Here is all I can tell you about what it sounds like when I open my mouth and scream.
My scream moves through a body that has been in working order for more than thirty-four years. It is a five-foot-six-and-one-half-inch female body, around 140 pounds, and its bone structure appears larger than those of most women I see in the park or at the gym or in the market. Only one of these larger-than-average bones—a metatarsal—has broken, but this still affects the body posture and consequently, according to some, the resonance of the voice. I think, however, that the warped state of the neck and shoulders after years in front of a laptop alters the sound much more significantly. Twenty-five-and-one-half percent of this body is fat and up to sixty percent of it is water. It is not without its tonsils or its appendix and it has never been impregnated. All these facts are a part of the sound you hear when I sigh, sing, or say “hello,” or scream it.
My lower ribcage circumference measures thirty-five inches after a very deep inhale, and thirty-one-and-a-half inches after I’ve expelled all possible air from my lungs. I can hold my breath for as long as it took me to type the last sentence three times in a row, including a few pauses to correct typos. My neck is thirteen inches around.
My vocal tract and its surrounding pipes are probably thirty centimeters long. The cords that produce speech and sound are approximately fifteen millimeters in length. They were white when I was born, but in the past fifteen years I have tinted them with lots of coffee, more than a little alcohol, scores of nights in smoky places, and a few hundred cigarettes. I spent eighteen years in a house with heavy indoor smokers. I then spent nine years in a city with a high level of pollution. During the remaining seven years of my life I have breathed relatively cleaner air and I’ve yet to acquire either asthma or respiratory allergies, which would add new timbre to the resonance of the cells in my body.
For most of my twenties, I used my voice to make money, as an actor in plays that required lots of talking, some singing, and the very occasional scream. When I wasn’t getting regular performance work, I read radio copy into microphones, or hollered to be heard over bunches of kids in elementary school theaters. Back then, my voice was strong and easy to command. I lost it only once, when I was double-booked, rehearsing a sex farce in the afternoons and evenings while performing a one-woman show about Rachel Carson every morning. When my voice began to wane, the sex farce director ordered me to mime all my communications outside of rehearsal, to never whisper, to eat apples, to avoid clearing my throat, and to drink tepid water “till your pee is clear.” This worked.
The last time I screamed for money was four years ago, when a repertory theater in Iowa hired me to give a Hammer Horror scream in a zany comedy about Niagara Falls. This was a loud, high scream for which I did a very silly ten-minute vocal warm-up and watched clips of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. Curtis is a wonderful screamer. Both in 1978 and in the Halloween remake she did twenty years later, she leaps from her tawny alto into a bright, steely cry. She’s girlier in screams than she is in speech, really.
That mock-Curtis scream was the last one I remember attempting, either impromptu or for hire, and when I remember it now, I don’t hear the sound of the scream. Instead, I picture the red-silhouetted gobo onto which I fixed my gaze. I feel myself inhale and remember the fear that the sound about to leave my mouth wouldn’t be the sound I planned. Then I feel the scream rattle before it begins. The actual sound of the scream, however, is lost. I do know that it wasn’t nearly as easy as the screams I made in my early life, when such sounds were more frequent and more fun.
On the first day of spring in 1978, my mother lay on a papered medical table, her feet still in her espadrilles. She was on her way to the beach a few hours earlier, but, according to her, I insisted she take a detour. After a long hour of lying there, she screamed bloody murder into the doctor’s ear.
“What in God’s name did you do that for?” the doctor asked.
“That’s how they sound on television,” she answered.
“Don’t do it again,” he said.
According to my mother, I was born screaming, like every other healthy baby. I wonder if she actually recalls these first screams, or if, like the sounds of her labor, she’s aligned this experience with blessed celluloid events. And what did it feel like to push such a loud thing out of herself? This weighted, crucial thing that she no doubt imagined meeting for months, which promptly shot a hello at her in the form of the biggest, most evil noise it was capable of making. And I wonder what it was like to scream without teeth, without neck muscles, without the ability to ground the vibrations in my planted legs and feet.
Mom says I spent the first several hundred nights of my life screaming the paint off the thin walls of our apartment, quieting only when she sang a lullaby about a slaughter-bound calf who wished he were a bird. While I doubt that a song like that would calm anyone, I do trust that these screams existed, building the tissue in my throat, stretching my lungs and my belly. Because I know how the voice box tenses and relaxes to meet the air in my adult body. I know the sensation of bracing myself for high volume. Even when I hum under my breath, I can sense those crucial false flaps hanging, unused and mutant, beside the mechanism that helps me swallow.
I think it is also important to tell you that my mother is one of the loudest people I have known in my life. I’m not speaking figuratively when I tell you that her voice shook the foundations of the houses we shared. When I was a teenager and would appear sullen and unladylike in public, she would lecture me, and I would snap back at her, “Gah, stop yelling at me.” She’d correct my semantics, first in her speaking voice: “I don’t think I’ve raised my voice to you, young lady. This is not yelling.” And then with ten times the power: “THIS! IS! YELLING!”—at a decibel level rarely heard in our suburb’s grocery stores and shopping malls.
She could stand on the back porch and call me home from any yard in the subdivision; I loved trying to yell back at a matching volume. When she had dinner parties and I was sent upstairs to bed at ten, I could never sleep, never even lie still, thanks to the heavy scaffold of her party voice, which wound through the joists that separated the two floors of our house and then yanked me out of my bed.
There was a photo book in our stereo cabinet of her years in a college drama club, which included a turn as Abigail, the manipulative teenage instigator of The Crucible. Abigail derails the big witch trial in Act Three by screaming at an imaginary demon bird that she says hovers in the courthouse rafters. Mom liked to tell the story of how her classmates jumped at her scream, how it rang in the air. And I liked imagining her—bonnet, pinafore, false eyelashes—pointing upward and opening her mouth. I could see the necks of the audience jerking from the center to downstage right to follow the force of this dark girl and her huge sound, which had cut a yellow gash in the air.
Miller’s script says Abigail “screams up to the ceiling,” ordering the actress to give a “weird, chilling cry” that marks the courtroom’s descent into madness. It is fun to believe that a young girl’s voice can “chill” a room, like a fan blown over a block of ice. The “chill” of it is, I think, the lofted pitch of the female scream, the sound of the smallest vocal tracts of our species jumping into the grip of the neck and held there, in a pitch too high for speech. For this reason, it makes sense to score females as the instruments of dramatic fear in film and theater. Women’s screams are the highest full-voice notes on the market, as our boxes are generally shorter and less hormonally bolstered. Because they are lighter, they can fly.
It is this icy, upper-register chill that made “scream queens” like Jamie Lee Curtis, Fay Wray, and my favorite screamer, Adrienne Barbeau, famous—well, that and how juicily they filled out their costumes. Wray’s screams are random and perfect, peppered all over King Kong, and she launches them into the skyline, as sonically impossible as the high Cs of the lead tenor in La Fille du Régiment. I love the little points at the end of her dozen poison-dart screams, as if she were dancing over her giant ape in a pair of stilettos.
In The Fog and the Halloween films, Jamie Lee Curtis’s screams serve as sonic buttons at the ends of long filmic builds that depend on scoring and editing as much as the work of the actress. One need look no further than Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh, to see proof of this, as her muscular scream is lower in pitch and thus crushed by the classic violins in Bernard Herrmann’s stab-theme to Psycho. Something about this instrumental relationship between screamer and filmed scene has always made these scream queens sound fabricated to me, like Abigail’s bird in the Salem courthouse. For me, any soprano scream of fear, while musical and gorgeous, rings as either rehearsed or conditioned: a biological response that has been culturally taught, like those of us who sneeze both syllables in “ah-choo.”
I tried to mimic what I imagined was my mother’s Abigail scream when I was a girl, in my high school’s production of The Crucible, but I might have overdone it. My Abigail had flatter hair and wore bigger slippers than my mother’s, but I too thrilled in the silence right before my own scream, in the way my ears woke up on the deep inhale. Internally, it felt like a purring motor in my body. My lungs felt pink and huge and invincible.
Whatever it sounded like, I lobbed it up into the auditorium like a granny-shot cannonball. Mothers jumped and kids giggled. I heard my English teacher yelp, “Oh, for Pete’s sake.” My friend Tommy, who drew cartoons for the school newspaper, later gave me his copy of the program, on which he had doodled a long-haired bubble head in a Puritan costume, with black squiggles for eyebrows and a pointy, hinged mouth like a fox trap. A shocked audience sat below the hairy bubble head, and above her were three figures in a light booth with their hands over their headphoned ears.
The only time I recall screaming from actual fear was when, at fifteen, I got myself lost in the Florida woods. Enamored with the palm trees and nature trails, I forgot that I had never been camping, never been a Girl Scout, let alone some kind of off-trail hiker, and I traipsed way too far into the Gulf Coast brush, where all the marked trees look the same. After about three hours of circling the same square mile, an armadillo ran just in front of my flip-flops and I sank to the dirt path, gasping.
I thought about my mother, how she would find me here in my frayed khaki shorts and the ringer tee I bought for a quarter at the thrift store. She would scissor the clothes from my ruined corpse, then find a pastel twinset to dress me in for the funeral. She would ask the mortician to wax my eyebrows. I thought of the time I was a flower girl in a hot church in Charleston and I passed out at the altar. My buddy the ring bearer said my mother screamed, right there in front of God and everybody, when she saw me tip over. I thought of that horrible song about the bird and the slaughter-bound calf, and then—perhaps because this is what they do in the movies—I started screaming out in the middle of nowhere.
I screamed the word “no” and then I screamed the word “somebody.” I only murmured the word “please.” And the word I screamed the longest was the word I wasn’t allowed to use after age four or five, “Mommy,” and I screamed it full voice for what felt like thirty minutes. I don’t remember listening to myself, but I still feel the way it came with fluidity from a very wrong physical place, as if I had a new mouth in my stomach. After a while, it felt worse to stop screaming, so I forced myself to continue, as if the sound of my voice were a solution. My body had decided that once it stopped screaming, it had nothing.
I have never heard my mother make the sound of the high-scream queens, though I got to know the sounds of her fear and her anger very well. I assume most close-quartered groups get this sonic education, especially children, who, by their adolescence, can categorize the sounds of the adult voices in their lives: the innocuous tones of a squabble, the punchy sounds of an hour of bickering, the scary, ignitable pitches of speech doused in cocktails. One tone that rarely buzzed our walls spoke of a particularly terrifying outrage, and I grew able to hear it flip in my mother’s voice like a switch.
It was less silvery than a scream queen, lower in her gut, with a beefy fuzz, like a gauge straining into the red. It sounded as if it could push furniture. I heard it once when she tried to pull the television off its stand and throw it out a second-story window; once again when she was chasing my stepfather down the stairs and into the basement. Listening to it while lying still in bed was a very lonely torture; I felt tiny, even when I was teenaged and already outweighed her. In the foreign airspace that was two or three or four in the morning, I would feel the urge to lace my hands behind my neck and get under a desk. But I also felt compelled to move closer, to see the way her body changed when she switched from her brassy mezzo trumpet to this blistering and reptilian sound. Every note of it was damaging: to her insides, to the air of our house. I remember picturing a werewolf holding his hand before his face and watching the claws burst away from his knuckles.
Years later, I heard the Pixies’ “Tame,” with Frank Black’s deep-tissue, one-word screams at minute 1:43, and I thought ahhhh, yes. And once again when I read A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Williams scripts Stanley Kowalski to scream “STELL-LAHHHHHH!” with what his stage directions call “heaven-splitting violence.”
For the past five years, I’ve used my voice less and less. I don’t do theater in this town, and I avoid long phone conversations or chatty nights in bars. My boyfriend works very late on weekends and then sleeps until lunchtime, so my days off can pass without speaking more than a few lines of baby talk to my cats. On the street in front of my window, people scream “That’s not my motherfuckin’ problem!” into small phones, held out a few inches away from their mouths. Mothers engage in full-voice monologues to babies about rules and backtalk, and couples howl at each other. On the bus yesterday, four undergrads screeched with laughter in some kind of deafening storytelling contest about vomit. The rest of us bent our torsos closer to our cell phones.
In this new era of personal quiet, sometimes I can actually feel my voice shrinking. Songs I love will come on in the car, but I don’t like to hear myself singing along to them. At the end of my longer days of teaching, my voice is clenched, thirsty, and dull. Right now, just thinking about screaming onstage or in a karaoke bar makes my stomach lurch a bit. The only place I might feel wholly comfortable to scream would be at the top hill of a roller coaster, or just outside a plane after I’ve jumped from it. I screamed a little at a GWAR show last year, just because I was sure nobody around me was listening. And even then, among those distracted man-boys covered in slime and cornstarch, I was still self-conscious about overdoing it.
I suppose all this led to my entering the 2011 Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest, which was held one hundred years and one day after Williams’s birth as a part of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. For twenty-five years, contestants have stood under a wrought-iron balcony in New Orleans and screamed “Stella!” up to an actress in a slip (for women bold enough to enter, they put a Brando-ish Stanley actor up there, too). The five best screamers then advance to an indoor theater a block away, where a group of celebrity judges decide who yelled “Stella!” best—except in 2006, when the winner they selected had opted to scream “FEMA!” instead.
The prize is a trophy and gift certificates for things like river dinner cruises and rock & bowling, but the real reward for me was a sanctioned, command-performance scream, a situation in which nothing less than a scream would be expected. And along with this license came the rare opportunity to embody a great American vocal moment in some kind of iconic karaoke. To stand on a cobblestone street, funky with sweat and booze, and think of Kowalski, and then holler in the actual shadow of Brando’s unkillable sound. I decided I would train like Rocky, fly to New Orleans, and chart my screams when they came from my mouth in a way that would allow me to finally remember them.
I conned my friend Paul—a Brit who loves Brando almost as much as he does strange American rituals—into flying to New Orleans, hoping he’d keep me from chickening out. On the morning of the contest, as we walked around the Garden District, I told him I was worried that I couldn’t control the sound that came out of my mouth, not that it would be unladylike or frowzy, but that it would be a dead boring sound. I had been practicing “Stella!” on my drives home from work, and my voice in the car didn’t seem like it would make it up to a second-floor balcony. Plus, the noise I made, while decidedly ugly, sounded so uninspired, like no heavens would ever split from its wimpy magnitude.
I asked Paul what he thought “heaven-splitting violence” sounded like. “Low,” he said, “more passionate. I think you would do better dredging up some dark emotion.”
I told him that, with my life, my cats, and my books and my patient boyfriend, my unbroken bones, my good job and the quiet of my comfortable apartment, I was beginning to worry that I didn’t have much to dredge.
“Oh, come off it,” he replied. “Who doesn’t?”
I had been watching YouTube clips of Shout Out screamers. They stood in Jackson Square with their backs to the Mississippi and let it rip for Stella and hundreds of onlookers. The final rounds were full of clever gimmicks—a mime mouthing his three “Stella!”s, a Saints fan screaming “Who Dat, Stella,” a tiny child in a Brando tee and slicked-back hair. All but two of the clips I found were of men; a man had won every year since the contest began in the 1980s. The only woman I saw who even made it to the finals offered a screech that was anything but powerful, but she also ripped off her tank top at the end of her third “Stella!” to reveal a tactical lack of brassiere.
There is one YouTube clip of a fair-haired man whimpering between each fraught “Stella!” and I liked him best of all. His hands flutter around him, making him look smaller and more crippled by Stanley’s tragic shame. And his final “Stella!” is quite long, so that the guttural growl in the e-sound has time to build into the a-sound, and then taper back out again. It also doesn’t hurt that his torso looks the most like Brando’s in a thin white tee.
The man is Matt Payne, a chipper New Orleans assistant district attorney who first entered the contest in 2002, when he ranked in the finals. I asked Payne what led him to make that noise out in front of a crowd of total strangers. “I did it because it’s a ridiculous way to spend an afternoon,” he said, “but also because it’s an acceptable release. You’re letting it all out, everything you’ve been through, and you feel everyone wishing they could do what you do—just get down on your knees and scream your ass off.”
Payne won the grand prize the second time he entered, in 2009, after deciding to give the judges “the full Irish” (which was difficult, he says, “because I’m only half Irish”). For Payne, “full Irish” means the ability to bring his adult body to an unadulterated state of distress. When he was standing under Stella’s balcony the second time, Payne thought about when he was little, living with his mother and three siblings while his dad was on naval deployment. His mighty temper tantrums were so terrifying that his mother would record them and then threaten to mail the cassettes to Payne’s father if he didn’t behave. Channeling that tape-tantrum worked for the Shout Out, he says, because Brando’s Stanley is “just a big baby, really. He can’t see the future, he can’t figure anything out.”
Professor Sheila McKenna, an actor and the Chair of Theatre at Point Park University’s Conservatory for the Performing Arts, sees the “Stella!” scream as a kind of raw and inarticulate apology. “I don’t think he actually says ‘I’m sorry’ anywhere in that scene, does he? Even after all the shit he pulled,” she says. “He can’t do it; he ain’t gonna do it—he might not even know how. But he knows he has to make a sound.”
Getting to that sound, she says, involves using the whole body to contribute to the scream. In her voice classes, actors lie on the floor and hum, feeling their breath not just in their chests and throats, but in their calves, upper arms, backs, and skulls. They aren’t training their bodies to do something new, however; they are remembering speech as the full-body event it once was. According to McKenna, Matt Payne isn’t far off with his tantrum connection, since babies can scream for hours at a time and never hurt themselves. “That’s because they use their whole bodies to cry,” she says. “They aren’t listening to their voices; the voice is a part of a body that is using all of itself to get what it wants.”
McKenna says she’d coach a Stanley by first asking him to consider the “physical circumstances” of that moment under the balcony: how Stanley’s body holds itself in drunkenness, in stunted arousal, in the face of impending fatherhood, in the aftermath of a blue-collar workday. Once he felt his body reacting to all these “pressors” (“not pressures, but pressors,” she stresses), the sound would come from the breath working inside these emotional places.
When we discussed my bid for Shout Out champion, I told McKenna I was interested in solidifying a golden noise that was both real and impressive, a tight aria that wove the fear of a scream-queen scream with the rage of a Stanley Kowalski scream. I wanted it to be something I could cultivate and count on, a sound guaranteed to make the audience want to duck under the nearby statue of Andrew Jackson for safety. McKenna chided me. “You can’t think about one sound as a thing to shoot for or replicate,” she said. “Those kinds of sounds are just museum theater.”
At around 3:30 on a March afternoon, Paul and I joined the clump of contestants clogging pedestrian traffic in Jackson Square. The registrar asked how to spell my last name twice, then asked how to pronounce it, and finally just gave me a huge card marked number eleven. “Now go take some time to practice your best ‘Stanleee!’” he said, winking. The guy in line behind me had placed fourth in the 2010 Shout Out, and was convinced that this was his year. I asked him for advice. He stared me down like a football coach. “What you need to do right now? Is get away from this crowd. You need to go somewhere else and get into the zone, and get yourself ready.” I decided against asking him where “the zone” was.
Over half of the first-round contestants were jocular guys. Most of them wore white undershirts, and a lot of them were already yelling at each other in the registration line. One middle-aged guy with a forceful Eastern Seaboard accent kept hollering “ALL RIGHT, BABY!” with the natural resonance of all men who, for years, have played the Fun Loud Guy at parties, at work, at church. A news crew interviewed the East Coast guy before he even went on. There were also performer types in the line—a gold-painted street statue, a mustachioed ringmaster whose spooky, taciturn lady friend held his top hat, and several shiny men with good posture and bright, darting eyes whom I quickly recognized to be actors.
The only other woman I saw in line was a thin punk with sleeves of tattoos, a fedora, and a fake mustache. A little plastic gun was shoved into the waistline of her pants. She made me want my own camouflage and props; I felt like an idiot for coming armed with nothing, save some ideas about vocal placement and a thin gray Lady Hanes tank top I’d wadded into my purse. Paul stood guard when I changed shirts in an alley behind an oyster bar, then we paced the blocks around the square while I drank three bottles of water.
By then, a huge crowd had surrounded an empty patch of the street in a sort of unkempt Soul Train line. One obviously inebriated man in a straw hat was complaining that the Stanley they’d perched on the balcony was too pretty (it was actually 2009 champ Matt Payne up there). The drunk pointed me to a bearded heavyweight drinking a wine cooler a few balconies over. “Now THAT’s a Stanley,” he said. He eyeballed me after I told him I was a contestant, and that I planned to yell not to Matt/Stanley, but to the pretty Stella in a black slip who was up there next to him.
“Now that just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“Because Stanley is a man and Stella is a woman. The man shouts at the woman.”
“But what does the woman get to do?”
“She’s the one who stands up there and is yelled to; that’s what it’s about. And she, you know, gets beat.”
There’s another Abigail stage direction in The Crucible, one that calls for a silent implosion rather than a scream. It comes in a scene Miller cut from the play but that many directors still include, because it is so electric. Shortly before the witch trial, the play’s protagonist, bold and principled John Proctor, meets young Abigail in the woods late at night. Instead of responding to her advances the way he once did, he catches her in a criminal lie. Here, despite her persuasiveness and her longing, despite how frequently her bad behavior is forgiven in Salem, Abigail will not get her way.
“A wildness stirs in her,” Miller instructs. “A child is standing here who is unutterably frustrated, denied her wish, but still she is grasping for her wits.” Miller calls it “unutterable,” but I don’t see much of a difference between Abigail’s infantile frustration and Stanley’s bratty vocabulary, up to and including “STELL-LAHHHHHH!”
Both characters are more bossy and charismatic than they are smart; both seem capable of a frightening brutality. At the moments in question, both are in trouble, shamed, and denied the attention of their lovers. But Stanley is given a vocal demand to push his warped agenda; he gets to use his voice to call for what he wants. Abigail’s frustration, however, cannot be uttered. She must feel her frustration, then swallow it.
Each contestant got to yell three times, and I have no idea if the judges were scoring the composite of the three, or the best scream. I have a feeling their process was not all that regulated. Ten screamers went ahead of me, and I counted them down like steps to the end of a gangplank. The East Coast guy’s “Stella!” was a wonderful twin of Lou Costello’s “Hey Ab-BOTT!” A fratty dude tossed out “Stella!” from the middle of his mouth, like Dean Martin in “Volare.” A wiry guy in a black singlet zoomed through all three “Stella!”s, then ran away. Shortly before my turn, someone finally called for Stanley—a gray-haired woman in a patio dress that appeared to be made of hemp. She did not scream at all. Her voice was drippy and low, with that throaty burble that comes when you’re trying to stifle tears. She swayed like a torch singer as she called for him, grabbing her long skirt, showing leg. She even ad-libbed a little: “I need you, baby! I need my man!”
Matt Payne-as-Stanley hollered back, “I’ll be right down!”
When they called for number eleven, I promptly forgot anything anyone had told me, anything I had planned to do or to say or to avoid. My perspective shifted into that warped lens of performance in which my body decides things without processing them. Commands happened inside me like lines in a Beckett one act: hands hold number eleven entry card; hands throw card. Open hands; stretch hands wide. Eyes move upward; eyes stare. Hands point, eyes glower. Hands are trembling; hands make fists. Knees bend, lungs billow, neck twists, voice screams.
The Shout Out crowd was close enough to mess with my periphery. I thought if I raised my hands too wide I would slap them, but when I saw clips of the scream later, I noticed they were several feet away. Still, when your listeners are so near and so large in number, you can sense how loud your own sounds are without actually hearing them. The feel of them listening bounces back to you, reports whether the scream is wild enough and loud enough, and if you are being called upon to do it again, or if you will merely be tolerated until you finish. If you will be accepted, despite having breasts, as you yell a lady’s name. If so, then the shoulders push back; the chest pushes forward. Buckle knees; swing arms. Touch dirty ground with fingers, palms. Roll backward; constrict thighs, pull body forward. Rend garment. Belly lifts, voice screams.
My mother is now almost sixty, and she lives alone for the first time in her life. Even though science says menopause should have winnowed the mucus that oils her larynx, she has still got quite a voice. The last time I saw her, she was cleaning out her refrigerator, yanking the empty shelves from their perches to rinse them in the sink. As a few dislodged, they slipped out of her wet fingers. She struggled to catch them, and the sound she made as they fell was so loud that her china rattled in its cabinet. It was, of course, the loudest voice I’d heard in weeks.
I knew from our Sunday phone conversations that, ever since my mother’s second marriage dissolved, she had been piling all the fallout into herself. But watching her yell at the fridge shelves like that was jarring enough to stick inside me. As a child, I saw something mighty in her tiny frame when it attacked household chores at high volume; now I always feel troubled, because every sound she makes—even laughter—reeks of a deep and almost resigned soreness. It is impossible for a listener to escape the fact that massive crises reshape the column of a throat, the muscles of a back, the body that must force itself upright until sundown, when it pours at least two cocktails for itself and then passes out and yells in its sleep.
The finals were held indoors, in a little theater on St. Peter Street. There were four other contestants waiting backstage with me: the veteran screamer who had coached me in line, the patio-dress wailer, the tattooed chick with the gun in her pants, and a distractingly brawny LSU student with the eyes of an eager puppy. A majority of women finalists for the first time ever, a festival administrator told me. We all paced and waited. Someone spread a rumor that there would be cake afterward.
It might just have been the hard liquor I had mainlined between the preliminaries and finals, but something changed once I noticed that I could smell the stage floor, with its decades of coats of paint, as well as the dank walls and dusty curtain fabric. In small, very old theaters like this, even the lights have a smell. They were such familiar odors that they comforted me. I knew that, in the weird autopilot that is my onstage brain, I could use it to map the theater’s acoustics. I could shoot sound not just toward the expectant judges, but to the layers of paint and the musty lights. My body relaxed; it was ready to yell in a room like this. And then they called my name—I was the second screamer of the bunch—and I stopped paying attention.
A woman up in the balcony made an iPhone movie that began when I walked onstage, and she posted it as “Yay! A girl is the winner of the Stella Shouting Contest in New Orleans!” So now I can tell you more about what happens when I scream. In her video, I am just a faraway outline of myself, waving limbs and a washed-out head and, when I turn sideways, a little potbelly. My hands are always tense, either fists or claws. In between the first and second screams, I gasp, and I just keep breathing in, trying to extend the last vowel of “Stella!” through the inhale. The crowd howls at this. After the second “Stella!” I shake my head vigorously, like the scream is a whiskey shot that burns as I swallow it. I have no idea where either of these ideas came from.
The third scream, I think, is the scream that won it. You can hear me lose a battle in my throat. You do not have to assume that I will be mute for days afterward; you know it. Because on the e of that last “Stella!” the sound sinks lower into my neck and starts ripping. Imagine the margin of a piece of paper torn, notch by notch, from a spiral notebook, or an anvil dropping through floor after floor of a cartoon tenement. I did not tell myself to make this hurt, but there I am, punching lower and lower into myself to see what comes up. The noise is just awful, but it is mighty loud.
In that scaly, winning sound, I think, is the last thing I can tell you about my body when it screams. I can say that inside of me—and in you too, probably—is first a place in which muscle and air stop being useful, where our body tells us sound is no longer possible. This is on the corporeal map that we use every day, even at our louder moments. Even, perhaps, onstage.
But I now know that when I rile myself up to the point of damage and think hard about the noises that scare me most, I can rummage around inside for a second bottom to that mappable place, and I can mine that for sound. It’s a sad discovery, I suppose, this lonely and untapped sonic pocket with a trap release, but I do not know what is sadder about it: that it lies there, useless, sometimes for an entire quiet life, or that something allows me to trick myself into finding it. Or that it exists in us at all.
Because this means that a space inside all of us waits for something that hurts so much that we require it. It is built not for fear or for flight, but for need. For when fists beat thighs, eyes squint, shoulders lower. For when breathing stops, neck whips, torso rockets, joints lock, heart swells, and voice screams.
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