That Diane Rehm stumbled into a career as a public radio talk show host at American University in the early 1970s was no accident; she was a natural. She knew radio's sounds and rhythms well -- it had long filled a void she felt, assuaged a little girl's fear.
Even now, on the eve of a national tour for her new book, "Finding My Voice," silence leaves her uncomfortable. On a recent morning, the sound of an upstairs radio fills her Bethesda home. Though it's tuned to "The Diane Rehm Show," the voice of the host is not hers.
Since May 1998, when doctors diagnosed the problem of her long-faltering voice as spasmodic dysphonia, Rehm has been undergoing treatment that takes her off the air regularly for three to five weeks at a time. The first time doctors injected her gnarled vocal chords with botulinus toxin, she was unable to speak at all.
After her latest treatment, she says, clearly, steadily, if slightly above whisper, "It feels really right." Her voice should be fine-tuned by Wednesday, when Rehm speaks at 7: 30 p.m. at Bibelot in Woodholme.
Don't expect to hear about trips to Johns Hopkins Hospital, about her diagnosis after eight years of wondering, or about the fact that people with this strange disease are now treated earlier because of Rehm.
The surprise of "Finding My Voice" is that the voice Rehm describes struggling to regain is not the one listeners are so familiar with.
The book's title is a metaphor for a remarkable personal journey, the very writing of which aided Rehm in making discoveries within herself -- discoveries about family, marriage and self. That Rehm was in on the ground floor of a revival of talk radio, her style shaping its growth, appears mostly as an interesting backdrop in what is ultimately the inside story of a self-made woman.
She didn't set out to write the book to find herself, she says, though she often told friends that "Maybe in the process of writing I would find out about myself in ways I don't expect."
She certainly didn't expect to find out how much she feared and loved her mother, how hard she had to work on her marriage, and how her instincts about radio helped her land a place in its history. "It didn't become clear to me until after I wrote the book. I didn't set out to tell three stories; that's what I did."
Truth be told, Diane Rehm never intended to write anything.
A friend, literary agent Ron Goldfarb, who knew her as the daughter of Arab immigrants, a high-school graduate who parlayed a volunteer job into radio stardom, badgered her for a book. When she rejected a collection of her interviews as boring, he begged her to keep a journal. Ridiculous, she thought; who would ever want to read about her?
Rehm was well on her way to becoming the doyenne of public radio in 1991 at WAMU-FM in Washington when she noticed a slight tremor in her voice. For a few years she countered it with Advil. Doctor after doctor told her it was nothing some breathing therapy couldn't cure.
But as her voice grew worse, Rehm wondered whether it was the result of self-induced stress. Self-doubt, even. Was this to be the punishment for her success? She had to wonder.
As if to underscore her fear, Rehm's fame grew -- by the time her show was sold to National Public Radio audiences nationwide in 1996, the unexplained voice problems left her increasingly tense.
Such was her mind set one Sunday in September 1997, when she turned off the radio and sat down at her desk in the study overlooking her rose garden. "I was not with my husband. I was not with my mother. I was not with anyone. Just me," she recalls. "I thought, God, I am uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with having the nerve to put the first sentence down."
Days of punishment
"My mind drifts back to those early days of punishment in my bedroom, when my mother's wrath is expressed in silence," Rehm wrote that day. "It will be days, sometimes weeks, before she speaks to me again. The silence is so deep."
Her mother was 22 when she immigrated from Egypt to wed Rehm's father, a successful Turkish grocer 13 years her senior, in a semi-arranged marriage. So filled with self-doubt was she that she couldn't bring herself to show up for her daughter's school field trip. At the last minute, she sent a substitute. Her insecurities and illness left her angry and depressed. She showed her displeasure at her children's smallest childhood missteps by withdrawing herself -- expressed in silence -- for weeks at a time.
"The silence that left me so afraid," Rehm says, "was the resounding silence of being in my own room, at home, knowing Mama was in the house somewhere, and knowing she wouldn't talk to me. It was the sound of my presence," she says. She blamed herself, and came to see herself as harshly as she was judged.
It's hard to picture the woman in command of this conversation, relaxed on the sofa in her classic Bethesda home, with its Oriental rugs, flowered upholstered chairs, book-lined shelves and stone walkway, this woman at ease interviewing even a president of the United States, as so filled with doubt. Instinct honed from childhood was her guide.
Rehm seems sure her life would have been different if her mother had not died young. For one thing, she never could have divorced her first husband -- a man approved by her mother, who expected her to stay home to sew and cook.
Nor would she be the person she is, she says, without John Rehm, a lawyer for the State Department. In nearly 40 years of marriage, she says, he never advised her against her instinct; instead, their way is to discuss the pluses and minuses of choices each must make.
It was John whom she turned to in faltering voice night after night in February 1998. "I can't go on," she told him.
Her voice was hoarse when she took to the air the morning of Feb. 23. She could see concern register in the eyes of colleagues. Sure she would faint, she steadied herself, waiting until she was behind closed doors with her producer at the station to break into tears. "I know something is very wrong," she said.
There were no entries in her journal for the next three months; Rehm was off the air, and she was too depressed. When she wasn't e-mailing friends, telling them only "It's my voice," she sat in a chair in her living room.
Every day she visited another doctor: psychiatrist, physical therapist, speech therapist, internist. There were long walks, prayer and anti-depressants. The only joy was the Rehms' renewed intimacy; she says her husband loved being greeted by her whisper at the door.
Finally Rehm's internist directed her to Hopkins. Within five days, specialists diagnosed the rare disorder characterized by over activity of the muscles of the vocal cords, which respond by clamping together so tightly sound can't pass through.
Its cause is unknown, but the relief of naming it helped her return to her book.
Off air, Rehm speaks at a faster clip than her grandmotherly-slow radio voice. Thin, expressive hands and dark eyes color her speech. "Oh, you're cute," she says, when asked to see her office above the rose garden. "Give me five minutes."
Her writing room turns out to be off the master bedroom. It's a room much like one her mother once had, overlooking a garden, a room where she kept her perfume, a scent Rehm still wears. This is the room where the radio interrogator took up "questions I've had, but never dared ask."
Here she made sense of a lifetime of self-disparagement and saw that her successes arose from her stubborn will to achieve.
She wrote about how she raised an arm to shield herself against her mother's blow. Her mother never hit her again.
She learned to join the conversation with Ivy Leaguers at Washington social gatherings without embarrassing herself, by asking questions and sometimes boldly challenging the answers. Questions came easy -- she loved to listen and learn.
Courage or determination
And the same gesture she used against her mother -- the raised fist -- she has learned to take against feelings of inferiority that inevitably arise after years of habit. To her surprise, friends who have read the book, like Kate Lehrer, call her "courageous."
"Courage is not a word I would use about myself," she muses. "Pushy, maybe. Determined."
"I have always believed there are forces in life about which we haved no control," she says. Totally apart from the science or medicine of what happened to her voice, she says, it happened for a reason.
"Maybe silence came to me to allow me to emerge from silence," she says.