Where Secrets Lay

On Backstage Confessionals & Past Voices

Where Secrets Lay

Mary. In 1963, when Mary McCarthy was living in Paris, she published her commercial sensation The Group, whose descriptions of sex and birth control and breastfeeding raised eyebrows across the country. Returning to the United States for readings and interviews on her book tour, she discussed the scandalous stories and the frivolous girls her intellectual colleagues at the Partisan Review and the New York Review of Books found so distasteful.

She describes feeling “stranger and stranger” with all the attention she’s getting (the book very quickly sold to Hollywood for an astonishing $162,500); she frets about producers fitting in her false “television teeth” before appearances. She liked being fussed over, no doubt, and she certainly liked having money, but the success of The Group among average Americans was overwhelming (as were the scathing reviews by long-standing friends in her literary circle). In her readings and interviews she sounds hesitant, uncertain of her word choice; she sometimes stutters, makes concessions. After getting used to her written voice — which is razor-sharp and confident, and not very ladylike — this softer, more polite tone of her spoken voice is jarring.

I began listening to Mary’s interviews while studying The Group and its afterlife, and I quickly became attached to the sound of her voice. It’s strong, but halting, and sometimes even surprisingly ineloquent. It sounds like it’s smiling (although it always seems as though a part of her smile is shared only with herself). I listened to one particular interview until I had it memorized, and then I kept listening. I’ve now listened to every recording of her voice that I could find, just to hear its tremors, its amicable smile.

It was disconcerting to hear this dazzlingly untouchable woman on her book tour sound giggly, sheepish, amenable to the men she was talking to. It made me feel uncomfortable, but also a little excited, as though I could keep her in my headphones all the time and she would somehow become less dazzlingly untouchable, as though we could share some of the intimacy she doesn’t seem to offer me in her writing.

When I was a child I rarely had any friends in school, but I was easily charmed by smart or pretty girls, ready and willing to enter into a comfortably enjoyable state of one-way admiration, watching and absorbing the way they moved through the world. My need to be close to Mary McCarthy feels like this: to share intimacy not as a friend but as a spy, to be around her when the comfortable protection of her pages isn’t in between us.

For writers, text feels safer and makes more sense, and therefore is somehow less satisfying for the fan with somewhat antagonistic, voyeuristic impulses. The voice is often uncomfortable and naked, and somehow more revealing to the listener than to the reader; it makes humans of gods.

Walter Benjamin was deeply fascinated with voices. Of his many various jobs he took on to pay the bills, one of the lesser-known (and one of his most embarrassing) was as a radio script writer for Radio Berlin and Radio Frankfurt. We don’t know what Benjamin’s voice sounded like — no recording of the hundreds of radio programs he hosted has survived, except for a fragment that he wrote but didn’t speak in — but his instinct about the new medium was prescient, and his writings about radio remain invaluable.

In one of Benjamin’s plays for children, the announcer is about to begin the Radio Youth Hour and is rifling through a book of fairy tales to decide which ones to read, when the characters of Wilhelm Hauff’s “The Cold Heart” come barging into the station, wishing to be a part of the program. “It’s supposedly the fashion for fairy tale characters to step out of books and cross over into Voice Land, where they can introduce themselves to many thousands of children all at once,” says one character.

“Whoever wishes to enter Voice Land must be very modest,” the announcer says. “He must surrender all finery and relinquish all external beauty, so that nothing is left but his voice.”

For Benjamin, the “disembodied” voice on the radio signalled an important potential shift in the way people related to the world. The science of mass media was a sort of controlled, ominous magic, reaching thousands of people instantaneously, bringing voices from the spirit world of German history into people’s homes like a medium at a seance. At the same time, the vulnerability of the disembodied voice gave listeners a unique kind of agency; throughout his own broadcasts, Benjamin addresses his listeners directly, appealing to their attention (he had a particular respect for children, and their power to choose whether to humor adults). He knew that mass media had enormous potential to spread fascism, and that the voices drawn from the ether could well be that of the devil, who is regularly hinted at in his writing; but he was optimistic that the medium of radio could enable independent thinking. Typically for Benjamin, new technology represented something terrifying and exciting at once: As with consumer culture and the commodity, the radio apparatus meant both regression as well as opportunity, both isolation as well as intimacy.

What set Benjamin apart from his fellow Marxists — and what makes his writings on radio and technology generally so important — was that he examined changes that the purists would have been alarmed by and acknowledged their potential without necessarily advocating for them. For him, the interesting thing about technological advancements, whether they further enabled fascism or not, was the set of new feelings that they inspired. He loved weirdness, things that bordered on the creepy; he embraced his own fear, turned things on their head, and leaned right in.

Sylvia. Describing a voice poses the same challenges as describing a color. What does blue look like? Blue; and perhaps a long, low whale song. What does Sylvia Plath’s voice sound like? Sylvia Plath’s; and wet fields, full of harvest. But with brambles strewn about.

Sylvia’s voice sounds nothing like Mary’s, but it has the same strange quality of being somewhat softer around the edges than her writing style; she, too, hesitates when she talks, makes jarring pauses. Her voice is lush, but there is a tremor in it, a voice eternally looking around a door. Perhaps it’s because of Ted Hughes, perhaps it’s intentional. It’s singsong, uncertain, coy, both mysterious and intimate.

An interviewer asks her which poets she likes to read periodically. Ted Hughes, she answers, and the way she says his name, a poet first and her husband second — this is what draws me in, the admiration in her tone; perhaps there is love too, but a love for poetry. Her choice of words mirrors my feelings about her voice — familiar, but also removed. Ted’s voice is remarkably similar to his wife’s, low and sweet and not overtly taking up much space. Both of their tones make room for their tension.

In 1971, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in the New York Review of Books that Sylvia read her poems beautifully, “projected in full-throated, plump, diction-perfect, Englishy, mesmerizing cadences, all round and rapid, and paced and spaced … Clearly, perfectly, staring you down.” Sylvia reads very differently from how she answers questions or engages in debate; she commands authority with her poems. Her c’s and k’s are hard, bursting with water. Every t is a stone dropped in a pond, ripples until the end of the sentence.

Sylvia’s friend Anne Sexton didn’t have this discrepancy when she talked; she did interviews the way she did readings, in a slow, powerful drawl, pulling on her words in between pulling on her cigarette. Anne Sexton is harder for me to listen to without the accompaniment of video; perhaps her voice is too rough, or perhaps I’m too enamored with her face. But Sylvia sits well in my headphones, she is more consumable when I’m not upright; I often take her to bed with me, and drift off with her lilt in my ears.

Simone. I begin to devour other women, listening more and understanding less. Speeches become music, just another kind of company. Writing is hard when there is anything comprehensible coming through my headphones, but my French is too poor for Simone de Beauvoir to be quite as distracting as Mary or Sylvia; so she ends up being the soundtrack to much of my late night writing.

Simone’s voice is rough, husky. Her tone is less accommodating than my American women, but she too has a sweetness in her voice, a total absence of anger, which I quickly fall in love with. She is generous when forced to explain her book, or correct the interviewer making assumptions; she uses high and lovely inflections that make it sound like they are figuring something out together, like they are equals, even though (of course) that’s not true. Pas exactement de protestation, j’essaie surtout de la décrire. I don’t exactly “protest,” I just try to describe.

A protest is emotional, subjective; it can be resisted, or denied outright. Simone will not have her interviewer hijack reality, dissolve her into factlessness and feelings. Even after publishing such a backbreaker as The Second Sex, she is still spoken to as a woman, exotic, a wild thing, a radical. In her voice, though, there is nothing radical, or at least nothing that can be accused of being radical; there is only sanity, lined with pearls.

Simone is not interested in anger. She is interested in living her life, and in living it with pleasure. Perhaps part of why I like this strange softness in my women — especially those with the capacity for and the right to anger — is that I know that this softness is not altogether truthful, and so do they. I enjoy enjoying it, just as I imagine them enjoying making it, and tending to it.

But I know there is something true in this softness as well — their work is sincere and their grace is tangible, and they are each so wholly complete in themselves that there is no need for the fearful roughness that men so often provoke in women. I’m drawn to this sweetness, this sense of loveliness in their voices, because that is what voice itself seems to promise: not just my intent to see them bare, but also their acceptance of this intent, and of their bareness.

Voices have taken on new significance as of late. Zoom is all-consuming, and not just as the go-to for work calls but also for family catch-ups, game nights, graduation celebrations, bachelorette parties. I’ve never been one for ambling phone calls, but Zoom renews my appreciation in the disembodied voice on the phone, just hanging out while I hang out.

It reminds me of something a friend said about childhood sleep-overs, catching up with friends and talking nonstop about everything, all the while knowing it was only when they were in bed, and the lights were out, that the real talk began, that the secrets came out.

Jacques Derrida described the power of voice as coming from this illusion of unmediated presence, this lack of “worldly form” that gives the voice a unique kind of truth. (The confessional, of course, is only possible in darkness.) Our bodies on Zoom are upright, and necessarily stiff; and perhaps no one is ever completely honest while sitting up, while seen. Maybe this is why video could never kill off the radio star; communication channels only proliferate, but there is always nostalgia for the voice I cannot see, the voice which I can listen to while invisibly hanging out.

When audio was first recorded by Thomas Edison, it was literally etched onto cylinders; the poets who first recorded their voices considered it to be a form of embalming. This disembodied voice was said to provoke “awe and wonderment.” But Benjamin had a slightly different understanding of the recorded voice specifically as it played on the radio; he said that radio enters the listener’s house “where the voice is like a guest; upon arrival, it is usually assessed just as quickly and as sharply.” The guest at home is treated respectfully, but is not the awe-inspiring presence that calls for the kind of preservation and timelessness that embalming connotes; the guest is alive, and can be responded to.

Still, the disembodied voice is vulnerable because it can be silenced at any time. With radio, Benjamin believed, the mass audience held an authority that it perhaps did not with other mass media; the listener was the expert on whether the radio voice was trustworthy or not, and therefore on whether or not to initiate or continue this closeness. “Never has a reader snapped shut a book he has just begun as willfully as listeners switch off the radio after the first minute of some lectures,” Benjamin cautions. “It is not the remoteness of the subject matter; this would often be a reason to listen for a while, uncommitted. It is the voice, the diction, the language… the technological and formal aspect makes the most interesting shows unbearable.” The expertise of the radio announcer was decided by their voice, and their voice was, Benjamin argued (or hoped), at the mercy of the listener.

But it’s easy to apply what Benjamin believed about the radio — that it was at once close and distant, at once powerful and vulnerable — to old recordings of poetry and interviews with people who are long dead. It seems harder to do that with the radio of today: podcasts, another recent explosion, are a very different kind of sound.

Any audio recording is dually situated in time; both when it’s produced and when it’s heard. Perhaps the crucial difference between listening to readings or interviews from fifty years ago and listening to podcasts today is that — as with Mary and Sylvia and Simone — I can enjoy that distance in time, truly “listen in,” slip backstage to witness a performance that wasn’t meant for me, filled with people who are not speaking to me personally. They never pictured or placed me in their audience, but their voices have carried for greater distances in time than could have been imagined.

The podcast, on the other hand, feels much more like the guest in my home, often welcome, but also suspect if it cannot keep my attention — and of course I’m paying more attention when I’m backstage than when I’m being given a show. Podcasts today very much place me in the audience; every errant breath can easily be silenced, every note of accompanying music expertly curated, the whole package minutely choreographed to perfection. Podcasts feel neither intimate nor mysterious. Many of the podcasts made by people my age (particularly those made in New York) feel like they’re simply elongated tweets: the same false vulnerability, the same hardened irony.

David Foster Wallace had the firm opposite of false vulnerability and hardened irony. He begged us to see through it, get rid of it. Irony is this marvelous carapace that I can use to shield myself from seeming to you to be naive, or sentimental, he says softly, imploringly. Being saturated with media, he said, we grew bored, cynical, afraid of and embarrassed by excess feeling. Strangely, Wallace was the first author whose voice I ever took an interest in, years ago when I was reading Infinite Jest and realized just how much more sense the book made, coming from a man who sounded the way he did.

Wallace’s voice — talking not just about the book, but about anything — brings to life all the tension and the stakes in his stories. It is full and musical, and he treats with utmost seriousness the task of articulation; but it is also low, nervous, apologetic, almost heartbreakingly sweet. This was a voice that was anxious and overwhelmed, that engaged valiantly with new technology or acknowledged itself a product of it, but also seemed to shrink in the face of it.

An early section of Infinite Jest actually hazards a cynical thesis for why the “videophone” was never able to fully replace audio-calling: Consumers realized that “there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces.” The disembodied voice was crucial for maintaining the “fantasy” that the other person was as absorbed in what you were saying as you believed they were (and as absorbed as you often were not); it let the listener “enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue… the illusion was aural and aurally supported: the phone-line's other end's voice was dense, tightly compressed, and vectored right into your ear.”

But to sit upright and look at each other’s faces in a screen — to force “the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener's expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges” — this has none of the comfort of simply hanging out, and, according to Wallace, not likely to make for honest conversation either.

Perhaps because Wallace was so hyper-aware of the way our attention span has been influenced by mass media, his voice seems all the more soft and imploring. It’s the voice of someone who assumes the audience is only pretending to listen.

Vincent. Of all the women I listen to while moving around my house, Edna St. Vincent Millay (Vincent, as she signed her letters) is the only one who sounds like she was born to use her throat. She trained as an actor with the Provincetown Playhouse, and co-founded the experimental off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre in 1923. Her poetry is written for performance and married to sound. “Besides having beautiful hair, an extraordinary good forehead in spite of the freckles, an impudent, aggressive, and critical nose, and a mysterious mouth,” she once remarked, “I have, artistically and even technically, an unusually beautiful throat.” Her readings are strained with the sense of needing to be heard.

Jonathan Franzen once wrote a long polemic against writers whose essay style did not reflect the way people talked. I have never thought of essays in this way. Essays must read not as we would talk, but as we would sing. The same is even truer of poetry, especially Millay’s. Her voice inherently carries melody. People would attend her readings as though they were concerts; fans knew her poems — lyrics, more accurately — by heart.

During the winter of 1932-33, Millay gave eight readings on NBC radio, and was inundated with letters from listeners charmed by her voice. One woman wrote that it “was a delight to hear a voice so human.” Another wrote that “I feel all of your radio audience was drawn very close to you by your sweet informal way.” People who didn’t own radios would buy them just to listen to her broadcast. They commented on her “fascinatingly distinctive moving voice,” which was “simply intoxicating… you sound so real, so natural, so — so very much alive…”

What was unique about Millay’s voice was that it had the same impact on listeners whether they were hearing her live or on the radio. They all felt an overpowering sense of enchantment upon listening to her, the “subtle drug” of her siren song. Edmund Wilson remarked on her power of “imposing herself on others through a medium that unburdened the emotions of solitude.” Her voice is slow and mournful, perfectly encapsulating the sorrow of her own poetry. “The company hushed and listened as people do to music,” Wilson continues, “her authority was complete; but her voice, though dramatic, was lonely.”

The only writer whose voice I sought out not for the company of her person but simply for the quality of her tone was Edna St. Vincent Millay. Twenty-two of her recorded performances from 1961 are archived together, and listening to them it becomes clear that her poetry is written to be sung. She is in a different league from the other women I keep with me because she is in complete command over her voice, and how connected it is to the poetry she both writes and recites. This voice is more of a natural extension of the writing itself than that of any of the other writers I listen to; and so it offers me none of the bareness and vulnerability I’m looking for in a human being, only the bareness expertly navigated and edited into the text.

Mary. Months after my first encounter with Mary McCarthy speaking on her book tour, and after I’d been listening to the same recordings for a while, I found her again, anew. She was reading from The Group, on the same 1963 book tour, at an event at the 92nd Street Y. In this significantly better-preserved recording, Mary sounds just as pliable and perhaps even more nervous when talking to the audience, just beginning to read her excerpt. And though she has a beautiful voice, she knows that her book wasn’t meant to be read aloud.

“I’m not reading it right. I hear it, and I can’t do it,” she admits, about the scene she’s about to read. “Furthermore I have a cold. And my voice sounds more like Norine’s.” (This last comment sparks laughter; the scene she’s about to read is written from the point of view of Helena, who’s talking to Norine, so presumably in her head it reads in the voice of Helena, the much more sympathetic character; for the scene to sound as though it was being read by its antagonist must have felt strange for her.) “However,” she says, “I can hear it in the writing, and I hope you can hear it a little bit.”

The scene, in which Helena has to listen to Norine’s problems about her impotent husband and explain to Norine why secretly sleeping with a friend’s husband might be wrong, is hilarious; she has to keep pausing to let the audience laugh, and once in a while she giggles too. But other than the fact that it’s smooth and more confident when she reads text, there’s little difference between Mary’s reading voice and her speaking voice. She is excessively humble, and very lively. She reads the French affaire in a spirited, unbothered American way. Her t’s are soft, the opposite of Sylvia’s — almost invisible, similarly American. Her short vowels are drawn out gamely and playfully: ho-tel, ho-teyl; fill, fiyl.

Mary’s friend Dwight Macdonald once remarked that “when most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific… When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.” She scared people, perhaps, or she commanded some distance with her wit in her writing, but she also had that kind of face, or that kind of smile. Mary was not famously pretty; at first glance there was something odd about her looks, something not entirely pleasant. Her voice, I realize later, is something like this — not typically beautiful, not frictionless or honey-like, but mightily arresting nonetheless.

This is the voice I choose to listen to when I begin to feel ill and need some quiet: Mary McCarthy reading my favorite scene from The Group. And it’s also what I listen to when I’m in desperate need of company, chopping vegetables, doing laundry, taking my daily walk around the block. Now more than ever it feels important (but difficult) to remember what it means to have good politics, what it means to be a good person, and how easily the two can diverge. Mary McCarthy was particularly sensitive to this; and despite the reputation that her fearless writing garnered her, her stories are bursting with humanity and tenderness. This is not a woman who wants to give men a check-their-zipper sort of squeamishness out of sheer cruelty, or some feminist vindictiveness.

I realize listening to her reading at the 92Y that what I need is not just the company of the writer, but the company of her character, Helena. Mary said that her voice sounded more like Norine’s than Helena’s, but even if this were true, it ends up mattering little. It’s clear that she “can hear it in the writing,” it being Helena’s voice, and she doesn’t fail at giving it to us too — this quiet girl telling her socialist friend that if she wants to be happy, she would do well to try and be a better friend and person: to pause her lofty ideals, clean her house, and read some literature.

Benjamin believed that the subject matter of a radio show was not nearly as important as the technical and formal quality of the voice presenting it. The right voice reading or speaking about even the most unengaging subject can offer some sense of comfort or company, excitement or intimacy. There are speakers one listens to even for the weather report, he writes.

This is what my project to uncover the spoken voices of these writers has become — a process of hearing less of their words and more of their throats. And throughout this process I have increasingly yearned for the sound of Benjamin’s voice, a sound lost to history. I often think if I could choose between hearing him read a weather report or having a lively conversation about politics or philosophy, I would choose the former. There is something uniquely comforting about having such an abundance of words from writers you love that you don’t necessarily have to listen to them all.

These voices don’t just come into me through my headphones every time I need them; they live in my repository now, where they sit and can be summoned at the various moments during which I need my voices — when I read, when I think, when I talk to myself, when I dream. These are not sounds I hear from afar, the way I do when I actually turn on tapes of their voices; once I play them back, I hear them from inside my body, and they are no longer only saying what they were in the original recordings. Now, I compose letters to my husband in my head and it’s Sylvia’s voice helping me articulate them; and recently, I finally started Simone’s A Woman Destroyed, and it was Mary McCarthy who read the narrator for me.

Apoorva Tadepalli

is a freelance writer from Bombay and Brooklyn. She tweets at @storyshaped.

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