Cry of the Gull

by Emmanuelle Laborit

[pages 1-2, 7, 11, 21-22, 27, 31-32, 43-47
Used by Permission from Gallaudet University Press © 1998]

[Note: Emmanuelle Laborit was born in France in 1971. She is an award-winning actress and currently heads L'International Visual Theatre].

Becoming Emmanuelle "Sun-Coming-From-The-Heart"

"Words have struck me as odd ever since I was a child.  I use the term odd because of the strangeness I initially saw in them. What did all those funny expressions on the faces of people around me mean?  Their mouths were rounded or stretched in all sorts of grimaces.  Their lips were twisted in weird shapes.  I could feel something different when people were angry, sad, or happy, but an invisible barrier separated me from the sounds that corresponded to their facial expressions.  It seemed like both a transparent sheet of glass and a concrete wall.  My movements were confused to one side and theirs to the other.  And when I tried to ape their expressions, I could only form letters, never words.  Sometimes they taught me one-syllable words or words made up of two identical syllables like papa and mama.

The simplest of concepts were even more mysterious.  Yesterday, tomorrow, today.  My mind worked in the present.  What did past and future mean?

I took a giant leap forward when with the help of sign language. I understood that yesterday was behind me and tomorrow in front of me.  That was huge progress. 

...Later, I realized that other words referred to people.  Emmanuelle was me.  Papa was him.  Mama was her.  Marie was my sister.  I was Emmanuelle, an individual.  I had a name, therefore I existed.

As soon as I understood that I was somebody, as soon as I realized that I was a living being, I was able to say 'I.'  Before that, I always used she to mean myself.  I was searching for my place in the world, for who I was and why I existed.  And I found myself.  My name is Emmanuelle Labroit.

I was seven years old.  I had just been born and come of age in one fell swoop."

*         *         *         *         *         *

"I have strange memories of my early childhood.  It's just chaos in my head, a series of completely unrelated images, like film sequences edited together with long strips of blank film, giant lost spaces.

My life up to the age of seven is full of gaps.  I only have visual memories, like flashbacks, images whose time-frame I can't place...I still can't assign dates to things during the period of my birth to age seven...As for events or should I say situations or scenes because everything was visual, I lived each as an isolated experience, in the present.  That is why, in try to reassemble the puzzle of my early childhood...I found only fragments of images.

"...I have a memory about the darkness of night and how it affected me when I was little:  I'm in the living room, lying on my bed, and I see the reflection of headlights shining through the window onto the all.  All those lights that keep coming and going frighten me.  I see them in my mind.  There's no wall between the living room and my parents room.  It's a big open space with no door.  There's an armchair, a bed, and the large cushion-covered sofa where I sleep.  I see myself there as a child, but I don't know how old I am.  I'm scared.  I was always scared of the cars' headlights at night, those images that came and went on the wall."

"...Our way of communicating was instinctive, animal-like.  What I call "umbilical."  It revolved around simple things like eating, drinking, and sleeping.  My mother didn't stop me from gesturing.  She didn't have the heart to, even through that's what they recommended.  We also had signs that were our very own, completely made up...I don't know how many times she drew my face close to hers in a mother-child encounter that was both fascinating and terrifying, and that functioned as our language...Tugging at her was my way of calling her so she'd look at me and pay attention to me.  It was hard when there were people around.  I lost contact with her.  I was along on my planet and I wanted her to come back.  She was my only link to the world."

"...Sometimes I used to go tug at my other so she could translate because I wanted to know more.  I wanted to know what was going on. Why, why had I seen anger on my father's face?  But she couldn't translate all the time.  When she couldn't, I was left in dark silence."

"...Usually when I had to go (to the bathroom), I'd call my mother.  But that time, we were at some friends' house and she was busy chatting.  She wasn't paying attention to me, so I decided I was going to manage all alone.

I went to the bathroom and locked the door like a big person.  But then I couldn't get out!  I must have jammed the lock or done something to it.  I began screaming and screaming and banging on the door.  Being locked inside and not being able to get out was torture.  My Mother was on the other side of the door and could hear the banging.  But of course I didn't know that.  Suddenly all communication was cut off.  There was literally a wall between my mother and me.  It was frightening.

I'm sure my mother tried to reassure me.  She probably said, 'Don't worry, stay calm.'  But at that time, I couldn't hear her, since I couldn't see her.  I thought that she was still talking with her friend and that I was all alone.  I was terrified.  I thought I'd spend the rest of my life in that little room screaming in silence!

Finally I saw a piece of paper being slipped under the door.  My mother had made a drawing, because I didn't know how to read yet.  It was a picture of a child crying that had been crossed out.  Next to it was a picture of a child laughing.  I realized she was on the other side of the door telling me to smile and that everything would be okay.  But she didn't make a drawing to show that she would open the door.  She was telling me to laugh, and not to cry.  So I was still panic-stricken.  I could feel myself screaming.  I felt my vocal chords vibrating...that day, I made my vocal chords vibrate until I was out of breath. 

I must have cried for a long time, like an angry seagull in a storm, before a locksmith came and opened the door, that wall separating me from my mother."

"...I was like my mother, except that she could her and I couldn't. She was a big person, but I would never get big.  My little (deaf) friend and I would soon be 'finished.'  That was the period of my life when we still hadn't seen any deaf adults yet and so we couldn't imagine that you could grow up and be deaf too.  There was no point of reference or comparison to make use see that.  So we were going to 'leave' soon, be 'finished;' in other words, die."

*         *         *         *         *         *

"I can still see some of the visual imprints of that day [the day they went to Vincennes and the International Visual Theatre]. We're going up some stairs.  We enter a large room.  My father is talking to two hearing people---two adults who aren't wearing hearing aids.  Therefore, I assume they aren't deaf.  At this stage of my life, I recognize deaf people only because of their hearing aids.  But, as it turns out, one is deaf and the other isn't.  One is Alfredo Corrado and the other Bill Moody, a hearing sign language interpreter.

I see Alfredo and Bill signing to each other.  I see that my father can understand Bill because Bill is speaking.  But the signs mean nothing to me. They're quick, strange, complicated.  I've never seen anything like it before..I look at the two men in amazement.  Their hands and fingers are moving, their bodies too, and they're making facial expressions.  It's beautiful and mesmerizing... Alfredo comes up to me and says, "I'm deaf, like you, and I sign.  That is my language."

I mime my response.  "Why aren't you wearing a hearing aid?"

He smiles.  It's obvious that he thinks deaf people don't need hearing aids.  But for me, hearing aids are a visible point of reference.

So Alfredo is deaf, but doesn't wear a hearing aid.  What's more he is an adult.  I think it took me awhile to grasp that threefold oddity.

What I did realize right away, however, was that I wasn't alone in the world.  It was a startling revelation.  And a bewildering one because, up until then, I had thought, as do so many deaf children, that I was unique and predestined to die as a child. I discovered that I could have a future since Alfredo was a deaf adult!"

*         *         *         *         *         *

"I was just beginning to learn sign language when we left for Washington, D.C...The purpose of the trip was to learn how deaf Americans lived, to get to know their university, Gallaudet, and to see how they coped on a daily basis.

...I was amazed at what I saw.  It was more than surprising; it was revolutionary! And then it hit me:  I was in a city of deaf people.  They were signing everywhere---on the sidewalks, in the stores, all over Gallaudet University campus.  Deaf people were all over the place.  A store owner was signing to a customer, people saying hello to each other and conversing in sign.  I was really in a deaf city.  I imagined that everyone in Washington was deaf.  It was like landing on another planet where everyone was like me.

...We stayed in Washington for a month, in a dorm at Gallaudet University.  Everyone in the building could sign. We had our meals in the cafeteria and had to give our meal ticket number in sign language to be served.

I was proud, prouder than I had ever been before...

...One night in Washington, I came bursting into my parents' room, all excited.  A real bundle of energy.  They couldn't understand me because I was signing so fast.  I began again, this time more slowly, 'I'm deaf!'

'I'm deaf,' didn't mean 'I can't hear.' 'It meant 'I realize I am deaf!'

It was a positive, decisive statement. . . .I belonged to a community and had a true identity.  I had compatriots.

In Washington, they told me 'You're like us, you are deaf.' And they showed me the sign for deaf. No one had ever SAID that to me. That was a revelation.... I had become a human being endowed with language."