The memoir genre has been often criticized as narcissistic navel-gazing, a wallowing in personal problems. Memoir writers, this critique goes, glorify their own behavior (however foolish) while blaming the rest of society for their problems. Enter Marblehead resident Gerald Shea, whose life story easily could have been a tale of self-pity. Instead, Shea’s “Song Without Words” constitutes everything that a great memoir can and should be.
Shea contracted scarlet fever as a boy, and as a result became profoundly (not completely) deaf. He wouldn’t be professionally diagnosed until age 34, thus compelling him to live a lot of his life, said one of his doctors later, as if he were running with a broken ankle. Shea simply carried on, working twice as hard to overcome his hearing loss. He would graduate Columbia Law School near the top of his class, then become a partner at a big Manhattan law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton. Shea describes what he needed to do to reach such heights with clarity and without complaint.