Beacon Press: Mean Little deaf Queer
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Mean Little deaf Queer

A Memoir

Author: Terry Galloway

Running with Scissors meets The Liar’s Club in this edgy and wickedly hilarious memoir about one irrepressible, mean, little, deaf queer

In 1959, the year Terry Galloway turned nine, the voices of everyone she loved began to disappear. No one yet knew that an experimental antibiotic given to her mother had wreaked havoc on her fetal nervous system, eventually causing her to go deaf. As a self-proclaimed “child freak,” she acted out her fury with her boxy hearing aids and Coke-bottle glasses by faking her own drowning at a camp for crippled children. Ever since that first real-life performance, Galloway has used theater, whether onstage or off, to defy and transcend her reality. With disarming candor, she writes about her mental breakdowns, her queer identity, and living in a silent, quirky world populated by unforgettable characters. What could have been a bitter litany of complaint is instead an unexpectedly hilarious and affecting take on life.
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“This is a damn fine piece of work which is unbelievably powerful.” —Dorothy Allison

“This is not your mother’s triumph-of-the-human-spirit memoir. Yes, Terry Galloway is resilient. But she’s also caustic, depraved, utterly disinhibited, and somehow sweetly bubbly, a beguiling raconteuse who periodically leaps onto the dinner table and stabs you with her fork. Her story will fascinate, it will hurt, and you will like it.” —Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home

“The most uncomfortable laughter of the season.” —Out

“One of the finest, most nakedly honest and humorous autobiographies out there to be read. . . . Partly David Sedaris-esque in its slice-of-life essay moments, part slapstick farce, so very real, and always laugh out loud hilarious.” —Rebecca Sarwate, Edge

“[A] humorous and harrowing new memoir.” —The Advocate

“Told with understandable rage, quirky humor, and extraordinary humanity, this remarkable woman’s engaging account deserves a large readership.” —Booklist

“A frank, bitingly humorous memoir.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[Galloway] is dexterous in her use of words and devastating with a sense of black humor that brings numerous laugh-out-loud delights.” —John R. Killacky, The Gay and Lesbian Review

“Galloway was born a storyteller, and her narrative gifts are in full force throughout, spinning yarns about herself and her family that mesmerize.” —Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle

Reviews

Review: Lambda Literary - May 12, 2010
“The many brilliant chapters make Mean Little Deaf Queer well worth the read.”
The year I turned nine, months before anyone knew I was going deaf, the voices of everyone I loved had all but disappeared. Their chatter had been like the nattering of birds in the trees--a cheerful if sometimes annoying reminder of how alive the world was around me. As their voices lapsed away, I no longer felt sure how any but the most common words sounded, how they ought to be pronounced, and that made me uneasy about opening my mouth. My place in the family that year was to watch, which was how I was learning to listen. I’d sit at the kitchen table--where most stories of any importance were told--and read lips, piecing together the shapes they formed until they made a kind of sense. Lip reading--whether you know you’re doing it or not--is a hard, intimate business, and during my ninth year, when the way people sucked or licked their teeth as they were talking took sneaking precedence over the look in their eyes, all that rapt staring at mouths would wring me dry. After every couple of stories, I’d turn my gaze away, give myself a breather, and recharge. It took me so much concentrated effort to make sense, much less sentences, out of the lips as they moved, that any and every utterance had to have a payoff. If people were making idle conversation or empty yak about, say, grocery shopping or getting their nails done, I’d heave the sigh of the doomed and lean my head against the table, pressing the bridge of my nose against the metal rim hard enough to dig a furrow. I’d glance up every now and then to see if the topic had changed to something more interesting, like who had died and what had killed them. If talk was stalled at yellow versus white onions or the rising price of a pedicure, I’d get to pitying myself, slaving like a dung beetle over a worthless bit of nothing, and give up--put my head back down on the table, close my eyes, and deliberately lose control. The rising, falling mumble of those incomprehensible voices would wash over me until sounds would inexplicably leap from the muttering to shake themselves clear in my mind as words. A name, the time of night, the make of a car, a part of town, a tired old clich. I’d string them together as randomly as I caught them, but they still always seemed to be telling me a story. Ruby, two a.m., Ford, east of Hutto, dying of hunger, and I’d see the black-eyed Great- Aunt Ruby I’d never met gunning her Mustang down the one main street of a hick Texas town en route to love or a Burger King. It soothed my hurt and anger to imagine all those arbitrary words telling me the illicit secrets behind everything I hadn’t heard.

Which may be why I now find myself enamored of the memoir. The good ones thrill me every bit as much as the great novels, but it’s the crappy ones I’ve lost my heart to. They make me feel like a rescue dog, sniffing out the dim glimmerings of feelings sincere and raw within a tangled wreckage of inchoate ramblings and obvious lies. I’ve been reading a ton of bad ones lately, most of which I’ve gotten only halfway through. They are piled up by my bedside and not in the best of shape. I’m a passionate reader and the books have suffered for it, their covers wavy from having been dropped in the tub, spines busted from being tossed on the floor, pages folded, creased, coffee-stained, and marked with ink. Red. I feel intensely fond of the whole lot of lousy writing that has found its way to print because I smell in those stinkers a fecund democracy. Every sort of half-coherent loser getting their say. Maybe even mean little deaf queers like me.

As a toddler I was an ardent chatterbox, with such an adult and rapid-fire vocabulary that one of our German neighbors in Stuttgart mistook me for a dwarf. By age seven I was becoming what passes in our family of energetic talkers as taciturn, more like my father, who would sneak away from the kitchen table in the middle of a detailed piece of family gossip my mother and my sister, Trudy, were sharing and flee to the bathroom so he could read the Sunday paper in peace. I never left the table. I just stopped talking. My mother and Trudy never worried about my growing silence--they’d taken it as appreciative. But then they didn’t know the reasons behind it. Sounds had started disappearing all around me. I didn’t know where to, and I didn’t think to ask--not then and not the handful of years later when I started having my “visions.” Or so I liked to call them, although they never clued me in to anything useful or remotely prophetic.

Whatever they were, they were first visited upon me when I was nine and our family had resettled from Berlin, Germany, to Fort Hood, Texas. One hot spring Texas night I was sprawled on the dry grass of our new front yard, gazing up at a spiral of stars, when I suddenly found myself six feet in the air, looking down at myself lying on the grass looking up at those stars. I was a little pissed off by how perfectly cheerful my body seemed without me.

These odd displacements weren’t exactly a daily occurrence, but that year, they happened often enough to make themselves familiar. Once I went zooming to the ceiling of the school gym as if sucked up by a vacuum. I dangled there looking down on a scene that was small as a dollhouse, everything normal about it. My PE teacher blew herself red on her whistle while my six classmates and I, all of us looking a bit zaftig in our blue shorts and white snap blouses, thundered across the polished wooden floor. No one else seemed aware that while my body was stampeding along with the rest of the herd, I wasn’t there at all. I’d become a much more delicate presence adrift in the rafters, smiling down on our sweaty race as if it were a mildly amusing bit of low comedy. Decades later in London, where I’d gone to perform one of my one-woman shows, I saw something of the same kind of life in miniature in a pennymechanical shop. A carved wooden man, not much bigger than my own thumb, was sleeping on a perfectly detailed cloth and wooden bed inside his tiny bedroom. He slept there until I dropped in a coin that clicked the switch that set it all in motion. With a ticking noise, the window of his minuscule room flew open and a dream horse, its nostrils and eyes painted to look as wild and flaring as its mane, poked its head through the gap. Up the little man sat, his closed doll eyes snapping wide with alarm as the horse reared and the wooden chair at the foot of the bed tilted and twirled. Watching that nightmare unfold in the little man’s shoebox of a room awakened in me the same queasy prickle of enchantment I’d felt as a kid, looking down on a play-pretend world.
Prologue: Nine

Part I: Drowning
Them and Me

Visions

Presto Change-o

Meaner

The Performance of Drowning

Lost Boy

Part II : Passing
Little-d Deaf

On Being Told No

Passing Strange

Drag Acts

Shhhhhh!

Jobs for the Deaf

The Shallow End

Part III : Emerging
Scare

Who Died and What Killed Them

Why I Should Matter

Epilogue: A Happy Life . . .

Mean Little Deaf Queer is mentioned in a Boston Globe feature on books about disabilities.

  • Listen to Terry Galloway read an excerpt from Mean Little deaf Queer. (MP3, 67MB)

Contents

About the Book

When Terry Galloway was born on Halloween, no one knew that an experimental antibiotic given to her mother had wreaked havoc on her fetal nervous system. After her family moved from Berlin, Germany, to Austin, Texas, hers became a deafening, hallucinatory childhood where everything, including her own body, changed for the worse. But those unwelcome changes awoke in this particular child a dark, defiant humor that fueled her lifelong obsessions with language, duplicity, and performance.

As a ten-year-old self-proclaimed "child freak," she acted out her fury with her boxy hearing aids and Coke-bottle glasses by faking her own drowning at a camp for crippled children. Ever since that first real-life performance, Galloway has used theater, whether onstage or off, to defy and transcend her reality. With disarming candor, Terry writes about her mental breakdowns, her queer identity, and living in a silent, quirky world populated by unforgettable characters. What could have been a bitter litany of complaint is instead an unexpectedly hilarious and affecting take on life.

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Praise

"This is not your mother's triumph-of-the-human-spirit memoir. Yes, Terry Galloway is resilient. But she's also caustic, depraved, utterly disinhibited, and somehow sweetly bubbly, a beguiling raconteuse who periodically leaps onto the dinner table and stabs you with her fork. Her story will fascinate, it will hurt, and you will like it." —Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home

"This is a damn fine piece of work which is unbelievably powerful. This story is true and passionate and fearless and funny as hell when it is not heartbreaking. I expect this book to charm the hell out of great numbers of people, piss off a few, and give hope to many more." —Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard out of Carolina and Cavedwellers

"Funny, poignant, raw, uplifting, and exuberant. It is my new favorite book, and after you read it, it will be yours, too." —Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle

"A frank, bitingly humorous memoir." —Kirkus Reviews

“[Galloway] is dexterous in her use of words and devastating with a sense of black humor that brings numerous laugh-out-loud delights. There is no political correctness here, only a poignant life journey of unexpected challenges.” —The Gay and Lesbian Review

"Galloway was born a storyteller, and her narrative gifts are in full force throughout, spinning yarns about herself and her family that mesmerize." —Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle

"You don't have to be mean, little, deaf, or queer to take heart from this miraculously unsentimental, deliriously funny, refreshingly spite-free, joyously weirdo-embracing memoir. All you have to be is human.… Amemoir that transcends its hilarious particularities to achieve the universality of true art." —Sarah Bird, author of How Perfect is That and The Mommy Club

"A gripping memoir—at times harrowing, at times starkly moving—that chronicles a life beset by two enormous challenges: growing up gay in a very red state, and growing up deaf. Lesser mortals would fold, but Galloway navigates the highs and lows of her life with grace, insight, and unflinching candor." —Doug Wright, playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and winner of both the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Drama

"Cast by society as an outsider for most of her life, both in her queerness and her deafness, I am reminded, reading Terry Galloway's brilliant memoir, that most good writers create from an outsider position, a place of inner isolation and silent engagement with the deep issues of life." —Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

“An unconventional and barrier-busting story filled with sexual experimentation and a desire for a life lived at the extremes, all ably described in this compelling memoir. A good choice to strengthen disability, feminist, and gay studies collections, too.” —Library Journal

"Deaf with bad eyes and queer with a hard sense of humor, Galloway's account of her survival induces the most uncomfortable laughter of the season." —Out Magazine

"Told with understandable rage, quirky humor, and extraordinary humanity, this remarkable woman’s engaging account deserves a large readership." —Booklist

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About the Author

Terry Galloway is the founder of the Actual Lives writing and performance programs; a founding member of Esther's Follies, Texas's legendary cabaret; and the cofounder of the Mickee Faust Academy for the REALLY Dramatic Arts. Her solo theater piece Out All Night and Lost My Shoes is considered one of the foundational texts in the history of disability performance. She lives with her partner in life and art, Donna Marie Nudd, and splits her time between Austin and Tallahassee, Florida.

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Questions for Discussion

  1. Mean Little deaf Queer is prefaced with a quote from the author's sister, Gail Galloway Adams, in which Adams writes that her "sister is persistent. She wants to get the story straight, or as straight as she wants it for her own purposes." What does Terry's relationship to the truth seem to be in the book? What is the function of "straight" truth in a book whose very title indicates that its subject is "queer?"

  2. Galloway knows exactly where her disability comes from: a doctor in Germany "injected my gorgeous little mother with a mycin antibiotic" (p. 3) that was known among American doctors to cause "unforeseen complications" (p. 4) in pregnant women and, especially, in fetuses. Her sexual and romantic attraction to women, however, is not something she can trace back to any one source. How does this difference between two important facets of her life seem to impact her ability to claim those identities?

  3. Early in the book, Terry identifies a "popular mantra" among her disabled friends: "Lucky to have made it, no thanks to them," with "the them shifting with the circumstance, the story" (p. 9). Who is "the them" in your own stories? Have their been times when someone has looked at you and seemed to see you as less than human? What about times when, looking back, you may have looked at someone else that way? How did those experiences make you feel?

  4. As a child, Terry and her family played "scare," a spy game in which the children hid away to keep themselves "safe," (p. 11) and she pitied peers who seemed to lack the skills necessary to play the game well. As an adult, she found that her deafness made her cautiousness, keeping her from adventures she imagines that she might have had without her disability. What kinds of caution did Terry's childhood games impart over the course of her life?

  5. The book is divided into three sections: "drowning," "passing," and "emerging." What function do these divisions fulfill? Do you see them as primarily chronological, mostly thematic, or as doing another kind of work altogether?

  6. At camp, Terry feels a tension between a sense that she was "not handicapped enough" (p. 52) in the eyes of the other disabled kids and the experience of having her deafness cost her the swim race. How does she negotiate between the frustration that her disability causes her and the frustration of feeling labeled as disabled "enough"?

  7. Galloway repeatedly discusses the importance she places on physical closeness to people she loves, citing how "like a child, things seem to just be gone as soon as they are out of sight." She also references a love she shares with her relatives of family stories. How does the desire for physical closeness to loved ones relate to Galloway's fondness for hearing family stories?

  8. Galloway writes of her love of clichés, because of their predictability (p. 224). Do you see these preferences reflected in this book? How does Galloway's writing conform to, depart from, or use cliché?

  9. Galloway says she was "a child who hated goodbyes," wondering if it is her "inbuilt quietus that makes all my goodbyes feel the same" (pp. 59–60). How does her anxiety about goodbyes affect her ties with her family? How might we see it reflected in the way she handles the endings of various romantic relationships?

  10. Terry's "visions" are a staple of her late childhood and early adolescence. These visions come to an end on the opening night of her high school play, when "aloft in the air on opening night, I felt so damn angry to be missing my anticipated moment of seductive triumph," (p. 89) and she vows never to leave her body again. What kind of coming-of-age moment is this? How does the sexuality that Terry's role in the play embodies change her relationship to her body?

  11. Terry writes about "queer epiphanies" during drag performances when she could experience the "reckless joy, the sense that even if what you ere doing was dead serious, it was being done in a spirit of play" (p. 109) that fuels her love of theater. What is it about dressing as a man that allows Terry to connect to performance on such a deep level?

  12. Terry had a lot of fears about coming out to her parents as a lesbian. When she actually told them about her relationship with Isabelle, she writes both that her parents "reactions were everything I'd hoped for" but that she "was not prepared for kindness" (p. 139). When have you been surprised by the ease with which a situation played out, after preparing for a negative outcome? What did that experience teach you?

  13. Terry relates her fear of abandonment—the "deep-seated dread of being left behind when things start going to hell" (p. 167)—to her disabilities. She suspects that "if I'd grown up with all her senses intact, I wouldn't be as anxiously needy as I am." What do you make of this speculation on her part?

  14. In Texas, Terry realizes that Donna is "the woman my New York lover had specifically forbidden me from seducing" (p. 179). How does that realization shape Terry and Donna's relationship?

  15. Terry writes extensively about "beautiful boys" (p. 190). How does she portray the relationship between masculinity and beauty?

  16. Mean Little deaf Queer is a memoir by a performance artist—the material that Galloway gathers from her life has become the basis for both the book and her work in theater, especially in Actual Lives. What do you think that the memoir format allows Galloway to do that she might not be able to do in live performance? What might be missing in the book that could exist in theater work?

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Guide Credit

This reader's guide was created by Naomi Sobel.

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Mean Little deaf Queer

ISBN: 978-080707331-5
Publication Date: 6/1/2010
Pages: 248
Size:5.5 x 8.5 Inches (US)
Price:  $18.00
Format: Paperback
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