Shortly after their daughter Sophie is born, Jennifer Rosner and her husband are stunned to learn Sophie was born deaf. Rosner’s beautiful memoir, If a Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard, recounts how she and her husband moved beyond grief and disbelief to action and advocacy for Sophie and for her sister Juliet born two years later, also deaf. Rosner, whose mother was hard of hearing, begins researching the family tree and discovers deaf relatives branching back through the generations. Though her mother attributed her hearing loss to the after-effects of a childhood illness, Rosner now knows better. She and her husband (what were the chances?) had each passed on the recessive gene that led to their daughters’ deafness.
Rosner intersperses her family’s story with that of two great aunts, sisters whose lives were also silenced by deafness. Rosner conjures their lives in the shtetl using research and imagination to fill in the gaps. She grew up listening to her father play violin every day of her life. The author studied opera from the time she was a young child. La Traviata was her favorite to sing. Now a mother herself, Rosner begins to re-evaluate, through the lens of her daughters’ deafness, her relationship with her mother. She recalls the feeling of not being heard and begins to question how well and how deeply she learned to listen to others. If her daughters do not learn to speak, how will she ever listen to them?
For a family as language- and music-immersed as Rosner’s, the decision to raise their daughters in the Deaf world or move forward with cochlear implants is fraught with challenges and judgments from both communities. Ultimately Rosner and her husband do what any parents do: they decide based on what they deem best for their family and for their daughters’ futures.
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Jennifer Rosner was a philosophy professor until her daughters’ deafness set her life onto a new trajectory. If a Tree Falls was followed by The Mitten String, a charming picture book based on a family story about one of her aunts. Her just-published debut novel, The Yellow Bird Sings, is set during World War II and is inspired by the true stories of Jewish children hidden during the war. She returns to the themes of silence, the power of mother-daughter bonds and the critical choices parents make for their children’s survival. Having now read the author’s first and second books, I look forward to settling in with her third.