The sound of our mother’s voice—its grain and cadence—first helps us know ourselves. In a surround-sound-mirror we learn 360 degree self-reflection. At six months in utero, a fetus recognizes her mother’s voice. A fetus responds to maternal speech patterns and is enveloped in a world of sound well before she’s born into the visual world. Sight doesn’t organize enough to recognize people until weeks after a baby is born. The shift from auditory to visual orientation happens later, imitating the cultural shift in the West, from Medieval sonic to Renaissance visual culture, with its single-point perspective. Sound might engulf you, but optics locks in frontally.
The nourishing maternal voice evokes and engineers our psychic lives. No one can understand the words—semantics is always an anemic allegory—but the expression itself communicates directly by way of rhythm and tone. And an infant responds. Her first power is her cry, her endless vocal arsenal, a language parents learn until the infant forgets the sonic spectrum, limits her sounds to only those most effective. We learn language by forgetting sounds that don’t signify in our mother tongue. And throughout our lives, voice is the body’s most mighty emanation. An expansion of the body as fully complex as the face, voice harbors remnants of desires, past intensions that confer on it its singularity. Mobilizing latent metaphors, voice is made up of a parallel chain of unconscious or preconscious signifiers. It indexes, knowingly and unknowingly, bodily excitement; pace Cassandra’s babbling, the Sirens’ singing, and the Furies’ unceasing curses. Sing your head off, dearies, no one will listen. Sing yourself to trance and ecstasy, Sybil. If the Pied Piper had been a woman she would have sung the rats then your children into the netherworld. Speak tongues and sentences that take full decades to finally arrive. There is nothing quite as frightening as a woman’s voice hounding you, spitting your full name, flying after you.
I follow my daughter’s screams—they become a frequency of my brain—until I am untuned. “Listen to my words,” I tell her or, “use your words,” though I can’t stand the sound of my voice in these moments. I don’t sound like my own mother, but I sound like everyone’s post-attachment parental chime. A cliché lodges in my throat with all the conviction of thought itself. Even though I want her to know there is a place for female deities of vengeance and volume, I parrot the slogan anyway. I drip the self-righteous claim that someone is always listening. That you can openly and calmly talk away the confusion and frustration. That control is always triumph. Do I want her to know both things or do I speak with a double tongue?