When God Talks Back

Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God

Air Dense With Words

A young man who hears voices

Recently I met a young man so interesting but so disturbing that he has haunted my thoughts. I am an anthropologist, and among other pursuits (magic, spirituality) I study madness. So I spent a couple of hours with this man, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Most people who meet criteria for this diagnosis hear voices. That is, they hear people speaking the way you would hear my voice if we were talking: as if from outside, with their ears, as audible as any ordinary voice. Sometimes the voice comments. “Look at her, she’s putting on her coat.” Sometimes voices utter strange and ominous commands. “Don’t touch that!” Sometimes a voice is grand. “You’re the one. You’re the one I came for.” More often it is horrid. “Die, you bitch. Die now.”

These auditory events may prompt people to develop the strange beliefs—delusions—for which schizophrenia is known. People who hear voices may believe that the CIA has implanted computer chips in their dental fillings, or that the government is beaming down rays on their head, because it is the way they come to account for their sense of being followed and talked about and above all known. They often have the shocking experience that their minds are not longer private, because the voices intuit and broadcast their thoughts.

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This was something the young man said. He hated the fact that his mind was not his own any more. The voices got to his thoughts before he did, and told him what his thoughts had said.

We call these “voices” but in fact people with schizophrenia hear many kinds of sound. They do hear actual voices. When you ask people how many voices they hear, they are sometimes very precise in their answer. “I hear three inside voices and two outside voices,” someone once reported to me. “The inside voices are louder.”

But many people also mention scratching sounds, like a field of rats moving behind them in the dark. They hear sounds that become murmurs, people talking just softly enough so that they cannot make out what is being said. They can hear a voice they recognize, but it seems to jump from person to person, as if possessing each in turn. And they may know that they hear someone speak words they know the person never uttered. “I know you are not talking sex to me," one man once said to me with matter-of fact calm. “But when you speak, I hear words of sex come out.”

For the young man, the voices came on the wings of other sound. When he was driving, he would hear voices from the other cars. When he stood on the pavement and a car drove by him, noise sloughed off the car’s backside like water and resolved into voices, like a bubbling stream of jeering, laughing words. When the room was noisy, individual sounds would break off and form themselves into voices. When the room was quiet, he heard less, but a muffled echo would become a man in the other room. When he moved his leg, his leg could speak to him. When his stomach grumbled, it became an angry reprimand.

The voices were like the aftertrace of color images, as if he waved his hand upon the air and left language in its wake. Horrifying language: words which sneered and drawled. He knew these voices were voices, symptoms of an illness, but they sounded real to him, and he could not dismiss the possibility that they were people.

No one knows why people hear voices, psychotic or otherwise, but at least part of the story is that those who do read patterns into ambiguity, one reason that people hear voices in cars and find God on the bus. But I have never before met a man who could thrum his fingers into voice and feel that as he moved the air became dense with words.

Tanya Luhrmann, Ph.D., author of Of Two Minds, and When God Talks Back (March 2012) is a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University.

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