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The Invention of Miracles

Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness



About The Book

Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
Finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize

“Meticulously researched, crackling with insights, and rich in novelistic detail” (Steve Silberman), this “provocative, sensitive, beautifully written biography” (Sylvia Nasar) tells the true—and troubling—story of Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to end deafness.

“Researched and written through the Deaf perspective, this marvelously engaging history will have us rethinking the invention of the telephone.” —Jaipreet Virdi, PhD, author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History

We think of Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but that’s not how he saw his own career. As the son of a deaf woman and, later, husband to another, his goal in life from adolescence was to teach deaf students to speak. Even his tinkering sprang from his teaching work; the telephone had its origins as a speech reading machine.

The Invention of Miracles takes a “stirring” (The New York Times Book Review), “provocative” (The Boston Globe), “scrupulously researched” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) new look at an American icon, revealing the astonishing true genesis of the telephone and its connection to another, far more disturbing legacy of Bell’s: his efforts to suppress American Sign Language. Weaving together a dazzling tale of innovation with a moving love story, the book offers a heartbreaking account of how a champion can become an adversary and an enthralling depiction of the deaf community’s fight to reclaim a once-forbidden language.

Katie Booth has been researching this story for more than fifteen years, poring over Bell’s papers, Library of Congress archives, and the records of deaf schools around America. But she’s also lived with this story for her entire life. Witnessing the damaging impact of Bell’s legacy on her family would set her on a path that overturned everything she thought she knew about language, power, deafness, and the telephone.


Prologue Prologue
In the hospital bed, my grandmother faced the window, bathed in the bluish light of the rising moon. I watched her body, memorizing it: the wrinkles of her fingers, the way her jawbone tucked back into her neck, the way her tongue moved like a soft oyster in the shell of her mouth. I had known her my whole life, but I had never before seen her weak. Now it was hard to look at her. The roundness of her body, which once seemed so soft and warm, was only heavy, seemed only to pin her to that hospital bed. Her usual facial expression—eyes sharp, mouth firm—was now tired, resigned. Her head lay on the pillow; her gray hair, thin and oily, was swept back from her face; her eyes were blank and dark. She wasn’t dead, not yet, but something had shifted.

Normally I saw my grandmother in her home, among her deaf community, where apartments were set up with blinking lights for alarms, where telephones released little scrolls of typed English, and where furniture was arranged for open sightlines in order to use American Sign Language (ASL) across rooms. She lived among the culturally deaf, defined by the use of ASL and observation of deaf cultural norms. In those spaces, my grandmother had more access to information than I did. With friends she communicated in quick, fluent ASL, and even when I could catch the gist of the individual words I could also tell that there were layers and layers of meaning that were escaping me. They were carried in a small twitch of an eyebrow, the subtle lift of the corner of a lip, an invasion of space, or a quick shift away. In her world, she was firm, strong, steady. But here in the hospital, things were different.

My grandmother had suffered her heart attack four days before and had been in the hospital, alone, for the three days that followed. Only then did anyone get in touch with our family. In the meantime, my grandmother’s presence barely seemed to have registered. My grandmother, through notes scrawled in English, had made several requests—few of which seemed to have been addressed. She asked for someone to contact us, and for a TTY, a text-based telephone device, so she could call us herself. They gave her a TTY but ignored her insistence that it was broken. My grandmother had asked for an interpreter at least four times before we arrived, and received one only once, when the cardiologist came to see her. Even then, she misunderstood her diagnosis—she had no idea of the severity of the situation, the damage that had been done to her heart. With almost no information, she went on waiting for us. For those three days, we had no idea that she was lying there.

I was nineteen at the time and knew that a deaf family member in the hospital was an all-hands-on-deck situation. When I got the call, I took a late-night Greyhound back home from college and accompanied my mother to the hospital the next morning.

In this environment, I had access that my grandmother didn’t, and the fact sat uneasily in my stomach. As I watched my grandmother, I listened for my mother’s voice as she spoke to the doctors and nurses in the hallway. I couldn’t hear her sentences, but I could hear the way her sounds began gently and then rose firm in advocacy. My mother knew the hospital staff would listen to her because they always turned to the hearing family members in these moments. They wrongfully saw us as the interpreters, caretakers, decision makers. Without us, they behaved as though there was simply no one with whom to communicate.

It happened everywhere. When strangers realized my grandmother was deaf, their faces contorted with discomfort or gawking fascination. Their bodies became stiff, moved away from her. They made mistakes. At restaurants, waiters were too flustered to serve her. When they did, chances were small that she would get what she had asked for, even though she knew how to point clearly at items on a menu and write any additional requests in her memo pad for them to read. At the mall, cashiers always forgot to remove security tags, and so she always set off alarms that she couldn’t hear. She was chased down by security guards, who placed their hands angrily on her shocked arms before she had any idea what was happening.

Here, at the hospital, doctors and nurses did what they pleased with her body. Often they didn’t look at her face at all. They avoided her eyes, which were hungry for information and seemed to embarrass them. If they spoke to her, they held their eyes big and moved their mouths in long, round shapes. They seemed to think that their distorted mouths could substitute for a certified interpreter, but my grandmother could make little meaning out of the charade. They ended with saccharine smiles, like everything was okay now, and then tugged at her arms, stuck needles into her veins, or rolled her bed to the operating room for open-heart surgery. Mostly, they spoke to one another. Their faces hovered intermittently above her and then, always, they turned away.

When my grandmother tried to communicate, she was treated as a bother, but when my mother or I spoke, hospital staff listened. Now my mother was harnessing this fact to resist its inherent inequality. From my grandmother’s room, my ears strained to hear her. I could capture phrases like Americans with Disabilities Act and informed consent and civil rights, legal code words that culminated in violation of federal law. She was battling for my grandmother’s right to access her own language, her right to understand and to be understood.

By this point, the early 2000s, the broader deaf community had been entrenched in this fight for nearly 150 years. They’d been fighting ever since one of the foremost teachers of the deaf began to say that ASL was unnecessary, that the deaf could do without it—and should be forced to, if possible. In the hearing world, this teacher is renowned, but not for the generations-long struggle he began. He’s known as a plucky inventor, a man who helped people to communicate across cities, across nations, across oceans. In the deaf world, however, he’s remembered with rage. He’s the man who launched a war in which the deaf would have to fight for their lives.

I could hear my mother’s voice as the doctor pulled her aside for privacy, and then the doctor’s low murmur. When my mother responded, I could hear no language at all, just soft undulations of urgency. I measured the wreckage by the tones of her voice. I looked at my grandmother’s face, lit evening blue, and counted her shallow breaths.

When I was a child, I always thought of my grandmother as strong, sturdy, immovable. She carried her dignity like she carried our language: on her body. She stood tall and with her chin high, scanning the world around her. She clutched her purse in one hand, my hand in the other. We went out like that—steeled, lips tight—into the hearing world. But when we needed to communicate with each other, we could shrug all that rigidity off; we would slip our hands free to talk.

Our language took our full attention, our full bodies. We leaned forward into certain words, backward into descriptions of things that had happened before. When my grandmother and I signed, we arranged our words in the space before us and protected the space of our words. Our lips brought almost no sound but still moved with meaning, letting loose little clicks and puffs. In ASL, my grandmother was firm, direct, and controlling. When she summoned warmth it looked a little like she was faking it, like she was trying out the feel of a smile.

She didn’t show warmth on her face so much as she showed it through small gestures. After my grandfather died, she moved out of the little house down the street and into a deaf apartment complex about an hour away. Our visits became less frequent then, and this care she exhibited took on a new intensity. She was always making me cinnamon raisin toast and gave me small gifts whenever I visited. If she had forgotten to get one, she would pluck a mirror from her wall.

“I bought this for you,” she’d say, as though it didn’t leave a white shadow where it once hung. “I just put it there in the meantime.”

If I said I liked something, she wouldn’t let me leave her home without it. “It’s for you,” she’d say, pushing it sternly into my arms. There was no arguing with her; she was forceful even in her generosity. If I wasn’t careful, I could have a whole loaf of bread put before me, slice by buttered slice. By the time I was a teenager, I had learned to compliment her belongings selectively, lest I leave her shelves and walls bare.

When I was young, we mostly communicated through ASL; as I grew, and began to forget the language, this was supplemented with written English. Occasionally, my grandmother summoned her voice, but since she didn’t use her voice with strangers, it always felt special, something that only came out when things were safe. Sometimes her voice made words in English, and sometimes her voice was just a thing that arose from her, something that captured a particular mood or mimicked the vibrations she felt in the world. It communicated on its own terms. Staticky and monotone and often indecipherable to those outside our family, my grandmother’s voice is one of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever known.

As a child it never occurred to me that these elements couldn’t coexist—speaking and signing—nor did I know that the demand placed on voice was one of the most painful things that happened, and continues to happen, to deaf people. In the hearing world, it would come to represent their very humanity; deaf people who couldn’t speak were often referred to as monkeys, or prehumans. I didn’t know that the chief person behind the campaign to keep deaf children from learning ASL was the man whom most people thought of differently, pleasantly, as the inventor of the telephone. Or that the movement he led would forever change what was expected of the deaf. Alexander Graham Bell, a man who had made so-called miracles out of voice, was at the center of it all.

I sat beside my grandmother in the hospital, where her humanity was being ignored. My mother’s voice—violation of federal law—lingered in the air, but it felt like legal protections mattered little. We still had to explain yet again that the deaf were legally and ethically entitled to the free use of their language. That my grandmother had the right to know why she had been hospitalized. That she had the right to contact us. That she was human, and her language was real and true and necessary and wholly distinct from English. It was never more vivid to me that until we could usher in a widespread understanding of ASL as a dignified and necessary language, deaf culture—and deaf lives—remained at risk. This theft of language, culture, and dignity was the legacy of Alexander Graham Bell.

I grew up between English and ASL, between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf. My maternal grandparents lived in a home we called Knotty Pine, just around the bend from my house. At home, my parents, both hearing, spoke mostly English with a smattering of ASL, but when they went to work, I went to Knotty Pine, where I was immersed in deafness.

In my grandparents’ home, we didn’t speak, since we didn’t need to; we needed neither speech nor its accompanying language, English. Instead, our eyes were trained to respond to the slightest movements in our periphery. We scanned the visual world for both information and language, and when we spoke we did so with our hands and our bodies. Our language was intimate—it was private, something most people didn’t know; it required close attention to each other’s faces, and so we spent our conversations looking into each other’s eyes; and since it doesn’t lend itself to multitasking, when we were doing something else, we filled those moments not with the clatter of speech but with the tenderness of observation, of taking each other in.

Of course, I was only a child, and much of this was lost on me. It was simply the way we lived. I didn’t think much about my grandparents’ deafness, but there were mysteries inside of it that grabbed me even then. My grandmother had told me countless times that she couldn’t hear anything, and I mostly believed her, but I was also fundamentally confused. I thought her deafness applied only to outside sounds, like my voice or the honk of a car. For some reason I still thought she could hear her own body: the gurgle of her stomach or the hum of her voice before it was released. I thought that she could hear herself, shimmering inside, like I could. I always imagined that this is how she learned to speak.

I wasn’t completely wrong. There is a shimmering, vibration, and sensation that spreads out from the speech organs that she could use to understand the sounds she made. But she couldn’t hear herself the way I understood hearing. We were sitting on her screened-in porch when she told me again that she couldn’t hear anything at all. Not even herself. Someone taught her to speak anyway.

My brows furrowed in. In ASL, this indicates an open-ended question, even without the hand movements for why, for how. My grandmother bent her body down to the floor to reach for one of my coloring books and tore off the corner of a page. She sat back, held the torn slip in front of her lips, said puh, and the slip of paper blew back.

“That’s how,” she said, as if that explained everything.

It explained nothing. Instead, it opened a breathless rush of questions inside of me, but before I could ask anything, my grandmother saw the uncertainty begin to gather on my face. She sighed and stood.

“Wait here,” she said, and she went into the house, where I could hear her rummaging around in the kitchen. When she returned, she held a birthday candle between her pointer and thumb. She lit it and held it hot in front of my face.

“Say puh,” she said.

I did, and the flame flickered in my breath.

She brought it up to her mouth, said puh, and blew it out. “Like that,” she said.

I still didn’t believe her; it didn’t seem like this could be a way to learn to speak. Besides, she couldn’t always be trusted: she was the type of woman who cheated at Go Fish and then refused to look up so that you couldn’t argue with her. Now her eyes pressed into me, and I nodded, complicit in her con. I could understand how the flame could help her say the letter P, but what about all the other letters? What about the mmmms and the shhhs? The grrrs and the aaahhhs? I thought it was just another one of my grandmother’s tricks.

Later that day, when I asked my mother about it, she confirmed what my grandmother had told me. She explained when my grandmother went to school in the thirties, at the Beverly School for the Deaf in Massachusetts, teachers would do whatever they could to help the students see the sounds so that they could understand whether they were making the sound the right way or the wrong way. A student who pronounced muh instead of puh couldn’t blow out a candle. And from that simple notion of learning to see sound unraveled a cultural story that would follow me for years.

My mother told me that long ago people thought that sign language was bad, and they punished the children who used it in school. The teachers slapped the students’ palms or made them sit on their hands. This is what happened to my grandmother’s whole generation—my grandmother, grandfather, great-aunts and -uncles—they were all deaf; they were all punished. This education was called oralism, my mother said, and it hurt our family very much. Everyone’s hands were bruised.

Even as a child I understood this complex violation. My grandmother’s hands were precious. They were a central element of her language; an attack on the hands was an attack on identity. I couldn’t imagine my grandmother’s hands as they might have been when she was young, and I couldn’t imagine them bruised, either. It hurt just to think about it, and I shook off the image. I wanted, instead, to understand why. Why would anyone do this?

My mother explained that what the oralist teachers wanted instead of our language of the body was for deaf children to speak. They thought that if the children could speak and lip-read, then they could appear to be hearing. They thought that hearing was better.

This, too, was a new concept. It seemed to me that the deaf had a set of skills that verged on superpowers: they noticed things I never saw; they could tell immediately if I was lying; so attuned were they to the world that I regularly questioned whether my deaf relatives actually could hear.

But these teachers didn’t understand deafness the same way as we did, my mother explained. They thought hearing was better and that the skills of speech and lip-reading would help the deaf. The deaf still wouldn’t have the actual ability to hear, but they would be socially equal.

This was Alexander Graham Bell’s grand plan, a hopeful dream that went very wrong, as his devotion to this miraculous idea eclipsed real social advancement for deaf people. This was the story of how ASL became hated, of how people came to see the signing deaf as stupid or weak or not quite human at all. Ultimately, it was the story of seeking to end deafness altogether—the language of the deaf, and the people, too.

But how anyone could see ASL or deafness as a problem made no sense to me. ASL made my family members stronger, smarter, more themselves. Many of the members of my deaf family could interact in the hearing world using English, writing messages on the tiny memo books they always carried, but I knew that their bodies were different when they did that, rigid. English wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite theirs, either. I understood that my family members were still the same people in English as they were when they signed, but also that they weren’t. They were shadows of themselves; without the free use of their language, they were hidden inside their own bodies.

When we were with only each other, everything shifted. They were noisier without so many hearing people around, free to bang on tables and stomp the floor, sending vibrations designed to capture attention. My grandparents’ voices released, with all their rough edges; unbridled by the convention of words, my grandparents clucked to their cats, moaned their yawns, yelped surprised laughter. When voice wasn’t wrapped up in shame, it came as naturally to my grandparents as it does to anyone. And in the safety of the deaf world, their bodies became their language again.

They communicated between the kitchen and living room effortlessly—there were no walls there to impede their words, and my grandmother moved easily around their small kitchen, signing to my grandfather from behind the counter and piling two small plates with torn pieces of cold roasted chicken. My grandfather, one eye on the TV, signed to her with his careful gentleness; she responded with her sharp signs, always with an unpredictable edge. But then she’d bring him his plate of chicken and sit down with her own, each of their armchairs facing the TV and me on the floor between them. Everything soft and easy.

When they told stories, their faces took on the features of the people they talked about. My grandfather would make a stubborn purse of the lips to mimic my grandmother; he’d have a gentle clumsiness with language for my father, who had only begun to learn to sign after meeting my mother. We had special names in that language, too. Mine was the letter k, swept twice from the corner of the eye to the temple. My mother was a little waving b. My grandfather a double tap of an h at the shoulder, a loose allusion to the sign for strong.

Our bodies took up all the space before us. We positioned imaginary people and objects in the signing area to tell a story, shifting between them with a pivot of the shoulders or an expression of the face. My grandmother, her lips pursed, stood here. My father, the clumsy signer, stood there. Clumsy Signer said this. Pursed Lips’s face transformed: her eyes big, her mouth agape. She couldn’t believe what he’d said—he was so horny? But then she remembered a common hearing mistake. Hungry. He was so hungry. Clumsy Signer turned red, bashful and confused. As she showed him the correct sign, hungry, her face was stern—it was especially important for him to get this sign right.

Our words were everyplace at once. A spatial orchestra, they lived in all the dimensions of our language—our faces added layers of meaning; our hands moved forward or backward to help establish tense; our fingers described the characteristics of a stare, the speed of walking, a collision of forces, a gentle show of love. It seemed as clear as anything that resisting ASL meant resisting something pure and good and liberating, meant resisting the full personhood of the people I loved.

But not everyone believed this. Toward the end of his life, Bell had said that the signing deaf “represent our failures. Let us have as few of them as we possibly can.” These people were my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my great-aunts and -uncles. Because of Bell’s influence, they learned to be ashamed because they used ASL. For their whole lives, their joy in free communication, so easily granted to hearing people, was tainted by this shame.

Children in oralist schools were supposed to use English, and only En-glish. Speak English, lip-read English, read and write English. It took priority over all other learning; often it entirely displaced other learning. Deaf children who signed, even accidentally, were scolded, mocked, denied social outings, and sent to the head matron, the disciplinarian. Their hands were hit. They were given milk and bread for dinner.

In the towns around these schools, the locals knew that if they saw children signing, they should report it—and they did. My great-aunt Rita went to the Clarke School for the Deaf in the late thirties and into the forties, where she was a residential student. When she traveled home for vacations, she would sign with her all-deaf, all-signing family. When she returned to school, her teachers said they could tell she had been signing. She was punished.

The scars of these educations are deep; they are real. My great-aunt Rita rarely used her voice when I knew her; she maintained that her speaking peers were on a “higher level,” and her own voice, she said, was ugly. When she laughed, she did so silently—this is what the schools taught deaf children whose laughter was too unbridled, too loud, or too free. When her husband, my great-uncle, died, we tried to call her, but she wouldn’t respond. A teacher had once told her that she sounded like an animal when she cried, and so she cried alone.

On his deathbed, my grandfather told my mother that he wouldn’t be going to heaven. “God doesn’t love me,” he said, “because I am stupid; because I am low. Because I sign.”

This happened when I was seven, but I wouldn’t learn about it until years later. By then I knew whom to blame; by then I had learned that Bell’s legacy went even deeper, even darker than I’d known. When we covered the Holocaust in school, I learned that Hitler had targeted the Jews. At home, I learned that Hitler also targeted the deaf and the disabled, and that decades before Hitler, at the very beginnings of the eugenics movement, there was Bell. He wanted the deaf eradicated, their marriages to each other forbidden, their procreation ceased. I understood this: if Bell had had his way, my great-aunt and great-uncles wouldn’t be here, my grandmother wouldn’t be here—and by extension, my mother wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be here.

So when my grade-school social studies book said that Alexander Graham Bell was the inventor of the telephone, it sounded as absurd to me as introducing Adolf Hitler as a vegetarian who once ruled over Germany. Bell didn’t just want my family’s language and culture to be obliterated—he wanted us as a people to be obliterated. I didn’t understand how he could arrive at that idea, and even less could I understand how he could get away with it.

Nevertheless, there he was: a black-and-white photo of a man with a white beard and bright black eyes; a man who looked dignified, controlled; a man who represented all hearing ignorance and violence against the deaf. It was clear to me as a child, and then later, looking down at my grandmother’s body: Bell was responsible not only for his own actions but also for the actions of the inheritors of his mind-set.

At my grandmother’s home in a deaf apartment complex, her best friend, Charlie, had slipped a note under her door. “People are asking where you are,” he wrote. “I tell them Rose met a handsome billionaire and has retired to Florida.”

Over the next few days, the hospital would continue to fight against getting an interpreter; they asked me to interpret complex medical documents for my grandmother, even though I couldn’t even understand them in English; and it came to light that they had insisted my grandmother sign medical forms that she couldn’t understand. Eventually, we were told that my grandmother needed a surgery that they couldn’t provide, and that she needed to be transferred. The new hospital had a better department of cardiology, but my mother couldn’t shake the look on the face of my grandmother’s doctor at Beverly. When my mother had used the phrase informed consent, it had scared him. His eyes, so big.

By the time my grandmother got to the new hospital, they said she was far too weak for the surgery. We wondered if she was transferred to get rid of us. We wondered, too, if the transfer had made her weaker.

On the last day I saw my grandmother alive, she slipped her rings from her fingers and folded them into my and my sister’s palms with her papery hands. Then she removed her wedding ring and tried to take my mother’s hand, but my mother shook her head, closed her palm tight. My mother’s and grandmother’s eyes locked on to each other, becoming a closed circuit of stubbornness and heartbreak. Then my grandmother shook her head and shrugged, pushing the ring to my mother.

“They’ll just steal it,” she signed, side-eyeing the hallway as her fingers formed the word for steal: the index and middle fingers, crooked, snatching the air.

“Take it for now,” she signed, and offered the ring once more. My mother nodded, and our hands stilled.

I slipped the ring my grandmother had given me on and off each of my fingers as her breathing slipped in and out. I would spend years replaying these days in my mind, but in that moment I was only watching her breath, praying for her to breathe again. My grandmother was so fierce, and this seemed like a particularly cruel end to her life, this series of medical neglects, this asking and not receiving, this waiting with no answers, with hardly any words at all.

The next day, she died.

The events surrounding my grandmother’s death made no sense to me, and so I couldn’t file them away, couldn’t move on from them. My grandmother was an inherently powerful woman, yet her power had been stripped from her. The root of her power—her language and culture—seemed to have undermined her ability to advocate for herself. There was some part of myself that wondered, in what I immediately knew to be the deepest betrayal, if all this could have been better if only my grandmother’s body were different, if only she weren’t deaf. At that moment I could hear his quiet voice inside of me, the voice of Alexander Graham Bell.

I understood that it was not her language that hurt her, but the reception of her language by the people who held power as her life neared its end. But at the time that seemed like a mere technicality. My grandmother’s life had depended on those people.

The institution meant to care for her had put her into this broken situation. But I also understood that what had happened in the hospital couldn’t be extricated from a broader web of institutional oppression, including the law, health care, employment, and, most fundamentally, education. The values of oralism had trickled into all hearing-dominant structures, sustaining all manner of violence against the deaf. Suddenly, I felt like I needed to know more about everything my mother had told me over the years, about the campaign against sign language, about how it shaped my family and how it shaped me. To do this, I had to learn about the man who had ushered this movement into the realm of the possible. Bell may have been dead for almost a century by then, but his ideas were as alive as ever.

About a year after we buried my grandmother, in the dead of winter 2004, I visited the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was the oralist school that many of my deaf family members had attended—not my grandmother but my three great-uncles and my great-aunt Rita. In the Clarke School archives, slowly, I began to learn about Bell—not the metaphor but the man.

I hadn’t known, for example, about Mabel Hubbard, the woman who would become Bell’s wife. I hadn’t known that she was deaf and that her childhood was entwined with the founding of the Clarke School. I didn’t know that her family didn’t want her to marry Bell but that he fought for her right to decide for herself. I hadn’t known that Bell’s mother was also deaf, and that she had resisted her son’s marriage to a deaf woman, fearing that they would have deaf children. But Bell shrugged her off, too. I hadn’t known that the telephone had sprung from his work with the deaf, or that it was, in his mind, a distraction from his larger mission: oralism. And when his telephone investors threatened to pull out because he was spending too much time teaching, he refused to back down. Deaf education, he insisted, was his life’s work. In the beginning, he didn’t sound like the eugenicist he would become.

I wanted to know what Bell’s contemporaries in the deaf world thought, and so I found an old library copy of Albert Ballin’s diatribe against oralism, The Deaf Mute Howls. Its opening lines lodged deep inside of me: “Long, loud and cantankerous is the howl raised by the deaf-mute! It has to be if he wishes to be heard and listened to. He ought to keep it up incessantly until the wrongs inflicted on him will have been righted and done away with forever.” This made sense to me, but I was surprised later in the book, when Ballin described his friendship with Bell. He wrote that “there never existed a more gracious, more affable, more fun-loving or jollier fellow on this sorry old globe than Dr. Bell. His character was without blemish.… His love and sympathy for the deaf were boundless, and should never be questioned.”

But how could a deaf man with such revolutionary fire and pro–sign language allegiances be friends with Bell? There was something I didn’t understand, both about Bell and his tangle of ideas and influences. I began to realize that Bell—like the hospital staff, like the teachers of my grandmother’s childhood, like so many hearing people—probably set out wanting to help and to heal and to empower. This didn’t erase the harm he did, but it did raise a bigger question, a question with implications not only for Bell’s legacy but for so many of us: How does a man set out with such ferocity of love and work and end up using his place of power to advocate for ethnocide? He had good intentions, sure, but could “good intentions” really absolve him of the harm he wrought?

In order to answer these questions, and to understand how I—and hearing people everywhere—could avoid making the mistakes Bell made, I knew I would need to center my attention not on the telephone but on Bell’s own self-professed life’s mission—to teach the deaf to speak. Over the next fifteen years, I dug into everything I could find: Bell’s private letters and his wife’s diaries, nineteenth-century deaf newspapers and contemporary deaf studies journals, and archives ranging from the Clarke School Library to the Library of Congress to find out who Bell really was.

I did not expect to find a coming-of-age story, a romance, and a fall from grace along the way. I did not expect that I would grow strangely fond of Bell, nor that my anger at him could rage even deeper. I guess I never expected to understand him—not in any real way—or that in my quest to understand him, I would also learn painful truths about myself. His legacy, after all, has fundamentally shaped the way deafness is viewed in the hearing world, and I live in that world. I had set out wanting to burn Bell’s legacy to the ground, but to do that would be to turn away from him, to pretend there were no parts of him lingering in me. At some point I knew: what I really needed to do was to face him, the whole complicated tragedy of him.

About The Author

Courtesy of the Author

Katie Booth teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in The BelieverCatapultMcSweeney’s, and Harper’s Magazine, and has been highlighted on Longreads and Longform; “The Sign for This” was a notable essay in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. Booth received a number of prestigious fellowships to support the research for The Invention of Miracles, including from the Library of Congress and the Massachusetts Historical Society. She was raised in a mixed hearing and deaf family. This is her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 10, 2022)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501167119

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“As schoolchildren we learn that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. We don’t learn that this is among the least interesting things about him. It takes a book like Katie Booth’s The Invention of Miracles to teach us that. Provocative, personal, and exhaustively researched, Booth’s book is the rare biography that completely alters a famous person’s popular image… Booth has the courage and perspective to portray her subject’s deeply flawed humanity, giving the book its poetry and tragic resonance.”
The Boston Globe

“Meticulously researched, crackling with insights, and rich in novelistic detail, The Invention of Miracles is more than the revelatory biography of an inventor who transformed the world. By shining a bright light on society’s assumptions about disability, Booth’s book is a profound and lyrical meditation on what it means to be human.”
Steve Silberman, New York Times bestselling author of NeuroTribes

“Katie Booth’s brave and absorbing book is the story of a contradictory genius whose inventiveness outstripped his compassion… Booth’s style is highly poetic, even moving… [and] so scrupulously researched you feel like you’re walking alongside the inventor as he strides the Scottish moors or looking over his shoulder as he researches the qualities of different kinds of current in his Boston home.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Engagingly written… Booth’s descriptions of Bell’s passionate courtship of his student Mabel Hubbard, who belonged to a much higher social class, are as stirring as a romance novel, and her narrative of his work on the telephone reads like a thriller… Her meticulous research and rigor are evident on every page.”
— Andrew Solomon, The New York Times Book Review

“A fascinating tale of great love, innovation, personal drama, and the unexpected consequences of good intentions.”
— Walter Isaacson, New York Times bestselling author of Steve Jobs

“Refreshingly candid. Booth does a masterful job weaving this powerful and compelling story about fear and obsessive fascination with difference.”
— Brian Greenwald, PhD, professor of history at Gallaudet University

“A complex and profoundly moving historical saga, The Invention of Miracles is an insightful portrayal of the extraordinary life of Alexander Graham Bell… Superbly written and decidedly subjective, The Invention of Miracles provides a challenging portrait of an imperfect genius.”
— Judges’ citation for the Mark Lynton History Prize

“A powerful revisionist text, at once personal, historical, and insightful. As someone born deaf with hearing parents, I think I would have benefitted from being born into a world where ableist attitudes were rooted out and understood the way Booth demonstrates here.”
— Raymond Antrobus, author of The Perseverance

“Katie Booth vigorously revises the historical record… [and] reveals a rich history of heights and depths... including the questionable patent process that secured Bell’s name in history, the evolution and empowerment of the Deaf community, and Bell’s endearing marriage, which survived his own misguided intentions.”

“A revealing biography that will enlighten readers… The Invention of Miracles paints a textured portrait of a man driven not by an entrepreneurial desire to invent a product that changed the world but by a passion.”
New York Journal of Books

“Impassioned and scrupulously researched… Enriched with vivid sketches of Bell’s wife, Mabel Hubbard, and other historical figures, including Helen Keller, this revelatory history deserves a wide readership.”
Publishers Weekly

“Careful and balanced… Booth explores the progression of Bell’s career with compassion and nuance, eliding neither his good intentions nor the lasting harm that his emphasis on orality wrought on generations of D/deaf students.”

“Ardent… [This] well-written biography reveals less-familiar aspects of the life of the famed inventor.”
Kirkus Reviews

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