Diane Rehm Finds a Voice of Her Own
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 1999; Page C1
"From ... from ... from ... from ... mmmm ... mmmmm."
The voice: shaky, rickety, wishy-washy.
"From ... from ... from ... From WAMU in Washington, I'm Diane Rehm."
She winces when she hears the voice these days. It's weak, she says, and makes her sound like an old woman.
Or like: a first-time water-skier, a golfer with the yips. It's a voice on wobbly fawn legs. Thin as mica; flaky as pie crust; wavering as an unwetted whistle.
There's a medical explanation: spasmodic dysphonia – a neurological disorder that attacks the voice. And, in her case, there are surprising psychological side-effects as well – stage fright, shortness of breath, excruciating self-doubt.
So, ahead of time, Diane Rehm, soon to be 63, tapes the intro to her popular two-hour weekday-morning talk show that airs on the American University station and some 60 other National Public Radio affiliates throughout the country. "The only other person who has watched me do this is my speech therapist," she tells a reporter.
In the sound studio, Rehm – green-eyed, white-haired, willowy – agonizes over ... every ... word. She struggles through the script again and again. She pauses at certain words and repeats them. Then she tells her engineer, Toby Schreiner, that she's ready.
"From WAMU in Washington, I'm Diane Rehm. Members of Congress are heading home for a vacation ... "
Halfway through the headlines, 30 seconds into the script, a look of true alarm crosses her face. She stops. She signals again to Schreiner, who is behind glass in the control room. "I'm out of breath," she says.
Like a schoolgirl with stage fright.
"It's not the anxiety that originates the problem," Rehm says. "The anxiety follows." But the anxiety feeds the fear and the fear feeds the anxiety, and caught in the cycle is: the voice.
Silence as a Defense
The voice, of course, is at the very core of her life. The irony is not lost on Rehm. In fact, she's written a book called "Finding My Voice" that will be in stores this week. Only a small part of the autobiography dwells on her present-day malady. The rest is a straightforward, not-overly-poetic tale of a successful Washington woman. Along the way, readers discover that Rehm has spent much of her life searching for a voice of her own.
Her father, an Eastern Orthodox Christian from Turkey, moved to Washington in the late 1920s and bought a grocery on 19th Street and Wyoming Avenue NW. He returned to the old country to take a wife, who, perhaps under family pressure, broke her engagement to another man, a man she loved very much. The couple returned to Washington to live. Diane was born in September 1936, the younger of two girls.
The book follows Rehm's roller-coaster ride: Her life in middle-century Washington. Her cat fights with her sister. But the most fascinating theme of Rehm's book, and one that she clearly has difficulty giving voice to, is her tortured relationship with her mother.
Her mother is painted as a chronic sufferer of headaches, depression and other ailments. Rehm was often sentenced to long periods in her room. She writes that both parents flew into rages and beat her – with belts, shoes and kitchen utensils. Rehm discovered that silence was her best defense. Using her voice only made matters worse, she writes. It made her mother's face "go sour."
Some of her most satisfying moments with her mother, she recalls, were spent curled up on a bed, listening to dramas and mysteries on the radio.
In a startling revelation, Rehm also writes about one unforgettable, and unforgivable, event. She was 9 years old. It was summertime. She and some other kids were larking on a playground when a firetruck flashed by. The children watched as firefighters battled a blaze at the corner of Arkansas Avenue and Upshur Street. A well-dressed man struck up a conversation with young Diane. The next day, the man called and told Diane's mother that he was a congressman. He invited Diane and her parents to lunch at a downtown hotel. Diane, he explained, had all the makings of a child movie star. He wanted to help.
He told her parents that he wanted to bring her home later in the afternoon. Her parents agreed. After they left, the man bought Diane a fancy ring and a pin with three monkeys on it – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The implication: that she should keep her mouth shut.
He then took her to his hotel room and molested her.
To this day, she won't even tell her husband the name of the politician.
She went to William B. Powell Elementary School and Roosevelt High School. After graduating from high school, she took a job with the city highways department. One chore she particularly relished was radio dispatcher – a chance, at last, to hear the sound of her own voice. At 18, she met George Hamaty, a man eight years older. They planned a wedding in January 1956. But because Rehm's mother was so ill, they moved the date up. She died Jan. 1, 1956.
"Of course, there is much about my relationship with my mother that haunts me," Rehm writes. "Most of all I believed that she could read my mind, that she could see directly through my forehead into the inner folds of my brain. That left me at a loss, because not only would I not have dared to say anything to her that might be considered disrespectful, I couldn't even allow myself to think those thoughts."
Within a year, Rehm's father also died. In 1958 Rehm and Hamaty separated.
"Living in an apartment alone was both freeing and frightening," she writes. "In all my life I had never spent a night by myself."
In the spring of 1959, the couple divorced. She didn't spend too many nights with no one to talk to, however. That winter, she married John Rehm, an attorney for the State Department.
The couple had two children, David and Jennifer, and the years passed. But Diane Rehm was still feeling unfulfilled and full of self-doubt because, among other things, she had never been to college. In 1973 she volunteered to work on "The Home Show," a program at American University's radio station. In 1979 she took over a program called "Kaleidoscope." Eventually it became "The Diane Rehm Show."
Over the years her guest list has been vast, from actresses Liv Ullman and Audrey Hepburn to Albert "Race Hoss" Sample, who served 17 years in Texas prisons and became an author after his release. Former president Jimmy Carter confessed on her show that he and his wife, Rosalynn, had considered divorce.
For all the joy that the job gave her, she writes, "I couldn't overcome the constant self-criticism I heaped on myself. It was as though there was a voice inside telling me that no matter what I did or how others might praise me, there was no truth to what they were saying."
The inner voice, perhaps, was that of her mother. Telling her to shut up.
Celebrating 20 Years
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of "The Diane Rehm Show," American University Radio is kicking out the jams. A gala to raise money for the radio station will be held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and hosted by veteran newsman Roger Mudd on Sept. 21, Rehm's 63rd birthday. A fancy reception and dinner are planned. A Founder's Table, for 10, costs $10,000. The honorary chair of the event is Hillary Rodham Clinton. Members of the benefit committee include Marian Wright Edelman, Katharine Graham, Sharon and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, Donna Shalala and Sen. Paul Sarbanes. This will be the place to be. All to honor a woman who never went to college.
A recent morning: Her small corner office is not the neatest, not the messiest. On her desk, a large bag of Ricola Honey Herb throat lozenges.
In a long black skirt and black blouse, Rehm scans the day's newspapers. She constantly clears her throat.
A little before 9 she sings, "Okay, gang! Coming down to it!"
Producer Elizabeth Terry brings in the intro. Rehm edits it at her desk.
"It's the struggle to keep the voice steady, to keep the voice positive," she explains. "It's the fear every single time I open my mouth."
At 10 a.m. the show begins. It's Friday and for the first hour Rehm leads a trio of pundits in a discussion of the week's news. The roundup is the most popular hour of the week, Rehm says.
She is a quick study; she can deftly speak to tax cuts, drought, espionage. She keeps her questions short and she listens to the answers. Her follow-ups are insightful and incisive. She takes call-in questions. Listeners often thank her for her fairness and compassion.
"Let's face it," says station manager Kim Hodgson, "Diane does not have a mellifluous voice. That's not what has made her popular."
Regaining Her Voice
Later that afternoon, Rehm sits in another chair. In a glaringly bright room. On the sixth floor of Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center. With a hypodermic needle in her throat.
Without treatment, Rehm's spasmodic dysphonia would only get worse. Every three or four months, she drives her Toyota Avalon to Baltimore for a shot of botulinum toxin – a medicine that comes from the same bacterium that causes botulism in canned foods and honey.
Today she is receiving her sixth shot. Her husband – in blue blazer, polo shirt, khakis, Nike sneakers – sits beside her and holds her right hand. She flexes her left hand. On her ring finger is a star sapphire, from John's mother, next to a small gold band.
She coughs as Paul Flint, an otolaryngologist, pokes her throat with a local anesthetic. Then he eases an inch-long injection needle – containing a minuscule dose of botulinum toxin – straight into the muscles of her larynx.
"How was that?" Flint asks.
"Not bad," she says.
For the next day or two, she will be able to talk. Then her voice will fade away for about two weeks. One morning, she will wake up and speak with less strain. The positive effects last for three months or so.
Then she'll be back to see Paul Flint and get another shot.
Later, in the Explorers Lounge at the Harbor Court Hotel, Rehm orders a celebratory flute of champagne. She reflects on the past and on the next few years.
John Rehm will retire in January 2001 – his law firm has an age-70 cutoff. He hopes to become a docent at the Freer Gallery. He will have more time to travel, and she would like to go with him.
Her voice, Flint says, will not get any better.
But: "I may not be ready not to work," Rehm says, "even if I'm not doing the 'Diane Rehm Show.' "
Away from the studio and the high-powered capital city, she is relaxed and anxiety-free. The light outside has turned the color of her champagne. She believes in faith, she says, and in fate.
And in searching for a voice that is hers and hers alone.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company