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Review | In his moving memoir, John Cotter anticipates a world without sound

When John Cotter suddenly began to suffer from deafness, tinnitus and roiling vertigo at the age of 30, he found himself thrust into a medical mystery. In “Losing Music,” he chronicles his experience with what was eventually diagnosed as Ménière’s disease, a rare — and incurable — condition that affects an estimated 750,000 people in the United States. By age 35, fitted with hearing aids that only partly helped, he was walking with a cane, prone to unpredictable fits of vomiting, unable to reliably work and unsure about how much longer he would be able to hear at all.

Without self-pity — or at least with measured doses of it (his wife gamely limits the amount of time he can talk about his condition in social situations) — “Losing Music” offers a compelling portrait of how deafness isolates people from even those closest to them. Cotter quotes Helen Keller: “Blindness separates people from things; deafness separates people from people.” More broadly, he also challenges us to better understand how any disability radically alters a person’s sense of self.

When first diagnosed, Cotter was working as an underpaid adjunct writing professor with no health insurance. He marries his longtime partner and gets on her health plan, but even with the freedom insurance brings, he finds answers hard to come by: Doctors offer little more than general lifestyle advice — avoid caffeine, eat less salt, try to relax. As one doctor explains to Cotter: “Your ears are like a beat-up old car that runs good on some days, and other days doesn’t run good at all. Eventually, the engine won’t ever run.” Another less-sympathetic physician says: “Your ears … are really screwed up, okay? And we’re not going to know why until you’re dead and we cut you open.”

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Still, Cotter keeps hoping for a fuller, more optimistic answer. He treks to the Mayo Clinic, the healing haven of last resort, in a desperate attempt to learn more about his symptoms, and is disappointed when physicians offer him the same grim, vague diagnosis and lack of cure that others had despite the expense, and the logistics, of submitting to the clinic’s brusque, bureaucratic “team care.” “Did I expect the Mayo Clinic would hand me a pill to make me better?” Cotter admits. “Yes, a little.”

Cotter’s medical journey is interspersed with a mini-history of the science for treating deafness — from the Greeks, whose attempted cure involved “wool soaked in turpentine,” to King John VI of Portugal, who had a special “acoustical chair” with hidden sound-amplifying channels that visitors had to kneel before, to the “speaking trumpets” that were popular until laws cracked down on people with disabilities starting in the 1860s. (“It’s no coincidence,” Cotter notes, “those laws began in the years that followed the Civil War — when the numbers of wounded and crippled rose dramatically.”)

Prosper Ménière’s research on the condition began when he was appointed as chief physician for the French National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in 1838 — research that first involved torturing pigeons. There’s an interesting case study of fellow Ménière’s sufferer Jonathan Swift and his struggles while trying to write “Gulliver’s Travels.” Intentionally, one has to assume, Cotter avoids much discussion of Ludwig van Beethoven, the most famous deaf person who lost music. Or Vincent Van Gogh, who a recent study suggests may not have been crazy at all, or even epileptic as some have theorized, but suffering from Ménière’s disease — and thus may have had a very clear reason for cutting off his ear (not that it would have helped).

“Losing Music” is not a medical treatise, and its account of Ménière’s is meant to be engaging for a layman, not encyclopedic. The memoir includes some material about Cotter’s life that is not focused on his disease. Sections on his teaching at a homeless shelter, and his class for refugees at a community college, may seem too tangentially related to the book’s primary subject, although Cotter argues that the sense of loss, of longing for the past, that haunts these students is very similar to his own state — especially how they cope with fear about the future.

The most memorable sections in “Losing Music” recount Cotter’s daily struggles: the frustration of trying to hear his companions at a restaurant, fretting that he’ll destroy his hearing aids in sudden rain, trying to have sex while wearing them (“You just have to learn how to hold your head”). He’s lyrical about sounds we take for granted: wind rattling windows, old-fashioned radiators hissing to life, a cat drinking water. But he reserves his most passionate writing for music, “a world you can live inside. … When you’re young and you’re the hero of a movie, and the Heifetz you play in your car or the Velvet Underground you first try out sex to isn’t just background, it’s location and weather. You feel it on your skin.” On one of the blessed occasions when his hearing and tinnitus aren’t at their worst, he listens to a recording of a soprano. Her voice is “like someone set a candle on the floor and the smoke rose and curled. You don’t see the wind without it — the wind’s too light to see.” Writing that precise and moving helps us to grasp the full measure of the losses Cotter mourns.

Novelist Lisa Zeidner’s latest publications are the novel “Love Bomb” and the craft book “Who Says?: Mastering Point of View in Fiction.”

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