Jennifer Pastiloff: ‘CODA’ Teaches Us About Shame, Inclusivity and Representation of the Deaf Community

Coda Movie
Courtesy of AppleTV+

I don’t know what took me so long to watch Siân Heder’s Oscar-nominated drama “CODA.” One of my closest friends, MJ Grant, is a CODA: a child of deaf adults. I was commanded to watch. People on social media, MJ, an Amazon delivery driver I’d waved to who wore hearing aids, my third cousin — everyone insisted I watch it.

My delay wasn’t for lack of knowing it’d be great; the hundreds of “You Must Watch It Now” messages were evidence of that.

My delay was because I was scared.

I am deaf. Without my hearing aids all I hear is tinnitus and muted versions of words (I guess to be): “coffee,” “Jennifer, “mommy?”

I’ve always felt just out of earshot. I rely on facial expressions and body language. Words collapse into themselves before I can reach them. Or before they can reach me. Near misses. My whole life is a neverending “Huh?” “What?” “Excuse me?” “Sorry?” So many sorrys.

I let go of the idea of comprehension because: it’s too exhausting.

The reasons for putting off watching “CODA,” nominated for three Academy Awards, one of them for its adapted screenplay, were endless. But to put it simply: avoidance.

To get by, I rely both on my Resound One device as well as reading lips. I live in the land of Charlie Brown’s teachers. With masks, you might as well be talking to me from outer space. Underwater words smothered into nonsense that everyone else comprehends except stupid me. I feel left out, lost, terrified. I try to rationalize these feelings, but these feelings function like bullies who chant “You’ll never belong.”
I rarely go out unless I have a companion to interpret masked speakers. Without this person, I am confused and physically exhausted from trying to figure out what’s said. I get made fun of because I am always tired. Trying so hard all the time makes one tired.

Can you imagine?

“CODA” makes it so you do not have to imagine. You experience it.

“CODA,” which centers on teenage high school senior Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of a deaf family working as fishermen in coastal Massachusetts, lets you in on something that no one besides deaf people, or a CODA, can relate to. Watching this film, you relate in the most intimate of ways.

I’ve spent a lot of time hiding, in shame. Shame at believing that, as an 8-year-old, it was my fault that my father died. Shame at waitressing for so long at the same West Hollywood hotspot when I thought I should have been a writer. (If I waited on you at the Newsroom and you’re reading this, I hope that you were nice to me). Shame at my declining, and then the eventual loss of my hearing.

I have lost my shame about my deafness and through the publication of my book (“On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard”) and my work as a writer, poet and yoga teacher, leading yoga-writing retreats around the world. I created what I coined the “Shameloss” movement. And yet, that shame remained. “CODA” helped me lose the shame I still carried, unknowingly.

Watching the movie, which features Troy Kotsur, in an historic Screen Actors Guild-winning and Oscar-nominated supporting actor turn, and Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin in the roles of Ruby’s parents, Frank and Jackie, it felt as if I was spying on myself. I could only peek at times, as if I might get caught. I saw things I’d experienced only privately. I didn’t know how to explain what it felt like to finally feel seen.

To be human is a constant pulling of our desire to be witnessed with the tug of our fear that no one will want us.

“CODA” cracked the code. I sobbed. And not because my antidepressants don’t work. This movie has so much heart. Whether you are a deaf or hearing individual, whether you have kids, whether you like the song “You’re All I Need to Get By,” which is performed by Ruby in the film during her audition for Berklee College of Music, you will understand it as a human story, and ultimately, a love story.

To finally see yourself represented is liberating, like you’ve been holding something in. It’s akin to finally finding a gas station bathroom after holding it in for hours in the car. It is a great relief.

To me, “CODA” was perfect.

“CODA” is also a film filled with humor, a film that never panders to being maudlin. “CODA” made me snort with laughter. In one scene Frank jokes that God made farts smell so that deaf people could enjoy them too. Ah, the beauty of a good fart joke.

“CODA” masterfully weaves together painfully awkward moments with humor, and if that is not an accurate representation of how life really is, then I don’t know what is. In the moments of deepest grief, I have found levity. “CODA” beautifully, subtly — and often wordlessly — taps into the dichotomy of what it means to be a person.

In another scene, Leo, Ruby’s deaf brother, played by Daniel Durant, is at a bar, surrounded by people who can hear. They do not know how to sign. They laugh, but at what Leo can only guess. When a guy spills beer on Leo, they get into a fight. Watching the scene unfold, it felt as if I were getting punched. I have been Leo. I have known that feeling.

Leo has no clue why everyone laughs, but he laughs along with them. To belong. Just as I do, without knowing why. It’s lonely to be in a room filled with people and feel as if you are not really there. You try to assimilate. You struggle to figure out what is happening around you by way of body language. Finally, you are so bone-tired that you give up.

You let yourself become a ghost.

My situation is not the same as that of the Rossi family, but the feelings of being on the outside are the same. I saw myself in Leo. And Frank. And Jackie.

Watching the scene in which Frank asks Ruby to sing for him, I howled, “I want my daddy back.” When Franks puts his hand gently on Ruby’s throat, allowing the vibrations of her vocal cords to register, when he places his hands so lovingly on Ruby’s face, I wept into my cereal.

People tell me that, despite my deafness, I am the best listener they know. As I watched Frank listen with his entire body, I understood.

“Frank,” I said, as if he could hear me through the screen. “This is how I, too, have learned to listen.”
Frank’s heart seemed to break from the moment’s sheer beauty. He couldn’t hear with his ears. But he could hear.

There is so much profundity in that scene. Listening is an art that has little to do with how much your ears hear.

“CODA” is a love story told in many of its scenes without the use of sound. There should be more movies — more everything, in fact — with characters who don’t necessarily look like us, but who share the same human experiences. True to life characters who make us feel loved, safe, understood. Without even saying a word. “CODA” is a revolutionary film.

I laughed. I cried. And I also raged.

Why aren’t we all taught Ameri-can Sign Language as children? I asked myself. I don’t know ASL and, yes, this feels shameful to me. I did not grow up in deaf culture and my hearing loss progressed over time. The truth: I never bothered to learn it.

Because I did not need to. Until I did. As humans, that is often how we operate.

In “CODA,” we witness the Rossi family as they rely on Ruby to sign for them, because nobody else in their community knows ASL. In our society, there are not enough resources for deaf individuals. Recently, I shot an Instagram Live on the topic of accessibility and the film “CODA” with Grant as a guest and an ASL interpreter. Instagram would not add captions after I saved the video. I spent hours on my kitchen floor trying to access subtitles, to no avail. It should not be this hard.

On flights I’ve wanted to watch movies, but I could not because there were no subtitles. “CODA” underscores the crushing fact that we live in a country where far too many people lack access to the most basic resources, resources that would enable them to enjoy the quality of life they so deserve.

Ultimately, “CODA” prompts us to ask ourselves, “Where can I do better?” How can we make this world a better, more welcoming and inclusive space? For all humans. Everywhere.

Before I watched “CODA,” I was scared that I would see myself on screen.

I did. And it wasn’t scary, after all. It was life-affirming and validating and so very beautiful.
I want you to see “CODA,” too. Because it’s a film that matters.

What “CODA” teaches us is this: We all belong.

Jennifer Pastiloff is the author of “On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard.” She travels the world with her unique workshop On Being Human, a hybrid of yoga related movement, writing, sharing out loud, letting the snot fly and the occasional dance party. She has been featured on such outlets as “Good Morning America,” New York Magazine, Health Magazine and CBS News.