The door closed with a whoosh like a vacuum seal. The seal sucked up all of the sound. It left behind only air—hot, still air that made the back of my neck liquefy.
The Booth was a coffin, upright and fitted on two sides with glass, and I was being punished—sealed in alive—for daring to talk about my family. For saying, out loud to the universe, This is how it was or, rather, This is how it was to me.
I had appeared on a Tuesday morning at the Flatiron building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third street in New York City, where over four days I was expected to record the audio version of The Mighty Franks, my memoir of coming of age in a bizarrely intertwined family in which brother and sister (my father and my aunt) had married sister and brother (my mother and my uncle) and the widowed mothers of these sets of siblings (my two grandmothers) lived together for twelve unhappy years.
The book, like the early part of my life that it describes, ends up being dominated by the baroque, unstable personality of my screenwriter aunt, Harriet Frank, Jr., who, being childless yet longing for a child, for many years “borrowed” me from my parents, guiding me as to what books to read and what music to listen to, which paintings and movies and buildings to like and (as importantly) dislike, how to experience the world, until I began to experience the world for myself, and to speak up about my experience, an act that detonated my aunt … and our family.
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In The Booth, where I was about to relive this whole experience, I could hear my own heart beating, and it was beating fast. Alarmingly fast.
I glanced at the small vent overhead and took as deep a breath as it looked like it would permit. Then I read the opening of my book, the scene in which, as a small boy, I overhear my aunt tell my mother she wishes I were her son. (Of course my discomfort had nothing to do with revisiting that moment or preserving it, digitally, for all time.)
“Everything all right?” a voice, Oz-like, inquired through the headphones—it was Chealsea, the audio technician. What had she seen? The windows fogging up? The waterfall cascading down my forehead?
“Umm … it’s kind of warm in here?”
She opened the door. I tumbled out, gulping air.
Like most people, I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. When, at a meeting last summer, a member of the marketing team at Farrar, Straus and Giroux told me that more and more authors, especially authors of memoirs, were recording their own books, I nodded politely. But then she asked outright, “So how would you feel about reading yours?”
The response I heard in my inner ear: Are you out of your mind?
The one I offered aloud: “Sure.”
Some people treat their anxiety with drugs; I treat mine with research. I reached out to a few actor friends. One passed me on to the actor Adam Grupper, who has recorded scores of audio books. I envisioned Adam sitting me down and teaching me how to use, rather than misuse, my voice; how to hold myself physically; where to pause, breathe, emphasize, deemphasize; and what to do with my diaphragm (weren’t actors and singers always talking about their diaphragms?).
Instead he imparted all his wisdom in a four-sentence phone call: “Wear loose clothing. Pause when you scroll down on the iPad, since the microphone picks up every sound. Drink lots of water, and take plenty of breaks. The most important thing of all: Remember, it’s a marathon, not a race.”
Paradoxically, I don’t dislike reading aloud—under the right circumstances. I like to read aloud to myself, to measure how a particular sentence scans (though certainly I’m not in a rhythm-checking league with Virginia Woolf, whose housekeeper used to hear her speaking her sentences every morning in the bathtub). I have read aloud to my daughter for years, at night when she was younger, nowadays over breakfast. Nothing like a daily dose of The Odyssey to send a kid off to sixth grade battle-ready for beasts, both real and imagined.
These are mere dabblings, however, compared to the experience that awaited me at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. The Booth measured roughly three feet square by eight feet high—about the same size and proportion as an old-fashioned phone booth. It was furnished with a chair and a pillow and, opposite the chair, a narrow ledge to hold the iPad, the water pitcher and glass, a notebook, and the headphones when they were not in use. A microphone swung down from overhead and was shielded by a small round screen, to help clarify the letter P (for most readers p’s purportedly pose a particularly pernicious problem). To me, that microphone looked like a scary black bird that was both ravenous and taunting: Go ahead and break the family taboo, it seemed to say, and feed me your story—if you dare.
“Let’s do a sound test,” Chealsea had said before we started.
I looked at her. “That’s it? I just go inside, without any guidance?”
“You’ll be fine.”
“You must have some advice for me.”
She considered. “Speak a little more loudly when you’re reading dialogue. And if you find you need to breathe and there’s no punctuation coming up, pause before the word and. Some people find that helpful.”
Speak loudly at dialogue. Pause at and.
She gestured at the chair. I took my seat. The panic began.
While Chealsea went off to adjust the air-conditioning, I closed my eyes, breathed, and had a little talk with myself: Writer, I said, do you realize how damned lucky you are? Get a grip, for goodness sake. I got a grip.
Chealsea returned. When she again closed the door, I forced myself to reject the idea that she was locking me in. I started again from the top. The pages began to roll by. Five, ten. Twenty. Actually they didn’t roll so much as hiccup. Anytime I stumbled, or didn’t like the way I’d read a sentence, I went back, or Chealsea’s unflappable voice piped up in the earphones and sent me back, to read again. She didn’t overlook a single stutter, or catch, or stomach rumble, or crossed leg, or wisp of sigh. The do-overs mounted up.
There’s nothing like reading your own work aloud to show you how imperfect your sense of rhythm is—or, rather, how imperfectly it applies to sentences you hear with your actual, not your inner, ear. When I’m writing, I’ve noticed that I often hear a sentence, the rhythm or music of it, before I know what the words are, what the meaning is. Once I arrive at a notion of the way a sentence should sound, the content follows. But reading them into the microphone was a different animal altogether.
Some sentences popped, to be sure. Some practically spoke themselves. Others caused me to curse the author: What was with all those parenthetical asides? And those acres of my aunt’s italicized speech? As a way of retrieving the past, on the page they had seemed fitting, specific in an almost reportorial way. Read aloud, they made me feel like I was engaged in a kind of ghoulish impersonation, a twisted form of karaoke.
In some places I had to start over three, four times in a row, pausing between each attempt to try to empty my head, clear my throat. Were all these false starts the beginning of a different kind of reckoning with what it meant to reveal, and reenact, the essence of another human being? I was, after all, delivering my aunt to the world, in words collected, shaped, distilled, and finally spoken aloud in a way she would never have herself. I found myself worrying that trying to capture my aunt’s impassioned, frequently injurious, often accusatory speech verged on the psychologically impossible.
“After all the love we gave you, what did you do? You betrayed it. You betrayed our love.”
That was just one of the passages I had to read over several times before I got it right. Or close to right, anyway.
Chealsea was the last in a long line of midwives to The Mighty Franks. There were my first early, helpfully, if at times witheringly, critical readers. Next came my insightful agent and her assistant. My incomparable editor. Copyeditors and proofreaders. Now, in this final iteration of the book, Chealsea—at once cicerone, lexicographer, and psychotherapist—redirected me at every garbled syllable, every impure sound, every too-attenuated pause.
The more I read, the more I began to regard the text as having been written by someone else. That both helped give me some distance and allowed me to convey a sense of discovery. I stopped apologizing to Chealsea for needing to start over and permitted myself to take as much time as felt right. I didn’t freeze up when, faced with a particularly relentless sentence, I had to push every last drop of air out of my lungs to reach the end. I paused at and, but also at but or or. I found myself grateful for the semicolon. The comma? Note to self: Next time, be more lavish with them.
Adam had been spot-on about the marathon part. At the beginning of the week, I wanted to flee for home—the text was just so infinite. Yet by the middle I had completely lost any sense of time. Somewhere between day three and day four it felt like I would never leave The Booth. What’s more, I no longer wanted to. I added to the shelf throat lozenges, tissues, and lip balm (all that reading can cause cracked lips, not to mention an aching jaw)—my stuff, on my shelf, in my booth. Eventually a feeling of wistfulness crept into my days. This was simply where I lived now, where I was content to live. More than that, having fallen under the enchantment of all this talk, I could not imagine having to stop. I had become my own Scheherazade.
On the last morning it dawned on me that reading the audio book of my own memoir was, in a sense, the apotheosis of writing it. It’s hardly original to say people write memoirs in order to be heard. In my case, I had spent such a large part of my adolescence and younger adult life trying to hold my own against those powerfully articulate adults in my world, meaning my aunt and uncle, who refused to stop talking (or screaming), interpreting (or dictating), and haranguing (or vituperating) long enough for me to try to present even a fragment of my own point of view that for years I had, in essence, become mute.
The only time I spoke freely was in my dreams. I had one in particular, a recurring dream in which my aunt and uncle would listen while I told them how I saw and understood them, and how I saw and understood myself. They would sit in stillness and silence, listening with eyes wide open and faces calm while perfectly cadenced, unbroken sentences would simply pour out of me.
Only in my dreams—until now. In The Booth, with its all-patient microphone, its p-softening screen, and its abundance of open, uninterrupted, and apparently infinite time, I had found my ideal audience at last.