Once, at a work party, I overheard my boss talking to my wife. He did not flirt with her, but neither did he confine himself to the innocuous small talk that marks the supervisor-spouse interaction. He had cornered my wife in a hallway and was describing his recent trip to a twelfth-century monastery in Spain. “I spent the night in one of their cells,” he said. “The silence up there. The darkness. It’s really too pure to talk about.”
What was this voice he was using? It was sweet and warm, as if he had been drinking, and it was low and vulnerable, as if he and my wife were old friends. Except that he had not been drinking, and this was only the second time he had met my wife.
When I turned the corner and crashed their conversation, this new voice disappeared, and the voice I knew from the office—that stiff and anxious trill—returned. “There he is!” my boss said, throwing his arm around me. “You better keep an eye on this one!”
A news anchor from my hometown, who was known for her bright smile and wholesome demeanor, once wrapped up her segment by saying, “From all of us at the Channel Four family, good night and God bless.” Believing she was no longer on air, she then belched into her fist, cracked her neck, and said, “Christ, I can’t wait to get home and sit on Brian’s face.” The following night, she opened the show with a tear-soaked apology. She said, “I have let down my viewers. I have let down my family. I have let down my God.” Even now, I want to write her a letter and tell her how wonderful it felt, for that one moment, to hear that other, truer voice.
My wife reminds me that I am not immune to adaptation. She counts my voices and comes up with twenty-seven variations. Highlights from her list: my phone voice, my car voice, my father voice, my teacher voice, the voice I use when talking to men, the voice I use when talking to women, my church voice, my store voice, the voice I use when reading something I’ve written, and my sex voice.
She observes, “Your sex voice is strangely similar to your father voice.”
I think but do not say, “Your sex voice is identical to your drive-through voice—only less courteous.”
If we don’t have a singular voice, then what? A symphony? A collection? A wilderness?
I have always hated my voice. Not the voice I hear in my head, which is deep and clear, vaguely Southern, tender (sometimes sleepily so), the voice of a friend. That voice I love. The voice I hate is the one that leaves my head and enters the world. By the time that one departs the tongue, ricochets off substance, and returns through the bones in my ear, it is hardly recognizable. That voice is higher than I imagined and tinny, unsure of itself, unsure of its news. It is not only not Southern but apparently Midwestern in its neutrality. It is the voice of a stranger, and it betrays me.
I like the voice of David Lynch. It sounds to me like the voice of a pilgrim who found happiness after a long walk through a dark forest. David Lynch can talk about art, or David Lynch can talk about the weather. I listen, mostly for the music.
I do not tell my wife that her sex voice is nearly identical to her drive-through voice because, when people become aware of a pattern, they become tempted to disrupt it, and I want both of her voices to remain exactly as they are. I want to hear her at Taco Bell, leaning out of the window and addressing that little red metal box: “Give me two bean-and-cheese burritos. Hold the onions. Hold the red sauce. Then give me two soft tacos. Sub meat for beans. And give me two waters, no ice. That’s all.” She always pulls forward without saying thank you.
The most vicious form of voice betrayal comes from hearing yourself on a recording. I was a kid the first time I heard my voice on tape, and I thought, “That’s not me. That’s Mickey Mouse.” Years later, during my first semester as an English instructor, I would be required to watch one of my own lectures, to critique my pedagogical methods. I stopped the video several minutes in and forged the reflection—that bearded, bird-voiced man carrying on about Yeats was not someone I knew.
And yet we can only feel betrayed in relation to our expectations for fidelity. Why do we do it to ourselves, then? Why, having heard the wilderness of voices at work inside us, do we still search for the one that’s ours? We’re either bound to the idea of essence, or we lack imagination.
If ever there was a voice that appeared to emerge from a single pure essence, it was the voice of Nina Simone. Nina’s voice could move from tenderness to rage in a single word. It sounded like a saint who knew song was the highest form of prayer. The voice of Nina Simone waved a switchblade in the face of the world and said, “Try that shit with me and see what happens.”
It is said that most men hear their recorded voice and feel disappointed that it is not as deep as they had assumed. Women have the exact opposite reaction. Upon learning that their voice is lower and hoarser than originally suspected, they clutch their throat and say, “I sound like a man.” There is a term for this attempt to reconcile the difference between the voice you hear in your head and the voice you hear on a recording. Voice confrontation.
My wife and I once confronted our own sex tape. When we watched it together, several days after shooting it, the first thing we noticed was not how we looked, but how we sounded.
“I sound like a smoker,” she said.
“I sound like a white guy,” I replied.
We deleted the footage and made a new one several nights later. Revisions were substantial. In the new tape, we finally sounded like the people we were pretending to be.
After graduating from Clemson, I lived for a year in Los Angeles. On the night I flew in, some people I barely knew, all of whom were from California, told me that they loved my Southern accent. What I should have said was, “That’s ironic. Back home, people think I’m from the Midwest.” Instead, I leaned into their take, and for the next year, every word that left my mouth came out in the muddy drawl of James Dickey. When I left Los Angeles, the last thing I said to these people was, “Y’all take care now. Holler if you’re ever down in Carolina.” I have a nightmare that I will randomly bump into one of these old California friends. They will smile, and we will hug, but at some point in the conversation, they will look at me like I am crazy and say, “What happened to your accent?”
Change your face, and you’re lovely. Change your mind, and you’re smart. But change your voice, and you’re crazy, weird, not to be trusted.
Sometimes a single word is all it takes. One morning, while placing my order at the Starbucks drive-through, I realized my fondness for the New Yorker’s enunciation of the word “coffee.” So when the employee asked me for my order, I became a ninety-year-old man from Long Island, and I croaked, “Gimme one cawfee. Two sugahs. No creamuh. Thanks, Toots.” I drove away feeling as much like myself as ever before.
One psychologist was asked why voice confrontation is such a difficult process. “Because you base your identity on your voice. When you discover that your voice sounds different, it can be deeply unsettling. It’s like finding out that you’re not actually who you thought you were.”
If you want to casually disturb your partner, wait until the two of you are at a social event, and begin speaking in an entirely new voice. If the change is drastic enough, your partner will interrupt you and say, right there in front of everyone, “Why are you talking like that?” If you want to deeply disturb your partner, look at them as if they are crazy and say, still in your new voice, “Talking like what?”
Coach Mac, my high school history teacher, once claimed Abraham Lincoln would never have been elected president in the era of television. “He had the voice of a tiny, nagging woman,” Coach said. “The Gettysburg Address is good because it’s read.”
If dreaming dismantles our inhibitions, then it’s possible that our truest voice is the one that slips out when we sleep. This dream voice is doubly pure, since the audience in your dream is denied access to your bed, and the audience in your bed is denied access to your dream. Here, it’s just you, talking into two darknesses, no hope of being known.
Some voices you wish you could unhear. I am thinking of my favorite poet, whose books I loved so much that I drove three hours to see her read. After the reading, the poet asked if I wanted to get a beer, and I agreed, and we talked late into the night about everything but poetry. She was kind and wise and funny, but the voice at the bar was not the same as the voice in her books, not even close, and I resented her, even though it was not her fault. Because she is still the most talented human being I know, and because I would like to keep her as my hero, I tell myself that
we have never met, that the night in the bar was a story I heard from someone else.
As a Christian, you’re bound to run into people who claim that they have heard the voice of God. My first question is never, “What did He tell you?” It’s always, “What did He sound like?” The answers vary. My favorite came from a Pentecostal dentist: “He sounded like an avalanche.”
My wife says I lower my voice when talking to men. She says I soften my voice when I talk to women. I ask her what this might mean. “It means you’re like one of those puffer fish. When you feel threatened, you get big. When you feel safe, you stay small.”
I have an aunt from North Carolina everyone adores on account of her voice. People try to describe the way she sounds, but they can’t do it without the symbology of violence.
“Sounds like she smokes a pack a day.”
“Sounds like she gargled razor blades.”
“Sounds like she deep-throated a drill head.”
Her voice only sounds this way because she sings at her church three times a week. Her doctor told her to take it easy. She told him, “It’s not that simple. When the Spirit comes over me, I don’t have a choice. I have to sing until He’s through with me.”
I saw a story on the news about a DEA agent from Phoenix who went undercover, posing as a drug dealer to gain access to the inner circle of Mexico’s cartel. Agent Ford’s commitment to his role was impressive. Despite being a devoted husband and a new father, Ford served time in a maximum security prison, covered his body in tattoos, and willfully became a heroin addict, all in hopes of granting his facade the texture of reality. For several years, it seemed his act was convincing. Then he was murdered by a low-level drug lord from Toluca, and his decapitated body was discovered in the middle of the desert. After they arrested the murderer, the police asked him how he knew Agent Ford was undercover. The man from Toluca answered, “It was easy. He sounded like a cop.”
My wife is correct: my sex voice is strangely similar to my father voice. In both situations, I am doing something that thrills me but also scares me. This element of fear means I assume that someone is listening (even if they’re not), and I must prove to my audience that I know what I am doing (even when I don’t).
When a person I know asks me to read their work, I agree but secretly cringe. I cringe because I know that the mechanics will be competent, but the voice will be bland. The voice is always bland. I want to say to these people, “When you speak, you have a good, clear, strange voice! Use it! Bring it onto the page!” But I know it’s no use. They find someone literary who is not them, and that’s who they try to be.
If my wife is correct that I have at least twenty-seven voices, then out in the world are at least twenty-seven versions of me. There are people who only know me through my church voice, and there are others who only know me through my neighbor voice, and a handful of people only know me through my writer voice. I would like to gather all these people in one room, and then I would like to eavesdrop as they compare notes on the man who is sometimes a writer, and sometimes a neighbor, and sometimes nothing more than a Christian at the liquor store talking shit on a Wednesday. I would like everyone to leave the meeting entirely confused.
It’s possible we cling to the idea of the unified voice because we refuse to give up the idea of a unified self. We want our self to be The Self—not one of a hundred selfs, all hanging like neatly pressed shirts in the closet of our mind, waiting to be picked out and put on. We want to believe that we are Someone, not anyone.
I like the voice of the character that Bob Dylan invented to deliver his songs to the world. I like that he is a thief, and that he refuses to apologize for stealing someone else’s singing and someone else’s words and someone else’s history. There is not a person named Bob Dylan, and the character we refer to as Bob Dylan would be the first one to tell you so.
On the night she delivered our fourth child, my wife fell asleep in her hospital bed. She held our daughter in her arms, and she dreamed, and from that dream came a voice I had never heard. It said, “He didn’t disappear. He’s still out there. He’s only hiding in the lemon grove.” In the morning, I told her this. She looked at me like I was crazy, and in the voice she used when we first fell in love, she said, “Lemon grove? I was dreaming about the ocean.”
Photo by David Martyn Hunt, used and adapted under CC.