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The Voice-Hearer

Angela Woods
Journal of Mental Health, 2013, Vol. 22 (3): 263-270.


Who, or what, is 'the voice-hearer'? Minimally, the term refers to someone who hears a voice or utterance in the absence of any speaker; someone who, in psychiatric parlance, would be said to have experienced auditory verbal hallucinations (AVH). In the case of neuropsychological research, this definition is a clear and uncontentious, albeit cumbersome, synonym for the scientific shorthand AVH+. But there are other contexts - interpersonal, political, clinical - in which the statement 'I am a voice-hearer' has a deeper and more complex meaning. The purpose of this paper is to offer what might loosely be called a 'thick description' (Geertz, 1973) of the figure of 'the voice-hearer.' I aim to show how, in high-income countries in the late twentieth century, 'the voice-hearer' emerged as a culturally meaningful and politically charged identity enacted through a specific set of narrative practices. Complementing texts such as Lisa Blackman's powerful study of the 'techniques of the hallucinatory self' (Blackman, 2001), and Ian Hacking's genealogical exploration of multiple personality (Hacking, 1995), this paper seeks to understand 'the voice-hearer' as a cultural resource that is used by people to articulate and share specific experiences, values and viewpoints. My use of quotation marks is intended to remind the reader that 'the voice-hearer' refers not to any individual, but to a figure, symbol, or category of identity. With this focus in mind, my analysis concentrates on a range of prominent texts (life narratives, research papers, videos and blogs) produced by leading figures in the Hearing Voices and broader c/s/x (consumer/survivor/ex-patient) movements.