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Finding My Voice

Rehm, Diane

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ISBN 10: 0375401636 / ISBN 13: 9780375401633
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 1999
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Bibliographic Details

Title: Finding My Voice

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York

Publication Date: 1999

Binding: Hardcover

Book Condition:New

Dust Jacket Condition: New

Signed: Signed by Author(s)

Edition: 1st Edition

About this title

Synopsis:

In Finding My Voice, the nationally acclaimed public radio host Diane Rehm tells the story of her remarkable life -- a story in three acts. First, her childhood: She was raised in a traditional Christian Arab household -- her parents were immigrants from the Near East who had a grocery store in Washington, D.C. It was a household dominated by rigor and fear, and Rehm's account of her mother's emotional and physical abuse is chilling. Her young girl's intelligence and energy helped her survive, though the cost to her self-esteem was substantial. After a brief early marriage and divorce, she embarked on a second marriage, to John Rehm -- a marriage rockier than many but one that has endured and flourished, and in which they have happily raised their two children.

Then, in her thirties, as she found her life as a housewife/mother starting to push her into depression, Rehm began by a stroke of good fortune to volunteer at WAMU-FM, then a small public radio station in Washington, and found that she loved radio and was good at it. She had found her métier. Six years later she had her own show, hosting politicians, artists, writers, musicians, and scientists, including Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Salman Rushdie, and Norman Mailer, among thousands of others. Twenty years after she began, her talk show is distributed nationally by National Public Radio (NPR) and reaches more than 700,000 listeners each week. Rehm's knowledge of her medium is extensive. Her account of her career is important for what it tells us about the growth of talk radio and about her ability to use that medium to create a straightforward, honest dialogue with her guests and callers throughout the nation.

Finally, Finding My Voice recounts Rehm's recent frightening battle with a rare neurological disorder, spasmodic dysphonia (SD), a condition that "creates a strangled hoarseness [and] fills [her] voice with tremors." A radio broadcaster's nightmare, the loss of her voice took her off the air for an extended period of time and into a frantic -- and successful -- search for treatment. As she has with other trials in her life, Rehm has faced this ongoing struggle with fortitude, insight, and pluck. This is a fascinating story by a courageous and resourceful American woman.

From the Publisher:

A conversation with Diane Rehm, author of Finding My Voice

Q: You grew up in Washington, DC, the daughter of Arab immigrants. What was life like in your childhood home?
A: The first word that comes to mind is "quiet." Our family life was centered around my mother and what I now realize was her fragile health. The first question we asked her each morning was how well she had slept the night before, since she was a chronic insomniac. In fact, I think she suffered depression, and that's how it manifested itself. I lived in a state of both anxiety and fear: anxiety for how she was feeling, fear, because I never knew from one day to the next, or one moment to the next, how she might behave towards me.

Q: You talk about instances of physical and emotional abuse at home, mostly administered by your mother. How has the experience affected you and how did you deal with it in later life, particularly when you had your own children?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I was never sure when I walked in the door how I might be received by my mother. In addition to the physical punishment, there were weeks at a time when she would not speak to me at all, a form of punishment that was almost worse than the beatings. That kind of treatment left me feeling that I was a bad person, someone who was neither lovable nor worthy of anything that was good, inside our home. At school, however, it was totally different, since teachers regarded me as bright and responsive. In effect, I lived two different lives as a child, one inside the home, and one outside. As an adult, the feelings of insecurity grew more and more powerful. After John and I married, there were times when I was afraid to go to new places unless he took me there first, fearing I'd get lost or would do something wrong, and I didn't even understand what I was afraid of until I underwent years of therapy. As for our children, we had a rule in our home: No Hitting. That held for adults as well as the children themselves. I thank heavens that that rule (put in place by my husband after I swatted David on his backside as a toddler) held sway, because otherwise I might have found myself repeating my mother's (and father's) behavior.

Q: How has Washington changed since the days when you were growing up there?
A: Enormously. As a young girl, I walked to my elementary, junior high and high schools. I lived in a neighborhood with people from varied ethnic backgrounds. The corner playground was our meeting place, for softball, tennis, paddle tennis, basketball and kickball. We thought of Washington as our own small home town, where we were free to go to movies, where we knew the folks who owned the corner delicatessen, the drug store, the cleaners, the bakery, etc. We rode streetcars, or walked, or rode our bicycles. When World War II came, we stood in line for bubblegum, and then saved the comic-filled wrappers and traded them.

Q: Education was not a top priority for your parents, so you didn't attend college. Your daughter, however, is a doctor, and your son a professor of philosophy. Did you push your children to work hard at school?
A: Education was something my husband had enjoyed from his earliest childhood, and one of the elements that drew me to him in the first place. He was, and is, one of the most brilliant human beings I've ever met. In addition, he is a wonderful teacher, and was patient and loving as he introduced me to elements of art, music, history and literature that I hadn't been exposed to previously. So together, we felt very strongly that David and Jennie should have a rich and well-balanced education. At the same time, they are both first-rate athletes, as well as musicians. They each selected their own colleges, and their own fields of graduate studies. We are enormously proud of both of them as human beings.

Q: Before your marriage to John Rehm, you were married to someone in the Arab community for three years. How did you find the strength to leave an unhappy marriage given the strict nature of your traditional upbringing?
A: It was only after my parents' death that I got up the gumption to make the decision to end the marriage. I knew it would upset not only my family (many uncles, aunts, and cousins) but the Arab community at large, which had seen almost no divorces up until that time. Had we had children, I don't think I could have made the break. And had my parents lived, I know I could never have done it, because it would have brought them shame. When the time came, however, I knew I had to have my freedom -- not only from my husband, but from the entire community.

Q: You began your career at WAMU as a volunteer, and a very nervous one at that. Please tell us about your first experience on the job.
A: In 1973, I was given the opportunity to become a volunteer on a newly-developed weekday morning talk show. When I arrived at the station on that first day, however, trembling with anticipation and nervousness, I was met at the door by the station manager, Susan Harmon, who told me that the host was out sick. My heart sank momentarily, assuming I'd turn around and go home, and that all of this mental preparation had been for naught. But then Susan said she'd like me to come into the studio to help her with that day's program. I couldn't believe my ears! So in I went, sat down in front of a microphone, talked with Susan and the guest for that day, a representative of the Dairy Council. What was so unbelievable was how natural it felt! It was as though I'd done it all my life! At the end of the ninety minutes, Susan seemed delighted, and that was the beginning of it all.

Q: Twenty years later, you are one of the leading NPR talk show hosts in the country. How did you get past your fears? Is there a secret to your success?
A: If I hadn't had the support of my husband and good friends, and if I hadn't found a small, welcoming work environment, and if I hadn't continued to work on my own sense of vulnerability, I could never have managed to do what I've done. To say I've gotten past my fears is not correct. My fears will always be a part of who I am. In fact, perhaps my fears are part of what have propelled me to work so hard. What I have had to do, however, is to learn to accept the fears (sometimes I'm successful and sometimes I'm not) and just move on. Taking the plunge towards the unknown is so difficult, and I was fortunate enough to have strong g support. Even so, I had to try to overcome the negative inner voices that kept telling me I couldn't do it, that I would fail, and that I would humiliate myself. I've learned to talk back to those voices, and, to a great degree, to quiet them. But it's a constant struggle that perhaps will never really be over.

Q: You've talked about how your rising popularity as a radio host strained your marriage. How did you and your husband deal with the growing pains?
A: Sometimes quite well, and sometimes terribly. As I've said, John was my source of support and encouragement. At the same time, he has acknowledged that my evolution from homemaker to volunteer to part-time and then full-time radio presented some difficulties. My growing sense of independence upset the balance that had existed between us for nearly fifteen years. His wants and needs became less of a priority for me. Something as simple as my no longer ironing his shirts left him feeling hurt and even angry. As his own interest in his professional life seemed to be waning, mine was ascending. There were times when he withdrew for long periods, reminding me of my mother's behavior. It took many, many hours of therapy, both separately and together, to learn to disconnect myself from him and to allow him the freedom to sort through his own difficulties.

Q: How has your style as a talk show host changed -- and how has it stayed the same -- over the years?
A: When I began hosting the show in 1979, I was doing the entire program -- the planning, the phoning, the script-writing, and the hosting -- on my own. Now I work with four wonderful producers, whose ideas and creativity have enriched the program enormously. I spend less time reading for each segment, because they prepare me so well. I feel more free to ask questions from the gut than I used to. In other words, no matter what the facts of the subject are, I allow myself to stray into my own psyche more readily. I'm having more fun on the air than I used to as a result.

Q: How has talk radio changed over the last two decades?
A: In a word, enormously. It's become far more politically oriented, and far more ideologically driven. There are few talk radio programs (other than those found on public radio) which attempt to bring a variety of perspectives to a single issue. And yet that's what we all really need: a realistic understanding of the complexity of all the problems facing the country. There are no absolutes, except that there are no absolutes, yet there are some talk show hosts who would have us believe that their way is the only way. I think that's what's changed the most. Also, the manner in which listeners use talk radio has changed. They don't sit back passively. They are active participants in the program, and, in my case, have made my twenty years a continuing growth experience.

Q: Of the many people you have interviewed -- the list is enormous, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Tom Clancy to Edward O. Wilson -- which two would you consider the best and worst interviews and why?
A: That's a tough one to answer, considering that we're talking about twenty years of interviews. Let me, instead, characterize what I think of as a terrific interview. I would describe such a happening as one where two minds meet and blend without effort or self-consciousness, where you almost have an out-of-studio experience, not even thinking of what's going on around you or any of the questions you might have in front of you. It just flows, and you feel as though you're doing a magnificent Viennese waltz in perfect rhythm with a partner who is gifted at both leading and following.
On the other hand, a worst-case scenario is one where you can sense, almost immediately, that a guest doesn't want to be in the studio. You can see it in the walk or the stance, or hear it in the tone of voice even before we go on the air. I've had a few of those in my career, and I promise you, they're no fun. I've come close to inviting several people to leave the studio, but listeners have saved the day.

Q: You were recently diagnosed with Spasmodic Dysphonia, a disorder of the vocal cords that nearly ended your career. Please describe this illness and the treatment you receive for it.
A: Spasmodic Dysphonia is a form of dystonia that affects the vocal cords. So far as we know, the basal ganglia of the brain sends an incorrect message to the vocal cords, telling them to clamp together inappropriately. When they are tightly shut this way, it causes a strangled, choking sound to emerge, instead of the normal vocal sounds we're all used to hearing. There is at present no cure. The treatment is botulinum toxin (Botox), injected through the neck directly into the vocal cords. This paralyzes them temporarily, and initially prevents them from clamping together. Too much of the toxin will cause the vocal cords to separate too much, thereby leaving me with no voice at all, just a faint whisper. Too little of the toxin will wear off quickly and force me back to the otolaryngologist for yet another injection.

Q: How did you deal with the depression you felt when early treatments for your throat were failing? Did you think about what you would do if you could no longer be a radio host?
A: For months and months, I was depressed and becoming increasingly panicky. I could barely do the show. Finally, on February 23, 1998, after barely getting through my two-hour stint, and then racing down to the Four Seasons Hotel to moderate an hour-long panel discussion on "Gossip," I knew I couldn't do it anymore. I raced back to the station, went straight to my manager, and, weeping, told him I'd have to take some time off to find out what was wrong with my voice. At that moment, I thought my career was at an end. Luckily, that very night I had an appointment with a psychopharmacologist who prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, as well as an anti-depressant. Nevertheless, for the next three months I was at home, off the air, hoping that my voice would improve. I saw virtually no one but my closest friends and family. But the voice didn't do anything but croak. I saw myself leaving the station, leaving behind a career I had loved and enjoyed. At the same time, however, I was able to say to myself, "Dear God, if this is it, this is it. I've had a great run, and I've talked with some of the most interesting people in the world. Now I'll have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life." Finally, my internist sent me to Johns Hopkins University Hospital, where both a neurologist and an otolaryngologist diagnosed my problem as Spasmodic Dysphonia. The discovery has certainly not ended my speech therapy or my psychotherapy. I continue with both, as I try to learn to re-shape my speaking voice, as well as my thinking about myself.

Q: What's next for you?
A: In my entire life, I have never planned the next step ahead. It's always just unfolded. And once it begins to unfold, you see it in a fuzzy way at first, and then it becomes more and more clear what the next step should be. But I have no idea right now.

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