My research in the Hearing the Voice project starts with the deceptively simple question: what is it we are studying?

In a presentation at the Hearing Voices symposium at Stanford earlier this year, I explored how voices or auditory verbal hallucinations have been defined, differentiated and categorised across a range of contexts – in clinical practice, neuropsychological and social scientific research, and by voice-hearers themselves. But what does it mean for someone to describe themselves as a “voice-hearer”? Again, the answer to the question at first seems relatively straightforward: a voice-hearer is someone who hears voices, or, in psychiatric parlance, experience auditory or auditory verbal hallucinations. However, for readers of this blog it’s highly likely that the term ‘voice-hearer’ conjures to mind a much wider set of associations.

My article The Voice Hearer offers, from a medical humanities perspective, what anthropologists call a “thick description” of “the voice-hearer.” I’m not trying to analyse or make claims about any individual’s experience, but rather to investigate how the term itself arose and is mobilised in contemporary settings. I argue that

“The voice-hearer” (i) asserts voice-hearing as a meaningful experience, (ii) challenges psychiatric authority and (iii) builds identity through sharing life narrative. While technically accurate, the definition of “the voice-hearer” as simply “a person who has experienced voice-hearing or auditory verbal hallucinations” fails to acknowledge that this is a complex, politically resonant and value-laden identity.

Although I am the sole author of the article, I benefited enormously from discussing it with mixed audiences of medical humanities scholars, social anthropologists, members of the Hearing the Voice team, and friends who themselves identify (or choose not to identify) as voice-hearers.

The global Hearing Voices Movement and UK Hearing Voices Network have played, of course, the decisive role in building the public identity of “the voice-hearer” and in positively transforming the lives of many individuals. Anyone who is familiar with the HVM will know of the famous television appearance of Patsy Hague and Marius Romme in the late 1980s, a story which I describe in the article as a kind of “foundation myth,” told and re-told to illustrate the origins and the essence of the movement.

I now realise that my own re-telling of that story neglects two crucial elements, and I would like here to offer my sincere thanks to Dr Sandra Escher for discussing these with me. Sandra, who worked during that period as a journalist, saw immediately the role that a television interview could play in promoting and exploring further this new approach to accepting and making sense of voices. In an email she pointed out to me that

Voice hearers developed also because they could tell their story for a big audience and people listened to them. They had to prepare their story and by doing so learned to understand it better.

…You mention Marius and Patsy but you forget me. Marius always says: “If you had not been there the idea would never have gone out of my consulting room.” I am the 3rd leg. I was the first one who organised congresses, enabled people tell their stories, with Marius published them, and helped people to discover their rich experience. I belong to what you describe as the Pasty and Marius story.

Sandra is absolutely right, and my re-telling of this story in the article neglects both her role and the role of the media more generally in promoting “the voice-hearer” as a positive and public identity.

The significance of this omission is in part an academic failing (as Ian Hacking’s work on the earlier and not entirely unrelated figure of “the multiple” makes clear, mass media plays a constitutive role in the looping effects of human kinds). But if anything I am more disturbed by the politics at play here – my failure to recognise Sandra’s expertise and labour, which it could be argued is a failure to do justice to what is not coincidentally the work of women and of people outside the “psy” professions.

Sandra, who I had the privilege of spending time with throughout her fellowship at Durham University in 2011 and at the 2012 World Hearing Voices Congress in Cardiff, is a friend and an inspiration to many in the Hearing Voices Movement, not least for her research on children who hear voices. I would like here to extend my thanks to her for her generous comments on my article, and to put on public record her pivotal role in what should be “the Patsy, Marius and Sandra” story.

See: Angela Woods, The Voice Hearer, Journal of Mental Health 22.3 (2013) 263-270.