My Name is E

Author: Frederick LightfootPublisher: Sandstone Press

This is a story about deafness, but not only about deafness. As with Frederick Lightfoot’s other work, he writes about some challenging issues, but in multi-layered ways. ‘My Name is E’, in fact, covers several complex but universal themes: childhood, womanhood, family, rejection, discrimination, abuse, alienation. And no character, not even the victim, Abby, whom we come to love, is entirely guiltless; nor are her abusers without their moments of vulnerability.

The book opens with a powerfully ominous poetic tract. In just one paragraph, the reader is drawn into the world of Abby, a young girl who is Grade III deaf and calls herself ‘E’. Abby’s tragic story unravels through the reminiscences of her childhood friend and adopted sister, Judith – also deaf – who had returned in her twenties to the village where they grew up in search of answers and revenge. Judith confronts Abby’s abusers one by one, each encounter revealing more about the ordeal of growing up deaf in a family refusing to understand or accept deafness. It was a disease, it was a punishment, it was a madness that needed to be controlled.

Judith’s encounters are interwoven with flashbacks to often sweet and endearing moments of childhood juxtaposed with terrible and violent events. We are also shown snippets of Judith’s present and her easy friendship with her hairdresser, perhaps the only untainted relationship in the book, or perhaps just the promise of possibility, the possibility of finally overcoming social boundaries.

‘My Name is E’ represents different experiences of deafness through Abby’s tormented childhood and the decades of Judith’s life. It touches upon the social history of deafness, revealing often shocking truths and posing some challenging questions. We are shown levels of reaction to deafness through the various characters in the story, mostly negative.

I did question whether the book was making assumptions about British society post-World War II, when Abby’s story is set – surely people would not have been so ignorant or so cruel, after all this wasn’t exactly the Middle Ages – but unfortunately even a small amount of Google-ing reveals that harsh punishment was often meted out to deaf children in schools to discourage them from using sign language. Deafness was often associated with mental illness; many people believed that deaf children could not or should not be educated. It is only relatively recently that institutional discrimination against deaf people has been actively challenged, but, as Lightfoot shows through his characters, society’s attitudes even today can fluctuate between pity, stigma, fear and condescension.

Granted, not everyone in post-War Britain would have behaved so abominably, but that is almost not the point. This story is a snapshot of what might have happened, of all the things that did happen. Unfortunately, these messages are still pertinent. As our narrator, Judith, asks: “What does progress mean to a deaf person… hearing or respect?”.

‘My Name is E’ is a reality check in narrative form, and probably one that we all need.

5 thoughts on “My Name is E

  1. Fascinating reading. Isla does get to the root of the story in a very succinct manner. Her initial assumptions about British society proved so wrong and she is not afraid to admit this. Classic signs of an honest and open reviewer. Sadly I can confirm from an equality practitioner’s perspective that her findings are not just right but worse. Whilst sex discrimination and race discrimination were challenges in 1975 and 1976 through Acts of Parliament, disability discrimination had to wait until 1995. Even today I am dealing with cases which more or less fit the story.
    All in all a very good review. Can’t wait to see the film!

  2. As expected, Isla has proved to be thoroughly perceptive in her approach to the problem of deafness which has stigmatised deaf people for generations and caused untold misery to those who were normal in every other respect. She is able to resonate with the people in the book and the terrible social problems experienced from not being allowed to use sign language; realising that their inability to communicate to the wider world, can only have terrible repercussions and exacerbate their problems. If disability discrimination has only been on the UK agenda for a relative short period of time, then this is a very timely publication.

  3. In my previous comment I forgot to mention the fate still suffered by children and young people whose first language is not English. Sign language of course is only applicable to those whose first language is English or who can converse in English confidently. So there will still be many people both resident here and visitors who cannot communicate at all. Some day we will have a universal language – at the present moment this is limited to drama, music and art 🙂

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