See What I’m Saying:

The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses


Chapter 10: See What I’m Saying


Photo: Lawrence Rosenblum

Model: Rachel Miller

Point-light videos demonstrate how people's faces can be recognized from seeing only their movements. The technique also allows researchers to determine the important information used for lipreading.


        When Sue Thomas started working for the FBI, she didn’t think she’d be doing surveillance of organized crime. She was initially hired, along with eight other deaf individuals, to classify fingerprints. The FBI reasoned that the deaf might be well-suited for the attention-demanding work of fingerprint analysis, based on the fact that the deaf wouldn’t be distracted by the usual office noises. And most of the new employees did take well to the job. But not Thomas. After a few days, she found counting fingerprint loops unbearably monotonous and conveyed this to her supervisor.

        Soon after, she was asked to report to the bureau’s front office. She assumed that she was being fired. Instead, she was confronted with seven of the FBI’s top officers, who were interested in discussing, of all things, her lipreading. A number of her supervisors noticed that during their interactions with Thomas, she seemed particularly skilled at lipreading. Now, they were interested in whether she could also lipread from videos. She told them that she could, especially if the video showed a clear view of the face. This is what the officers were hoping to hear.

        Later that day, Thomas was brought into a room containing a state of the art video projection system. She was told that a surveillance team had recorded video of a suspected illegal gambling transaction involving organized crime. The video didn’t contain an audio track, so they needed Thomas to transcribe the dialogue from lipreading. Using the video projection system to enlarge the faces and slow the action, Thomas was able to successfully complete the transcription. And with this, she became the FBI’s first professional lipreader.

        Thomas worked with the FBI for about three years. During this time, she lipread from videotape as well as during on-site surveillance missions. For the latter, she would go to locations such as airport terminals and sit at some distance from the suspects. She would lipread them as they interacted and then convey the dialogue to her FBI colleagues also positioned nearby. Her cases often involved high-profile crimes including espionage. Thomas’ skills provided the FBI a significant advantage to be able to perform accurate surveillance without needing to hear what was occurring.

        This story is conveyed in Thomas’ engaging memoir Silent Night, as well as in the syndicated television show based on her book, Sue Thomas: FBEye.

        What makes Thomas such an astounding lipreader? I asked her this when we met. Thomas, who is in her late fifties, and has a warm, cheerful face responds, “I was never actually taught to lipread. But at a young age, I was given seven years of intensive speech therapy to make my own speech clearer. This therapy involved lots of time in front of a mirror watching and correcting my speech. This helped me speak, and also probably helped me become a good lipreader. But I never did have a course in ‘Lipreading 101’.” Thomas smiles.