Beverly Biderman hops into the Saab convertible of the producer who wants to make a movie of her life, and roars over to Venice Beach to check out the sights: tarot card readers, near-naked roller-bladers, a one-man-band.
Outside a T-shirt booth, Biderman pulls some delicate electronics out of a box, and a mini-crowd starts gathering around her, as if it's thinking: What's this performance about?
Biderman's "performance" today is about two things: What it's like to hear poorly. And what it's like to hear at all after decades of deafness.
The 53-year-old Toronto native, like her father, was completely deaf by the time she reached her teens, because of a gene for deafness that runs in her family. As she was growing up, her parents treated her hearing loss as a family embarrassment that simply wasn't discussed. As a result, she would often prefer to have people think she was stupid than reveal that she couldn't hear.
Then, seven years ago, her hearing was partly restored by a bionic device--a cochlear implant. A thin strand of electrodes, like the sample she took from the box to show her curious friends, was inserted in her ear. It sends signals to her brain when the microphone behind her ear detects sounds.
Today, about 27,000 people worldwide have cochlear implants, and on this particular weekend 800 of them, including Biderman, are meeting at a Manhattan Beach hotel to share their joys and frustrations. Biderman has shared more widely than most. "Wired for Sound," a book she wrote about her experiences, was published in 1998. An independent producer has optioned the film rights and is negotiating a possible cable TV movie deal.
It's strange, Biderman says, to imagine a movie about you, to wonder which actor might play you, whether it'll be much more Hollywood than reality (she doesn't wonder too much about that). But she does want her story to be told.
"Quite often, when people write about cochlear implants, it's such a sugarcoated story--'Oh, it's a miracle,' " she says. "Well, it wasn't quite that way."
It can be--for people who are suddenly deafened later in life. An implant's signals to the brain are much cruder than those the ears provide, but a brain that is accustomed to receiving signals about sound can fill in many gaps from memory.
But the hearing parts of Biderman's brain were in cold storage for decades. Learning to hear was anything but easy for her.
Determined to get as much as she could from the implant, she drilled herself on the art of understanding speech, using kids' books and tapes (the antics of Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack and Quack, of "Make Way for Ducklings," are forever seared into her circuits). Today, she's learned to make sense of many of the noises that sounded, at first, like meaningless buzzes and beeps.
She can talk on the phone, once an impossible dream. And she's still learning. A year ago, she heard the rain on the roof for the first time.
Often, as she strolls these days, she must see what's making a sound to make sense of it. She hears a whistle and wonders if it's the honk of a car. She hears a door buzzer and thinks it's music. And there are many sounds she misses: the roar of a distant plane, a duck's quack. She is still very hard of hearing.
In one chapter of her book, Biderman tackles the politics of cochlear implants. Implants for deaf children are abhorrent to some members of the deaf culture who communicate principally by sign language. (Biderman did not.) To give a child an implant, they say, is to deny a child's deafness--to cut them off from their community.
Biderman doesn't deny the complexity of this issue, she doesn't deny how difficult the decision can be. But at the end of the day, she says, she feels it's the right of the parent to weigh the pros and cons and make the best choice they can for their child, without recrimination--especially since studies find that early implants are more successful than late implants like hers.
As for Biderman, the change in her life--and that of her husband, Bob--has been immense, she says. Bob doesn't have the pressure of making sure she's understanding people at parties anymore. He doesn't have to get on the phone every time she needs to visit a doctor.
Before the implant, she often used to wonder if people were gossiping about her. She would avert her eyes from strangers for fear they'd strike up a conversation and she wouldn't be able to understand them. (Now she relishes such chitchat.) She never would have traveled to a conference--too many new people to deal with. And her dry wit was under wraps: It's hard to make quips if you're not sure you heard right.
It's nice, she says, just to hear her own footsteps, to drop a key and hear it hit the sidewalk rather than just walk on oblivious.
"I can pick up on all this stuff I never knew I was missing," she says. "People remarking on what I'm wearing. Saying 'Have a nice day,' commenting on the weather. All these little pieces of kindness."