Twenty People with Artificial Voice Boxes, Talking All at Once

I’ve had a few bizarre moments in my years as a newspaper reporter, but nothing competes with the time I interviewed the Second Voice Club. All of the members had survived laryngeal and throat cancer, both almost always brought on by smoking. One of the first treatments is to remove the voice box, known as the larynx.

You’ve probably heard a person talk with an artificial voice box. It sounds like a bad imitation of a robot, all monotone, electrical and whiny, with strange crackles and loud breathy sounds as the person exhales. Sort of Steven Hawking-esque, except that he has a top-of-the-line computer program speaking for him, not a portable voice box. Meaning, that if you’re not watching the person talk, which allows you to lip read and put sounds to words, it can be almost impossible to understand him or her.

I should have realized that when a woman from the Second Voice Club called me on the phone. I wasn’t anticipating her call, and it took me an absurd amount of time, and patience, to understand what she was saying: She thought I should sit in on one of their meetings, and write about their group. I agreed to go, rubbing my sore head as I hung up.

I never used a tape recorder as a reporter, and it wouldn’t have been much help at the meeting — I’d never be able to discern who was saying what on the tape, after the meeting, since everyone would sound the same. So I brought my notebook and planned to use shorthand.

But the Second Voice Club was a riotous bunch — all feisty, recovered cancer patients who were thrilled to have someone writing about them. They couldn’t take turns talking, they constantly interrupted one another, one electrical whine competing with another. To quote any of them, I’d have to look down and write exactly what they said, instead of taking summation shorthand. But as soon as I looked down, I lost any comprehension of what they were saying. I’d start writing the beginning of a quote, look down to make sure I was writing it clearly, and then suddenly be unable to understand what I was hearing.

It was, in essence, a disaster. Imagine a room of 20 people with artificial voice boxes, talking heatededly, all at once, and you’ll get what I mean.

Eventually, I did get enough quotes, but not before putting down martial law, and requiring them to talk one at a time, very slowly, and with no interruptions.

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