I cannot give enough praise for A Man Without Words. To understand this book, one must first know that American Sign Language (ASL) is a foreign and fully-formed language, separate from spoken English.
Susan worked part time as an ASL interpreter, and the book starts with her work in a class for deaf adults who have been exposed to very little language. One woman had been kept on a farm all her life and only knew a few signs, and one man “was misdiagnosed as a baby and lived forty years with mentally retarded people until someone discovered he was deaf and had normal intelligence” (30).
Susan connects with Ildefonso, a twenty-seven year old deaf illegal immigrant, who has no language. He is languageless. Susan struggles to get him to understand that objects have names and that communication with others is possible. Through elaborate miming, his breakthrough finally comes with the word “cat.”
“Suddenly he sat up, straight and rigid, his head back and his chin pointing forward. The whites of his eyes expanded as if in terror. . . . His head turned to his left and very gradually back to his right. Slowly at first, then hungrily he took in everything as though he had never seen anything before . . . He slapped both hands flat on the table, demanding a response. . . . My face was wet with tears, but I obediently followed his pointing fingers and hands, signing, 'door,' 'clock,' 'chair.' But as suddenly as he had asked for names, he turned pale, collapsed, and wept. . . . He had entered the universe of humanity, discovered the communication of minds. He now knew that he and a cat and a table all had names, and the fruit of his knowledge had opened his eyes to evil. He could see the prison where he had existed years alone, shut out of the human race for twenty-seven years” (44-45).
Susan ties Ildefonso's lack of language in with many other deaf people without language, often raised in poverty and isolation by hearing parents. Despite the academic world's belief that adults without language are rare and unteachable, Susan finds many such individuals. She also discusses her experiences with a group of deaf illegal immigrants who only communicate with each other in mime, having only about a dozen common signs. She also ties in the “wild children” - children who were raised in isolation, like the boy who was raised in a dark room until he was seventeen. A common theme is deaf people's vulnerability to prejudice and perceptions of mental inferiority.
What was most disturbing about this book is the number of deaf people Susan hears about or meets who have no language or only a very basic understanding of language. Because the vast majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents, many she encountered did not start learning their language (ASL) until they were 5 or 6 years old. Through her surveys in California, Susan estimates that there are “hundreds of languageless deaf adults in California alone” (189).
This book is heart wrenching and highly recommended.