Can you hear the hum? How Jordan Tannahill's The Listeners illuminated my experience with mental illness

Instead of dismissing people as "crazy," Alicia Elliott longs for a world where we actually listen to them.

Instead of dismissing people as 'crazy,' Alicia Elliott longs for a world where we actually listen to them

Crop of the cover art for Jordan Tannahill's novel The Listeners. (Harper Collins)

Shelfies is a column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.

At the very beginning of Jordan Tannahill's Giller-nominated novel The Listeners, the main character Claire is settled into bed with her husband Paul when she suddenly hears a hum — a "very low, reverberating tone, only just perceptible." As soon as the hum comes to her awareness, she cannot pretend she doesn't hear it anymore and becomes consumed with finding out what's causing it. She doesn't know it yet, but this decision is tantamount to opening her very own Pandora's box, and will lead to a deterioration and alienation that those of us who have struggled with mental illness know all too well.

As someone who has been hesitant to publicly discuss my own experiences with mental illness and crisis, this book became something of an artistic validation for me, even as it was incredibly painful to remember similar moments in my own life. Art can give us the language for experiences we aren't otherwise able to describe ourselves, and seeing Claire struggle so much to make those around her understand her pain felt like seeing my own experience mirrored back to me and illuminated.

The night Claire first hears the hum, she stays up hours after her family has fallen asleep, trying to figure out what the sound is — unplugging and plugging back in appliances, flipping the electrical breaker. She tries taking two Ambien to fall asleep, puts a pillow over her head, fishes out earplugs, tries to meditate until 2am, 3am, 4am rolls around. When that doesn't work, she goes outside to see if she can locate where the sound might be coming from in her neighbourhood. Finally, her concerned husband Paul finds her outside "in the middle of the street, barefoot and in [her] nightdress." But instead of being sympathetic, Paul says, "I can't believe you're still talking about this fucking hum… why are you doing this to me?"

As he goes on and on about how this is affecting him, the hum becomes more visceral and unmistakably physical for Claire. She feels it fill her head, then her chest, then her nose tingles. As she wipes her nose, her hand comes away covered in blood. She shows her bloody hand to him, asks of him, desperate, "Say you believe me."

"How can I possibly know whether the sound only you can hear—? he asks.

Because I'm telling you, and that should be enough.

He just looked at me like a dumb dog…

….What do you want me to say? You're being completely insane.

I stopped walking and yelped in frustration."

I couldn't help but read this passage and think about society's treatment of the mentally ill, particularly those who are diagnosed with what society deems the "scary" illnesses: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and other forms of psychosis and/or hallucinations. Usually it goes without saying that even if someone else doesn't understand your feelings and experiences, they still feel incredibly real to you. But when a mentally ill person is undergoing mania or psychosis, experiencing delusions or hallucinations, this understanding falls away completely.

Because other people cannot hear or see or smell or feel what we do, and because they tell us that these experiences aren't real to them, there is this bizarre expectation that this somehow makes what we're experiencing less visceral and real to us. As though them telling us that we are "insane" should miraculously make us immune to whatever it is that we're currently experiencing, stop experiencing it, and join the ranks of the "sane" once more. Obviously, that's not how the human brain works. That's not how life works.

This expectation, alongside a general lack of empathy and understanding for what we're going through, often leads to people dehumanizing us completely, even blaming us for our illnesses and the way they affect those around us. We can clearly see this in the above scene between Paul and Claire, but it's even more obvious in the rest of The Listeners. As the hum persists, Claire essentially stops sleeping, develops migraines, and has periodic nosebleeds — all of which combine to make her disabled, since she cannot perform her duties as a high school teacher under such mental, physical and emotional duress. Perhaps too predictably, her life continues to fall apart. Worse, her family and friends pull away from her, too, completely isolating her.

As Claire struggles with the devastating impact the hum is having on her, she also struggles with the knowledge that the people she loves most — the same people who say they love her — don't want anything to do with her unless she ignores the hum entirely. But how can she possibly ignore something so completely debilitating? Is it any surprise, under such circumstances, that she would search out others who can hear the hum, too?

That was all I really wanted, even at the height of my psychosis and mania: for someone to listen, to believe me when I told them about my experiences.- Alicia Elliott

Dr. Eleanor Logden, a researcher and academic who did her PhD on trauma, dissociation and psychosis and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia herself, discussed her own experience with mental illness in her viral 2013 TedTalk "The Voices in My Head." Reflecting on the psychiatric treatment she received, and how she looks at this now from the other side, she said, "An important question in psychiatry shouldn't be what's wrong with you, but rather, what's happened to you?"

When I was involuntarily hospitalized for mental illness, I found that this was the question that I most wanted to answer, but that no one wanted to ask. In fact, when I tried to explain to my attending psychiatrist all the stresses I was under that had landed me in the hospital, she interrupted me to say it was a symptom of my disease that I was talking about too many things at once. The entire time I was in the hospital, the only people who gave me empathy — the only ones who really listened to me, believed me, and showed me care — were my fellow patients. And that was all I really wanted, even at the height of my psychosis and mania: for someone to listen, to believe me when I told them about my experiences, to validate how scary those experiences were and how lonely they made me, to show me they cared.

"I've been thinking about how variations of this story exist through history, through cultures," Tannahill writes, "because the force it speaks of must exist. A force in the wild that operates outside of time, that seeks to lure us, fevered, into a state beyond reason; beyond the commitments that otherwise bind us to our lives and the people we love…The question I have is — Does the poet always know when he has left the mortal world, and entered the enchanted realm? And what if he doesn't remember the way back?"

That is what I long for: a world where we try to understand and empathize with the real emotions that are underlying what's so often and so dismissively referred to as "crazy." A world where, even if we aren't high-profile celebrities, people would fight for us to be free — free from stigma, free from cruelty, free from exploitation and laws that strip mentally ill and/or disabled people of our liberties in ways that would never be allowed if we were "sane" or "abled." A world where we care for those who can't remember their way back — where we hold their hands, unafraid, and lovingly lead them home.


Alicia Elliott is a Mohawk writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She’s had essays nominated for National Magazine Awards for three straight years, winning Gold in 2017, while this very column earned her a Digital Publishing Award nomination in 2023. She is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (Penguin Random House, 2019) as well as the upcoming novel, And Then She Fell (Penguin Random House, 2023).

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