Hot Desk Extract: The Shape of Sound

As part of the Wheeler Centre's Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Fiona Murphy worked on The Shape of Sound – a collection of personal essays about learning how to be Deaf

This week, we're privy to a glimpse of Fiona's writing; an essay about stigma, ableism and truth withheld.

Photograph of a hand filling in a survey with a pen

Image: Scott Limbrick (modified from a photo by Plings, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

How much does a secret weigh? 

It is difficult to pinpoint when I began to treat my deafness like a secret. I didn’t even know that I was deaf until I was in Year Two. The diagnosis itself hasn’t pressed itself into my memory. Instead, another moment has: I’m standing in the schoolyard. One by one, my classmates cup their hands around my left ear. Their breath hot as they scream, testing if I have told them the truth. Perhaps this is when I started to see the truth as a threatening thing.

The average person has 13 secrets. This conveniently ominous number was determined by Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun and Malia Mason from Columbia University. The trio managed to gather some 13,000 secrets to analyse. They compiled their findings into the paper The Experience of Secrecy. It is a spectacularly dense read. Their research methodology alone stretches over a dozen single-spaced pages, plotting out how they circumnavigated concealment.

You don’t so much keep a secret as it keeps you.

Previous researchers relied on secrecy-assignment manipulation, the process of asking test subjects to conceal information within laboratory settings. The trio ruled out this approach as it ‘seems risky to assume that the effect of withholding the word “mountain” from others within a social interaction is no different than the effect of choosing to keep one’s infidelity a secret from a spouse’. Mountain. What a blameless, mundane word. I try to withhold it from a conversation. The task feels like a word game, an act of artful – no, playful – trickery. A true secret elicits a certain constricting alertness that cannot be assigned or manipulated into being. You don’t so much keep a secret as it keeps you. Holding you in tight-chested suspense.

How can you study something that is commonplace and completely hidden? Slepian, Chun and Mason avoided shepherding subjects into well-lit laboratories. Instead, they invited people from across America to anonymously participate in online forums. Over 2000 people filled out the Common Secrets Questionnaire. Just two pages long, the questionnaire seems as innocuous and appealing as a quiz from a glossy magazine. There is list of yes/no questions covering topics about drug use, relationships, fantasies, illegal behaviour, emotions and so on. The questions never pry for specifics.

How do people move, sit, stand or sleep if they are carrying 13 equally cumbersome secrets?

I find myself idly filling it out. Circling ‘yes’ with faint pencil marks, checking to see how I measure up to the average. Then I leave the quiz on my desk and head to work. For the rest of the day, the task of digging up and displaying my secrets plays on my mind. Do all secrets weigh the same? How do people move, sit, stand or sleep if they are carrying 13 equally cumbersome secrets? When I stop for a tea break, I fret about a gust of wind picking up the loose sheets of paper and transporting all my secrets to the living room for my housemates to find. The anticipation of embarrassment is excruciating.

Once home, I diligently erase my secrets. Working with frantic strokes, I get rid of all the careful tracings of truth. While checking the questionnaire for any lingering marks, I realise that most of these misdemeanours have already been dissected in the pages of my diary and with a close group of friends. My deafness has existed far longer than this catalogue of unrequited loves, fantasies and experimentations, yet it continues to be the most safeguarded.

Portrait of Fiona Murphy

Fiona Murphy is a poet and essayist. Her work has appeared in the Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, Overland and the Big Issue, amongst others. In 2017, she was shortlisted for the Dorothy Porter Award for Poets. In 2018, she was awarded an inaugural Writers Victoria Publishability Fellowship and has been longlisted for the Richell Prize.

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