31 October 2014

Theory, Sources, Suffering, and Respect

I was talking to a friend recently about my research work, and I had a bit of a realization. It wasn't completely 'new' to me, but it hadn't hit me with such force until I chatted with her about it.

First, just a quick update as to where I am with it all - my short term aim at the moment is simple: read, read, read! I really need to get a strong, deep context in place for the resources I have already found. There's no point in finding all these newspaper articles, court transcripts, and prisoner petitions about Deaf people if I don't know about the times they were written in and the structures of organizations that were involved. I know a good deal already, but I want to know more, to really place myself in the time.

The other thing I'm doing is clarifying and narrowing my approach - my methodology and theoretical framework, I suppose you'd say, if you were taking a social science perspective. The thing is that I can't seem to find any theoretical construct or schema that applies itself to the topic I am looking at in a helpful way. I've thought about about Foucault, and his extensive work on the rise of institutions and power, but still at too early a stage with him to say comfortably that I should incorporate him into a framework of analysis to be used. In fact, to be honest, I am wary of *any* theory or schema or construct that I've come across, in the sense of using it as a tool to analyze, or a lens through which to look through. There's something about that method that strikes me as prediction of your findings before you've even looked at what's there.

So for the moment I prefer what I'm thinking of as the 'pure history' approach - identifying, gathering, analyzing and evaluating historical sources, with a particular emphasis on sources that at least partly reflect Deaf people's own experiences. And there are obviously well-worn methodological categories I will be employing, and ways to interpret this information. 'History from below', critical reading of sources 'against the grain', and so on. In terms of a theoretical base, I really can't think of anything more effective, more explanatory and more satisfying to me at the moment than simply.... a Deaf Studies perspective. Seeing signed languages as real languages, Deaf people as heirs to and possessors of an authentic culture, which was formed during the time under study. Perfectly simple - in my mind at least.

Anyway - back to the conversation with my friend; and to the sources that I'm cathering. What really excites me in these sources are the glimpses into life for Deaf people in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A police statement reveals details about family life; a newspaper article about a trial shows how the Deaf witness or accused communicated - and how that was perceived by hearing people.

But a problem with this is; *very few* of these sources arise from, shall we say, peaceful, non-problematic circumstances. Police records, prison records, court records - these files and documents come into existence through conflict, disagreement, and often violence and abuse. The historical record seems almost silent about Deaf people's day to day, hassle-free, happy and productive working lives... and it's what to do with those fragments of discord and conflict that I need to think deeply about.

I recently came across a Circuit Court file from the 1920s , where a Deaf girl had been raped near her home in Co Clare. the girl, who had been  to St Mary's, rushed back home to her father where she wrote out what had happened to her on a piece of paper. The father wrote back to her asking who the attacker had been, would she recognize him again; the girl told her father she would have to go live with her aunt for a time, possibly out of fear of her attacker, possibly also from the shame that such a crime may attach to the victim in those times (and indeed, are those times really gone)? Now, these details - the story of this young woman, assaulted in such a horrific way, her conversation in writing with her no doubt devastated father - were not given in detail in the local press. In fact the girl's full name was not even mentioned. Only in the Circuit Court file in the National Archives did I find all this detail and more, written up in police statements and court transcripts.

But I also found... the piece of paper that the girl and her father used to communicate. That extraordinarily private moment between father and daughter, because of the unique circumstances of Deaf-hearing family communication at the time, was captured and preserved, probably seen by no one for eighty or more years. And I get to see it. To touch it.

I've thought a lot about the importance of documents like these - the fact that I am honored to be able to access such intimate and sensitive details about people long dead and buried - but I have found out so many similar stories, so many handwritten testimonies of violence and abuse from Deaf women, that I wonder am I able to handle it. A straight hearing male, separated from these Deaf women by a century or more. How can I even begin to think I can tell their story? But if I cannot, what can I do with these documents of pain and suffering?

For now all I can do is liaise with the Irish Deaf Women's Group. Ask the experts how to sensitively deal with these women's stories in the context of my work. And  to pass on whatever I can to them so that these stories are given to those who may be able to benefit from them and remember proudly the ones who told them in the first place.

And one thing I must do, constantly, at all times: give thanks for the privilege of sharing, separated by time and place, these most sensitive stories of suffering. And in all my interactions with these sources and those that I can make aware of them - to show respect.

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