Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – November 5, 2000
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Welcome. It’s been a while since we’ve been on the air because of the Jewish holiday season (since the holidays were mostly on Sundays). It’s a pleasure to be back—hopefully to a year of meaningful discussions and things that touch and relate to the real elements of life.
In that context, the topic of tonight’s show is “Sound and Fury,” which we’ll discuss in just a minute.
I have a guest with me, my friend Josh Aronson, which brings me back years and years, personally and nostalgically.
Aronson: Thank you Simon. It’s wonderful to be here with you.
Jacobson: I give a class every Wednesday night on the Upper West Side of Manhattan but it used to be in Brooklyn, so Josh is from the original veterans back then.
Aronson: In your living room.
Jacobson: Right. In 1984, and we had those long-night discussions.
I asked Josh to come on the show for a particular reason: because Josh Aronson has been a film director for many years, but recently, playing now in New York as we speak, John has released a film which he Executive Produced and directed…
Aronson: The producer is my friend Roger Weisberg.
Jacobson: Josh directed this fascinating documentary Sound and Fury, which I saw today. It’s playing right now until Tuesday at the Film Forum in New York City on West Houston St.
Aronson: Unless it gets extended, because it’s doing great. And it’s opening across the country in the next couple of months.
Jacobson: It was a chosen selection for the Sundance Film Festival. The reviewers in the New York Times write, “Sound and Fury is powerful, insightful, important and emotionally wrenching.” The Christian Science Monitor calls it, “Dealing with base rock human emotions” and throughout I see amazing reviews.
Now the film itself is an 80-minute documentary that deals with the issue of the deaf community, the deaf culture. What’s intriguing about it, and I speak as a viewer, was it deals with a conflict which one wouldn’t assume would really be happening: the conflict over the new technology of the cochlear implant, an implant that is implanted in the ear, that allows people who have either been born deaf or who have turned deaf to hear sounds and therefore give them the opportunity to begin to speak.
The conflict is that many people in the deaf community found that to be an intrusion and, as a matter of fact, were opposed to it and did not want to use that technology for their children.
In this film, John juxtaposed the two seemingly conflicting worlds. It seems like a logical thing to do. You would think that if a child couldn’t hear, the first thing a parent would do is to use the available technology just as in any type of illness. You go for a cure.
But here you find an interesting backlash where people who are very proud and who have, in a sense, adjusted to being in the deaf culture as they call it, are really against it.
I guess that was really what intrigued you in doing this film, because it wasn’t just about a deaf person and technology, it was this tension of conflict.
Aronson: That’s exactly what attracted me to the story. Like you, I didn’t know about the conflict in the deaf world when I found this story three or four years ago. But I met a woman in her thirties who had recently had a cochlear implant. She had lost her hearing when she was about ten years old so she had some oral skills because she was able to speak up until the time she was ten. But then she’d been deaf for 20 years, living in a signing-deaf community. She learned to sign and functioned that way, and she loved being in that deaf cultural community. She decided to get a cochlear implant because she was told it might restore her hearing enough to speak on the telephone, and since she had a job as a salesperson that’s what she did.
In fact, it did restore her hearing overnight and she could talk on the phone. There’s a long caveat to that because it doesn’t happen that way for everyone. Because she had some skills speaking and she had some experience, she was able to do it that quickly. But that’s a different story.
I found all of that interesting, but when she told me that her signing deaf friends of 20 years had rejected her out of hand, effectively shunning her when she got the cochlear implant, I realized that there was a real story here and that’s what attracted me.
One thing that’s important to understand, and I think that’s what gives the deaf culture its power and resonance, when you’re with people in the deaf cultural community, it’s not the cochlear implant that’s divided the deaf community. The cochlear implant is the climax of a battle that’s been going on for 200 years between people who sign and people who try to lip read and speak and function as handicapped deaf people within the hearing world.
It’s a totally different life choice. It’s a totally different identity. And those two worlds have been at war over whether or not children should be brought up to sign or to speak.
Jacobson: To help the layman get an exact picture of this, what exactly is a cochlear implant? What differentiates it from a hearing aid for instance?
Aronson: Well, it’s a totally different concept from a hearing aid. First of all, the cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device. The difference between an implant and a hearing aid is that the hearing aid will amplify the sound that your particular ear is already capable of hearing. So if you’re only hearing certain frequencies, it will amplify those frequencies.
Sometimes it’s really amplifying noise and is effectively doing nothing other than giving you a headache.
The cochlear implant on the other hand can cause you to hear frequencies you never heard before because it’s a surgically implanted device that stimulates the auditory nerve and allows it to hear sounds it never heard before.
If I get too much more complicated than that I’ll lose everybody.
Jacobson: No, that’s fine. Since when has it been approved for use?
Aronson: The critical thing that happened in the last couple of years is that it was approved for implantation in children under 18 months. Before that we’ve had it for years, and they’ve implanted them to varying degrees of success in people up to 80 years old. Adults often got it.
But the fact that they are all of a sudden implanting children is what drove the deaf cultural community crazy. It was so effective in children, they realized that those children may well not learn sign, and they thought that there would be a real decline in the use of sign language and in the actual numbers of the deaf cultural community. So it’s in the last 3-5 years that children have been implanted.
Jacobson: What I found amazing when I saw the film—I was surprised and even disarmed—was the legitimacy of the case of the deaf culture. Those who sign presented their case very passionately and very effectively, and I’m a hearing person. What impressed me was not so much the pride that they have, that a person is deaf and has pride and has been successful at work so why undermine that type of pride (i.e., “my children will also be successful”) but it was more than that: that the wiring of the mind, the psychological compensation that a person who is deaf has gone through is a price that they pay, and that price is a very bold price and something that has to be respected.
One of the fathers who refuses to use this implant on his daughter makes the case that to tamper with that is affecting his child’s welfare, because she’s really a deaf person. Her mind is deaf, her personality is a deaf person’s personality, and what you’re simply doing is forcing her to use some type of technology to go against her psychological wiring. That was his case.
Now I don’t really have an argument against that except if, for instance, technology gets to a point where you can entirely heal everyone who’s deaf, that’s one thing. But as long as there’s a culture that’s still deaf, it’s a big argument. What do you think about that?
Aronson: Well, I can argue both sides, because as you hopefully will agree, the film is very balanced and does not take a point of view. I try to allow both sides of the story to express themselves. But I went through the deaf world in my research and I tried very hard to understand both sides and be compassionate for both sides so that in making the film we could be completely balanced and not take a perspective, which is different from my own personal perspective.
But if you’re taking the perspective now of the deaf culture and understanding how they might not want to implant their child, I’ll take the other side for a moment.
The down side of not implanting your children is that you’re forcing your child to live within a deaf cultural community in America that has 3 or 400,000 people in it. It’s extremely difficult to get a job. It’s very, very hard to make a living, and you’re limiting your interaction with the outside hearing world to a huge degree and you’re limiting the choices that your child has.
In fact, a child can learn sign language and can learn to speak and function in the hearing world with a cochlear implant. That’s basically the argument on the other side.
The rub is, and what’s difficult, and what the character whom you’re talking about would further say (his name is Peter Artinian).
Jacobson: These are the actual people in the film…
Aronson: Yes, just so we’re not talking in a vacuum, we should take a minute to describe the film.
I wanted to tell the story of this conflict in the deaf world in which I viewed that the cochlear implant was the climax of a 200-year-old battle. The plan was to interview people across America and find five people who represented the range of experience in the hearing world and I did that. I spent a year researching and interviewing people across America, becoming a lay expert in deafness, winning the trust of people in the deaf cultural world as well as the oral deaf world. I isolated several characters and began filming them.
Along the way, we met this family called the Artinian family on Long Island, and in the family there’s deafness that runs on several sides of the family through several generations. Effectively, for the film, there are two brothers who are in their thirties. They both have children. One brother, Peter Artinian, is deaf and is married to a deaf woman and they have three deaf children. The other brother is Chris, who does hear, and who is married to a hearing woman. The hearing brother is married to a hearing woman who has deaf parents. So there’s obviously a lot of recessive deaf genes floating around this family. But the hearing brother and his hearing wife have three children. Two are hearing and one is deaf. So two brothers both have deaf children.
The hearing brother decided to implant his child because they made the decision that it would be useful to have that skill within the family for that child.
Peter, the deaf brother, is very unhappy because he wasn’t consulted. In the course of things, his five-year-old daughter Heather, who’s profoundly deaf, who signs perfectly, who’s happy as a clam (a delightful, brilliant child who will make you cry in this movie, she’s so beautiful) announces that she wants to have a cochlear implant. She tells her Mom and Dad that she wants to talk on the telephone and she wants to talk to her grandmother and she wants to talk to her hearing friends.
Jacobson: And I remember her saying she wants to hear a car crash.
Aronson: There’s an amazing interview where I asked her why she wanted to hear so much and she said she wants to hear a car crash and she wants to hear a house collapse. She says she wants to hear a ghost say “Boo!” There are a lot of things on her list that she wants to hear. She’s quite a girl.
Anyway, Peter and Nita, her parents, decide to pursue it in an adult way because this is what their child is asking for. That’s the journey of the film, as Peter and his deaf wife look into the possibility of a cochlear implant for Heather. Ultimately they make a decision that tears the family apart because the hearing parents of the two brothers become part of the fray, and it becomes a family drama. I threw away all the other characters that I mentioned before. My producer and I looked at the footage in the editing room and decided that this was our story and it became a theatrical movie about this family.
We stayed with them for a year and a half, and we watched this family continue to love each other but effectively fall apart over the issue of the cochlear implant. The conflict in this family mirrored the conflict within the deaf world. It’s a real metaphor for what’s happening in the deaf world.
Jacobson: I found particularly strong the interaction between the father, Peter, and the deaf son. The father says, “You are handicapped. You just don’t want to deal with it.”
Aronson: Yes. He says, “Look, we have to acknowledge that this is a handicap and we have the technology to fix it.” Deaf people don’t like to talk about deafness as something that needs to be fixed because they think that they’re fine the way they are.
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Jacobson: Now let’s not forget Josh, that we studied Torah together back in the 80’s. Kenny Vance introduced us. I know that when Phillip Namanworth, who produces this radio show and is an assistant to me in my work, wasn’t able to come to my class, I suggested that he begin studying at home, and I believe that you were his chavrusa, Hebrew for study partner. So your claim to fame is not just Sound and Fury, it’s also your roots. Let’s not forget that.
Aronson: Being with you here, Simon, speaking about the Sound and Fury is wonderful, reminding me of your class and Kenny Vance, who brought me to your class. As you know, I’m making my next film about Kenny and the Planotones, we’re here…
Jacobson: Kenny is a musician, singer songwriter, who was in Jay and the Americans.
Aronson: He actually founded Jay and the Americans in the 60s and now he’s in a band called Kenny Vance and the Planotones. He did the soundtrack for the movie “Looking for an Echo,” that his friend Marty Davidson directed which is opening this week. And then, it’s such a small world because we made our deal with a wonderful distributor, Artistic License, that’s run by Sandy Zeig and one of her colleagues is Ronny Guttman who comes to your class.
Jacobson: So this is the show you have to listen to if you want to know what’s on the cutting edge of film…
But anyway, getting back to this film which has so many different angles, and I’m just sorry we can’t cover them all, one of the things that always intrigues me when you deal with silence and sound, as also in the film a few years ago, Children of a Lesser G-d, is that in many ways silence teaches us about sound more than sound does. Number one, just watching your film, the appreciation that one should have, that we take for granted as a given, of being born with ears and hearing well. And here are families tearing themselves apart with the struggle, the fragility of the human body and the gift of being able to hear sounds and music. The passion that you hear in a deaf person speaking about… in one scene there, one of the people in the film says, “I don’t hear music. That’s not my reality. I have other things that I do.”
Aronson: She says, “I don’t care about music. I can’t hear. I’ve never heard music.”
Jacobson: So someone says to her, “You can’t hear the rain falling,” and she says, “I feel the rain falling.” The power of just being able to rewire your mind to that reality and experience it differently is just amazing and it has a lot of mystical parallels because, as a matter of fact, it says in the Bible, when the Jews stood at Mount Sinai, that they “heard the sights and they saw the sounds,” which they call synesthesia today. In other words, there are people who, when they see a vision, they actually hear sounds.
This touches upon another point. I have a good friend, Marcia Schwartz, who often calls into this show, who’s unable to see, but she’s taught me more about sight than people who can see, because in a way, the eclipse of the sun teaches you more about sunlight because you begin to appreciate it differently. You look at what exactly is sound and what are the tools that we use to process it.
Many times we look for silence. Silence is a very sacred thing today. Sometimes people just want to meditate, they want silence. There are too many sounds in our lives. You can’t listen to your soul when you’re busy with all the external sounds.
I know that’s not the particular theme here but, in a way, when he makes a case for not using the implant, one can say that there’s a certain embracing of silence that these people have had and have and they don’t want it to be tampered with.
Aronson: To give a little background, when I first started interviewing deaf people for the film, I heard many culturally deaf people tell me that when their children were born deaf they celebrate. They’re so happy that they have deaf children. And if deaf people have children who are hearing, it’s not that they don’t love them, of course they love them, but they shed a tear because their children are so different than they are.
That’s an amazing idea to think about. Neurologists tell us that people who were profoundly deaf from childhood have a different neurological basis in terms of the way they respond to the universe around them or to nature around them. Their way of perceiving is so different—it’s not just a visual thing, it’s a totally different interaction with nature. And their poetry and their story tradition comes down through sign language; it’s not a written tradition, it’s a sign tradition. There’s a legacy to this, an art to it, it’s an historical body of work and it’s a people.
Jacobson: There’s no question. It’s always been known that people who are handicapped in one area compensate in another area. People who, for instance, can’t see are often very sensitive to what’s going on in their environment. But there’s no question that it’s very fascinating. It goes into the psyche and what the human spirit is capable of.
Now I want to touch upon another thing, which is the cultural issue. For a moment let’s play the case of the deaf community or the deaf culture that this is a cultural thing. We’ve adapted to it. This is our life. And we don’t want to be hard on ourselves and say, “Hey, today there’s a cochlear implant. Tomorrow there’s another technology. We’re at peace with our state of being and if we have a child who’s deaf, he or she will assimilate into our way of doing things.”
There’s the psychological trauma of changing midlife—it’s one thing if you have children who haven’t heard sounds yet. But I think, in the film, it’s also Peter’s wife who also looks at taking it for herself, but she also hears that it will be much more difficult for an adult. They say she won’t hear the sounds of voices.
Aronson: Well that’s because the brain is attuned to hear language when you’re 2, 3, 4 years old. So if you’ve been deaf for 30 years and have no oral skills or background, your brain has basically moved on to other things, so it’s not attuned to learning language. Peter’s wife was born deaf.
Jacobson: So do they not do the implant for adults?
Aronson: The particular doctor in the film, Simon Parisi, is a wonderful surgeon at Lenox Hill, and he had only done three signing deaf people out of 300 patients that he had implanted at that time. Very few. And they discourage them from doing it although they do do it.
There’s a recent story of a family in Long Island where both parents are signing and they were both implanted and one of their deaf children was implanted, so it is being done. It takes a lot of work for those people to learn to speak and make use of the sound. It’s just a lot of speech therapy. It’s a lot of listening therapy because what you’re doing is you’re training the brain to interpret sounds that it’s never heard before so if you can imagine all of a sudden hearing after 30 years, never having heard before… this sound that you’re hearing right now in the audience, you know, you’re at home and you’re hearing the sound of my voice and your brain knows what a word is and interprets it, but these people don’t, so they can’t distinguish between a truck going by and a word.
So it takes years of therapy and hard work for these people to understand and discriminate to tell what the sound is.
Aronson: You know it’s interesting, when this subject comes up the word “genocide” comes up a lot. It’s a tough word but many radical deaf cultural people feel that the idea of the cochlear implant, the implanting so many children, is genocide. It’s the medical community trying to eradicate deafness.
Jacobson: That brings me to the next issue here. Without getting into the issue of whether or not this is a handicap from the perspective of the deaf culture, because I think an argument can be made that it is a handicap. You may adjust to it, but if you have a choice to be born with the ability to hear or not to hear, very few people would say they’d rather be born without hearing. They may say that about their children, but I’m talking more objectively.
However, the issue of the cultural change and the difficulty of rewiring your brain definitely has parallels to anyone who makes choices to go from one world to another. From a Jewish perspective, I deal with this a lot with my classes and teaching people who have grown up in a very secular environment and then choose to become more religious or more spiritual. They go through trauma (I’m not comparing traumas), but the trauma of life choices, standards, family members and so on, are real big changes that have to be made, or vice versa, where someone grows up in a very religious environment and in a sense leaves it.
Any type of cultural change has parallels with this film. Of course, we have to qualify it because there are certain elements, for instance, in this case, when you talk about the deaf community, it’s different from hearing about someone who doesn’t have the use of his or her leg. I would think that more people would agree to use artificial legs or some form compensation than we find here with getting an implant in order to hear the issue of being deaf, because I guess deafness is much more psychological.
Aronson: There’s no culture of people without legs, although I understand that there is what you might call a wheelchair community, a wheelchair culture, and I read about that and I hear about “wheelchair rights” and so on. People who are crippled and living in wheelchairs say it was the best thing that ever happened to them looking back. It’s hard to understand that from our perspective but that’s a different story.
Jacobson: The question that I have on a theological level is this: If we’re born a certain way for whatever reason—the mysteries of G-d’s ways, some people are born with the ability to hear and some people are born unfortunately unable to hear, they’re deaf from birth—how much can we tamper with that? Are we tampering with G-d’s plan? I don’t mean tampering with G-d’s plan in a religious sense, I mean it more in a psychological sense. In using technology, would there be anything that everyone would agree is where you draw the line? If technology, for instance, were able to make a perfect human being, should we do that?
Aronson: Well you could make the argument that G-d may have allowed a dysfunction to happen in someone’s inner ear but G-d also gave us the technology to fix it.
Jacobson: I agree. However, I’m talking about it in the context of: if there are clear psychological implications and you start tampering, how far would one go? In the name of technology and progress, would we do anything? You see all the controversy around genetic engineering. If we were able to create a super human being, someone without flaws, or if you have anger inside of you and there were some way to manipulate your genes so that you would no longer have anger. In the name of technology and progress, should we do that?
We don’t even know. We may be tampering with things that go much deeper than the surface.
Aronson: You’re right. Maybe you can draw the line and say you don’t want someone to be angry and yet it’s anger that allows artists to create on the level that they do in many instances. You might say, well, we can avoid cerebral palsy, it seems like most people would agree with that, but where’s the line as you say? It’s a very slippery slope once you have the technology in hand.
Jacobson: And I’m trying to broadenit because I’m sure the listening audience is not deaf, or else they couldn’t hear our show.
Aronson: But you know, it’s interesting Simon, this is about a deaf cultural issue. I always had an image in my mind that I was making a film about human beings and the search for identity. I was trying to make a film that had universal qualities. And I’m heartened to say that from the very first screenings that we’ve had at Sundance, I’ve had people stand up at screenings… someone would stand up and put up his hand at a question and answer session and say, “Hello, I’m a gay American and this is a movie about my life.” I’ve had African-Americans stand up and say, “This is as much a movie about the minority culture of African-Americans as it is about the deaf culture.” It’s about the forming of a minority culture, the roots of a minority culture; how it often comes out of abuse, teasing, prejudice and bias. All those things are true of the deaf culture.
The deaf culture came together and finally called itself a culture in the 80s. If you look back for 100 years, the people in the deaf culture would give you the same story of abuse and teasing as children, being pushed around by the hearing community, the hearing community trying to force language on them. A devastating background.
Now they’re in a community of people. They can love; they can feel comfortable. They can communicate with the language. Who wouldn’t want to be there instead of being in a hearing world that abuses you?
Jacobson: That’s an excellent point and I’d like to say something about that after the break.
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Jacobson: The thing about identity is a critical point. The fact of the matter is, we do shape our identities based on the circumstances that are given to us in our lives, for good or for bad. Even though no one actually made that argument in the film, that you’re tampering with my identity, I think it is implied in Peter’s arguments.
That’s really interesting because here, the idea of identity is juxtaposed with the fact that there’s a handicap. It’s one thing if it’s an identity that a person has chosen for him or herself, but here, the juxtaposition of high-tech progress that perhaps can heal the entire thing, that perhaps 50 years from now there won’t be a deaf human being because for some reason you’ll be able to genetically or with some type of implant prevent that. But meanwhile, there is an identity and I guess that’s a very big point.
I’m thinking about it in the context of: what right do we have to tamper with the community and the identity of people?
Aronson: There are a lot of people in the oral deaf world, on the other side of the deaf culture who would say, “What is a deaf culture? There’s no deaf culture. What does it mean ‘deaf culture’?” And since you have seen the film and having talked for a while, I would throw that out to you Simon, because you’ve given a lot of thought to this. Is there a deaf culture from what you can observe? And if there is, what defines it? What defines a culture?
Jacobson: Well, more importantly, if a deaf community gets together, a community of 1,000 or a million deaf people get together and they define themselves as a deaf culture, do we have a right to delegitimize that? I think that’s really the question.
I think a culture is defined ultimately not by whether it’s right or wrong, but whether there’s a group of people who have determined to follow that culture. There have been cultures that were completely criminal cultures. There’s a Mafia culture. But a culture is not legitimized or delegitimized whether I like it or not. It’s the fact that human beings have gotten together and feel that they’re a community.
I find, frankly, in the context we’re talking about, from a deaf culture, that I would commend it because it gives them strength. I’m sure they have support groups. The fact is, one of the most beautiful things about the humanitarianism of this country is that you do find parking for the handicapped, elevators, telephones. It’s very special to see that we give special attention for that.
So I think that there is a value to the culture. Here the question is if this becomes their identity, and now someone, technology, is trying to intrude, to take their children away from them, genocide as you put it.
It’s very fascinating. You were very accurate and were not at all one-sided. To be honest, I wouldn’t easily say one way or the other. I think it’s case by case. I think it has a lot to do with the parents and the child. I think no parent should really make a decision about a case like this without really researching it well. I see the decision made in your film, in the documentary, is that the hearing parents chose to do it. The deaf parents chose not to do it. Which would seem quite logical.
Aronson: Well, when people ask me where I am on it and what do I think, I say, “My opinion is the opinion of a hearing person and I can give you my opinion of what I would do in terms of looking at these people.” I think that both families made the right decision. I think that Peter made the right decision in not implanting his child.
Jacobson: Okay. We have AJ on the air.
Caller: Good evening. Well I hope “misery loves company” isn’t part of this problem. I think it’s quite uncharitable for the people who are deaf and who then want to ostracize a person who happens to get one of these items that allows him to hear. Not only that, you run enormous risk in being deaf. You don’t hear things that might be very important to hear, like a horn. I don’t know how many times I’ve been on the street and I’m certainly glad I had my hearing. People get hit with cars and bicycles and things happen to people when they don’t have their hearing. That’s a major thing. Imagine, beautiful music. Mantovani, Lombardo and so forth. To deprive someone of that kind of music and the beautiful lyrics that the old-time songs had.
Jacobson: AJ, I think you need to see the film because there’s another side to the case.
Caller: I understand. I’ve been listening to it. But I can’t appreciate it.
Aronson: AJ, the one thing that you said that I absolutely can agree with is that for the deaf cultural community to ostracize children who have implants is a horror. I mean, these children…
Caller: It’s very uncharitable.
Aronson: It’s awful. Because these children should have the right to learn sign language and function in both worlds.
Jacobson: That’s called reverse discrimination.
Caller: It sounds like misery loves company.
Jacobson: But the fact of the matter is, what fascinates me most is that they are normal human beings in many ways that happen to have these positions. But thank you for the call AJ.
Let’s go to Matt.
Caller: Hi. I’ve been listening to the program and I find it very interesting. But the truth of the matter is, I really don’t understand the point because you’re discussing many different topics. On the one hand, you’re talking about cochlear implants, which today is one of the highest technological models to hearing people. I’m hearing impaired. I’m a victim of Bell’s Palsy and my biggest problem is that I’m single and I go on single weekends and a lot of people look at me with the hearing aid and they don’t consider me a normal type of person. They look at me very differently. I’ve heard the controversy about cochlear implants. Without cochlear implants, what are your children supposed to do?
Aronson: Well, the option that you’ll see in the film and what’s out there in the world is that they can learn sign language and become part of the deaf cultural community. There are also other kinds of oral education techniques with hearing aids as you have in other people. There are certainly ways to function without a cochlear implant as a deaf person.
Jacobson: But Matt is making a very clear point. You’re basically resigning yourself that you are defining yourself into a cultural community that you will never, ever mingle with anyone else.
Caller: I mean the cochlear implant. I’ve heard the arguments once before of the pros and the cons, but the truth of the matter is, what are your children supposed to do? They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the children who are born into this situation have no real say nor have the capability to make the decision, and their parents are left with that and the parents have to make a choice one way or the other.
Jacobson: Thank you for your call, Matt. I want to say that the point is, and I think it’s made by one of the characters in the film, that the fact is, if the cochlear implant can actually allow a person to enter into the hearing world, then how could you deprive them of that? As Matt is saying, you become ostracized with a hearing aid. People see you as less; they see you as weaker. It affects marriage; it affects opportunities.
Aronson: Well, the thing is, and Matt’s absolutely right, with the cochlear implant, you are not a hearing person. A cochlear implant is a prosthetic device that allows you to function in the hearing world. But when you take it off, because it’s not there all the time (there’s an external portion also that you take off when you go to bed or when you swim, or whatever). When you take it off, you are a profoundly deaf individual again. And you will be functioning that way.
Jacobson: Well, I wear eyeglasses so I feel that way myself.
Aronson: But nevertheless, you’re not a normal hearing person with this device.
Jacobson: We have Mike on the air.
Caller: You mentioned something about the original Jay Black. Where is he and how can I find him?
Aronson: Jay lives on Long Island and performs all over America, in fact, I’m going to interview him for our film “Feeling No Pain.” He performs as Jay Black as a single. He was just at the Garden the other night in an Oldies concert.
Jacobson: Speaking of identity crises, I guess for many people in the deaf world, there’s a certain peace of mind just to know that this is what you are and that’s it. Many of us are still struggling to find out who we are.
I found a very moving line in the film when Peter’s daughter Heather is asked why she wants the implant, she says she wants to be in both worlds: the world of silence and the world of sound. I found that quite profound, especially for a five-year-old.
In many ways the power of silence, and if she was able to bridge the two worlds, that would really be an interesting experiment—for someone to bridge the two worlds in a way that she could teach people who hear what it means to be in a world where you don’t hear, and teach people who don’t hear what it means to be in a world where you do hear.
Aronson: The question is, will that really be possible? I mean, we don’t have any long-term studies yet because we’ve only been implanting children for a couple of years. In the film you’ll meet a little girl who’s five years old who got an implant at two, who’s born profoundly deaf and she speaks perfectly with no deaf accent. And she’s not a superstar. She’s the norm among kids who have plenty of speech therapy.
But we don’t know what she’s going to be like when she’s fifteen. We don’t know how she’ll function. If she’ll be accepted by her peers. If she’ll have as good a self-esteem as Heather might if she stays in the deaf cultural community. These are all unknowns.
Jacobson: Did you at all explore or talk to any doctors or psychiatrists about this? Was that at all covered? Or do you let the characters themselves speak?
Aronson: The characters themselves go to Dr. Simon Parisia who’s an auto-laryngeologist, who’s basically a surgeon, and he’s the one who basically implants the children in addition, to Dr. Patshute who’s an audiologist at the children’s hearing institute at Lenox Hill. We allow them to be the experts from the hearing side, to give the expertise of what the technology can and cannot do.
Personally, I did talk to Dr. Ari Lee, who’s the head of the Department of Psychology at Gaudete University and she’s profoundly deaf. She has huge reservations about the cochlear implant in children for the reasons I mentioned before. She said we don’t know the long-term psychological impact of this device on children, living between the two worlds.
Jacobson: What psychological impact has this film made on you? Since I’ve known you, you’ve always been the introspective type, always exploring different schools of thought. It’s a serious film.
Aronson: But an entertaining one I hope.
Jacobson: It’s definitely entertaining. It’s human drama and just to hear the argument between the father and the son is amazing where he says, “You’re handicapped,” and he says, “You don’t accept me Dad,” and all that.
Aronson: In one scene in the film the son says to the mother, in this dramatic family battle, “I never realized until this moment that you never accepted my deafness.” It’s an amazing moment for him to really feel that.
How did this film affect me? I just got really close to people who live in another planet from me. These people who are profoundly deaf and live with another language, a visual language, it’s a different way of life, a different way of functioning, a different way of relating to the world. I became very close with a lot of these people, and it opened my eyes. I grew from it. I can’t write down how I grew, but the wonderful thing about making documentary films is that it gives you the opportunity to become an expert in something totally new.
Jacobson: Did the families feel comfortable being filmed? Did you have to convince them?
Aronson: That’s the other psychological aspect for me because I became part of this family and I love this family. Mary Artinian opened their lives. They were themselves. They fought. They cried. People have come to me after screenings of the film and they want to know how much of the film was scripted. They think this was a movie with a script and these people were doing the lines—crying when I told them to cry, fighting when I told them to fight. None of this movie is scripted. It’s real. And I was with these people for a year and a half and they cried their eyes out. They are searching for the answer of how to raise their children.
Jacobson: Okay, let’s take one more call. We have Shifra on the line.
Caller: First of all, I’m very anxious to see the film and Josh I really honor you for bringing something to mind. What is Hashem saying to me in terms of the whole gift of hearing and listening? For me, I always want to take some cotton in my ears or something that you put on when you go diving, and to know what it’s like not to hear as accurately as I may, but it also gives me the sense of listening and hearing and to be able to really listen in a different kind of way to be able to know that I have the gift of hearing and listening. It opens up a whole other aspect of this world.
Jacobson: Shifra, I know a lot of people who have healthy ears and they can hear but they can’t listen, so that’s an entirely different story.
I know people who are deaf who listen better than people who have healthy ears. I’m sure Josh you know people like that too. Listening is an entirely different art from just hearing. Shifra, thank you for the call. It’s a good point about hearing and listening which is another topic that I’m sure we will address at some point.
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Jacobson: I want to congratulate you and commend you Josh for this work and I look forward to seeing you at the Academy Awards.
Aronson: Thank you, that would be great.
Jacobson: The film is quite interesting and quite amazing because of its insights into a part of our lives which we often don’t look at which is sound, our ability to hear, but also looking into a culture called the deaf culture, people who are resistant to anyone tampering with or intruding and trying to destroy their culture and their world.
I was thinking about sound and silence, because for me, having been educated in the Jewish mystical school of thought, I was thinking of some parallels. The Zohar says that there are two ways to serve G-d: one through song and sound and one through silence. The question is asked, which is greater? And interestingly, the service through silence is greater ultimately than the service through sound. The Levites would compose melodies and sing songs at the Holy Temple, but the Kohanim, the priests, would serve in silence. They were silent throughout. And ultimately, silence is greater than sound because silence can contain more energy than can sound.
When we express ourselves, words are containers, they can only contain so much. That’s why we use metaphor, poetry, art to express deeper feelings. But sometimes the deepest and most intimate of expressions can only be expressed in silence.
Aronson: That’s so interesting, because I’ve read of so many composers, and the greater the composer, the more often I’ve seen this—where composers at a certain point in their lives discover the power of silence. The power of the spaces between the notes, where all the power really is.
Jacobson: In publishing design as well. The white space is more important than the black space. But G-d should bless everyone to be healthy and to be born in a healthy way, but I think the message of a deaf culture to us is the appreciation, first of all, for the gifts we’re given, but also there is an appreciation of silence that they have. The fact is that that woman who can feel the rain in a way appreciates rain differently from the way we do, because for us it comes diluted—you can see it, you can hear it, you can taste it.
But when you think about the five senses that we have, ultimately the soul doesn’t need any of the senses. If you were to shut off your senses for a moment, close your ears, your eyes, your taste, touch and smell, you would be left with the inner you. Because you don’t need ears to hear yourself and you don’t need eyes to see yourself. In a way, the sensory world is just a bridge to interact with the world around us. Important and extremely valuable… we couldn’t communicate today if we couldn’t hear each other or we couldn’t speak. At the same time, in an interesting way, and this ultimately is the way to bridge or unite the world, is to recognize that whether you’re deaf, or blind or have all your faculties intact, the soul is always intact.
What I found in the film, whatever character it was, the soul was intact. Peter’s passion in his personal choice for his child is quite admirable. It’s a soul crying out in his own way. We may not agree with his particular choice, but the fact of the matter is, one cannot delegitimize the soul.
It says in Chassidic thought that with the handicapped, the soul is never handicapped. He’s able to listen; it’s just that he listens differently. He doesn’t listen with sounds, he listens with his mind, with his heart.
But no one should ever suggest that a person who’s deaf listens less than a person who’s not. He just can’t hear our sounds so he has to hear a different way. I think that that ultimately is in a way the greatest tribute to human dignity and a person can celebrate that.
However, of course, when you do have an opportunity to give someone much more than that. I’m not making the case for that, I’m just saying that I honor that type of choice.
Aronson: Being with you is always such a pleasure. What a wonderful perspective you bring to things.
Jacobson: Each of us has our mission and I remember telling you years ago, the fact that you direct film, ultimately the mission is not just to entertain people, which is part of it, or to make money, it’s ultimately to touch people in a place that they haven’t been touched before, to bring ideas… I don’t know if that’s you’re motive, but…
Aronson: I have a friend, Barry Sonenfeld, who’s a wonderful comedy director (he made “Men in Black,” “Get Shorty”), and we spoke on the phone the other day and he just finished a movie, and we were talking about the political situation, both bemoaning the fact that the world isn’t running, to Gore and the fact that Bush is doing so well (we’re all Democrats in my life) and I said, “Well, it’s your job Barry to keep us all laughing.” He’d seen Sound and Fury and he loved it and he said, “And it’s your job to make sure you keep teaching us.”
Jacobson: Listen, you’ll end up being a moral advocate for identity and cultures. It’s very interesting. I thought your first film was going to be something a little more risqué.
Aronson: I don’t know. Doing documentary films you go with the material that vibrates for you and this is the material that really meant something to me. It takes so long to make these films.
There wasn’t a day involved in this film that I wasn’t happy to be involved with it. It was a real story that had some resonance for me and I don’t know why it touched my life. I don’t why what parts of my life it touched, but there’s something about how you raise children and how you make choices for your children and how parents have those obligations and those rights that touched me and it felt like it was a very important film to make.
I hope everybody gets to see it. It’s unfortunate that documentaries are so limited in terms of the showing possibilities. Our word of mouth has been fantastic and we’ve been getting better every day.
Jacobson: It’s at the Film Forum at West Houston St. You’ve been listening to Josh Aronson, director of Sound and Fury. You can get a tape of this show by calling 1-800-363-2646. I’d like to thank our loyal audience and we invite you emails and your thoughts. Most of all I’d like to thank Josh and congratulations again on this wonderful film. More than wonderful, it’s a fascinating insight into human nature.
Thank you very much.