Juliet Conlin: Hearing Voices
Digital team's blog
Juliet Conlin is a writer and scientist whose latest novel, The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days, frames the phenomenon of voice-hearing in two contrasting ways, chronicling the joyful, wondrous experience of hearing voices, but also the agony and despair that some voice-hearers suffer. Below she talks about the history of hearing voices and how it is perceived in today's society.
Hearing voices has a long tradition. It has been recorded in almost every culture and goes back millennia. But what are the exact meanings we attribute to voice-hearing? Today, a psychiatric model of voice-hearing, or auditory verbal hallucinations, dominates. That is, we live in a society that often equates voice-hearing with illness, and equates mental illness with dangerousness.
There are abundant such references to mental illness in the media, all helping to create a very narrow understanding of unusual mental states. In such an environment, it is easy to understand how psychiatric conditions are stigmatised, yet we easily ignore – or are ignorant of – statistics that show that people who hear voices are just as likely or unlikely to be violent towards others as people who don’t.
But for many healthcare professionals as well as in the popular imagination, voice-hearing is pathological, a symptom of a brain dysfunction that requires psychiatric or medication-based intervention.
It was not until recently that voice-hearers in Western cultures began to challenge the assumption that hearing voices is necessarily an illness, and have been making their own voices heard – literally. They emphasise the diversity of experience among voice-hearers, putting forward the notion of “experts by experience” as opposed to “experts by profession”, and raising awareness of the personal relevance of this experience.
Just because a particular human behaviour or condition lies outside a given social norm, or beyond our comprehension, that person is not necessarily mad, bad or sad. This was the underlying premise of my novel, The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days, which chronicles the life of a man who never chose to be different – and yet lived a life more unusual than he could ever have imagined. Alfred hears voices – three supernatural entities –, and these voices are an integral part of his personal development.
By contrast, Alfred’s granddaughter, Brynja, suffers from distressing and abusive voices. Her experience is heart-breaking and disturbing. I chose to include Brynja’s perspective to show that the genuine suffering of individuals who hear distressing or abusive voices should not be belittled.
The experiences of voice-hearers are so diverse, and complex, that it is impossible to do it complete justice in a work of fiction. I would therefore consider my novel as an invitation to re-evaluate preconceived ideas about voice-hearing, mental illness and the ways in which a popular understanding of these issues impact on the individuals affected.
Not all voice-hearers need psychiatric treatment, although anti-psychotic medication has certainly saved many lives and enabled people who are tormented by their voices to cope with their illness. Anyone who is concerned about themselves, or about someone they know, should seek support from mental healthcare professionals or voice-hearing organisations such as Intervoice or the Hearing Voices Network.
If you are interested in learning more about hearing voices, please visit this section of our website. If you want to hear more from Juliet you can follow her on Twitter .