I first heard the name of Mandy Harvey when I read and reviewed Erik Weihenmayer’s latest autobiography, No Barriers. I first heard her sing a couple of months later in a heart-stopping video performance on America’s Got Talent. When I discovered not long afterward that she had written an autobiography of her own, I scooped it up quickly. As a disabled person myself, and an (albeit out-of-practice) musician, I was interested to hear the story behind the voice and the performance that made me stop and take immediate notice.
Sensing the Rhythm
Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound
By: Mandy Harvey and Mark Attberry
The inspiring true story of Mandy Harvey—a young woman who became deaf at age nineteen while pursuing a degree in music—and how she overcame adversity
and found the courage to live out her dreams.
When Mandy Harvey began her freshman year at Colorado State University, she could see her future coming together right before her eyes. A gifted musician
with perfect pitch, she planned to get a music degree and pursue a career doing what she loved. But less than two months into her first semester, she noticed
she was having trouble hearing her professors. In a matter of months, Mandy was profoundly deaf.
With her dreams so completely crushed, Mandy dropped out of college and suffered a year of severe depression. But one day, things changed. Mandy’s father
asked her to join him in their once favorite pastime—recording music together—and the result was stunningly beautiful. Mandy soon learned to sense the
vibrations of the music through her bare feet on a stage floor and to watch visual cues from her live accompaniment. The result was that she now sings
on key, on beat, and in time, performing jazz, ballads, and sultry blues around the country.
Full of inspiring wisdom and honest advice, Sensing the Rhythm is a deeply moving story about Mandy’s journey through profound loss, how she found hope
and meaning in the face of adversity, and how she discovered a new sense of passion and joy.
I chose to listen to this book in audio format, narrated by Mandy herself. Mandy’s narration lends additional warmth to her breezy, accessible style of writing. I was immediately transported to an unforgetable performance where, without words, all musicians knew exactly where to be and what to do.
We are taken on Mandy’s journey with her – from the rapid decrease in her hearing to her time of depression to her discovery that she could still sense the rhythm of music. I laughed and cried with Mandy, and some portions of her journey really made me think. Even though the publisher’s summary talks a lot about inspiration and overcoming adversity, I found this short book more approachable and relatable than I expected to.
At the end of each chapter, there’s a section called “Making Sense of Your Rhythm”, which I personally found repetative and the only real drawback to the book. These sections summarize – and sometimes re-state word-for-word – portions of the chapter that has just been read. There are some questions to ponder, but overall I didn’t find those portions useful (though perhaps a print or eBook would include space to write down reflections and answer additional questions).
Mandy chooses to communicate using sign language, something she thought was important to use during her performance linked above. Her deafness is as much as part of herself as her musicianship, though she’s received threats from some in the deaf community. Her thoughts on using identity-first language – referring to someone as a “woman” or a “sister” or a “colleague” and then only including the disability identifier if it’s relevant to the discussion – almost completely changes the person/identity-first language debate on its head. Months later, I am will pondering the implications of including disability descriptors of people in my life in this way.
And yet I found myself feeling a complicated sense of sorrow and frustration when Mandy relates her experiences in early college as her hearing loss was progressing. She asked for an accommodation to learn an assignment and was denied that request. When students stood up for her, she admitted feeling like a burden, feeling uncomfortable, feeling like her hearing loss made her stand out. I found myself relating to and frustrated by her feelings of her disability experience and the reactions of those around her.
More than Disability
Yes, Mandy is deaf, and yes, she’s a musician. But she has some insights about life that are not exclusively disability-related. In particular, I found her formula for success to be an incredibly insightful look at talent and determination. Her hard-won insights on supporting a loved one through a life-changing event – based on what she found helpful and what she didn’t – may not be revolutionary, but they are told in a gentle and powerful way.
Mandy neither makes herself out to be a saint or a martyr, but as a woman who has made mistakes and chosen to learn from them. There are some portions of her book that some might find preachy (Mandy is a born-again Christian), but they are generally interwoven with her own lived experiences, adding to their tapestry rather than jutting out at odd angles.
I usually prefer longer books and getting to know characters and real people. But Sensing the Rhythm is a short tome that I’m glad I picked up. I personally would have liked to hear more about Mandy’s band, how she works with them, more about recording music as well as performing. And the “Sensing your Rhythm” portions don’t detract from the book, but they don’t add to it either.
It’s not a literary masterpiece, but it can be as easy or as profound as you, the reader, make it out to be.
Much like all of us.