EPISODE #86

The Secret Life of a Deaf Superhero

EPISODE #86

The Secret Life of a Deaf Superhero

Looking for a transcript of this episode? Scroll down and click the link ‘Podcast Transcript.’

Before Cece Bell turned five, she got really sick and lost her hearing. She suddenly had to learn how to navigate the world of school, friendships, and family, through her hearing aids and lipreading. That’s her on the left as a kid, with her powerful hearing aid, the Phonic Ear, tucked into her overalls.

Cece-Bell-kidCece-Bell-now

Today, Cece is an award-winning author and illustrator, and she recently turned her story of hearing loss into a graphic novel called El Deafo.

El-Deafo-jacket-Newberry

El Deafo is by far my six-year-old daughter’s favorite book ever. We’ve read it three times now, and it is a whopping 233 pages. Luckily, this book is a thrilling read for me, too.

Sample page from El Deafo. Click image to view larger.

Sample page from El Deafo. Click image to view larger.

Tune in to hear the charming, funny Cece Bell talk about how she imagined herself as a deaf superhero, and how she’s used her hearing aids for good and evil—both in school as a kid, and later as the parent of two children.

Wanna see more on the making of El Deafo?
Check out this visual breakdown of where Cece got ideas for the book, and how she made it, in this fantastic feature from The Guardian.

Resources for Parents of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Kids
As Cece Bell points out in her author’s note at the end of El Deafo, there are lots of ways to be deaf, and to raise deaf kids. If you’re looking for resources, a great place to start is the American Society for Deaf Children. This page is specifically for parents and families.

For nonjudgmental support, check out Hands & Voices. They have local chapters.

Karen Putz, the Coordinator of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Infusion at Hands & Voices wrote a book about her experiences as the mother of three deaf and hard of hearing children. It’s called The Parenting Journey: Raising Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children.

I Can Hear You Whisper is a book by science journalist Lydia Denworth. Denworth wrote this investigation of how hearing works and fails after learning that her young son was identified with hearing loss.

And one LST listener says he can’t watch this video without ugly crying.

Got another to add to the list? Put it in the comments.

How did YOU feel different as a kid?
How did you handle it? How about your parents? Tell us down below.

Our sponsors for this episode are Thirdlove, Owlet (code: PARENTING), AT&T Digital Life, Fracture (mention LST in checkout survey) and Little Passports (code: LONGSHORT) Use the promo codes at checkout for a special discount.

Podcast Transcript

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[baby laughing/crying]

HELLO.
Hello.

WHO ARE YOU?
Sasha.

HOW OLD ARE YOU?
Six.

HOW DO YOU KNOW ME?
Because you’re my mom.

THIS IS THE LONGEST SHORTEST TIME. I’M HILLARY FRANK, AND THIS IS MY DAUGHTER SASHA’S FIRST TIME BEING INTERVIEWED ON THE SHOW. SHE’S VERY EXCITED. AND I’M BRINGING HER ON TODAY TO TELL YOU ABOUT HER FAVORITE BOOK. IT’S A GRAPHIC NOVEL CALLED EL DEAFO. TELL THE PEOPLE WHAT HAPPENS IN THE ENTIRE BOOK.
It’s really long.

SHE’S WHISPERING – IT’S REALLY LONG. SHE’S RIGHT, IT IS. IT’S 233 PAGES. DO THE HIGHLIGHTS – DO THE BEST PARTS.
First she throws up on the couch. Next they go to the hospital. And then, she goes to kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade and fifth grade. And here’s her teachers peeing! [giggling]

THROW UP, THE HOSPITAL, THE PEEING – THIS WILL ALL MAKE A LOT MORE SENSE ONCE WE GET INTO TODAY’S INTERVIEW. BUT BASICALLY, EL DEAFO IS A STORY ABOUT A KID GROWING UP. A DEAF KID NAMED CECE BELL. IS CECE BELL A REAL PERSON?
Yes.

HOW DO YOU KNOW?
Because you saw her.

I DID.

My name is Cece Bell, and i’m an author and illustrator of books for children.

TOTALLY AMAZING. I GOT THE CHANCE TO INTERVIEW MY DAUGHTER’S FAVORITE AUTHOR. LOTS OF KIDS LOVE EL DEAFO. ADULTS TOO. IT WON A NEWBERY HONOR LAST YEAR. EL DEAFO IS A GRAPHIC NOVEL SO YOU KNOW – WORDS AND PICTURES. AND AMAZINGLY, CECE FIGURED OUT VISUAL WAYS OF SHOWING WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LOSE YOUR HEARING. SOMETIMES THERE WILL BE WORD BUBBLES FULL OF NONSENSE, OR THE WORDS WILL BE FADING WHEN CECE’S HEARING AID BATTERIES ARE DYING. THE BOOK IS BASED ON CECE’S CHILDHOOD. SHE LOST HER HEARING WHEN SHE WAS VERY YOUNG. JUST 4 AND A HALF. NOW THERE ARE LOTS OF WAYS THAT PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THEIR OWN HEARING IMPAIRMENT. SOME PEOPLE THINK OF IT AS A DISABILITY, AND OTHERS THINK ABOUT IT AS A DIFFERENCE, LIKE WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENCES. SOME PEOPLE IMMERSE THEMSELVES IN DEAF CULTURE. AND GO TO SCHOOL WITH OTHER DEAF PEOPLE, AND THEY PERFER TO COMMUNICATE WITH AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE. BUT TODAY, WE’RE GOING TO HEAR THE STORY OF ONE PERSON – CECE BELL, WHO GREW UP DEAF IN A MAINSTREAM ENVIRONMENT.

CECE CAME OUT TO OUR NEW YORK STUDIO FOR THE INTERVIEW. SHE WEARS HEARING AIDS AND SHE READS LIPS. WE POSITION THE MIKE SO SHE CAN SEE MY MOUTH.
Right, okay. That works.

BEFORE WE GET TO OUR INTERVIEW, I’VE GOT TO TELL YOU SOMETHING ABOUT THE CHARACTERS IN EL DEAFO. CECE DREW THEM ALL CUTE AND CARTOONY. THEY’RE PEOPLE LIKE YOU AND ME, WITH DIFFERENT CLOTHES AND HAIRSTYLES, BUT THEIR FACES ARE BUNNY FACES. EVERYONE’S GOT THESE LITTLE PINK NOSES AND BIG EARS STICKING STRAIGHT UP IN THE AIR.
Rabbits have giant ears and they can hear really well, so I felt like the one rabbit in a big group of rabbit whose ears didn’t work.

THIS PEOPLE WITH ANIMAL FACES THING IS SOMETHING YOU SEE A LOT IN GRAPHIC NOVELS AND COMICS. CECE SAID SHE ALWAYS LOVED DRAWING AND CLOTHES AS A KID, AND SHE SAYS THE BUNNIES IN EL DEAFO AREN’T JUST SYMBOLIC. THEY HELPED HER OUT VISUALLY TOO. THOSE BIG BUNNY EARS MADE IT SO CECE HAD TO DRAW HER HEARING AID CORDS GOING WAY UP ABOVE HER HEAD, LIKE IN A WAY YOU CAN’T MISS THEM. CECE SAID THAT’S HOW IT FELT IN REAL LIFE. HEARING AID TECHNOLOGY HAS COME A LONG WAY SINCE CECE WAS A KID, AND SHE DOESN’T HAVE CORDS ANYMORE, BUT BACK WHEN SHE DID, THOSE CORDS MADE HER FEEL REALLY DIFFERENT FROM EVERYONE ELSE. LIKE EVERYONE WAS STARING AT HER. SO IN THE BOOK, SHE REALLY WANTED TO MAKE HER HEARING AIDS STAND OUT.

SO HERE’S HOW CECE FIRST LOST HER HEARING. THIS IS HOW EL DEAFO STARTS:

Back in 1975 when I was about 4 and a half, I got really sick. And I was throwing up all over the place and I can still remember the sofa I threw up on. And how much throw up there was. My parents knew that something was wrong, and I went to the hospital and I was diagnosed with meningitis. Which is a disease of the membranes of the brain. And I was in the hospital for two weeks. And some time in that 2 week period, I lost my hearing. And so when I got home, it took a while for my parents to figure it out, but once they did, they went the route of getting me a hearing aid. So that was sort of the beginning of a whole new phase of my life.

CAN YOU TELL ME, STEP BY STEP, WHAT IT WAS LIKE, WHAT IT FELT LIKE TO LOSE YOUR HEARING AS A CHILD?
I’m not sure that I was even that aware of it. I think, in the hospital, I was much more fixated on – when is my mom going to get back? And fear – just fear of being not at home, that I don’t think I realized it was happening. And it wasn’t until I got that first hearing aid and they put it on – I must have known that I had lost it but it wasn’t a feeling – it was just – must have been this gradual thing. But I remember weeks and weeks of walking around the house with my hearing aids – making sounds, trying to test it out – lots of clicking sounds and I used to be able to snap my teeth together really hard, and I spent all my time snapping my teeth, trying to figure out what was going on. So I think, if anything, it was a feeling of confusion, but not necessarily of loss.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE MOMENT YOU FIRST TRIED ON THE HEARING AID?
I just remember – them turning it on, and having sound again, and the words that the audiologist was saying didn’t sound like speech. It was just this garbled gibberish, which is actually what people sound like today, except I can lip read them now, and then I hadn’t acquired that skill yet. So it was – wait a minute! Is this America? You know? What language is this coming out of his mouth? It was confusing.

ARE THERE SOUNDS THAT YOU REMEMBER FROM BEFORE YOU WERE 4 YEARS OLD THAT YOU CAN’T HEAR NOW?
The only song – there’s 2 songs I remember. One of them was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, because my father would sing that to me when we would – he used to ride his bike with me on the back of it, and the very first page of the book is sort of that memory, of my father riding around town with me on the back of his bike, and we would sing twinkle twinkle, and then the other memory, also a song, was – and I think this was right before I got sick. I was standing on a chair in preschool singing Yellow Submarine, because the album was on the record player there at school. So – but I don’t know what it sounded like. I wish there was this one memory stored away – this is what it’s supposed to sound like. But that’s gone.

AND YOU HAVE A HEARING AID NOW?
I do.

BUT YOU CAN’T HEAR MUSIC?
I can hear music. I can hear lots and lots of things with my hearing aid. But it’s one of the things that’s hard to explain to a hearing person, but – all the melodies, i’m getting, but I don’t get some of the clarity, and I don’t get – and this is true of hearing people too – I don’t always understand the lyrics. Sometimes they’re – i’ve never been able to understand the lyrics.

I SORT OF IMAGINE THIS LIKE – HEARING MUSIC UNDERWATER.
So i’m kind of – drawn to music that has really beautiful clear melodies, like the Beatles, Paul McCartney’s music – that sort of easy listening stuff that some people make fun of – I love. So I get a lot of pleasure from music, but less and less as I get older – and I think it’s because i’m losing more hearing as I get older. It’s getting more and more distorted.

CECE SAYS THAT SHE LOVES ALBUMS THAT COME WITH LYRICS IN THE LINER NOTES WHICH I’VE GOT TO SAY AS A HEARING PERSON, THAT IS SOMETHING I LOVE TOO. I CAN REMEMBER AS A KID BRINGING MY RICHARD MARX AND BANGLES CASSETTES WITH ME ON LONG CAR RIDES, AND MEMORIZING THE LYRICS. ANYWAY, HAVING THE WORDS WRITTEN OUT HELPED CECE A LOT. IN MOVIES TOO.

IN THE BOOK THERE’S A MOMENT WHERE YOUR DAD TAKES YOU TO FOREIGN FILMS BECAUSE OF THE SUBTITLES.
Yes.

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?
Yes. And I loved those movies. So we went to a lot of sexy French movies. I think my father enjoyed them on a different level. This was probably back in the mid 80s. Maybe around the time I was 13, up. We should talk a little about television.

YES LET’S TALK ABOUT TELEVISION.
TV – I loved TV. As a kid I watched a lot of TV. And a lot of people frown on TV, but TV for me kind of was like therapy.

CECE ESPECIALLY LIKED SOAP OPERAS.
The way they’re filmed – the camera is always really close. They have close ups and they always spoke a little slowly and – Wanda. I. Love. You! And I was always able to follow so much of it.

BUT CECE SAYS BUT EVEN WITH THE SHOWS SHE COULDN’T FOLLOW, TV WAS FUN. BECAUSE SHE’D JUST MAKE UP THE WORDS AND THE STORY IN HER HEAD. SHE SAYS THAT PRACTICE OF MAKING UP WORDS AND PICTURES WAS GOOD TRAINING FOR MAKING GRAPHIC NOVELS. WATCHING TV WAS ALSO A GOOD ESCAPE FOR CECE. SHE SAYS THAT THE PEOPLE IN THAT LITTLE BOX – THEY DIDN’T CARE WHO SHE WAS, THEY DIDN’T CARE ABOUT HER HEARING AID OR IF SHE COULD STAND THEM OR NOT. AS YOU CAN IMAGINE, MAKING FRIENDS AS A DEAF KID WASN’T EASY.
It’s very isolating is the main thing. When you are in a group – when there are 3 people or more, the deaf person is much more likely to be left out, simply because he or she cannot follow the conversation.

THERE ARE A BUNCH OF SCENES LIKE THIS IN CECE’S BOOK. LIKE WHEN SHE’S AT A SLEEPOVER AND THE GIRLS ARE WATCHING A MOVIE, OR THEY’RE GOSSIPING WITH THE LIGHTS OUT, SO CECE CAN’T READ THEIR LIPS, OR THEY’RE LISTENING TO A COMEDY ALBUM.
Ugh, the worst. The worst. Just imagine bring with a group of friends, they put on a comedy album. Monty Python was the rage then. And the whole room laughing. And you have no idea. It’s just so difficult. And so that’s the number one thing. Just this feeling of – I can’t contribute, I can’t say something funny or clever, nobody’s going to like me, because I can’t contribute. But I think shy kids have a lot of those same issues. Feeling left out, being too shy to pipe up and say something funny. It’s very similar to that.

I HAD THAT.
Yeah. So – and I think that’s why the book has resonated so much more than I even thought it would. Because there are a lot of people struggling to connect with other people. It’s hard!

FROM THE BOOK IT ALSO SEEMED LIKE THERE WERE KIDS WHO MADE YOU THEIR TOKEN DEAF FRIEND?
Yes. That’s the other – yes. I actually had a list going at one point where I categorized my friends into This person likes me because i’m deaf, and This person just likes me. And the person who likes me because i’m deaf is just the token, look at me, aren’t I a great person – i’ve got this friend, and she’s deaf. Aren’t I special? And that’s hurtful. Well, i’m more than that – so much more than that. But the people who do that would often talk really slowly and really kind of obnoxious, and it makes you feel stupid. That kind of thing.

SO YOU HAD A LIST OF PEOPLE YOU HAD RECOGNIZED AS LIKING YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE DEAF AND THEN ON THE OTHER SIDE, THE PEOPLE WHO JUST LIKED YOU.
Oh yes. Very easy to tell the difference. And one of the main ways that it would come out is in introductions – this is my friend Cece, and if that’s all they said, hey, good. But if they said – this is my friend Cece, she’s deaf, you have to look at her when you talk to her, blah blah blah – you don’t really need to say all those things, because generally I can figure out what people are saying, etc. But that was a clear way of knowing who was who.

COMING UP – CECE’S DEAFNESS GIVES HER SUPERPOWERS. STAY WITH US.

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Hello?

HI MOM. SO YOU KNOW SASHA’S HOME SICK TODAY.
Yeah, poor Sasha.

SO WE DID A PUZZLE FROM HER LITTLE PASSPORTS MOROCCO PACKAGE.
Great. What is the puzzle?

IT’S A PUZZLE OF GOATS IN A TREE.
Goats in a tree!

I THOUGHT IT WAS SURREALISM. BUT IT’S TRUE. GOATS ACTUALLY GO UP IN TREES TO EAT.
It sounds counterproductive, but if that’s what they do…

YEAH. SO IT’S SAD THAT SASHA’S SICK BUT IT ACTUALLY GAVE US THIS OPPORTUNITY TO SIT DOWN TOGETHER AND DO SOMETHING AND LEARN SOMETHING AT THE SAME TIME.
Cool.

SO LITTLE PASSPORTS IS A PACKAGE THAT KIDS GET ONCE A MONTH, AND THEY’RE FILLED WITH LETTERS AND SOUVENIRS AND ACTIVITIES ABOUT DIFFERENT CULTURES ALL AROUND THE WORLD. AND NOW IS THE PERFECT TIME TO ORDER AND KEEP YOUR CHILD BUSY AND LEARNING ALL SUMMER LONG. LONGEST SHORTEST TIME LISTENERS CAN SAVE 40% ON THEIR FIRST MONTH TODAY WITH CODE LONGSHORT. LEARN MORE AND TAKE A PEEK INSIDE THE MONTHLY PACKAGES AT LITTLEPASSPORTS DOT COM SLASH LONGSHORT.

SO MOM, YOU KNOW KIDS WRITING AND ART IS SO AWESOME BUT OFTEN IT DETERIORATES SO YOU CAN’T SAVE IT AND PRESERVE IT THE WAY YOU WANT TO.
Mmm. That is true.

BUT YOU CAN MAKE A FRACTURE OUT OF IT. FRACTURES ARE YOUR PHOTOS OR YOUR ARTWORK PRINTED IN VIVID COLOR, DIRECTLY ON GLASS. SO I THINK YOU HAVE A PIECE OF MY WRITING FROM WHEN I WAS 5 YEARS OLD THAT I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT WANT TO PRESERVE AND MAKE INTO A FRACTURE.
Which one was that?

THE ONE THAT I CALL – I HAD DIARRHEA.
Ohh! Yeah, we need to have that in the bathroom.

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WE’RE BACK, WITH WRITER AND ILLUSTRATOR CECE BELL. WHEN CECE STARTED FIRST GRADE, HER PARENTS GOT HER A SPECIAL HEARING AID JUST FOR SCHOOL. IT WAS BIGGER AND MORE POWERFUL THAN HER HOME HEARING AID. IT WAS CALLED THE PHONIC EAR.
And it was really really heavy, and it was flesh colored, so it would blend it with my skin beautifully and it had these long plastic straps, and I wore it on my chest, and there were two cords on either side and at the end of each cord was a little earpiece, and so the earpieces would go in my ears.

THERE WAS A MICROPHONE THAT WENT WITH THE PHONIC EAR FOR THE TEACHER TO WEAR AROUND THEIR NECK.
But the microphone I will also say, was a little bit phallic. And flesh colored. So when I got older I was always so embarrassed to even be handling it.

SO IT WAS LIKE, FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, YOU NEED TO INTRODUCE YOUR TEACHER TO THE PHONIC EAR, GIVE THEM THE MICROPHONE, SO THAT YOU CAN HEAR THEM WHEN THEY’RE TEACHING.
Exactly. Every first day of school from 1st grade all the way through college meant me going up in front of all the kids with this microphone, handing it over, and saying – my name is Cece, this is my set up, here’s what you’re going to be wearing.

SO THE PHONIC EAR ALLOWS YOU TO HEAR THINGS OTHER KIDS COULDN’T HEAR.
Exactly.

LIKE WHAT?
I – the point of it was to amplify the teacher’s voice anywhere she was in the classroom. And basically no matter where she was in the classroom, I was able to hear her as if she were speaking directly into my ears. So it always sounded like she was beside me, even though she wasn’t.

SO THE PHONIC EAR MADE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU HAD SUPER POWERS.
That’s right.

WHAT KIND OF SUPERPOWERS?
Soon after I got the set up I realized, not only was I hearing her in the classroom, but I could hear her anywhere she was in the entire school building. So if I heard her talking, she was probably in the teacher’s lounge. She smoked, so if there was a eh-eh-eh from the teacher’s lounge – I could hear her making xerox copies in the front office, this chicuh-chicuh sound. The best thing that the kids enjoyed the most was I really did hear my teachers, even when they used the bathroom. And it was both horrible and awesome – both of those things, to be able to hear my teacher in the bathroom. It was a pretty sweet deal.

HORRIBLE BECAUSE – WELL, FOR OBVIOUS REASONS, BUT AWESOME FOR MOMENTS LIKE THIS ONE FROM CECE’S BOOK. ONCE SHE WAS ONSTAGE FOR A SCHOOL PRESENTATION AND SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO SIT PERFECTLY STILL. THEN SUDDENLY SHE HEARS THIS TINKLING SOUND, AND FLUSHING IN HER EAR. SHE STARTS CRACKING UP AND NOBODY KNOWS WHY. IT’S HER OWN LITTLE INSIDE JOKE. CECE SPENDS A COUPLE OF YEARS SECRETLY SPYING ON HER TEACHERS. SHE KEEPS THIS SUPER POWER COMPLETELY TO HERSELF. SHE DOESN’T TELL ANY OTHER KIDS, BECAUSE SHE FEELS LIKE IT GIVES HER AN EDGE OVER THEM. LIKE WHEN SHE TAKES OFF HER HEARING AID, SHE HEARS NOTHING. BUT WITH IT ON, SHE HEARS THINGS THAT NONE OF THEM COULD EVER DREAM OF HEARING. SHE DOESN’T TELL A SOUL UNTIL ONE DAY IN 3RD GRADE.
I finally told the boy that I had a huge crush on. I was trying to impress a boy basically. Story of my life. Not really, but I was just trying to impress this kid – that I wanted him to like me the way I liked him. And we started using it for evil.

SO HERE’S WHAT WOULD HAPPEN. CECE’S TEACHER WOULD LEAVE THE CLASSROOM EVERY DAY FOR 20 MINUTES, WHICH WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT, IS A LONG TIME TO LEAVE 3RD GRADERS BY THEMSELVES. SHE CALLED THIS 20 MINUTE PERIOD QUIET MATH.
So basically what would happen is she would leave the room and she would always say – please do your math, be quiet, behave, i’ll be back in 20 minutes.

AT FIRST, MOST OF THE KIDS WOULD ACTUALLY DO THEIR QUIET MATH. BUT SOME OF THEM WOULDN’T. THEY’D JOKE AROUND, SING AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS, THROW PAPER AIRPLANES, AND THEN THE TEACHER WOULD COME BACK AND THOSE KIDS WOULD GET IN TROUBLE. BUT WHEN CECE TOLD THE BOY THAT SHE HAD A CRUSH ABOUT HOW SHE COULD HEAR THE TEACHER ANYWHERE IN THE BUILDING, THIS KID – HE REALIZED THE PHONIC EAR COULD KEEP THEM FROM GETTING CAUGHT. THEY JUST NEEDED CECE TO STAND GUARD. AND ON TOP OF IT ALL, THEY COULD PARTY EVEN HARDER.
We had a 45 record player in the classroom and kids were bringing 45s from home, like Queen – I remember Queen, Another One Bites the Dust – we put that on. The kids would put the records on, and try to use the maybe 18 minutes as much as they could, making origami, drawing pictures, running around the classroom, on and on and on. My job was to sit there and listen. So I had a lot of practice figuring out where she was. I could hear her walking up and down the hallway and that was important because we were in a basement classroom. And there were 8 steps that led down to our classroom and the sound of her shoes on the steps was different from the sound of her shoes on the regular floor. That’s how strong this microphone was – it picked up all these nuances. So it was sort of a higher, sharper clicking sound. So I would be listening for those 16 clicks. So usually about 18 or 19 minutes into the 20 minute period, I would hear it. Click click click – ahhh! I would then stand up – and the very first time I did it, I stood up and shouted – she’s coming back! Go back to your seats! But after a while, it got to the point where all I had to do was sort of stand up and just give a little wave and everybody would run back to their seat, pick up their pencils, and start doing math, like nothing had ever happened.

YOU WERE A BAD ASS.
Oh yeah baby! And I was – you know, normally the most angelic child you could ever meet. I took school so seriously, I did not ever want to get in trouble, I hated confrontation but I mean, this was my chance to impress a boy. So I went for it.

WAS HE IMPRESSED?
He was impressed, I think so. And it was a great way for me to finally connect with my classmates and make friends and not be as ashamed of it, because they thought it was cool. When I talked to kids, it’s true and I think this is true of a lot of people – when you look back on your childhood, you’ll remember a moment where what you did wasn’t necessarily the right thing. That was an example of me using the superpowers to trick somebody. But sometimes that is, in the bigger picture, the thing you need to do. You need to break the rules, sometimes, in order to get past something that’s blocking you.

IN HER HEAD, CECE CREATED A SUPER HERO NAME FOR HERSELF – EL DEAFO.

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THAT NAME?
Okay, well kind of crazy, but – there was a – and you may remember this, you look very young.

I’M OLDER THAN I LOOK.
The ABC after school special was this weekly program that came on Saturday mornings and it was – the Lifetime movie for kids – these sort of slightly corny, empowerment stories that I liked to make fun of, i’m ashamed to say. But one day I was watching it, and there was a deaf character on the screen, and I had never seen a deaf character on TV before who looked like me and had the same hearing aid – everything. And so I watched, and part of the story line was a hearing kid called the deaf kid – Deafo. And so I had not heard that term. And at first I thought it was funny until I realized – wait a minute – they’re talking about me! And so then I got angry, and I decided if I got used to it, and called myself that, it wouldn’t hurt if somebody else ever said it to me.

WOULD YOU CREATE STORIES IN YOUR HEAD WHERE YOU WERE EL DEAFO?
I sort of did. I don’t think I necessarily pictured myself in a cape or anything like that. They were more like revenge fantasies – more like those moments where you look back over a conversation or an incident that happened and you think to yourself – oh man, what I should have said was this. But –

SO EL DEAFO WOULD HAVE THE PERFECT COMEBACK.
Right, right. Always have the perfect comeback, would just – just would do the right thing, say the right thing, kick people when needed – that sort of thing. Things that I didn’t normally do, yes.

IN A MINUTE CECE TALKS ABOUT THE BENEFITS OF BEING A DEAF MOTHER. DON’T GO AWAY.

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SO MOM, YOU TEACH ART CLASSES OUT OF YOUR GARAGE, AND THE LAST TIME WE TALKED ABOUT THIS YOU SAID THAT YOU WERE AFRAID THAT SOMETIMES YOU MIGHT LEAVE IT UNLOCKED AND WILD ANIMALS WOULD SNEAK IN AND WRECK THE PLACE.
Yeah, I kind of imagine the animals doing a few paintings before they wreck the place.

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That’s pretty cool.

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Okay.

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WE’RE BACK, WITH CECE BELL, WHO WROTE THE GRAPHIC NOVEL EL DEAFO. FROM OVER THE YEARS, I’VE HEARD FROM SEVERAL LISTENERS WITH HEARING IMPAIRED KIDS. AND THOSE PARENTS – THEY KNOW THEY HAVE CHOICES TO MAKE. AND THOSE CHOICES I’VE GOT TO SAY SOUND SO HARD. SO YOU CAN OPT FOR HEARING AIDS OR COCHLEAR IMPLANTS TO RESTORE SOME HEARING FOR YOUR KIDS, OR YOU CAN BYPASS ALL OF THAT AND STICK WITH AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE AND LIP READING. YOU CAN DO A COMBO OF EVERYTHING. THIS STUFF CAN BE REALLY DIVISIVE, AND I’VE EVEN HEARD OF FRIENDSHIPS ENDING WHEN A PARENT DECIDES TO GET THEIR KIDS COCHLEAR IMPLANTS. SO I WONDERED HOW CECE FELT HER PARENTS HANDLED IT WHEN SHE LOST HER HEARING.
I felt like they were terrific. They were coming at it from a hearing person’s perspective. I have an older brother and an older sister. And my parents and they could all hear. And when I lost my hearing their first thought was – well, how can we restore that hearing? They made a decision to get me hearing aids. And I think they were – they made the right decision. Because when I lost my hearing I was 4 and a half and I was already able to talk, I already had a lot of experience with how communication worked. And if I didn’t get the hearing aid, I would have lost, I think all the groundwork that had been laid for me. So I think – I know they made the right decision. And then they were fortunate that we were fine financially, so they were able to afford the hearing aid, they were able to afford the phonic ear for school. Probably the best thing they did for me was they never said – oh, well you can’t do that because you can’t hear very well.

AT SOME POINT CECE’S MOM DECIDED SHE WANTED TO ADD SIGN LANGUAGE TO THE MIX SO THAT CECE COULD HAVE THAT SKILL IF SHE WANTED IT.
She had me go to sign language classes at a church. I hated those sign language classes to my core because I was the only deaf person in the class. And so I felt like this little guinea pig, everybody experimenting on me, and I absolutely hated any time anybody would use sign language. I always called it Sign Language on Me, like they were assaulting me. Don’t you use sign language on me!

THERE’S THIS GREAT SEQUENCE IN EL DEAFO WHERE A GIRL IS USING SIGN LANGUAGE ON CECE AND CECE IMAGINES HER AS A MIME. THE GIRL IS SIGNING CECE, YOU ARE SPECIAL! WHICH – NO KID WANTS TO BE CALLED SPECIAL BY ANOTHER KID.
What happened a lot growing up was, I would have a conversation with somebody I didn’t know, and we’d be speaking for 10 minutes back and forth, I understand everything, giving them answers, in words, back and forth. Then usually the person would pick up on my speech being just a little off, and so they would say oh!! are you deaf? I know Sign! And then they’d start signing. And I don’t know Sign. And it would just infuriate me because I have been here for 10 minutes, talking to you and understanding everything you say. It drove me batty. That’s where the kid me was coming from. But as an adult, I have a very different attitude about it. I’m actually at a point where I really do want to learn how to use it.

CECE SAYS SHE KNOWS JUST A HANDFUL OF WORDS IN SIGN LANGUAGE, KIND OF LIKE ME AND SPANISH. SO IT CAN BE TOUGH WHEN SHE SPEAKS TO DEAF KIDS. BUT SHE ALSO LIKES WHEN THEY TEACH HER WORDS. SHE SAYS SIGNING IS COMING IN MORE AND MORE HANDY AS SHE GETS OLDER AND LOSES MORE AND MORE OF HER HEARING.

YOU’RE A MOM NOW – YOU HAVE 2 CHILDREN.
That’s right.

TWO SONS. HOW OLD ARE THEY?
They are 12 and 10.

YOU WERE 4 WHEN YOU LOST YOUR HEARING. WAS IT HARD FOR YOU WHEN YOUR KIDS TURNED 4? WAS THAT AN AGE YOU WERE WAITING FOR?
I was definitely aware of when they turned four – specifically four and a half. I would always think, okay – this is the moment, what’s going to happen? But no, they hear really well – yay! I think they both picked up a bit on my speech patterns so both of them have had to have speech therapy, so sorry kids! And they both really love listening to comedy albums, even though when they put those albums on I have no idea of what’s being said, i’m so happy that they are able to understand the things – even a little jealous in a way, but relieved for them and happy they don’t have this particular loss.

CECE SAID IT GIVES HER PLEASURE TO SEE HER KIDS ENJOYING SOMETHING THAT WAS SO PAINFUL FOR HER AS A KID. AND ALSO IT’S DIFFERENT NOW. SHE’S NOT AN 8 YEAR OLD AT A PARTY. SHE’S A MOM. AND SHE CAN ASK HER KIDS TO TELL HER WHAT THE COMEDIANS ARE SAYING.
Sort of a delayed ha ha but better than nothing.

DOES BEING DEAF GIVE YOU ANY SUPERPOWERS AS A PARENT?
Um yeah the ability to turn off the sound at any time is a fantastic skill. My kids really never whined, because when they were younger and the whining would start, and I hate whining, I would just turn my hearing aid off so I could not respond to it. Since they were being completely ignored, no problem. So I don’t necessarily recommend it because something bad could have happened, but it didn’t, so yay. That’s the big one. I think allowing your kids to help you in certain situations, like I might say I need you to listen carefully to this person that’s so far away, I can’t hear them. And then tell me what he’s saying so we can navigate our way out of whatever situation we’re in. and that gives them so much power – that empowers them, and they learn how to help me. They’ve helped me out so much. And I think that’s a really good thing for them – a good skill, and makes them better people.

YEAH. CAN YOUR HUSBAND HEAR?
Oh yes. He can hear a little too well – he has the opposite problem. He has ears that are so sensitive that they just drive him nuts. Sometimes we even talk about trading ears for a day. I’ve always wanted to say – you should see what I go through and I would love to see what you go through.

AND ARE THERE PARENTING TASKS HE HAS TO DO BECAUSE YOU CAN’T DO THEM, OR ARE THINGS PRETTY EQUAL?
I think things are pretty equal. He does have to make telephone calls. He’s the one that makes doctor’s appointments and that sort of thing. There are times when I know that we’ll be in a situation that I might know I cannot lipread – maybe a person with a beard or mustache. So i’ll sort of send Tom out and say – just go – go and communicate with this person, because I can’t. But for the most part it’s very 50/50.

SO MAKING FRIENDS AS A KID CAN BE HARD, MAKING FRIENDS AS A MOM CAN ALSO BE HARD.
Oh, harder.

HAVE YOU FOUND THAT TO BE DIFFICULT?
Just – I still very much have the problem of a group of friends saying, hey, let’s get together, we’re going to the world’s noisiest restaurant, and they don’t have good lighting! Yay! You know, and so – ooh. Do I go and maybe have a little bit of fun but also be kind of miserable? Or do I stay at home and not be a good friend? So I still have those very similar problems. Writing the book in so many ways was not difficult because I have those experiences every single day. So it was very easy to summon it up. I just draw myself as a kid instead as an adult.

AFTER MY INTERVIEW WITH CECE I ASKED HER TO AUTOGRAPH MY DAUGHTER’S COPY OF THE BOOK. AND I BROUGHT IT HOME TO HER, WHICH PROMPTED SASHA TO ASK ME TO START READING IT TO HER, FOR THE THIRD TIME.

WHY DO YOU LIKE IT?
Because I like when she hears the teachers peeing.

DO YOU WISH YOU COULD HEAR YOUR TEACHERS PEEING?
Yes.

HOW COME?
Because that’s really funny.

I GET IT. THE PEEING SCENES ARE FUN. BUT THERE’S SO MUCH PACKED INTO THESE 233 PAGES THAT I KNOW EACH TIME WE READ EL DEAFO THAT SASHA WILL GET SOMETHING NEW OUT OF IT, LIKE FROM THE PARTS WHERE CECE MISBEHAVES – WHEN SHE HELPS HER CLASSMATES RAISE HELL DURING QUIET MATH, OR WHEN SHE TURNS OFF HER HEARING AID AT A SLEEPOVER, SHE’S ALWAYS TIRED AND HER FRIEND JUST WON’T STOP TALKING.
Every now and then it is the right thing to do the wrong thing.

I LOVE THAT AS A MOTTO TO LIVE BY.
Yes!

WE’VE GOT A LINK TO CECE BELL’S FUNNY, CHARMING, HEARTBREAKING GRAPHIC NOVEL EL DEAFO AT OUR WEBSITE LONGESTSHORTESTTIME DOT COM. CECE’S NEXT PROJECT IS A CHAPTER BOOK SERIES THAT SHE MADE WITH HER HUSBAND CALLED INSPECTOR FLYTRAP. HER HUSBAND’S ACTUALLY A FAMOUS AUTHOR HIMSELF – TOM ENGELBERGER. HE WROTE THE ORIGAMI YODA SERIES. THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF INSPECTOR FLYTRAP WILL BE OUT IN AUGUST.

WE KNOW THAT LOTS OF YOU OUT THERE FELT DIFFERENT FROM OTHER KIDS GROWING UP. GO TO OUR WEBSITE, TELL US HOW YOU HANDLED IT, HOW YOUR PARENTS HANDLED IT, AND IF YOU’RE HEARING IMPAIRED OR RAISING A HEARING IMPAIRED KID, WE’D LOVE TO HEAR HOW YOUR EXPERIENCES ARE SIMILAR OR NOT AT ALL TO CECE’S. LEAVE YOUR COMMENT AT LONGESTSHORTESTTIME DOT COM IN THE COMMENTS FOR THIS EPISODE. THAT’S EPISODE 86. WE’VE ALSO GOT A TRANSCRIPT THERE, SO PLEASE SEND A LINK TO ANYONE YOU KNOW WHO’S HEARING IMPAIRED THAT YOU THINK WOULD HAVE SOMETHING TO ADD TO THIS CONVERSATION.

THIS PODCAST IS PRODUCED BY ME, HILLARY FRANK AND ABIGAIL KEEL. WE ARE EDITED BY PETER CLOWNEY. OUR ENGINEERS ARE PETE KARAM AND THE REVEREND JOHN DELORE. OUR THEME MUSIC IS BY THE BATTERIES DUO. WE GET EDITORIAL SUPPORT FROM ANN MARIE BALDONADO AND ANTONIA AKITUNDE. THANKS ALSO TO OUR SUPER HUMANLY FAST TRANSCRIBER VALERIE CAESAR. I’LL BE BACK NEXT WEEK WITH A BRAND NEW EPISODE. WE’LL BE CHECKING BACK IN WITH ONE OF MY VERY FAVORITE GUESTS, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED HOST, KELLY MCEVERS. SHE’LL BE TELLING US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO COME HOME AFTER YEARS AS A MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT.
And just like, oppressed by the niceness of L.A., I think at first. It was just disgusting. Stop being – with the blue skies and the happy people.

DON’T MISS THIS SHOW! MAKE SURE YOU’RE SUBSCRIBED TO THE LONGEST SHORTEST TIME IN ITUNES OR WHEREVER YOU LISTEN TO PODCASTS. AND WHILE YOU’RE THERE, PLEASE RATE US AND WRITE US A REVIEW. THIS HELPS US TO RISE IN THE CHARTS, AND IT HELPS OTHER PEOPLE TO FIND THE SHOW. AS ALWAYS WE ARE LOOKING FOR STORIES FROM YOU. YOU GUYS KNOW WHAT WE LIKE – WE LIKE THE WEIRD STUFF. WE LIKE TO BE SURPRISED. GO TO LONGESTSHORTESTTIME DOT COM AND SUBMIT YOUR STORY.

19 thoughts on “EPISODE #86: The Secret Life of a Deaf Superhero

  1. Thank you. I’ve been listening to The Longest Shortest Time for quite some time, but this episode resonated with me. As a parent with mid-to severe hearing loss, who wears hearing aids, this episode really hit home. There are so many things that I don’t even consciously think of that I do, so CeCe, I hear you! Now I’m off to order the book and read with my child, who also has a hearing loss.

  2. Great episode, had my eleven yo listen to the episode and tonight she asked if she can read the book on her Kindle – it was an easy yes. :)
    Thank you!

  3. I would be really interested to know how CeCe’s work has been received by the Deaf community. I have several Deaf friends and relatives and have sent them the link to this episode, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that none of them have responded yet. I’m looking at this from the “every Deaf person defines themselves differently.” But I have an icky feeling about it. I certainly would not disregard her personal experience, but I have a feeling many Deaf people don’t like the message this sends to hearing people about the Deaf experience.

  4. I loved this episode and promptly ordered El Deafo for my 6 yo. It is now, unequivocally, her favorite book. It has opened her eyes to a different childhood experience and evoked some wonderful nightly conversation as we worked our way through this poignant book. She frequently relates CeCe’s experiences to things she is observing in her world, and I think it helps bring out her inner super hero. Thank you!

  5. I love this pod-cast, it really resonated with me because I grew up with a mother that is hard of hearing. She would use the threat of turning us off (ie turning the hearing aid off) to stop us from arguing and whining. I feel like being raised by a mother who is hard of hearing has definitely given me patience has made me a lot more understanding as an adult.
    In addition as a young twenty something going through hearing loss a lot of the insecurities of having hearing aids and being regarded as different has been a really big struggle in my life. At times I feel like I can accept it and at other times I feel like I could be in complete denial of it.
    I like the story and her personal story and I hope if my hereditary hearing loss is passed down to my future children that there will be a lot of resources like this book to show them that being different is okay and you can point to your strengths to get you through like anyone else.

  6. This was great. I have been listening to your podcasts for a week and I am almost caught up to the current ones. I was intrigued about this story because I am hearing impaired myself. I kind of got excited to find out how she lost her hearing, because that is exactly how I lost my hearing as a child. Except I was only 16months old. It is so interesting to hear her talk about her experiences and see how similar it was to mind but we had different reactions to it.

    When my parents found out that I had lost my hearing, my mom had the choice of having me learn out to talk or to learn sign language. She put me in the class to learn how to talk. I grew up wearing hearing aids myself. My mom has kept a box of molds and it shows that as a kid I didn’t care about my hearing aids. You could tell because of the color choices I made for them. I bright neon colors. That change as I got older and realize that not everyone wore hearing aids. My mom told me that when I was I had asked her when my brother and sister stopped wearing their hearing aids, and that is when I knew I was different. In elementary school I wore a FM system, much like the “phone ear” she talks about. I had a system and the teacher had a microphone that she could turn on and off. One time she didn’t turn it off and I was able to hear her phone conversation with a contractor that she hired for a new fireplace. Not that exciting as keeping watch so your classmates could goof off.

    The older I got the more self conscious I became about wearing the hearing aids. Half-way through 7th I decided I was done with him. I stopped wearing my hearing aids. I was tired of people asking what was in my ear. From then on I relied on lip-reading. That was my party trick, until it got old. There was this one kid who used to always ask me what he was saying when he would just mouth something. It was always Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
    (from Mary Poppins).

    Even though I stopped wearing hearing aids, I would always go introduce myself to my teacher from junior high all the way through college to let them know that they couldn’t teach with their back to me and to make sure I can always see them. I made sure I was always in a position where I could see the teacher, like in front. In college being hearing impaired came with a perk. I was able to get assistants from the disability office, my junior and senior year I had a stenographer come to class and take notes for me. More of the stenographer would type verbatim what the professor was saying. So it was easier for me to follow and to take notes. I had a class that had two friends in it, and they would piggy back off my perk and glance over that the stenographer screen if they were falling behind.

    Back like Cece I hated it when people started signing to me. I would think the same thing, I’ve been talking to you, there is no need for it. But I think people are just trying to be considerate at times. I do not like hanging out with more than a few friends at a time. I hate noise bars and restaurant. I would “turn off” my ears when I didn’t want to put up with my friends or siblings when they were drunk or being obnoxious to me. I “turn off” my ears to catcalls and when I don’t want to talk to someone. I have used it to my advantage. I make my husband order food, but I can handle the doctors appointment. More people ask me where I am from or where is my accent from than are you deaf/hearing impaired. Or there was this one kid in high school who kept asking if I had a tongue ring or something in my mouth. I get frustrated when I can’t follow a conversation or worst when someone said a comment where everyone laughs but won’t repeat for me because I missed the punch line. After watching TV with subtitles I realized how much I was missing while watching TV. I played sports that relied a lot on some sort of sound (whistles and buzzers) such as, water polo, swimming, and even wrestling.

    As a parent, my son is slowly figuring out that I cannot hear well. He’ll let me know when my phone goes off and such. I wish I had done the turning off trick, but it isn’t as obvious because I do not wear hearing aids anymore. And if I did, it would take me weeks to get used to it again. I would get headaches because all the sounds have been amplified. And I can live without listening myself brush my hair or teeth. ;)

    I love the stories you find to put on here. I hope to be apart of with a story of my own.

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