THE FLETCHERS: FAMILY THAT HEARD THE SILENT THANKS
A NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Estelle Fletcher's heart was pounding madly as she watched the television set. She saw the piece of paper being taken from the envelope. She turned to the interpreter, who spelled out on her fingers: "L-O-U-I-S-E." There was an explosion inside her.
Suddenly Louise Fletcher, who had just won an Academy Award as the best actress for playing the monstrous nurse-keeper of the insane in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was on stage in Los Angeles 2,000 miles away from her hometown here, thanking everyone. For millions, she then provided one of the most moving moments in the history of the awards.
Her voice breaking, she told her parents in sign language and in spoken words they could not hear: "I want to thank my mother and my father for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true."
The Rev. Robert Capers Fletcher and his wife -- both totally deaf -- were stunned. They had been taught it was weak to cry, but the surprise of seeing their daughter give hand signs to them was too much and her tears, Mrs. Fletcher said, "just jumped out."
Mr. Fletcher said, "I wanted to run off and hide. I walked away when it was over. I felt I wanted to be alone."
'You Didn't Cry'
Louise, 41, is the second of four Fletcher children, all of whom hear normally, who were brought up in the spaces and the silences of two big houses in Birmingham. "You didn't cry," said Georgianna Fletcher Thames, the youngest at 37. "There was no reason to cry if you fell and hurt yourself. There was no one to hear you. You couldn't explode and have the sheer magnitude of your voice understood."
The parents were interviewed in their Birmingham home with Georgianna acting as interpreter; the other Fletcher children by telephone in Washington, Gloucester, Va., and Los Angeles.
Out of the isolation of all of these remarkable people came, as John, at 43 the oldest, "a burning desire to succeed -- to make my life count for something." Like his father and grandfather before him, John is a minister.
Neither parent was born deaf. Robert Fletcher, now 76, was struck by lightning at the age of 4, lay unconscious for seven days and when he awoke, heard nothing ever again. The cause of his wife's deafness from the age of 6 months is more mysterious -- it was thought from scarlet fever, or being dropped on the head by a servant.
Mr. Fletcher's father was a Baptist minister in Arab, Ala., a poor, primitive, fundamentalist place, and he used his son frequently in his sermons around a circuit to illustrate the wrath and mercy of God. "I couldn't understand but people in the congregations would cry and they told me I would hear when I went to heaven," Mr. Fletcher said.
Other children taunted him. They called him a dummy and a freak. He went on to the State School For the Deaf in Talladega; to Gallaudet College in Washington, where he fell in love with pretty Estelle Caldwell from Texas; and to the Philadelphia Seminary for Episcopal clergy.
Mr. Fletcher's voice today is very small, high and far away, but remarkably distinct, the result of a continuous effort of will during more than 70 years of silence. His daughter Georgianna, admissions director for the Model Secondary School for the Deaf on the Gallaudet campus, said even those who had heard far longer showed slippage after six months of deafness.
Both he and his wife, also 76, have vivid, alert faces reflecting every mood. Her voice is hollow and muffled, but not too distorted for her children to understand when she is beside them. Her lips shape and mirror the syllables the others speak; then she communicates through her expressions and rapid hand signals.
Sitting on the sofa in their living room, she crossed her arms over her heart to say that what she felt when Louise spoke straight to them on television was almost inexpressible.
The actress, her sisters and brother kept the secret from their parents until the end. Two nights before the awards, in a two-hour, coast-to-coast telephone conversation, Georgianna had described the signals for the words Louise wanted to use in the event she won the award and was given the chance to speak. Louise, who had been away from "all but special family sign language for too many years," took meticulous notes.
"When it finally happened, John and I were holding hands and weeping together" in a friend's house in Washington, Georgianna said. It had taken many years before any of the children could show much emotion freely -- tears of joy or those of hurt or anger.
"What good did it do?" John said. "There were other reasons -- deaf people are sensitive; they read everything in your face. As the children of the deaf and of a minister, we kept ourselves under control."
For 22 years, from his marriage in 1930, the father was constantly on the road, preaching to deaf congregations in eight Southern states. The mother, innocent of the world, coped alone much of the year, getting Mr. Fletcher's soiled laundry by mail.
They had children with a kind of "the Lord will provide" philosophy, but it was often terrifying. John was colicky and "cried all the time," but the parents didn't know what was wrong. At night, his mother fastened the baby's diaper to her with a large safety pin so that when he kicked while crying, it would jolt her awake. It took months before they discovered they should burp him after feeding. When John's face puckered, they could not tell if he were wailing for milk, love, food or sleep.
As John grew and his sisters came along -- Louise, always John's special charge; then Roberta, who mothered Georgianna in turn -- "he would pull and pull at us," his father said. "He finally knew we couldn't hear. He would gesture for what he or the others wanted."
Roberta, now 38 and a first-grade teacher married to Eddie Ray, an engineer and farmer in Virginia, was the toughest and most self-reliant. Louise was the most timid, the quietest. On her first day at school, she was sent home with a note to her father saying that since she was deaf, she should go to a special school. Her shyness had created that impression.
But the Fletchers were determined that their children would flourish in a hearing world. To make sure that they would speak correctly they were sent, one at a time, to Mrs. Fletcher's sister and other prosperous relatives in Bryan, Tex.
Each spent a year there, then long summers. They idolized "Aunt Beezie" Long, Uncle George and their mother's father, swashbuckling John Seeley Caldwell. They were adult "hearing models." Only afterward did the children realize what their long absences must have cost their parents.
At home nine months of the year, the children learned early about loneliness, separateness, responsibility and the needs of others.
It was they who answered the telephone's ring, the knock on the door; they who interpreted for their parents. Louise also remembers larger and more forbidding introductions to the world of the deaf -- her father took her occasionally on his pastoral visits to institutions where they were kept.
As a teen-ager, John said, he "cut loose and ran wild with a lot of people, drank a lot of beer, drove fast cars."
"It was hard enough being a preacher's kid," he said. "But as a deaf person he was heroic. I was scared I'd show up my old man; I couldn't be too destructive."
Mr. Fletcher's parishoners made a great fuss about the daughters "looking pretty and acting sweet," they said.
As a young man, John was worried, superconscientious. He is now the president of Intermet, an interfaith seminary in Washington. He, Louise and Georgianna underwent years of psychotherapy before they learned that anger could be a friend as well as an enemy.
Louise told an interviewer that the sense of emotional isolation that marked her whole childhood was the main reason she gave up her acting career for 11 years to be close to her two sons. "I could not handle going away day after day," said Louise, who is married to Jerry Bick, the producer. "The thought of going away before they got up and coming back after they were in bed was intolerable."
She, her sisters and brother all said they had grown closer to each other in recent years as well as to their parents.
The other night in Birmingham, as the Fletcher parents described their life and their pride in their children, a Teletype machine attached to their telephone kept clattering away in the front parlor. It is a sound they are as oblivious to as the tick-tock of their many clocks. The Fletchers had it installed two years ago to communicate instantaneously with other deaf people who also have such machines. When the phone rings, two light bulbs on the parlor doorways blink furiously, attracting their attention.
The machine has been chattering almost continuously with congratulations since Louise won.
But two days passed after the Academy Awards before the Fletchers could speak directly, through Georgianna, to Louise. The actress said she was coming back to Birmingham for a visit this month. Her mother begged her to bring her Oscar, "so I can feel it and touch it."
Then Mr. Fletcher got on the phone. "Here comes old Daddy, bragging, boasting," he rattled off in lickety-split fashion into the void. "Now I told you you were going to win. Even my newsboy said you were going to win. You're a very good actress, a very good daughter."
"That was smart acting," he said of her acceptance remarks.
Georgianna took the receiver to her her sister's answer. With her free hand she signaled back to the parents' rapt faces what it was. "That was not acting," Louise had replied.
Copyright April 1976 The New York Times.