  The debates range over wide territory, namely the politics of deaf culture, unsupported belief by the hearing world that signing hampers verbal learning.  None more controversial than to cochlear or not to cochlear.  In Australia it is heartily promoted, where close to 92% of deaf babies take an implant.  In England only 50%.

In two later chapters Jessica writes brief biographies of her grandmother and father.  She visited boarding-schools they attended in England, giving readers a mediated reconstruction of their early lives.   And finally, readers come to understand her grief on the death of her beloved grandfather, Mervyn Hunt, who, clearly, was a highly intelligent, loyal man.  He made a success of his life, as did her grandmother.  He is greatly missed by his family, particularly Jessica.  For this reader, his name will always be synonymous with Deaf Gain.

The above brief comments cannot justly represent this work.  I have barely touched on so much of it, entirely leaving Jessica’s personal story for readers to discover.  At times her prose feels poetic, it is rare that I have read the same book twice in quick succession, and I will read it again.  Jessica brilliantly blends the factual into a very personal and emotional memoir.  Expressed both succinctly and lyrically The House with all the Lights On is a most edifying work of non-fiction.

Highly Recommended.

The House with all the Lights On

By Jessica Kirkness


Allen & Unwin


ISBN: 978 1 76106 907 9

$34.99; 240pp


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