Voices carry

By S.I. ROSENBAUM  |  October 21, 2011

Hage is 30 years old. Her diagnosis is schizophrenia, but she insists she isn't crazy; she's just hearing voices, terrible voices, telling her not to leave the house, telling her to kill herself. Antipsychotics make her slow and dull, but don't quiet the voices at all. Hage grows more and more withdrawn. The only thing that brings her solace is a book — Julian Jaynes's The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which Jaynes argues that in prehistory, humans experienced their own thoughts as the external voices of gods. It's the first explanation of the voices that make sense to Hage — the first indication that she isn't alone, isn't just sick.

Her doctor, Marius Romme, has been taught that the content of psychosis is meaningless and best to ignore. But now — as Hage speaks more and more often of suicide — piercing his patient's increasing isolation becomes more important than convincing her that her voices are a symptom of a brain disorder.

So Romme does something radical: he arranges for her to meet with other patients who also hear voices.

"As I sat there listening to their conversations, I was struck with the eagerness with which they recognized each other's experiences," Romme later writes. "To my ears the contents were bizarre and extraordinary, and yet all this was freely discussed as if it constituted a real world of and unto itself."

At the urging of Romme's partner, journalist Sandra Escher, in 1986 he and Hage appear on a Dutch talk show, asking other voice hearers to contact them. They are deluged with replies. Within a few days, 450 voice hearers call the hotline. The odd thing is, about a third of them have never been diagnosed or treated as mental patients. And when Romme asks, they say they aren't bothered by their voices at all.

How is this possible? As Romme begins to research voice hearing, he finds numerous studies showing that many people who have never been treated for mental illness — people who are healthy — hear voices. One study, conducted at Johns Hopkins just a few years before, estimates that about 10 percent of the general population will hear voices at some point in their lives. In the years to come, other studies will bear this out, and eventually, research papers on auditory hallucinations will take it for granted that there's a portion of "normals" who hear voices.

On the other hand, as Romme and Escher interview hundreds of voice hearers, they find that most of them say their voices first appeared after a traumatic event, like an assault. If voices aren't necessarily a symptom of disease, Romme thinks, are some people diagnosed with schizophrenia — people whose voices are disturbing — actually responding to trauma, and not suffering from an organic brain disease?

With these questions in mind, Hage and Romme organize a conference for voice hearers in Utrecht in 1987. In 1991, a group of voice hearers invite them to hold a similar conference in the UK.

Afterward, attendees begin to meet on their own, in local groups. This is how the Hearing Voices Network begins.

***

Marty is bleeding. She's made a mistake, cut too deep. In the emergency room, she hears voices screaming at her, and she screams back. This is how she comes to be admitted as a psychiatric patient for the first time. It's 2000.

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