At the age of eighteen months, Sue Thomas was watching television with her family when she suddenly went deaf. After years of extensive therapy, she learned to speak and mastered the skill of lip-reading.
The Sound of Silence
Through a series of providential events, Sue ended up working at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC where she became involved in undercover surveillance using her ability to read lips. Sue’s life is the subject of the primetime TV series FB EYE which airs on the PAX network on Sunday at 9pm. A deeply committed Christian, with roots in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, Sue is in great demand as an inspirational speaker all around the world.
BRN: Sue, what is it that caused you to become deaf at so young an age?
ST: No specialist in this country has been able to figure out how or why I lost my hearing, or for that matter, how to restore it. My mother noticed one day that I was suddenly turning the television up higher and higher. The next day, when I didn’t respond to my parent’s voices, they knew something was wrong. They took me to specialists all over but eventually all the doctors agreed that nothing could be done to restore my hearing. And so my parents made me a lifetime vow: “We will do whatever we can, absolutely everything in our power and within our means, to enable you to become as much a part of the hearing world as possible.” I ended up at the Youngstown Hearing and Speech Center where I learned to speak by imitating the vibrations I felt when I put my hands on the therapist's throat, and my looking in the mirror to shape my mouth the way she formed hers. In an effort to fit in more in the hearing world, I also made it my goal to master the art of lip-reading.
BRN: How did you end up working undercover at the FBI?
ST: After graduating from college I found myself in pretty desperate straits. I couldn’t find a job for so very, very long. This was back in the days before there were a lot of accommodations for people with disabilities. Word had gotten out that the FBI was looking for deaf people to do fingerprint comparison. It was very precise work and they thought that deaf people might have a better ability to concentrate. It was incredibly boring work. Basically, I was talking all the time to God saying, “Please, get me out of here.” He answered that prayer powerfully.
One day, some of the agents whom I had befriended were working on a case in which the sound mechanism failed on the surveillance camera. They asked me to come in and watch the tape and interpret it for them using my lip-reading skills. I wrote down what I saw, and I never went back to fingerprinting. Soon, I was going on cases, in restaurants, in airports where ever a deal was going down and taking verbatim notes of what the suspects were saying. I was there for three and a half years just long enough to get a TV series out of it!
BRN: Early on you were also successful as a competitive ice-skater?
ST: When I was little, my mother had a painting of Jesus hanging in my bedroom, she used to tell me that with His help, there was absolutely nothing in my life I couldn't do. Being in a public school as a small child, some of the other kids would tease me a lot for being different. I used to get away from it by spending more and more time at a nearby skating rink. I hooked up with a wonderful coach who would help me feel the vibrations of the music by beating on the sides of the rink. With a lot of hard work, at the age of seven, I became the Ohio state champion.
BRN: When you were first approached about having a TV Show done about your story, were you worried about how you would be portrayed?
ST: This has been in the making for twelve years. Right after my book, Lip Service, came out Columbia Motion Pictures bought the movie rights for it. They didn’t know which way to take it. They thought it was too inspirational and spiritual. Some wanted to make it more of a thriller. It was all over the place. Eventually it fell apart. The Vice President of the motion picture group came to me very disappointed and said, “Sue, you have a great story here and it will eventually be told.” Eight years went by. Then, Dave and Gary Johnson got involved. They are currently producing Doc for the PAX network. They first met me eight years ago when they were working on various other network TV projects. They never forgot me. So when PAX approached them last year to do another show, they said, “We want to do a show about a deaf woman and her dog who worked for the FBI.”
I knew the Johnson’s well enough that they were men of God with integrity. I knew they would be able to take my struggles but see the whole thing in the context of my journey of faith. I have given to them with a totally open hand to let them mould and shape this series.
BRN: The actress, Deanna Bray, who plays you on FB EYE is also deaf. Have you met her?
ST: I’ve not only met her, I’ve taken her home! I’ve grown to love her. She’s like a little sister to me. We email each other constantly. This is another reason the project took so long I feel sure. God was waiting for the very best person to play my part. And we have found this in Deanne. Deanne is a Catholic and both she and her husband are people of strong faith.
At Home Everywhere
BRN: You were born and raised in the Protestant tradition. How is it that you spent several years living with Carmelite nuns?
After leaving the FBI, I knew that there was something missing in my life. The nuns kindly took me in and let me spend a couple years finding my way. Eventually, I received the desire to have a better understanding of the Word of God. So I ended up going to non-denominational seminary down in South Carolina. But I will always thank God for that time among the sisters. It was there that God gave me the foundation and root of my prayer life.
But in leaving the cloister I didn’t leave the wonderful goods I had found in the Catholic tradition! During Lent, for example, every morning I am in the Catholic Church. I haven’t left. I’ve embraced both. I don’t shout it out because I don’t want to lose any one and I am currently welcomed among Christians of both traditions.
People ask me, do you miss the cloister? And I really do. I think that once this whirlwind is over, there is a convent in Connecticut, where I will end up. I have no doubt.
BRN: What do you think Catholics and Protestants have to learn from each other?
Catholics still have a reverence before God: the awe, the humility, the sacredness of the Sanctuary, the ability to sit in silence before God. I stress all the time to my friends in the Protestant faith to remember that God is holy. We’ve lost the sense of that in much of the culture of Protestantism. We’ve tried to make God just like us. Yes, he is our best friend, but how dare we put him on the same level with us! I do believe that there is a mystery of God that only the silence can lead us to. And I pray that in the Catholic faith each and every person will yearn to have a deep understanding of the Word of God. When that happens we’ll be together again, right where we started.
I do a lot of speaking for women and youth retreats. When I do my retreats with Protestants, I use a lot of the Catholic liturgy. People always come to me afterwards and say, “Where did you get that? It was beautiful!” And I generally say, “You don’t want to know.”
A Surrendered Life
BRN: How has your deafness been a spiritual struggle for you?
ST: All throughout my young life, right up until the time I went to seminary, I hated my deafness. I am basically a people person. Deafness has a way of separating people from others. It is an alienation. I just couldn’t get over that and I rebelled against it angrily. Drugs, alcohol, relationships. I pretty much self-destructed smashed my life into a thousand pieces trying to take things into my own hands. Then, God had to put me back to the way He wanted me to be.
So now, I live in the complete reversal of how I was before. I went from hating being deaf, to now, not only embracing and accepting it, but having it become my best friend.
It is only in the silence that we hear the small, silent voice of God. It is only in silence that we can even hear our own dreams.
BRN: What would you say to someone who is rebelling against their cross the way you rebelled against your deafness?
ST: Oh, if you’re rebelling against your cross, you have a tough fight ahead of you! You are warring with the Hound of Heaven and if you try and fight God, you are going to lose. It’s going to be that much more painful. The day that you finally drag yourself to the foot of that cross and surrender all of your garbage and all of your baggage, you will find the peace that surpasses all understanding. I encourage everyone not to delay.
The Christian life is supposed to mirror the multiplication of the loaves. We know Jesus took bread and a few smelly fish. He blessed them, broke them, and then fed a multitude with them. The first thing for us is to recognize how we have been blessed by God. The sweetness. The joy of it. But before Jesus can use us, we still have to be broken. How many of us understand our sufferings as being “broken” by God?
I know. I have been smashed into a thousand pieces. It is so very, very painful. And humiliating. There is nothing more humiliating and shameful than to be broken by God. But if you keep the conversation going in all of it, eventually the question will come to you, “Can I use you?” You’re two thirds of the way there when you’ve been blessed and broken. Now, he just wants to use you to feed His people. It will all come down to your answer. If it’s a “Yes” answer, you will have no idea what He can do with you. On the day of your particular sunset, you will look back and know that you to have fed a multitude.
Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at [email protected].
This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register and is used by permission.