Reviewed by Karen Christie
Content Warning: This review includes candid and graphic language regarding the legacies of ableism and audism.
Most biographies of Alexander Graham Bell focus primarily on his notoriety as the inventor of the telephone with brief, sentimental anecdotes of his experiences as a teacher of Deaf students. Near the end of his life, Bell proclaimed that “recognition in my work for and interest in the education of the deaf is more pleasing to me than even recognition of my work with the telephone.”1 Examining Bell’s work in both these areas, Katie Booth’s The Invention of Miracles is the first text written for a general readership that takes on the generational trauma wrought by the man and his legacy. With Deaf grandparents and other Deaf family members, Booth has seen the ways in which the harms resulting from Bell’s work with “the deaf” have impacted their lives. She shares a cautionary tale for anyone who reads the above quote as coming from a man committed more to human beings than to ideas.
The writer sweetly describes her childhood relationship with her Deaf grandparents and her almost instinctive use of signs with them. Later in life, her grandmother lay dying in a hospital, neglected and disempowered by a lack of access to interpreters, information, and ways to contact her own family. To her credit, Booth realizes this situation has happened not because her grandmother was Deaf, but because of the systematic oppression that entrapped her grandmother. From the vicarious trauma that resulted, the writer sought to uncover the roots of this injustice and the role AG Bell played in creating it.
Booth sympathetically and eloquently relates the story of AG Bell as a man whose life and work were deeply ingrained in his family of origin and the age in which he lived. His interest in teaching speech is traced to his father, who created Visible Speech, a type of phonetic alphabet for teaching speech/elocution to both Deaf and Hearing people. Bell became his father’s apprentice; as a young man with a scientific and curious mind, he was often experimenting. He worked on building speaking machines and tried teaching the family dog to talk. A skilled pianist, he was likewise interested in sound. His gift as a teacher of Deaf students and his charisma in engaging Deaf people was likely a result of having grown up with a speaking, nonsigning Deaf mother. From her, he learned to speak clearly and learned to interpret via fingerspelling. During his young adulthood, many new discoveries and inventions came to the fore. Bell was inspired by the possibilities that he knew he could fulfill.
Booth provides a lot of details, while leaving certain interpretations to the reader. For example, Booth describes Bell’s personal and familial histories in specific while, at times, somewhat open-ended ways. After moving with his family to Canada, Bell went to Boston on the strength of family connections to teach Visible Speech at the Boston School for the Deaf. When educators (the oralist school founders) began questioning the belief that Deaf people couldn’t learn to speak, they needed a methodology. Thus, many were initially impressed by Bell’s systematic approach and demonstrations. The Deaf students at the Boston school were also from socially prominent families and attending a special school program was a privilege most Deaf and DeafBlind children at the time were denied. While oralism, the name of the educational method focused on teaching speech to Deaf students, eventually was implemented in this country’s state schools for the Deaf, it often was a primarily white, upper class venture.
The story of Bell’s telephone invention seems to be, in Booth’s telling, a truly American story—full of political maneuvering, capitalistic greed, secrecy, deception and psychological manipulation. In general, people today do not think to question whether AG Bell invented the telephone. The author shows that Bell’s claim to the invention is murky, at best.2 After Booth details the competition between Elisha Gray and Bell for the patent, the mention of the 2002 U.S. House of Representatives’ acknowledgment of Antonio Meucci as the inventor seems a bit out of the blue (and perhaps it was). Regardless, Bell’s work on the telephone led to considerable prestige, power and wealth in his lifetime.
One thing Bell seemed to believe in more than anything was the power of his own brilliance. Coupled with his economic resources and political connections, Bell felt he could achieve anything he put his mind to. When he heard President Garfield had been shot, he rushed to invent a way to locate bullets in bodies. He experimented with a number of inventions, such as the graphophone; he also worked in aeronautics. When he presented an erroneous early genetic study warning of the dangers of the proliferation of a “Deaf race,” scientists listened.
Deaf writer Albert Ballin states, “had Mr. Bell not invented the telephone and won fame and wealth, his views on the subject (of Deaf education) would have no more force and weight than a goose feather in a tornado…” (27). But, Bell’s views mattered, and the major premise upon which his ideas related to Deaf education rested was the belief that people who behaved in the ways of those who speak and hear is desired and best. (This is the definition of audism.) He believed Deaf people should not be teachers, because they could not be speech models, thereby stifling their ability in this field to get advanced degrees and meaningful employment. His eugenic ideas related to Deaf people suggested ethnic cleansing.
At times, Booth portrays Bell as surprisingly passive and conflict avoidant. He couldn’t tell his father he didn’t want to leave Scotland, and Bell was pretty much bullied into completing the patent for the telephone by his future father-in-law. His great love for his wife—a Deaf woman he taught—initially seems obsessive and a bit creepy. During the time he was teaching her speech, as Booth notes, “With his fingers, Aleck would have outlined the diaphragm under Mabel’s ribs” (97). Such physical contact certainly would have been deemed improper, since they were not yet married. Undoubtedly a complex man, Booth describes how Bell also could be confident and a showman.
Booth has made a significant contribution by uncovering how one man’s careless ambitions can traumatize a culture, a community of people, and their families for years to come. Additionally, she mentions the significant damage language deprivation, a result of early oralism, has on an individual’s cognitive development, social development, educational achievement, quality of life, and overall mental health. Booth saw evidence of this in her Deaf grandfather’s life. I appreciate particularly the contradictions she highlights in Bell’s life. More than once, she suggests that AG Bell “never would have intended” that oralism would lead to internalized oppression, mistreatment, and an abusive form of education experienced by Deaf people. What is clear is that he was a master of microaggressions. However unintentional, his views were influential. He believed he could be a “miracle worker.” When Deaf folks confronted him during his lifetime, he either didn’t bother to investigate these challenges or ignored them. In his own arrogant mind, he knew better. Behind his charm was the mask of benevolence.3 When oralism became speech training pursued at the expense of educating the mind, Bell privately disagreed, but said nothing. The first NAD President, Robert P. MacGregor explained this approach when he said, “They will try to teach him (the Deaf child) to say ‘bread,’ but the child may die of starvation before he learns” (70).
The repercussions of AG Bell’s work, as Booth acknowledges, are far from over. What happened to Booth’s grandmother was tragic and wrong. And quite honestly, as a Deaf reader, this book was tremendously triggering. Booth’s grandmother’s story is not that uncommon in the Deaf community. Deaf and DeafBlind people have been mistreated, misdiagnosed, neglected, and died at the hands of medical and legal personnel. For BIPOC Deaf people dealing with these systems, there are incredible risks. And since the writer has brought evidence to the surface, my impulse is to excavate the whole mass grave—all those rotting Deaf bones and skeletons diseased by good intentions.
Booth sensitively relates how her Deaf great aunt’s face would sometimes “shadow over” in discussions about American Sign Language. Her aunt’s hands were slapped when she signed in school. This experience reminded me of a more recent example that happened about a decade ago. A Deaf social justice group, Audism Free America, hosted rallies to confront the AG Bell Association at the Volta Bureau and at AG Bell Association’s annual conferences. Along with these rallies were evening vigils where Deaf people shared the physical and emotional scars of being raised orally. The physical abuse that occurred in the suppression of sign language was not just rulers slapping hands, but hands literally taped to desks. Children were ordered to hold dictionaries in outstretched arms until they could do so no more; the young people were also isolated for hours in dark closets and forced, naked, into cold bathtubs.
During the vigils, the survivors, ranging from young adults to senior citizens, very hesitantly shared their stories—they didn’t want this sharing to get back to their Hearing family members. The survivors still felt shame—a shame that they carried alone. And we know that when we are in Deaf community settings, there is a group missing among us–those Deaf children who died at the hands of doctors perfecting cochlear implant surgeries.4 To heal, we need a safe space for testimonies, and we need witnesses. There’s vicarious trauma and then there is unresolved trauma.
What does all of this mean for Bell and his legacies? More contemporary views of AG Bell have been illustrated in the Deaf spaces online. Beginning in 2012, Deaf social media carried the hashtags #AGBELLIES and #LIESAGBELLTOLDMYPARENTS. In a number of artistic literary and visual works created and shared by Deaf people, AG Bell is depicted as a Moloch, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a plague doctor, a greedy quack, and a master puppeteer, as well as a dragon to be slayed.
The two most powerful influences aiming at the eradication of American Sign Language were the 1880 Milan Conference and AG Bell’s ethnocidal schemes. Working with Deaf community groups, the 2010 International Congress on the Education of the Deaf issued a formal apology concerning the harms done to Deaf people as a result of the 1880 Milan resolutions. As mentioned in the book, those resolutions sparked a polarizing and long lasting international oralist movement that banned the use of sign languages in the education of Deaf people. As Booth states, “Bell’s name and legacy are still being utilized today to suppress ASL” (320).
Yet, the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Hearing has never issued any apology about the harmful effects of AG Bell’s role in the devastating language deprivation experienced by generations of Deaf people, the promotion of ethnocide, and the belief in the undesirability of Deaf children. Instead, in line with their founder (Bell), they have repeatedly ignored or dismissed challenges from the Deaf community. While softening the language they use, they still uphold the tenets of oralism (now packaged as “listening and spoken language interventions”) at all costs. With the backing of powerful legislative lobbyists, medical professionals, and cochlear implant capitalists, they are able to ensure that language deprivation perpetuates their work and that the image of Deaf people continues to be one as a defective race. There has been no restorative justice in Bell’s name.
Along with advances in genetic counseling and genetic engineering, our community remains threatened. The fact that Deaf people strengthen the biodiversity of humankind and have much to contribute to the world is rarely acknowledged. We Deaf folks have learned we need to be ever-vigilant, particularly when interacting with those with good intentions. Deaf leader George W. Veditz wrote as part of his obituary of AG Bell that Deaf people “would have welcomed him with open arms and glorified in his interest in them” (15). Bell, he continued, instead chose to be “like the pigeon that defends its nest but not its eggs” (14). Booth additionally notes, “…the community still has to spend seemingly limitless time, money, and energy fighting for its own sustained existence” (329).
Mabel Bell once wrote to AG Bell, “I want you to succeed in your experiments, but not to lose all human interest in the process. Your deaf mute business is hardly human to you” (291). Ultimately, even his Deaf wife—as Booth explains—accused Bell of being too much in love with his ideas rather than the Deaf people impacted by these ideas. Despite his desire for recognition and success, Bell’s real achievement was his greatest fear—failure. And Bell’s greatest failure was as a “teacher of deaf-mutes”—not because he couldn’t perform the “miracle” of teaching Deaf folks to speak, but because he never even tried to listen to what Deaf people had to say. By dehumanizing us in this way, treating us as ideas to be experimented with, he set in motion the trauma and injustice we have had to live with, ever since. With The Invention of Miracles, Katie Booth puts Alexander Graham Bell back in the public eye, challenging readers to examine not only his legacy, but also their own attitudes toward Deaf and DeafBlind people.
Ballin, Albert. (1998). The Deaf mute howls. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. (Originally published 1930).
MacGregor, Robert P. (1920, August 9-14). “Address of Mr. MacGregor.” Proceedings of the thirteenth convention of the national association of the deaf. Detroit, Michigan.
Veditz, George W. (1922, October). De Moruis Nil Nisi Bonum [About the Deaf May Say Nothing Unless Good]. The Jewish Deaf.
- The quote by Bell in the first paragraph appeared on the plaque of Bell Hall on the campus of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 2008, the plaque was removed and the building renamed.
- Refer, for example, to Shulman, Seth (2008).The telephone gambit. New York: W.W. Norton, and to Benjamin Brown’s 2020 study on the controversy.
- Refer to: Lane, Harlan (1992). The mask of benevolence: Disabling the deaf community. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Refer to Interview with Dr. Petitto on Pediatric Implanting Panel.
Title: The Invention of Miracles
Author: Katie Booth
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
About the Reviewer
Karen Christie (name-sign “KC”) is a retired Assistant Professor of Deaf Cultural Studies and English from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Presently, she works as the educational director for Deaf Refugee Advocacy in Rochester, NY. Her book reviews have appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, ClercScar and Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. She likes to read a lot!