Prof. Dr. M.A.J. Romme & A.D.M.A.C. Escher
reviewed by Mira de Vries
Perhaps the year-and-a-half I waited for the public library to notify me that the book was available testifies to its popularity. One place the book is not popular is in academia. It is not available in the libraries of either of the two Amsterdam universities. Apparently young medical minds are to be shielded from such heresy.
The background to this book is described in Escher’s thesis. This edition is an expanded version of one with the same name published in 1990, which was translated into six languages, including English. Besides the editors’, there are contributions from voice hearers who have never been psychiatrized, voice hearers who have, psychologists, psychiatrists, mediums, and others.
Romme takes the phenomenon most identified with schizophrenia and turns it from a symptom of disease into a normal, possibly even pleasant part of the person. Non-psychiatrized people often report benefit from the voices they hear. They are kept company and guided through life by them. The real problem with voices is not that they exist – or don’t exist – but that in some people they can turn nasty, criticizing, nagging, and domineering. The solution is not to suppress them, which doesn’t work anyway, but to learn to deal with them, to become assertive towards them.
Who can help a voice hearer learn to cope? Not the clinician, Romme feels, but rather fellow voice hearers. He reports sitting in on discussions between two voice hearers arranged by himself. He was surprised at how eager the discussants were. Apparently they felt that at long last they could talk openly and honestly about their voices with someone who understands. As a non-voice hearer, Romme was further surprised how little he himself understood of what was being said. This underscores the futility of trying to remediate hearing voices through therapy.
Happy voice hearers seem to be the minority. Most voice hearers have at best learned to cope. Voice hearing typically begins as a result of being subjected to situations in which one is extremely powerless (trauma). Sexual abuse in childhood is one of the situations frequently mentioned, but not a few people first begin to hear voices during psychiatric incarceration and even in psychotherapy. Not only is psychiatry not the cure but it is sometimes the cause.
The main coping tool that Romme suggests is peer support. Other authors take a supernatural view of voices, suggesting they are connected to mediums or reincarnation. Romme admits that this sounds rather flaky, but whatever works is welcome. The fact is that the people who accept supernatural explanations for their voices do well.
Perhaps in an effort to present a balance of opinions, Romme & Escher also give space in their book to psychiatrists and psychotherapists who advocate “treating” voice hearing. There are even several plugs for psychiatric drugs. This runs counter to the general theme of the book and confuses the message.
I greatly admire Romme’s efforts to provide voice hearers with tools for staying out of psychiatry and taking control of their own lives. Not being a voice hearer myself, I am not in the ideal position to judge the book. If you hear voices, please try to access this book and send your thoughts about it to MeTZelf. Remove the asterisks from our e-mail address.