Writing Della: A Peek inside Deaf Education in the Gilded Age

Writing is always a risk. People say to “write what you know,” which is safe advice to be sure, but fiction will inevitably push these boundaries. For me, the history is what I know, so the history is where I start. But sometimes plot bunnies lead me down dangerous plot burrows.

fiction model of Annabelle Kent by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
How do you borrow from real historical outliers to write fiction? This is one way: the ice cube tray model. I used adventurous traveler Annabelle Kent as inspiration for Hotel Oriente heroine, Della Berget.

A few years ago, I was trying to find an American source to describe the entrance into Manila Bay via steamer ship. One of the best I found was written by a traveler named Annabelle Kent:

…we were hardly outside the harbor before it became very rough, the flying spray beat against the saloon windows, and it was necessary for our chairs to be lashed to the rail. I am never sea-sick, but once ensconced in my steamer chair, it seemed best to stay there, and it really was a delight to sit there snugly wrapped up from the flying spray and watch the huge waves thundering around our little boat, which rode them like a bird….Before [landing] I had gone down to the cabin to do the repacking for my sick roommate and myself. This was no joke; with the trunks sliding around with every movement of the ship, I had to dodge the one while I held on to the other and crammed things into it.…

Round the World in Silence

Wow, now that’s evocative writing. Why was Ms. Kent so impervious to seasickness, I wondered? I went back to the beginning of the book to read this: “I would like to show others, as well as my deaf brethren and sisters, how much pleasure and profit one can get through travel not only in Europe, but the Orient. I am not merely hard of hearing, but entirely deaf.”

What is the connection between deafness and intrepid water travel? Apparently, those with a damaged vestibular system are far less likely to be seasick:

The US Navy ran an experiment in the 1960′s where they put a few Deaf men…in a window-less galley of a ship in the middle of a horrendous storm off of Newfoundland. As the ship tossed, the Deaf men sat at a table and played cards. Meanwhile, every Naval scientist became seasick.

There is a nice sort of justice there. As I read more of Ms. Kent’s book, I learned how she circumnavigated the globe—part of the time with friends, but mostly with complete strangers, all without a sign language interpreter. One of the most adventurous women of her era, Ms. Kent was perfect material for a romance heroine!

Gibson girls gone wild by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Heroines, heroines, everywhere! Gibson girls gone wild from the Gilded Age. From left to right: the cover of Mary H. Fee’s memoir (from the New York Society Library); a portrait of Annabelle Kent in China (from her book Round the World in Silence); the legacy of Rebecca Parish as seen through a nurses’ basketball team for the Mary Johnston Hospital in 1909 (print for sale on eBay); and the classic Gibson girl image on a music score (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

But, wait. Hold on. What do I know about deafness and Deaf Culture? Watching movies doesn’t count because they are so often written by the hearing. As blogger Charlie Swinbourne wrote about deafness in the movies:

On one hand, it’s exciting to see characters like yourself represented on screen. On the other hand, you get the FEAR.

Fear of what? Well, of the deaf character being hard to understand (especially if they’re being played by an inexperienced signer), or of their presence in the story being insubstantial and throwaway.

Worst of all, you get the fear of their appearance on screen being unrealistic, making it hard to believe in, and enjoy the story.

Swinbourne proceeds to list the top ten errors from real films. Some of the errors are obvious: a person cannot lipread when he or she is turned away from the speaker, or while sitting in the dark, or at night, and so on. And, yet, these things happen in movies all the time. If I have managed to avoid any of these pitfalls (eh…I did okay, not perfectly, but more on that later), it was because of Mr. Swinbourne’s blog, The Limping Chicken, and other sources. (Also, see his own films here.)

Limping Chicken deaf blog posted in article by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Could a deaf writer have written my character, Della Berget, better than me? Yes, no doubt. Are there better books out there about Deaf Culture? Uh, like every one written by someone hard of hearing. But the story of Hotel Oriente was grounded in history, and that is my comparative advantage. I decided to take a risk and write Della as best I could. Of course, this meant research.

I found out some interesting aspects of deaf education at the beginning of the 20th century:

  • The federally-chartered university for the hard of hearing, Gallaudet, known today for proudly teaching in two languages (American Sign Language and spoken English) was forced by Congress to teach only the “Oral Method” of communication throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Oralism” meant lipreading/speechreading paired with speaking. So, if you were wondering why my heroine Della does not use ASL, it is because the “experts” of her age felt it was the duty of those hard of hearing to assimilate to the hearing world, rather than acknowledging the value of their own vibrant culture. An 1880 conference of these “experts” in Milan even tried to ban “manualism,” or sign language! Though that law was not binding, it guided Congress. Even prominent hearing folks like Alexander Graham Bell got involved. (He wanted Gallaudet to stop hiring deaf teachers, whom he felt would emphasize sign language.)
Gallaudet University history post by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
An early photo of what would become Gallaudet University, featuring College Hall, Chapel Hall, and Fowler Hall.
  • The emphasis on lipreading began with an incredibly patronizing idea: that all Deaf secretly wish to hear. This is not true. Limping Chicken blogger Toby Burton puts it best: “If you were to offer me a pill that would grant me [hearing], I’d be offended. Would you say to a woman,‘Take a pill and become a man, you might have more opportunities’? Of course not.” A story from Annabelle Kent’s 1911 book shows the time-tested nature of this truth: “…there happened to be a young man in the party who was totally blind. I was full of sympathy for him, but he, instead of feeling regret, thought the sympathy should be bestowed on me since I was deaf instead of blind.” You know the adage about making assumptions.
  • Gallaudet began accepting women in 1887, but they were not treated equally. In fact, the school newspaper describes a harrowing welcome for some of them: “all the [male] students would line up in rows and thus compel them to run a daily gauntlet of masculine curiosity.” Gee, that’s fun. And because women could not attend clubs and society meetings without a chaperone, they could never assume the highest positions of leadership. For example, even though women were influential in starting the school newspaper, the Buff and Blue, a young man would always be chosen for editor-in-chief because he could make the meetings without fail. This inequity is one of the reasons why my heroine, Della, an aspiring journalist, will leave college early to accompany her congressman grandfather to the Philippines: she is hoping to find fresh opportunities on the new American frontier.
Buff and Blue Gallaudet University for Gilded Age deaf history post by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The masthead of one of the last issues of the Buff and Blue that Della Berget might have contributed to. Notice the women bolstering up the editorial board.
  • And yet Gallaudet may have been more expensive back then. The 1900 tuition was $250, which in terms of 2016 commodity value is $19500—not so far off the current tuition of $19,852 for an undergraduate student, including a health insurance fee. But, when you consider the value of $250 as a proportion of someone’s income in 2016, it is the equivalent of $52,800—more than twice the current fee. (All inflation calculations are courtesy of Measuring Worth.)
Gilded Age deaf history by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
When the women of Gallaudet could not join the men’s literary society, they made their own. It still exists as Phi Kappa Zeta.
  • Because she has to, Della lipreads. Unlike some of the movies Swinbourne skewers, she does not do it from too far away (though I stretch her abilities a little in the Clarke’s cafe scene), nor does she do it in the dark (though in one scene, only the couple’s faces are illuminated). She can read some people better than others, which my research suggests is common. (And guess what? The easiest person for her to read is our hero, Moss. But, duh, romance.) She cannot read anyone with a mustache, which hides the lips—also a note from my research. And she prefers full sentences to fragments. Why? Because only about 30% of speech is readable, according to Albany Jacobson Eckert. That means context is everything, especially when dealing with commonly confused words—which are different pairings than a hearing person would confuse. A few times in Hotel Oriente, I let Della make mistakes, get frustrated, and develop a headache because lipreading is really, really hard work. Is she still maybe a little too good at it at times? Probably. (Again, romance.) But I did take hope from Dr. Neil Bauman‘s remarks that while only 23% of hard-of-hearing people become effective speechreaders, women tend to be more effective than men. Also, nonverbal cues are important, as are vibrations and light.

  • Like many in her generation, Della lost her hearing to Meningitis. She was sick after age three and a half—the time at which most sounds have been learned and can be mimicked, according to Dennis C. Tanner—which would have made her a good candidate for oralism. However, there are still distortions in her pronunciation and tone, which Moss does notice. After he notices, though, I write her speech without accent because that is a better reflection of her intention and the story. I assume that the reader knows her speech is not perfect, but it is no reflection on her intelligence or eloquence.

All this being said, I am guilty of #5 on Swinbourne’s list: letting her fall in love with the first person who shows a serious interest. (Della does reference another gentleman back in Washington, before her trip to Manila. And Della and Moss’s quick courtship is really a function of the time period, when women were less experienced than their male counterparts. But, yeah, sorry. Mea culpa.) There is probably so much more I missed, too, and I apologize.

Hotel Oriente teaser for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

I did try to soften Della a little bit with a few flaws, thanks to Swinbourne’s blog, but she still is significantly more sympathetic than everyone else—even the hero, maybe. (At first, Moss is not quite woke on deaf appreciation, but he learns.) Della’s grandfather is a tool, but he is the one who paid for her education—so that relationship is complex. Della’s feelings toward him are understandably ambivalent and somewhat Machiavellian: if he is using her as a political pawn, she is using him right back to get to Manila.

Since there are no other deaf people that Della knows in her corner of Manila, there is no real treatment of Deaf Culture and its rewards, nor would I be the best person to translate these ideas to the page. Still, I would consider Hotel Oriente a form of cross-cultural romance, like my other books. ‘Cause that’s my jam.

Hotel Oriente promo for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

[Edited on October 21, 2017: Comments have been turned off due to spamming by bots. If you would like to make a remark of substance, you can find my link to this post on Facebook and comment there. Thank you.]

 

The History Games: Micro-History Models

What is micro-history, you ask? It is the investigation of small units in history—an individual, a small village, a family, or a school, for example. Why is this important? Because large trends, the kind of history you get in encyclopedias, smooth out history to give you only the most average experience. And who likes to read about average? No one!

You want to know about the heroes and heroines—the outliers, the dangerous, the obscure, and the interesting people! Part of what authors are selling is the chance to live someone else’s life for a little while. Maybe your character is Marianne, a half-Jamaican hotelier seduced by a spy during the Crimean War; or Lily, a diplomat’s daughter who rescues a wounded American Marine in the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Either way, flat descriptions from encyclopedias won’t cut it. You need to mine primary sources for the convincing details of everyday life. Where else would you learn how Marianne chased off a thief with her rusty horse pistol, primed only with coffee? Or how Lily saved her favorite white pony from becoming dinner for starving Americans in Beijing?

Marianne and Lily are not typical, but they are believable because they are based upon real people—real outliers. My inspiration for Marianne came from The Wonderful Adventures of Mary SeacoleLily is based on Laura Conger in Sarah Pike Conger’s Letters from China. Where did I find these cool books, you ask? At the end of this post, you will find a handout detailing many wonderful places to find free primary sources on the internet: books, articles, artifacts, photographs and videos (if available), illustrations, newspapers, and more, all from the time period itself.

But how do you use this information to create realistic characters and believable conflict? And how do you know what facts to use and what to make up? I came up with five models to help you figure it out:

The Ice Cube Tray Model

My fake characters Marianne and Lily are based upon the broad outlines of real people, but if I actually wrote books for them I would make up individual personalities, hopes, dreams, senses of humor, and more. We are writing fiction, after all, not a biography. Let’s use a book I did write as an example: Della Berget, the heroine of Hotel Oriente, was inspired by a real-life outlier, Annabelle Kent, author of the memoir, Round the World in Silence. This middle-aged, deaf world traveler gave me the raw material to write a young, deaf aspiring journalist. To suit my own purposes, I gave Della a US congressman for a grandfather—loosely based on a real one, Senator Albert Beveridge—and plopped her in the middle of 1901 Manila, where carpetbaggers like her could make a name for themselves. Elements of Della come from Annabelle’s story, but the real person provides only an incomplete mold, like an ice cube tray. I filled in the tray with other ideas, making my character an original.

The Straitjacket Model

What if you don’t focus on a specific person? In fact, quite the opposite. What if you highlight the social constraints of a chosen era—the rules that pen in the people? Guess what? You have the formula for a clever foil, or even villain, to represent “society” as a whole—without being average. I did this for Archie Blaxton, the hated fiancé in Under the Sugar Sun. I took the horrible things that came out of Americans’ mouths (or memoirs) about the Philippines, and I gave it all to Archie. He became an amalgam of all the worst Americans I could find. (People suck, by the way.) I call this model the straitjacket.

The Open Flame Model

Real history can also provide conflict, too. I needed a scandal for Hotel Oriente, something to put a little pressure on my hero, Moss North. (Moss, by the way, was originally based on the real manager of the real Hotel Oriente, West Smith. Get it? West Smith became Moss North?) By searching American newspapers, I found a real scandal that almost brought down the Oriente, gutted the Manila quartermaster’s office, and sent a handful of men to prison. Good conflict adds heat underneath your character’s feet, prompting them to make pivotal decisions—and sometimes declarations of love! I call this the open flame.

The Millstone Model

For my upcoming book, Sugar Moon, I gave my hero a troubled past. Ben Potter was traumatized by a real event: the 1901 attack at Balangiga in which 48 American soldiers were killed by angry villagers. Ben’s memories will be shared in flashback form because they shaped Ben into the man he is, for better or worse. (Most of you would say worse, but give him a chance. Or second chance. Well, okay, third.) Ground down by the millstone of war, he is someone new because of this real event. This is his internal conflict.

The Fridge Magnet Model

Finally, I use real vignettes and anecdotes throughout my books. A lot of people remember the snake scene in Under the Sugar Sun, and I wish I could take full credit for it. But it really happened to a real American on one of his first nights in the Philippines in the early 1900s. He even had to buy a replacement snake, too! There’s some stuff you cannot make up, and you shouldn’t have to. But you do need those little details that make your book convincing.

Consider this: when you walk into a house, where do you find the small details important to that family’s daily life? On their fridge. (Or their medicine cabinet, but that’s an invasion of privacy. Shame on you.) Therefore, I call this the fridge magnet model. These little snippets can tell your reader more about a character or setting than Mr. Exposition ever could. For example, the snake story told me how clever rural Filipinos were to use one pest to control another; and it told me that Georgie, for all her pluck, wasn’t going to get anything right on her first night in Bais. Her “fish out of water” anxieties will be essential to her later conflict with Javier.

Conclusion

Whenever I approach a primary source, I think: how can this event advance my story or my character development? And you need to be thinking this, too. No matter how much fun it is to research—no matter how many rabbit holes you want to fall down—everything should move your book forward. Stay focused on these five models. I hope they help!

By the way, here is the handout of websites that I cover in the workshop’s “how to” portion, along with some Google shortcut tips: Hallock Micro-History Researching Tips. Happy researching!