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Hearing voices. Talking back.

In the summer of 1989, Richard and I trekked around Lake Michigan for a week or so. He flew to Minneapolis and then we drove counterclockwise, through Chicago—where there was a Wright exhibit at the Museum of Science & Industry, of all places—and then to Detroit, up the “mitt” to Mackinac, westward across the U.P. to Duluth, then down to MSP again. The third-point of the trip brought us to Muskegon, where there is a remarkable church by Marcel Breuer and a nifty 19th century rail station by Sidney J. Osgood (bet you never heard of him). Muskegon probably has several greater claims to fame, but the Breuer church (St Francis de Sales; you should look it up) is what drew us there; the depot was a bonus.

Union Depot, Muskegon, MI (1895). Sidney J. Osgood, architect—but I’d swear it was Mason & Rice

We separated at the depot (so as not to “clutter” each other’s photos) and as I walked away from the building to get context, I happend to glance down on the sidewalk. There was a small featherless bird, so far from any nest that I couldn’t imagine how it had got there. I momentarily wondered how I could save it, but we were “on the road”, stopping in motels, and I had no ready supply of ground worms. Then there was this voice, everywhere and, yet, nowhere, speaking: “Choose life!” it said. I still bear the guilt of walking away.

I mention this, prompted by an article in the current Harper’s magazine: “The Sound of Madness: Can we treat psychosis by listening to the voices in our heads?” by T. M. Luhrmann.

Hearing voices. Talking back.

Psychology has evolved considerably since I was a youth—was I ever?—particularly on the question of psychosis.

Luhrmann’s discussion centers on those of us who hear voices—as I did that afternoon in Michigan—and changing notions of schizophrenia. A current view holds that there is a psychotic continuum with “Virtually no two patients present[ing] the same constellation of symptoms”, and along with it “an understanding that voice hearing can shape the course and outcome of the illness.” But the sources and intent of the voices vary considerably. What they have in common is planting a thought that is not our own.

Charismatics, for example, hear the voice of God counseling them to ignore other, demonic spirits. Others hear a committee of voices that variably criticize or counsel. One patient had been able to identify the angels and demons who spoke to him, managed to regulate their access, and had begun to like the “angels.” But one of those better voices suggested that his grandmother was a witch, whereupon he stabbed her at the kitchen table. “She bled to death on the floor.” Even Charles Dickens—this where it gets personal—revealed that he heard the voices of his characters, distinctly, and felt that he was simply transcribing what they said.

So, here is where I find myself: readily accepting that thoughts can occur which we may attribute to an “outside” source; that they fall on a spectrum from madness to creativity; and that I’m waiting eagerly for their visitation on the Agincourt Project. If you’re out there—Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and any others in need of an audience—come talk to me and let’s begin a conversation.


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