Recently, it seems that hearing people’s interest in Deaf culture is at an all time high. The Academy Awards recently bestowed its Best Picture honor on CODA, which centers on a Deaf family and their hearing child. Just last year, Sound of Metal garnered several Oscar nominations and two wins for its portrayal of a man who loses his hearing. Demand for American Sign Language classes exploded in the wake of Lauren Ridloff’s Marvel Cinematic Universe debut as hero Makkari, and Marvel is doubling down on content with Deaf characters as its Hawkeye spin-off Echo features Deaf talent in front of and behind the camera.
One of the most visible members of the Deaf community in recent years has been Nyle DiMarco, the America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With The Stars winner who uses his platform to be an outspoken advocate for his community. DiMarco has long pushed for Deaf individuals to be in charge of telling their own stories. He has several series and films in development that will showcase Deaf history, and he recently produced Audible, a short documentary about the football team at the Maryland School for the Deaf that was nominated at the same Oscar ceremony as CODA. His latest project is Deaf Utopia, a colorful memoir that is as hilarious as it is moving.
Those picking up this book primarily hoping for juicy gossip about DiMarco’s time with two separate reality franchises will be disappointed. Instead, DiMarco chooses to focus on how those opportunities illustrate the general lack of access for disabled people in Hollywood. It was eye-opening to get DiMarco’s perspective on why he chose to appear on both programs despite his misgivings and his audition process for both. ANTM in particular comes across as a career opportunity that DiMarco shrewdly played to his own advantage as opposed to the golden ticket to fame it promises contestants. Deaf Utopia presents a more calculating approach than most reality show contestants publicly show, but DiMarco’s wit and strong sense of self make his reality TV memories more interesting than one might expect (and without badmouthing his fellow contestants).
But DiMarco’s strength isn’t in the parts of the book that could easily be recreated via rewatching his confessionals on ANTM or DWTS. It’s in his wrenching stories of growing up as the fourth generation in a Deaf family that readers will find themselves invested in. DiMarco is by turns hysterical and heartbreaking as he goes from describing youthful pranks on his hearing friends to recalling the shame his hearing teacher made him feel for not wanting to wear his hearing aids in class. Some of the funniest vignettes involve DiMarco’s brothers, with his fraternal twin Nico (a Deaf DJ) and older brother Neal getting into typical mischief. DiMarco’s childhood as described in Deaf Utopia is a network dramedy a la The Wonder Years, but he’s also not afraid to dive into the less made-for-TV moments.
He is endlessly empathetic towards the adults in his life, diving deep into Deaf history in part to explain how his emotionally distant father’s experiences with discrimination and prejudice as a child in a hearing world influenced the man’s choices as an adult. DiMarco’s mother Donna is vividly portrayed as a fierce protector with a fiery wit who made sure her boys grew up knowing their worth. DiMarco’s pride in his Deaf culture and love for his family leaps off the page, and the message is clear: Deaf culture is a rich tapestry, and any hearing people who can’t or won’t recognize that will be left behind.
DiMarco doesn’t just represent the Deaf community in Deaf Utopia. He devotes a great deal of the narrative to his sexuality, discussing how he came to identify as queer and make the decision to come out (both publicly and to himself). For anyone who has struggled to label their sexuality (or with whether to label it at all), DiMarco’s experience will ring true. The difficulties he describes in trying to connect to other LGBTQ people, both romantically and platonically, as a Deaf man should prompt some soul searching for the queer community. DiMarco intertwines his anecdotes about growing up Deaf and growing up queer to build an excellent narrative of intersectionality. You understand how DiMarco’s Deaf and queer identities inform and shape each other while never reducing his entire personality to those identities.
Despite DiMarco’s honesty on social media and stints on two separate reality shows, his own unique story has never been explored at length. His memoir Deaf Utopia succeeds in immersing readers in his world for the first time. Unapologetic and unflinching, DiMarco dissects his upbringing and his experiences as a Deaf, queer man brilliantly and with the depth he gives his documentary subjects.
Deaf Utopia is available now wherever books are sold.