Ironwood Native Son and Playwright Details His Struggles for Acceptance and Love
Reviewed by Victor R. Volkman
Raymond Luczak’s collection of autobiographical essays, Assembly Required: Notes From a Deaf Gay Life was accessible to me because it is very much the story of an outsider growing up in the 1980s. Growing up in a fairly large Catholic family of nine children, Raymond had a lot to contend with. His father, a butcher, barely made ends meet, and growing up in Ironwood, a small town in the Western U.P. with a population of around 5,000, Raymond had no role models. He would eventually meet the one deaf person in town, an elderly man who washed dishes at the Holiday Inn. However, the thinking in those days was that deaf children should NOT be taught American Sign Language (ASL) because they would quickly give up on ever building reasonable lip reading and speaking skills.
Raymond became deaf at seven months as a side effect of and illness. Because he was in a big family and prone to solitary activities, his deafness was not discovered and treated until he was two years old. This was all before the age of microprocessors, so Raymond had to wear a bulky apparatus under his shirt (“like a bra”) and then had wires trailing out and up to his ears. As you might expect, children tend to pick on anyone who is even the slightest bit different, and Raymond’s torment unfortunately was a silent one. Luckily, in elementary school, Raymond eventually obtained one childhood friend who accepted him as he was. However, in an effort to find him the most appropriate educational setting, his parents bounced him from a Catholic school to spending five days a week with a foster family in Houghton so he could participate in a classroom setting that had more support for students with hearing impairments. Commuting to Houghton was then a four-hour roundtrip for his parents every week, which I’m sure took much longer when winter arrived in Copper Country, long known for its prodigious snowfalls.
Assembly Required, a mosaic of essays from different periodicals, has been expanded into a book-length format. Luczak is the author and editor of over 20 books. Recent titles include A Babble of Objects, Flannelwood and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman. His deaf gay novel, Men with Their Hands, won first place in the Project: QueerLit Contest in 2006. His work has been nominated ten times for the Pushcart Prize. A playwright, he currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Because the essays are more topical than chronological, the pieces of Raymond’s puzzle-like life are filled in a little bit here and there as the narrative jumps around.
Because of the aforementioned resistance to teaching sign language to deaf children, Raymond didn’t learn to sign until he was fourteen years of age. I think he would probably say it was one of the most liberating experiences of his life. For those who assume lip-reading is a science, this narrative most assuredly assures us that it is not. Lip-reading is, at best, a lot of guesswork with quite a lot of context taken from facial expressions. As often as not, Raymond would just nod “yes” rather than taking the time to actually understand what was being said. Sadly, Raymond grew up with a lifelong fascination with music, something he could barely understand except by moving the leads of his hearing aids right up to the speakers. Nevertheless, he was fascinated by music videos of the day, such as Michael Jackson’s famous Thriller video and the Village People with their wild costumes.
One of the most revealing things in this memoir is the power dynamic that Raymond discovered when having relationships with hearing boyfriends. The hearing partner in a relationship with a deaf person ends up with all the power, since he or she is better equipped to take on the daily tasks of life. When Raymond took a hearing partner to a party of deaf people, the hearing person found all the signing confusing and couldn’t keep up; in that sense, he got a small slice of the ostracism that the deaf have to live with day in and day out.
Raymond eventually ends up in Washington, D.C. at Gallaudet University, a school exclusively for deaf students. He puts off coming out of the closet until just a few weeks before he leaves for college. The Gallaudet experience is a huge watershed moment for Raymond, as it opens up his world to be able to “speak” – with sign language – to hundreds of students. Furthermore, he is living in a progressive urban area where gay people can freely associate without fear of consequences of being known as a homosexual in a small town like Ironwood in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this is also the era of the AIDS outbreak, and in the following years many bright lights in the artistic community would be snuffed out, including playwright Bruce Hilbol and deaf actor Alan Roy Barwiolek.
I would highly recommend Raymond Luczak’s Assembly Required to anyone who grew up feeling marginalized. This book affirms the humanity and need for connection that those with disabilities often suffer silently for the lack of understanding.
TITLE: Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life
AUTHOR: Raymond Luczak
PUBLISHER: Handtype Press