Turning in to the sound of silence

CATCHING UP WITH...DIANE REHM

In turning off the radio, Diane Rehm found her inner voice. Now readers get to discover it, too.

September 05, 1999|By PATRICIA MEISOL | PATRICIA MEISOL,SUN STAFF

That Diane Rehm stumbled into a career as a public radio talk show host at American University in the early 1970s was no accident; she was a natural. She knew radio's sounds and rhythms well -- it had long filled a void she felt, assuaged a little girl's fear.

Even now, on the eve of a national tour for her new book, "Finding My Voice," silence leaves her uncomfortable. On a recent morning, the sound of an upstairs radio fills her Bethesda home. Though it's tuned to "The Diane Rehm Show," the voice of the host is not hers.

Since May 1998, when doctors diagnosed the problem of her long-faltering voice as spasmodic dysphonia, Rehm has been undergoing treatment that takes her off the air regularly for three to five weeks at a time. The first time doctors injected her gnarled vocal chords with botulinus toxin, she was unable to speak at all.

After her latest treatment, she says, clearly, steadily, if slightly above whisper, "It feels really right." Her voice should be fine-tuned by Wednesday, when Rehm speaks at 7: 30 p.m. at Bibelot in Woodholme.

Don't expect to hear about trips to Johns Hopkins Hospital, about her diagnosis after eight years of wondering, or about the fact that people with this strange disease are now treated earlier because of Rehm.

The surprise of "Finding My Voice" is that the voice Rehm describes struggling to regain is not the one listeners are so familiar with.

The book's title is a metaphor for a remarkable personal journey, the very writing of which aided Rehm in making discoveries within herself -- discoveries about family, marriage and self. That Rehm was in on the ground floor of a revival of talk radio, her style shaping its growth, appears mostly as an interesting backdrop in what is ultimately the inside story of a self-made woman.

She didn't set out to write the book to find herself, she says, though she often told friends that "Maybe in the process of writing I would find out about myself in ways I don't expect."

She certainly didn't expect to find out how much she feared and loved her mother, how hard she had to work on her marriage, and how her instincts about radio helped her land a place in its history. "It didn't become clear to me until after I wrote the book. I didn't set out to tell three stories; that's what I did."

Truth be told, Diane Rehm never intended to write anything.

A friend, literary agent Ron Goldfarb, who knew her as the daughter of Arab immigrants, a high-school graduate who parlayed a volunteer job into radio stardom, badgered her for a book. When she rejected a collection of her interviews as boring, he begged her to keep a journal. Ridiculous, she thought; who would ever want to read about her?

Rehm was well on her way to becoming the doyenne of public radio in 1991 at WAMU-FM in Washington when she noticed a slight tremor in her voice. For a few years she countered it with Advil. Doctor after doctor told her it was nothing some breathing therapy couldn't cure.

But as her voice grew worse, Rehm wondered whether it was the result of self-induced stress. Self-doubt, even. Was this to be the punishment for her success? She had to wonder.

As if to underscore her fear, Rehm's fame grew -- by the time her show was sold to National Public Radio audiences nationwide in 1996, the unexplained voice problems left her increasingly tense.

Such was her mind set one Sunday in September 1997, when she turned off the radio and sat down at her desk in the study overlooking her rose garden. "I was not with my husband. I was not with my mother. I was not with anyone. Just me," she recalls. "I thought, God, I am uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with having the nerve to put the first sentence down."

Days of punishment

"My mind drifts back to those early days of punishment in my bedroom, when my mother's wrath is expressed in silence," Rehm wrote that day. "It will be days, sometimes weeks, before she speaks to me again. The silence is so deep."

Her mother was 22 when she immigrated from Egypt to wed Rehm's father, a successful Turkish grocer 13 years her senior, in a semi-arranged marriage. So filled with self-doubt was she that she couldn't bring herself to show up for her daughter's school field trip. At the last minute, she sent a substitute. Her insecurities and illness left her angry and depressed. She showed her displeasure at her children's smallest childhood missteps by withdrawing herself -- expressed in silence -- for weeks at a time.

"The silence that left me so afraid," Rehm says, "was the resounding silence of being in my own room, at home, knowing Mama was in the house somewhere, and knowing she wouldn't talk to me. It was the sound of my presence," she says. She blamed herself, and came to see herself as harshly as she was judged.

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