Finding the Story
Elana Kupor on Pain and IdentityBy Staci Kleinmaier • October 18, 2022
Elana Kupor is the author of “The Thistle Steps,” an essay featured in our October 2022 issue. She lives in Seattle, Washington, and works as a licensed mental-health counselor. Kupor has been hard of hearing since birth, and in her essay she interweaves her present-day experiences with scenes from her childhood.
Sun Editorial Assistant Staci Kleinmaier recently spoke with Kupor about writing, identity, and disability. “The Thistle Steps” is Kupor’s first publication in The Sun.
How did you settle on the braided structure for this essay?
I had been trying to write a piece for the past twenty years about being hard of hearing. Last year I gave a talk at a psychodynamic conference in Seattle, and I was hoping I could publish the paper afterward, but I realized what I wrote was not at all appropriate for a literary magazine. I knew I had to rework it. And it was shortly after that that I started walking the Thistle Steps.
I walk on the steps every day, and I try to be meditative, but my mind also is working. Once I had the idea of writing about the Thistle Steps, I started thinking about the essay as I walked. What pulled it all together for me was the incident with the dog, which ended up being the start of the piece. Yesterday was actually the first time in the past year that I saw that dog and she didn’t bark at me.
Often when people write about a trauma, the story becomes, “This terrible thing happened to me. And now I am better because of it.” Did you consciously avoid that narrative?
Being hard of hearing is a central issue of my life and my identity. When I was young, it was the thing that made me different from the people around me. For a long time it did feel like a trauma, and a lot of my early writing was about trying to communicate my pain. But that can be problematic — if that’s all you’re doing — because there isn’t any space for you or the reader to breathe.
It’s been a struggle to write about something that is painful without getting stuck in the pain or trying to force it into a narrative of betterment. Because, at least for me, that isn’t my story. I had to work out a different way of telling it, where it wasn’t just about the pain, but it also wasn’t a false happy ending.
How has your education and professional experience as a mental-health counselor shaped your understanding of your identity?
It’s been a circular journey. Being hard of hearing is a big part of what brought me to therapy. I left college midway through my junior year because I was struggling emotionally with my sense of self. When it was time to decide on a career path, being a therapist was the only thing that I could imagine doing. The only other thing I had wanted to be was a writer, and I didn’t really think that I could do that for a living.
When I became a therapist, I felt that one of my areas of focus would be working with other people who were hard of hearing. But that was quite challenging, because there didn’t seem to be a lot of people who were looking for therapists to talk about being hard of hearing. I had very few people contact me, and the people who were referred to me had tinnitus, which is very different from being hard of hearing in the way that I am. I learned that having an experience similar to someone else’s doesn’t necessarily mean I can be helpful to them. When you get people together who share a trait, they’re still as different as people in every other way.
Do you think that having a sense of community is important for people with disabilities?
I absolutely think so. But it depends on the disability, because communities are very different.
Andrew Solomon wrote Far from the Tree, where he classifies identities as either vertical or horizontal. Vertical identities, he explains, are identities or traits that are passed down from generation to generation. For example, race and ethnicity are vertical identities. With these you’re born into the community. Whereas horizontal identities are ones where parents and children do not necessarily share the trait. A horizontal identity is queerness, for example, or deafness. Ninety percent of children who are deaf are born to people who have hearing. It’s harder to find community when you have a horizontal identity.
Another aspect is the visibility of the disability. People who use wheelchairs may not have a better experience, but they can be spotted. Being hard of hearing is not visible. People may discover it when they hang out with me, but usually, it’s when I self-disclose. I find it quite difficult to find a community, though I could try harder. With the Internet there’s a lot of virtual communities. But virtual is virtual. It has gotten much better since COVID, but it’s not the same as a personal connection.
Are you working on any new writing?
I’ve been working on a piece about my father. He shows up in “The Thistle Steps.” Recently it was the seven-year anniversary of his death. So I’ve been writing about that. And another I’ve been sorting through is about my sister who’s ten years younger than me. She recently had her first child. I don’t have children. That’s by choice, mostly, but it connects with being hard of hearing. Being hard of hearing has impacted me in so many ways that even in writing about other areas of my life, that experience is a big factor.
In “The Thistle Steps” you mention that the only sound that has ever woken you when you weren’t wearing your hearing aids was the sound of a porcelain sink crashing to the floor. I know you said it’s another story, but why was your husband standing on a bathroom sink in Nicaragua?
[Laughing] Apparently there was light coming in through a window that was keeping him awake. And the only way to reach the window was to climb onto the sink. It was the kind of sink that attaches directly to the wall — it didn’t have a stand. So he thought that it’d be a good idea to climb on top of the sink to try to cover the window. And then the sink crashed.
Was he OK?
He was. By the time I came to consciousness, water was coming into the room through an open pipe, and everything was chaotic. I didn’t know what had happened. So I didn’t even realize until we were in another room that he had fallen. I just saw the aftermath.