God’s Secret Agent: Interview with Sue ThomasBARBARA NICOLOSI
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. 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.
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.
You were born and raised in the Protestant tradition. How is it that you spent
several years living with Carmelite nuns?
BRN: How has your deafness been a spiritual
struggle for you?
Barbara Nicolosi. "God’s Secret Agent: Interview with Sue Thomas." National Catholic Register (June 2003).
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