Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell

by Charlotte Gray
467 pages,
ISBN: 0002006766

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For Whom Bell Rings False
by James Roots

People who aren't deaf have no idea what a divisive figure Alexander Graham Bell was and continues to be in the world of the deaf. With his giant belly and snow-white beard, he is generally seen as a Santa Claus, bringing deaf children the precious gift of lipreading and speech therapy, enabling them to slip through the world of the hearing as pretend-hearing people. It is an image that has been aggressively turned into propaganda by the powerful lobby of "oralists"¨mostly non-deaf people with a professional and financial stake in speech pathology, technical aids, education, medicine, and audiology. It's a full-blown and thriving industry that Dr. Harlan Lane estimated to be worth two billion dollars in 1991, and which is probably worth at least twenty billion dollars today.
It comes as a shock to most people to learn that Bell advocated institutionalised eugenics to deal with the congenitally deaf, an attitude that was harsh even by the standards of his day. (His wife and his mother were both non-congenitally deaf.) He lobbied the U.S. Congress to ban marriage between deaf partners, and prevent the opening of schools, clubs, and organisations for the deaf. He even objected to the mingling of deaf people with one another. Horrified by the prospect of "a deaf variety of the human race," he lent his support to¨of all things¨a cattle-breeding bill that would have forcibly sterilised deaf people.
In Reluctant Genius, Charlotte Gray tiptoes around the irreconcilable schism between oralists and those who advocate Sign language. But unlike most Bell biographers, she does not ignore it completely, or give only Bell's side of it. This is largely because her focus is as much on Mabel Hubbard Bell as it is upon Alexander Graham Bell, and Mabel cannot be presented or understood, or her influence on Alec appreciated, without examining her attitude towards deafness and deaf people.
The source of Bell's approach to deafness is easily tracked to his father, an elocutionist who spent his life¨and demanded the same of his son¨propagating an incredibly complicated "speech for the deaf" system called Visible Speech. Like all oralist theories, it was logically impeccable but its mastery required such prodigious application of time, energy, and concentration that only a handful of pupils were able to benefit from it. Alec's own system of speech therapy and lipreading similarly demanded so much of its pupils that the forced integration of the deaf child into the hearing world through speaking and "hearing" became more important than the child's academic education. "The great object of the education of the deaf," he trumpeted, "is to enable them to communicate readily and easily with hearing persons." So much for teaching them knowledge of the humanities and the sciences, or the skills necessary for independent living.
Bell's convictions seemed perfectly vindicated by Mabel. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, most European nations prohibited "deaf-mutes" from owning or inheriting property (and also from marrying, voting, or being schooled). Inbreeding had led to a high incidence of deafness among aristocrats at various royal courts of Europe; there was a desperate demand for a system that would teach deaf children to speak and lipread and thus pass as "fake-hearing" to the extent that they could inherit the family fortune and title. Mabel was born into a Boston Brahmin family which feared not only the loss of family prestige but also spinsterhood for her if she could not pass.
Like most deaf children enrolled in the oralist regimen, Mabel internalised its values to the point where, as Gray writes, "she felt devalued when she was identified as deaf." Unlike many, she never outgrew her childish disdain for those of her peers who needed or resorted to Sign language, and never opened her mind to the fact that Sign could help her communicate and interact with others even if this involved nothing more than fingerspelling. Thus, we are given to read about the agonising scenes in which Bell's mother, able to fingerspell but not to read lips, and his wife, able to read lips but not to fingerspell, sit together in endless silence, two deaf women stranded on opposite sides of a chasm that precluded communication.
Gray neglects to mention that Mabel had no memory of being able to hear; she believed, until her former governess enlightened her in middle age, that she had been born deaf. This is critically important, because her mastery of many languages was made possible by the English she had heard and spoken for five years; she was never a linguistic tabula rasa like other born-deaf people. Deluded in this fashion, it is no wonder she disdained those whose prelingual deafness made it excruciatingly difficult to learn any language other than Sign.
Actually, she didn't just disdain them; she hated these people with the fearful vehemence of someone who knows she is counted among them, no matter how strongly she resists. She ferociously rejected being labelled "deaf", yet had no hesitation in fixing Signers with the incomparably cruel label of "Barnum monstrosities". Her vaunted integration into the hearing world was, in reality, only integration into her own family; outside of the family, she was considered weird, and her speech was incomprehensible. The women she socialised with "admired the way she had overcome the handicap that deafness presented, but they did not befriend her."
Bell built his practice on his wife's false achievement. He had already convinced himself, as a boy in Scotland, that if he was able to train himself to decipher distant sounds in the night, then any deaf person could speak and "hear" if he only trained hard enough. Now he had married a woman who was living proof of this theory. He blamed deaf people for supporting Thomas Gallaudet's campaign for Sign language. It never occurred to him that if the deaf themselves embraced Sign, it had to be for a very good reason¨that they knew from first-hand experience that it enabled them to communicate in a way that was far less exhausting and demeaning than lipreading and speaking without possessing the hearing necessary to control volume, tone, and enunciation.
Bell was indeed a man of extremes and contradictions. As Gray portrays him¨and she gives us easily the most rounded picture of him ever put between covers¨he was obsessive-compulsive almost to the point of autism, a whiner and a self-obsessed hypochondriac, totally lacking in self-discipline and dependability, yet demanding that the world revolve around him as if he were a fixed constant. Teeming with brilliant ideas¨he foresaw faxes, email, fibre optics, ethanol fuel, solar hearing, the greenhouse effect, and the geodesic design technology of the Rogers Centre's movable roof¨he intractably refused to acquire the expertise in mathematics, electricity, and engineering required to take them into development. He could not be moved to patent his ideas even by his father-in-law, an influential patent lawyer; whereas his shrewd rival Thomas Edison got 1,093 patents, Bell troubled himself to get only 31. An agnostic all his life, his motto was, "Science, adding to Knowledge, bringing us nearer to God." He dedicated himself to helping others, yet could not understand anyone whose life differed from his. Revered as the inventor of the telephone, he insisted that he wanted to be remembered only for his work with the deaf.
He was capable of applying his overpowering energy to romance. This is where Gray shines: she clearly adores romantic passion, and gives herself free rein to describe Bell's tempestuous courtship, buttressing her account with wholesale quotations from flaming love-letters. From this point on, Reluctant Genius becomes a binary examination of a lifelong romance and a lifelong struggle with invention.
The two-track approach succeeds because Gray is careful to show how each shapes the other. Mabel learns gradually that love obligates her to adapt her daily life to the rigid routines of her husband; at the same time, she takes steps to bolster his success as an inventor by going behind his back to recruit energetic young assistants who have the training to put his airy visions into mechanical reality. Marriage doesn't change Bell much as a person, but being freed by a loving wife to dream up new gadgets paradoxically reinforces the lack of practicality that always hampered his achievements as an inventor:

"It was typical of Alex that he had been exploring an idea that was not profitable in the short term, rather than perfecting the telephone and ensuring its continued development. His reluctance to think commercially about his intellectual preoccupations meant that he could never be the Bill Gates of the nineteenth century."

Gray's writing is competent; what it lacks in flash and wit, it makes up for in steadiness. If she comes up with only one great line¨"At a point in his life when he was ready to be swept by nostalgia, he was instead suffused with a sense of his own irrelevance"¨she also comes up with only one dead fish, a description of Edison as "a bad-tempered little bully who bilked his backers."
A lack of ruthlessness causes this engrossing book to stop short of greatness. No mention is made of the cattle-breeding bill (which has been well-documented by the likes of Harlan Lane and Richard Winefield). Clearly embarrassed, Gray hurries through an apologia for the "unfortunate title" of Bell's Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, assuring us that while it has "a chilling ring," it was merely typical of a time when "men of science . . . pursued ideas that today seem nanve or malevolent." Anxious to use politically correct terminology, she nevertheless slips up by describing one deaf child as being "trapped in silence" and another as living in a "silent prison". She insists that Bell's mother was "entombed within her disability," and thoughtlessly assumes that deafness rendered Mabel's existence two-dimensional ("She could see shapes, colours, and familiar faces, but she could not hear the laughter, birdsong, music, or chatter that, for most of us, brings our three-dimensional world to life.")
Gray obviously worked hard with her scientific advisors to achieve accuracy in her descriptions of inventions, but too frequently this meticulousness renders her writing flat. The eureka moment when Bell solves the telephone problem is about as lively as three-day-old coffee:

"Suddenly the idea struck him that it might be possible to create an undulating electric current that could carry sound along a telegraph wire in the same way that air carried sound waves from the speaker to the hearer. The telephone receiver, pressed to a human ear, could act like an electrical mouth."
This sounds more like a transcription from a university physics textbook than an entry in "Exciting Lives of the Great Inventors." The same kind of recitation mars her attempts to evoke the Victorian era: instead of bringing it to life, making us smell the dying candlelight while primitive electrical wires and tubes crackle and smoulder in the cave-like boarding-rooms of penniless inventors, Gray gives us mere catalogues:

"Working conditions in the new industrial cities were brutal, but ordinary people's lives on both sides of the Atlantic were immeasurably improved by such mechanical inventions as the sewing machine, the rotary printing press, the mechanical reaper, and the steam train."

That particular catalogue, incidentally, runs on for five pages. Gray does, however, provide a clear and interesting portrait of 19th-century Boston as the centre of American intellectual life and progress. She is able to do so, apparently, because this centre was shaped by the social hierarchy of the town, and Gray loves writing about the societal whirl (she has a great time quoting Mabel's incredibly snobby cousin Mary).
Wonderful pictures are scattered throughout. Unfortunately, they have been shrunk and stuffed into page corners, making it quite a challenge to glory in their detail and their surprising (for early photography) sharpness. Diagrams such as the all-important "first membrane diaphragm telephone" are now impossible to read.
Perhaps the final irony of Bell's life occurred in 2004, in the CBC's Greatest Canadian TV series. A Scot by birth, an Englishman by breeding, an American by choice, and a man who led a global movement to deliberately "eradicate a . . . variety of the human race," Alexander Graham Bell was voted ninth greatest "Canadian" of all time. Of such are our heroes made. ˛

James Roots is the author of The Politics of Visual Language: Deafness, Language Choice, and Political Socialization, as well as many project reports on deafness. This past summer he was inducted into the Canadian Deaf Hall of Fame.

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