Sue Thomas, former worker at F.B.I.
Sitting at home in Columbiana, OH, about 15 miles south of Youngstown, the real Sue Thomas tells interviewers again and again how amazed and pleased she is at the success of the new PAX–TV television series, “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye.” Based loosely on her life, the show is attracting increasing attention, particularly among the nation's 28 million deaf and hard of hearing people. As impressive as that may be, that an entertainment company has aimed a mainstream show at the nation’s deaf and hard of hearing audience and that it's creating a buzz, what’s more inspiring is Thomas.
Thomas, 52, lost her hearing at 18 months. She recounts how the sound vanished as she watched a television show. She upped the volume, her mother turned it down. Thomas turned it up again; her brothers turned it down, creating a family furor. The next day a doctor confirmed she had experienced a sudden, total hearing loss.
Like all deaf persons, Thomas faced a world of people who didn’t understand her challenges. No matter, her parents decreed; they supported her efforts to roller skate (she became Ohio’s youngest freestyle skating champion at age 7), play trumpet and classical piano. Thomas believes skating restored her confidence. In an interview with a Pittsburgh newspaper, she said, “I talked awful funny. I was ridiculed in school, and it (roller skating) gave me the self–esteem that I needed.” It also gave her a bigger trophy than other kids had, a matter of no small consequence at that point in her life.
Thomas learned to speak and lip read at Youngstown Hearing and Speech Center, then enrolled in public schools. Following high school, Thomas attended Springfield College in Springfield, MA, where in 1976 she earned a degree in political science and international relations. Later, she pursued postgraduate study at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and at Columbia Graduate School of Bible Study and Missions, Columbia, SC. It was between the latter two periods of study, during the early 1980s, that she worked for the FBI.
Not unlike the script in the television show, she hired on to analyze fingerprints. A few months into the job, a supervisor sought out her lip reading abilities to decipher conversations in videotape for which there was no sound. Her skill at lip reading earned her a position as an assistant to an agent, and for the next three and a half years she worked periodically on surveillance projects, generally viewing videotapes to get what people said. In between assignments, she also gave tours.
Health problems forced her to leave the FBI, and though she could have returned, Thomas chose to continue her education. Her time at Columbia Graduate School of Bible Study and Missions helped her to cope with anger at being deaf. “So, many times, I hated being deaf,” she tells interviewers. “I had to work through my deafness while in the seminary, and silence became my friend instead of my worst enemy. It is only in our silence that we learn to hear God.”
By 1990, she had written an autobiography, “Silent Night,” which spawned an unsuccessful attempt to make a movie based on her life. But she kept in touch with the screenwriters to whom she serendipitously sent an email suggesting they might want to consider a television series just as they planned to meet PAX television executives to kick around ideas for a new show. In a news conference last year to announce the show, co–creator Dave Johnson recalled the moment.
“She told me in it (the email) that she has MS (multiple sclerosis) and she’s going blind. This woman is an amazing woman and I could tell she was a bit down.”
The next day he and brother, Gary, pitched PAX with the idea of a show about “a deaf woman and a dog who work for the FBI,” a small fiction because her longtime companion and service dog, Levi, didn’t come to live with her until after she left the FBI. Levi has since died and been succeeded by another hearing–ear dog, a golden retriever named Grace.
Today, she’s riding the crest of the show’s popularity, writing a second book, doing motivational speeches and bonding with Deanne Bray, the 30-year-old deaf actor who plays her. Bray previously taught math and science to hard of hearing high school students in East Los Angeles and and did acting on the side. Bray says that though she plans to return to teaching at the show’s end, the show offers an opportunity. The show is fast becoming a hit, now guaranteed a full year run on the strength of increasingly high ratings.
“It’s … about the FBI, but in subtle ways you’ll see a deaf individual (the woman character in the TV show) working in the hearing world, and you’ll see the obstacles she faces and you’ll (also) see the hearing point of view and how some of them are not sensitive to her needs, ” says Bray. “You’ll see how a deaf person views the world through her eyes.“
See “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye” on PAX TV at 9 p.m. on Sundays and Mondays, depending on the market and locations (check local TV listings).