"Let's try that one more time," I urged. It wasn't a very complicated coordination, but it was invisible.
"Throw your head back so your throat is fully stretched out. Open your mouth. Now release the air from your lungs in tiny dribbles so it passes the vocal cords slowly. Make the sound of a wooden drawer being gradually forced open ... or of bacon on a skillet beginning to fry and crackle."
The young man's response was silence, then struggle as he tightened his throat muscles. His lips, moist and open, began to vibrate. Then he released a high-pitched squawk like a strangulated chicken.
"Arman, watch me and listen. See how I'm stretching out all the muscles around the larynx. I want them relaxed so the cords will quiver at their lowest speed . . . the deepest possible tone."
I did it myself. The sound was neither male nor female, just mechanical. I did it very well. I had had plenty of practice demonstrating it for Arman's imitation. As a woman my natural pitch was around middle C but the exercise could bring me a full octave lower. If Arman could match that tone he would sound like a man. He must have a tin ear.
He couldn't be self-conscious after almost a year of therapy sessions. Once a week I'd churn out all the friendliness and charm I could salvage from a hectic day to turn this soprano Ichabod Crane into a baritone Jimmy Stewart. It was a labor of love, voluntary. As the school year closed, it was becoming a labor of frustration and embarrassment.
My first encounter with Arman was the day he delivered a file cabinet to my office at the university. I had been hired to teach the theory of speech and hearing rehabilitation, not to do clinical work, but his casual announcement: "This one's for you, stirred me.
It was a perfect example of eunuchoid voice-the high pitch of a prepubescent boy in the body of a sexually mature male. Surely this was ventriloquism, a joke on the new speech teacher. But the soprano tones persisted in his small talk as he shoved the furniture around.
The speaking voice in no way represented the body of the speaker. Arman was taller than six feet and thin. He had curly black hair, bronzed skin, and dark innocent eyes. He wore a black turtleneck and jeans. Later he claimed to be more comfortable in tights because he had trained as an adagio dancer. As he screwed in the fixtures, his angular limbs created a nervous Cubist design against the gray metal.
"This one's for you," I thought. What an opportunity! I'd only read about such cases, but I remembered testimony of sudden and miraculous cures. I was sure I could draw a naturally deep tone from this conflicted person. Everyone would notice such an extreme change and the older faculty would take me more seriously.
Unfortunately, no easy success happened. Arman came each week and practiced deep breathing and the vocal fry exercise. My voice got lower (temporarily); his did not. I explained how the vocal cords worked and we tried making vegetative noises-grunts, coughing, chewing. Arman's coughs could be as baritone as any frog prince, but the moment he spoke real words the effeminate pitch returned.
And he did talk on and on ... filling me in on the recent history of the institution, the foibles of the faculty, the gaffs made by administrators. Because he'd worked part-time for the Buildings and Grounds staff for almost four years, he'd heard all kinds of gossip. For me it was an informal and entertaining orientation.
From my studies in psychology I knew the chatting was good for him. People's reactions to the sound of his voice must have kept him quiet in many social situations. In every year since puberty he must have become a better and better listener. With an accepting therapist he could talk as much as he wanted to.
I didn't probe into the deep secrets and sexuality of my client. The typical judgment by outsiders was that men with high voices were Mama's boys or homosexuals. My instinct said that was not the case here. Arman never mentioned girl friends. What girl would want to share the social penalties of his peculiar voice?
He did talk about his family. They were Armenian immigrants struggling to retain some of their past while adapting to America. Surely it was some nostalgic notion of his father (deceased since Arman was 12) to put his son into ethnic dance classes. The older boys had married and left home, but Arman and his mother still played the sultry Eastern music in the empty house. On weekends he danced adagio at clubs for school money. He worried that his mother was alone so much, that she depended on him for everything. Because there was enough insurance money she had chosen the Eastern tradition of a serene and secluded widowhood.
Here in my office Arman fidgeted. "It seems so easy when you do it, but I can't. My voice slips into the old gear-high.""Don1 you hear it? Just match the tone .. any way you can." I could barely keep the exasperation out of my voice. The sense of failure was choking me.
"I wish I could." There were worry lines around his childlike eyes.
"Well, let's just give up for today. In fact, let's take a vacation. Exams begin soon and I need the time." I didn't say anything about a suspicion that was forming in my mind. Had he developed a dependency9 Did he get more satisfaction from the attention I gave him than from self-improvement? Therapeutic relationships can take odd twists and turns. Stutterers, for instance, often fall in love with their speech therapists.
"I don't mean to cut you loose. . . ." That was exactly what I meant.
"If only I could change," he responded in such a simpering voice I almost yelled: "Growl, groan, for God's sake, but do it like a man!"
Only the greatest professional restraint kept me nodding sympathetically. I closed his folder decisively. He unwound from the chair and his body was silhouetted against the file cabinets in crazy angles I couldn't decipher.
"I want you to be sure to stop by when fall semester starts."
Returning in the fall, I was pleased to learn I had been appointed to two faculty committees-petitions and curriculum. The latter was an indication that my work was recognized, so I spent extra time preparing. About Arman I thought, "Let sleeping dogs lie."
Then one October afternoon he appeared in my doorway wearing classic khaki pants and a white shirt. "Hello. Remember me?"
The tones were rich and deep. I stared. He laughed. Then I laughed. "What happened? How did you do it?"
"Simple. Remember you told me that when we laugh or groan or cry our vocal cords are operating normally'.? Well, my brothers came home for a family reunion and when they were telling jokes we all laughed. I noticed that we all sounded the same. My voice didn't squeal. If I could laugh like them I could talk like them. So when it was my turn to tell a story I just matched my pitch to theirs. They liked it. They jabbed me in the ribs and we all laughed except Ma. She cried a little, but she got over it."
"Wonderful! I knew you could do it." It was such a relief to hear the new baritone I didn't care who got credit for it.
We talked about the new term and his career plans. Now that he was no longer afraid, he signed up for a course in public speaking to help prepare himself for job interviews. I was impressed by his businesslike attitude. As he rose to leave it seemed as if his body movements, too, had become more integrated and stable.
"Goodbye Arman, and Good Luck."
Several months later I received a wedding invitation: Arman and Jane. I was glad to see it would be held in a plain Methodist church. I had heard that the Armenian faith was similar to the Greek Orthodox, but different enough to have its own Pope. I was unfamiliar with that kind of orthodoxy, but for a June wedding in Jane's church, I knew just what to do and wear. I wore a beige dress with a flowing tea-length skirt.
In the receiving line I met a smiling, self-assured Jane and a beaming Arman. His two brothers looked just like him, only older and heavier. Ma was a tiny woman dressed in black taffeta.
"The teacher," she said as she clutched my hand with both of hers. Thoughts racing through my mind kept me speechless. She seemed too frail to bear the loss of her brood, yet she'd kept Arman young inordinately long.
She gave me a deep look and her eyes seemed to say, "I know. I'm sorry."
Barbara Dreher is Visiting Scholar at Wittenburg University in Springfield, Ohio, and consulting editor for Children's House magazine. Sounds of Silence, her current book, introduces youngsters to science terms A to Z.
© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Dreher, Barbara. (1996). "Ties That Blind." WILLA, Volume V, pp. 12-13.