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­­Finding One’s Way through Chronic Disease: A Review of LOSING MUSIC by John Cotter




John Cotter


Losing Music: A Memoir


Milkweed Editions / April 2023 / 296 pp / $26


Reviewed by Judy Harju Galliher / December 2023

 

 



 

In his debut memoir, Losing Music, John Cotter provides an intimate portrait of Ménière’s disease, an inner ear problem that causes vertigo and hearing loss. He chronicles his confusion when symptoms arise, the challenges of receiving a diagnosis and treatment, and, eventually, how he comes to terms with chronic illness. Readers will glean from this book a deep understanding of hearing’s role in relationships with ourselves and others. As Cotter vulnerably shares his grief about losing music, we learn he’s also losing so much more.

 

Cotter’s eclectic career, as noted on his website bio, includes work as a “theater director, ghostwriter, trash collector, and copy editor, as well as a teacher of environmental ethics, English literature, and history.” This flexibility serves him well, as his illness soon affects his working life. He had published a novel (Under the Small Lights) and was preparing to write another when his symptoms began. Trying to make sense of them, he published several essays about his experience. Confusion arose around the presentation of his symptoms: in Ménière’s disease, hearing loss and vertigo are chronic, but they were intermittent for Cotter. And, he learned, “there’s no reliable test for Ménière’s, no reliable treatment, and no consensus on its cause.” An inspired editor suggested he expand upon his essays, resulting in this lyrical and provocative account of his illness.

 

When Cotter first introduces his symptoms of dizziness and hearing loss, he ruminates on what he’ll lose if his hearing diminishes completely. A music aficionado, he explains, “The big, meaningful scenes of my life have become centered, in my memory, around music, and not just concerts.” Who among us recalls a younger version of ourselves when we hear a song from an earlier time in our lives? Cotter recognizes this, saying: “Part of the fun of the music at those parties, or in those restaurants and elevators and supermarkets, is the way it connects us with our past.”

 

After Cotter’s condition requires him to resign from an adjunct professor position, he turns to social media. “I start up the PC on my desk and go straight to social media. I’m craving the simulation of community there—the sense of people talking in a way I can hear with my eyes.” His loneliness seeps through his words, and his phrase “hear with my eyes” is particularly apt. The book delves into the details of how hearing and sound influence language, memory, and perception. We learn, for example, that “the ability to translate noises into linguistic meaning is inextricable from how the hearing see the world, and how we hold on to what we’ve seen and heard.” Likewise, “The echoes of sound—low ones, high ones—bouncing off all the surfaces orients us in space. . . . Sound is kinetic, and we use it to feel as much as hear.” Beyond just a function of our ear, hearing is a full-body experience.

 

Given its importance in our lives, Cotter explores the societal bias against hearing-impaired people. He quotes Aristotle: “It is hearing that contributes most to the growth of intelligence.” Aristotle valued oral discourse as a way of learning, an approach that has changed little over the centuries. And Cotter acknowledges that while eyeglasses effectively restore sight, hearing aids don’t fully restore hearing. Not to mention the social impact of hearing aids: “Shame, after all, is built into the way such devices evolved: toward camouflage, deniability.” The author finds an interesting parallel when he volunteers to help new immigrants share their stories. One writes, “I live with depression because I’ve become a person who doesn’t understand the people around me, can’t have a conversation.”

 

The memoir describes multiple instances of failed conversations due to Cotter’s illness. For example, on performance night for a play he’s directing, patrons approach, presumably to praise his work. “If I was lucky enough to catch a stray word, I made a general statement about that word and hoped it counted as conversation.”

 

When he reconnects with a childhood friend, the dialogue on the page connotes unheard words by using empty brackets. This immediately conveys to the reader how the missing fragments affect understanding:

 

“Hmm? Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“I said I have a challenging time in Strasbourg. The French [             ] but they always [                               ].”

“Oh?”

“There’s no word for [                ].”

 

When he calls his wife after getting hearing aids, his hopes of an authentic conversation are dashed. “When I heard her voice answer—or a voice—it sounded unrecognizable. I caught the electronic squeaks of words, muffled and robotic.”

 

Much of the book details Cotter’s symptoms and his search for a diagnosis, his quest to end the dizziness and hearing loss. After he takes us through a Los Angeles hearing center and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, we see him despondent over the lack of a definitive conclusion. The chapters that chronicle his time in these places, while informative, feel somewhat duplicative in telling the story of diagnostic challenges.

 

Eventually, a doctor settles on Ménière’s disease, because Cotter’s symptoms most closely mimic the vertigo and hearing loss associated with that condition. When Cotter realizes that there’s no cure, the reader is prepared for the author’s grief, as he’s sprinkled notes throughout. “If I’d known my ears would give out in my thirties, how would I have prepared?” And he laments the moments of ordinary life that he’s losing:

 

When I could hear well, one of the sounds I most loved was a cat drinking water. . . . Similarly, there’s a sound Elisa makes when she tastes something especially toothsome, a kind of satisfied smack of her lips. I missed hearing that when my ears went bad, but—before it happened—I didn’t know it was a sound I’d miss.

           

While much of the memoir focuses on the moments Cotter experiences hearing loss, since his condition is intermittent, he also shares his delight and dismay when he awakens one day with his hearing intact and hears birds singing outside his window. “As I listen to the last catches of song, I can feel my heart break in every sound. ‘Don’t let that one be the last one. Don’t let that one. Don’t let that.’ ”

 

Interwoven with his grief journey are thoughts of suicide and his role in contracting this illness. Yet so much is unknown about the cause of Ménière’s disease and many other diseases. Late in the memoir, Cotter writes, “All of our bodies hide these secrets: the cancer that’s going to rear up, the curve that’s tensing in your spine. The body I’d relied on attacked me—my self had attacked my self—such that I didn’t know what I could trust.” But he finds his way forward by demonstrating the power of writing to help replace what he’d lost. “. . . even though music had largely vanished, the shuffle of words into lines revealed itself as the music I wouldn’t lose.”

 

While Losing Music is primarily a narrative journey through chronic illness and the emotional turmoil of Cotter’s body failing him, it is also an ode to hearing, a love story to music and voices and even the sound of cats drinking water. This insightful memoir calls us to think more deeply about the role of hearing in our lives—and appreciate it while we can.

  


 

Judy Harju Galliher writes from Northern Virginia and has been published in The Mindful Word, The New York Times, Pangyrus, and Hippocampus (forthcoming). She is an MFA candidate at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. When she’s not writing, she reads, runs, and travels.

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