Terry Galloway's life, from a very early age, could be considered hard. Her mother, while pregnant with Galloway, was given an experimental antibiotic that wreaked havoc on the fetus's nervous system. Galloway had what she calls a "deafening hallucinatory childhood." In an excerpt from her humorous and harrowing new memoir, Mean Little Deaf Queer, Galloway recalls her early childhood, describing feelings of ugliness, confusion about gender, and being one of the boys.
I never felt envy until I was almost ten and saw Patty Duke as deaf-blind Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. That girl was a sight. Her hair a greasy, matted nest, filth smeared all over her scabby little body, her cotton jumper like the rag of an urchin. Patty as Helen was as ill-willed and determined and narcissistic as I'd always dreamed of being, and bored into a spitting-mad whirlwind. She was one nasty cookie, and I knew I had it in me to be just like her. Playing Patty Duke as Helen Keller became my private game. Taking off my hearing aids and glasses and letting the inner me rip.
I loved patting my way around my room, my eyes screwed to flickering slits, my tongue tucked to the back of my throat so that every utterance I made sounded half choked and slobbering. But the great outdoors held more potential for drama. I'd fall on the muddier parts of the backyard, which was pretty much denuded by our too-energetic-by-far black-and-white terrier, Britt, and thrash around until my clothes were good and caked. Then I'd grab handfuls of the patchy St. Augustine grass growing in the corners of the fence and rub them against my face in a desperate effort to "make sense" of where I was. I'd pat and stumble my deaf-blind way to the spigot and diddle with it until it started to drip, then pour, then spew. All the while I'd be muttering gabble until finally it would hit me, and light would dawn over my puzzled monkey face. "Wah-wah?" I'd ask. I'd pretend that, just like in the movie, it was the crucial question. I'd ask it again and louder: "Wah-wah?!" Since neither Tenley nor any of my friends were remotely interested in playing Helen's mentor and tormenter, Annie Sullivan, I was always alone in this game. But even though I couldn't see or hear Annie, I'd act as if she were out there listening anyway, just as intent on answering that question as I was. In my mind, Annie didn't look like her Anne Bancroft film version but like all the older girls I'd ever had a crush on. And if I finally got the connection between the word "wah-wah" and the stuff running over and between my fingers, the prize would be mine -- their sympathetic attention to my terrible handicap and their awed admiration for my wounded but undaunted soul. An answer to my bubbling desire, and a way to be both hero and saved.
Whenever it was time for dinner and I'd have to get civilized again, it always felt wrong to be clean, combed, and calmed down. Since being diagnosed and "fixed," as a neutered tom. I was mad as hell that I had to wear the glasses and hearing aids, not just because they made me look ugly but because they slowed me down. I couldn't run or even trot without the glasses misting up or the hearing aids bouncing and beeping. Spur-of-the-minute physical fun and feral daring were nixed. I couldn't detour through some neighbor's sprinkler or butt one of my friends in the belly or run around shrieking in the rain. I had to think first, which I hated to do, because the hearing aids were fragile and expensive and wouldn't survive a spontaneous jump in a puddle. One wrong move on my part meant hundreds of bucks down the drain, and that knowledge, besides cramping my style, was making me surly and self-pitying.
My mother was a petite, raven-haired beauty. My daddy, a handsome, soft-eyed if shorter than average soldier, resplendent in his uniform. My big sister, Trudy, with her almond-shaped eyes of gray, her waist-length chestnut ponytail, and her wrestler's calves, had been elected head cheerleader of the Killeen High School Kangaroos, and she'd even been crowned Miss Kangaroo. My cute-as-a-button, doe-eyed, dark-haired flirt of a baby sister, Tenley, had just that summer been crowned a Little Miss Aqua Fest. Then there was me. I knew by all rights I ought to have been up there in the pantheon of family charmers instead of stuck in my new identity as child freak. I'd stand in front of the mirror, assessing my chances for a happy life. They seemed on par with one of those hyuck-hyucking hillbilly cousins in a Warner Bros. cartoon. After every long critical look, I'd pin my nose back with the bridge of my glasses and oink like a pig.
Like everyone else on the planet, I knew beauty had undeniable power. I'd seen how people reacted to my mother. I could have put together a whole album of pictures of her posing for Daddy's camera in her blue two-piece swimsuit. Her perfect skin looks so untouched by the sun it almost glares. Her lips are so big and her teeth so straight, every smile in the album looks come-hither. It's no wonder that in every single picture of her posing like that there's always one hapless sap caught in the margins staring at her as if his heart's about to go nova.
I craved that kind of clout, and since I now felt too ugly to get my bang from beauty and too old to start cramming to be a genius, there seemed to be only one path to supremacy left open to me. I had noticed that, ugly or not, idiots or not, boys always had an aura of authority, of primacy. Or that's how it looked from where I stood as a nine-and-a-half-year-old in 1960, when every official, from the president in D.C. to the second assistant mail clerk in Podunkum, was a man. Given my dearth of choices, I decided, during one of my self-mocking, self-loathing sessions in front of the mirror, to opt for the shrewdest survival tactic my nearly ten-year-old brain could imagine: I'd hunker down and seriously transform myself into a male.
From that day on, my sacred quest, like Pinocchio's, was to become a real boy. The minute I got home from school I'd change out of my navy polyester pleated skirt, my white rayon button-up blouse, and my pinchy black patent leathers into a pair of faded beige corduroys, a well worn blue flannel shirt, and my precious red sneakers that were ratty as mother would allow. I kept my hair neither short nor long but a middling in-between, not unclean or neglected, just let be. I'd "forget" to wear my hearing aids and glasses, omissions that gave me a squinty little scowl and a reckless, unheeding air that made me seem tougher than I actually was. I fought with my more disreputable boy friends even when I didn't have to and cultivated the requisite foul mouth of a standard little thug. It helped that even deaf and half-blind (sans the hearing aid and glasses) I could still pitch a fastball that left most batters fuming. But for all the vigor of my performance there'd still come a time during our games when the boys I yearned to emulate would split off and leave me behind. It wasn't until the beginning of summer, right after school let out, that I figured out the magic trick that would get me in thick with the gang of boys I sweated blood to join.
I'm not sure why I believed their gang of three had the power to convey boyness upon me. They were an unlikely looking group of toughs. Charles Potter, the leader, had a buzz cut, but he was, on the whole, kind of plump for a bully. The other two were whey-faced blond brothers who both answered to "Hey, thief," and were that knotty kind of skinny I'd later come to associate with beer, knives, and a filmy look around the eyes. The three met informally and infrequently and didn't really have rules, just impulses.
They'd launch into games of war, cowboys and Indians, and tag that always turned into wrestling fist fights. Most of their play was simply stupid, running around hitting each other. But when they were feeling bored and slightly imaginative they took it upon themselves to torment girls. It was this practice I recognized as my ticket to belonging. Girls tended to like me, because I'd develop a crush on them if they simply said my name with a smile, and that made me seem pliant and sweet. They trusted me and my dumbstruck heart. It was a grave mistake. I might love the girls but I lusted for power. I tapped my softer feelings toward them only to hone my performance as the lure, the perfect bait. The boys and I would gather in the afternoon and circle the playground like scummy little hyenas, sizing up the girls as they jumped rope or dangled from the jungle bars. We'd keep to our side of the playground until we'd singled out the weakest one of the herd. Then it was time for me to get to work. I'd saunter across the invisible divide just like I belonged. Even though I could feel my own deception nibbling at my heart, it must never have shown, because I was always welcomed by those girls to join them at jump rope or hopscotch or drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick. Somewhere in the middle of our amiable play I'd ask the girl we'd chosen to please come talk to me privately. I was troubled and needed a friend's advice. These were nice girls, the ones whose hearts had been taught to melt at the mere mention of a friend in need. Their tenderness had once made me fond, but since hooking up with the boys, I'd come to regard it with a certain scorn, a weakness I could manipulate for my own greater good. If those girls hesitated even the slightest, I'd make my eyes well up and say, "Ah, dang. I left my hearing aids home. Can we talk someplace quiet?" I'd feed them that line and they'd follow me like baa-lambs to their doom.
Once I had lured the girl behind the dumpster, the boys would jump out of hiding and help me throw her to the ground. Then one by one the boys would get on top of her, kiss her hard enough to wedge her mouth open, then let go with a dribble of spit. That was it. The third time we captured another weak one, the boys were taking their turns sitting on her, two of them kneeling on her arms while I sat on her feet. She was crying for help and her mother but her mouth was full of spit so it came out, "Haolbulb, haolbulb." We all thought that was pretty funny. Then the boys offered me a turn. Although I'd enjoyed the camaraderie up until then, I'd never been asked to mount the girl before. When they offered me my place in line I felt as honored as if I'd been asked to join the Marines. I could feel my body snapping to as if a just war had been declared and the Stars and Stripes unfurled. I started sucking on my cheeks to get the longest, most drooling piece of spit among the bunch of us (it had become something of a contest by then) and got on top of her. As I leaned in to kiss her I made the mistake of looking her in the eyes, and there it was -- a look with which I was already too damned familiar.