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Aural Photographs

by Alissa Tallman

Notes on turning off the sounds of a childhood

When I was eight, my grandparents gave me a portable tape recorder for Christmas. I have no clue about their thinking behind it, but since my grandmother was more of a pragmatic gift-giver, endowing me annually with numerous rectangular boxes bulging with the department-store clothing that I secretly abhorred, I would guess that the gift idea hailed from the more whimsical, engineering-oriented mind of my grandfather. Two Christmases before he'd given me a set of Walkie-Talkies, complete with the entire Morse code alphabet stamped on the front.

I don't recall the gradual integration of the tape recorder into my life; rather, it was as if it had always been there, like a sibling or a pet. As an only child in a pretty dysfunctional family where my parents were more attentive to their drinking habits than to me, the tape recorder became my faithful sidekick and playmate, as well as a surrogate parent. I glommed onto its miraculous capacity for simulated companionship and the way it assisted me with some greatly needed ego development by serving as a reflection of myself, demonstrating proof that I did indeed exist and was not as invisible or ineffectual as I often felt.

Although I did experiment with recording deliberately staged events, I was much more drawn toward the serendipitous, rougher moments of life. I was musically talented and grew up in a household where playing and listening to music was as common as eating or brushing your teeth, and I had a sort of aural "sixth sense" similar to the visual awareness of photographers or documentary filmmakers. I knew a tape-able event when I saw (or heard) one coming:  it would be rich with just the right sounds and personalities, and I could tell ahead of time it would be attention-grabbing at playback. As I recorded my first few holiday celebrations, visits with my grandparents and with friends, I found myself entranced with human dialog. I adored observing how people conversed and how a blend of voices resembled different colors vying for space in a painting, or varied instruments and chords responding to each other in a symphony. And I was delighted with the sound of my own voice, fascinated with hearing what I sounded like and observing how I fit in with the world around me.

Best of all, I cherished having the voices of family and friends coming through to me on the speaker whenever I pleased — all I had to do was press "Play."  Not only did my tape recorder assist me with coping with my loneliness, but it softened the blow of how hard it was for me to make friends in the first place. I was frequently scorned as "weird" or "crazy" by my grade-school peers and even disdained by some of my teachers, partly because I was an imaginative child in touch with aspects of the world most people didn't notice, but also because I was quite wounded by what was going on at home and acted out at school. With my tape recorder at my side, I had less of a need to get people to like me:  the enjoyable, laughter-filled times when I did have friends over could merely be recycled for future use.

Some friends regarded my need to record an entire sleepover (on four to six sides of tape) with mild perplexity. Others included the device in our play as warmly as they would a third companion, or just got used to it being there after awhile and forgot it was present. Following the time I'd spent with a friend, when I was yet again faced with a considerable amount of time alone, I played the tapes I'd made over and over again, never tiring of them. My family, however, complained about having to hear the garbled giggling and relentless noise of children's voices coming from my bedroom; at times they mocked my obsession with my tapes. I would assume they knew there was something unsettling about my need to play the tapes constantly, but sadly they were truthfully too self-absorbed to do much more than gripe about them.

Many snippets of these soundtracks still exist in my head. Although most of the actual tapes are long gone, some of their content remains verbatim within my memory. Occasionally I will hear a song or maybe a spoken phrase from a seventies TV show that will jar my memory and retrieve a few seconds worth of one of my old tapes. I find it intriguing that I have these aural "snapshots" of my childhood, which in some ways provide more historical information than photographs.

But these snapshots are often mine alone. Today I will recall certain information about people from having unintentionally memorized something they once stated on a tape. My mother has responded to me several times with an amazed "How did you remember that?" only to hear me tell her with pride, "It was on one of my tapes!" As a child I would more often find myself somewhat crushed when I recalled something I or a friend said or did after listening to it numerous times on a recording, but my friend didn't. Besides being left alone with the memory, while the tape mirrored the positive experience for me, the actual person could not.

The rare exception to my solitary memory comes out of a recording I made of longtime family friends during our childhood. To this day, we will regale each other with quotes from the tape, finding endless amusement in revisiting the insistent child voices that used to represent us. Even though I continued to record many visits with these same friends over the years, that particular one stands out as mutually special and significant of our shared history together. In a recent letter, one of the family members who is the same age as myself told me how in the process of moving, he threw out several old tapes, but there was no way he'd ever part with his copy of that one. 

My dependence on this mechanical device for substitute companionship was substantially challenged whenever the recorder broke down. Every couple of months, its AC adapter would invariably fray right where the cord met the plug that inserted directly into the recorder. I'd scramble to repair it temporarily with masking or duct tape pilfered from my father's toolbox, but as time went on, the wire deteriorated until no sound emitted from the machine. Sometimes I could get my father to donate the four "C" batteries needed to get it going again until he would remember to buy me a new AC adapter. But any time without my recorder was pretty dismal. Not to mention the times tapes would break, and I'd be forever deprived of the laughter and excitement of a particular sleepover. It wasn't until I was a little older and more in touch with how it felt to lose something that I began to archive my tapes. I even taught myself how to repair them, desperate to rescue the lifeline inherent within each damaged one.

Going Further

My tape recorder kept me company, but it did more than that — I managed to use it toward my musical goals. Besides taking piano lessons from my mother and before I took up the cello, I played recorders in a small group with other classmates. The group was originally founded by a music teacher at my elementary school, but we went on to perform locally all the way through eighth grade. We learned medieval and modern pieces featuring anywhere from three to six parts and sometimes a few different types of recorders. To practice my own assigned parts, I turned to my trusty mechanical friend. I would lay down one of the other recorder parts, then play mine along with the recording. Sometimes I'd tape my own part so I could play it back and learn all the other ones.

When I was in high school and had graduated to a stereo dual-cassette deck, I worked on my songwriting by converting the deck into a sort of four-track, laying down different tracks and instruments by switching two tapes back and forth between the decks, recording on one and playing back on the other. Of course this didn't allow for any mixing, but it gave me a way to flesh out my songs a bit and provided me with more of an idea of how they sounded.

And in high school, I once again experimented with taping so-called staged events, wholly for my own amusement. I referred to them as the Peng and Bunny episodes. Peng and Bunny were two stuffed animals I got as a kid, Peng a female penguin and Bunny a male rabbit. When I was 16, they morphed from their stuffed-body selves to disembodied voices (with my help) that I captured on audio tape via improvised skits. After school, when I was supposed to be starting my homework or practicing my cello, I would record an "episode." Building on what I'd done with my tape recorder since I was eight, I would make up "fly-on-the-wall" portraits of the two characters in the moment, volleying quite deftly between each personality. Like my younger recordings, events within an episode tended to be rather mundane; the magic of the storyline existed not in any plot, but in the character studies.

A therapist I saw for several years once declared the two characters obvious representations of my split sense of self due to my difficult childhood, and viewed my creative motivation as a powerful coping method. Peng, who was older, headstrong and insistent, was whom I wanted to become more like. Bunny, high-strung and fiercely adherent to the rules, regulations, and structure that Peng disdained, was who I actually was. There were aspects of Peng I definitely possessed. But it was her ability to take up emotional and physical space and adamantly declare her feelings that I longed to cultivate in myself, if not needed to. I more closely resembled the over-functioning, perfectionist Bunny, bound by limitations that by adulthood were imposed upon me more by myself than anyone on the outside. Peng and Bunny's supportive friends seemed to my therapist like the family I never had.

Saying Goodbye

My regular recordings of life in general halted during my early twenties. While my fascination with the sound of everyday life has never ceased, the more I came to terms with my family history, the more concerned I became about the manner in which I held so tenaciously to these old recordings, sometimes even for companionship like I did as a child. In 1997 on the threshold of an address move, I sat on the floor of the spare room where I usually worked on musicand snipped the tape ribbons of many of my aural archives in two, tossing the destroyed cassettes into the trash with a combination of relief and sorrow.

As I confronted my familial past and how deprived I'd been of real human contact and my own self-acceptance because of my family's unhealthy ways of life, it felt increasingly imperative that I be released from it all. I started to see what these tapes had always represented for me, and I was enraged. When I was young, why did I have to resort to tapes of people's voices in place of actual people? What did it say about me that I had parts of each tape memorized? Or how I still had recordings of myself with the kids I once babysat, not to mention of my mom and dad when they were drunk or yelling at me? Why would I want to hold onto these things?

So though I held onto a number of the Peng and Bunny tapes, I got rid of everything else — over 30 tapes. It was frightening and exhilarating. I was terrified of how I would feel when I realized that these recordings were truly gone forever, and at the exact same time I felt as if I'd gained some of my own power, that I was making a statement about intending to take up more space in my present life as the person I wanted to be, ready to shed my old ways of being.

Eleven years later, I find myself partly regretting my actions. I often wish I'd been able to put the tapes aside, maybe into storage, so I could come back to them should I desire to. Although listening to those tapes again may have put me back in touch with some disturbing moments in my past, they could have provided some of the answers I continue to seek. I am aware that duplicates of a few tapes used to exist among my friends, and I have been considering trying to retrieve them. I always hope that when I visit my parents, I'll discover an old tape from third or fourth grade in some box, or abandoned underneath a desk or dresser. I'm still trying to get to the bottom of what those tapes meant to me, to deal not only with the void created from having destroyed my collection, but with the more profound, inadvertent sacrifice of my childhood, which feels just as irretrievable.

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Articles in this Issue

Reversing the Culture of Destruction, by Anthony M. Tung
Family of Man, by Marc Mewshaw
Aural Photographs, by Alissa Tallman
Historic Williamsburg, by T.M. Pugh
Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte
Entomology, by Michelle Wilson
Home Economics, by John Darling
Linguistics, by Richard Lederer, Ph.D.
February 2008


Alissa Tallman is a writer, editor, and musician living in Philadelphia.

Where loss is found.

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