Interview with Rachel Zemach, Author

In my determination to do something about what I saw in education, and my own experience as a Deaf teacher, I wrote a book about it called The Butterfly Cage.

Rachel Zemach, Author

Interview by Johanna Wonderly, California H&V

Please introduce yourself, and tell us where you grew up, what kind of schools you went to, and how you became Deaf?

I grew up in many different countries, it was a confusing, exciting, wonderful but also intense and challenging childhood. I became Deaf at age ten. At school (we lived in England at the time) a school-wide hearing test found I was Deaf in one ear. Two weeks later, I fell while swinging over a staircase for fun, and broke a bone in the inner ear of the “good” ear, so I was suddenly very Deaf.

My first, regular school was a spectacular failure. Then I went to a boarding school, but it was all hearing kids. Then we moved back to the U.S., and I went to a small art school until I found out the Deaf school was near my home. I was extremely lonely in the art school because I couldn’t understand my teachers or the kids, which made it hard to form real friendships. I was excited about the Deaf school (California School for the Deaf, Fremont) and went there for one year. After that, I attended two large hearing high schools. 

Bottom line, I enjoyed, but didn’t fit in well at the Deaf school, mostly since I didn’t know ASL. Clueless, I had mistakenly taught myself SEE signs, not realizing it was a bad match for CSD, and I was clueless about the cultural norms as well. But in the hearing schools, I couldn’t understand a word. I didn’t even know the names of the kids I hung out with every day. I didn’t know how to fight for my rights to an interpreter and the schools quickly said NO when I did ask them. So basically, my formal education ended at age ten, and I just went through the motions to graduate, feeling extremely disconnected from the rest of the school population. Luckily, I loved dance and in my last two years of high school, took a lot of Afro Haitian dance and Israeli folk dance. That helped a lot, but I had to squelch my natural intellectual curiosity—my desire to learn and participate— in my other classes. That was hard because I was missing out on fully participating in some great classes like psychology, Greek Myths, and criminal law that I really wanted to understand.

You were a public school teacher. What was that experience like?

Yes, I taught a Deaf class at a public school in the [San Francisco] Bay Area for ten years. It was an astonishing time and period of transformation for me; I fell madly in love with the career, and the students, but found the administration and system shocking. In my determination to do something about what I saw in mainstream education, and my own experience as a Deaf teacher, I wrote a book about it called The Butterfly Cage. It just came out recently.

What do you hope people take away from your book?

It’s fascinating to see what readers take away from it; I’ve been gratified and stunned by the response. It’s funny; one person will feel seen by the book, and another says it was perspective-shifting for her and that she now has a Deaf heart (oh my goodness, how I loved that comment!). Another person started taking ASL classes and says she now realizes that lack of early ASL–or language exposure can lead to a sort of brain damage. Another, a Deaf man I hold in high regard, said the book “broke” him; noting one particular line. I wrote that line deliberately, not to break people, but because the incident I wrote about broke ME. I also felt desperate to open the eyes of Deaf people who perhaps are unaware of how badly kids in the mainstream need their help.

Another person, the aunt of a Deaf child, said she learned a lot from it. That was exciting to me, and I hope she will sign more because of it. Some are saying the book threw them back to different times in their own lives, careers, or educations. 

My hope is that the book will be an agent of change. I hope to create ripples of awareness…that people would take away a deeper understanding when they care about a character and see how their life plays out. I hope readers would carry that kernel within them forever. When they meet a friend who just found their kid is hard of hearing, maybe they will advise the friend accordingly.

What’s it like being a Deaf author?

For me, the biggest issue was finding a writers’ group that I could access and that understood Deaf issues (there are almost none). It’s been hard. While I use my voice, I cannot understand those around me. During the pandemic, I found I could use Otter AI and attend groups online that way. I still miss a lot, but I’ve also met the sweetest people in the world whose unequivocal support has been part of my finishing the book. I was determined to be published by a Big Five publishing house, and came close! But ultimately, with publishers and editors I tried, I encountered their ignorance and audism. It’s a lonely and tough journey, but also totally worth it.

To write with intention is one thing, but to have one’s writing WORK, whoa, that’s another thing! I feel very honored; the results of the book so far, in terms of people’s reactions, are unexpected and a little stunning to me.

Do you have any advice for Deaf children interested in writing? 

Yes, I say absolutely, DO IT!!! It’s incredible how writing about something changes the way you feel about it. One day, I had a super hard day of medical appointments and errands. Those were not the problem; being Deaf was. Micro-aggressions all day long. I cried in the car coming home. Then I sat down, and wrote an essay for an hour or two, about the day. When I was done, I felt 100% better. By writing, you are taking control of an issue, making it work for you rather than being a victim. It’s fantastic.

And you don’t have to be a great writer, you can find multiple ways to go forward. Sign it, get help, use a ghostwriter, whatever; just don’t let anything stop you from telling your story and getting YOUR thoughts and experiences out there.

Thank you so much Rachel for sharing your story with the world. As I read through your book, as both an advocate and a parent of Deaf children in California, I share your concerns with challenges and systemic issues in our educational system.

Find The Butterfly Cage on Bookshop, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kindle.