The Sound of Violence

...in which Ashley attempts a desperate escape from noise.

As childhood friends go, Ted Barrett was one of my closest – right across the street in fact – but there were plenty of times I wanted to kill him. Ted was the sort of gleefully masochistic bubba boy who would piss in your Shasta while you were distracted by Mannix. He’d cock his BB gun and command me to start running. He’d sing the wrong lyrics to Donna Summer songs on purpose. He insisted on my being Robin to his Batman even though it was my damn Batman cape.

But the worst thing he ever did was eat a tangerine. Ted stood in his bedroom and pulled the tangerine slices from the peel one by one, slowly chomping and chewing them in the silence of the room. I wasn’t sure why this sent me into such an emotional turmoil, but enduring the sound of his juicy consumption, I knew that this – not the pissy soda, not the BB in my ass – this was the clear justification for murdering Ted. I can still hear it when all is quiet, the merciless slurping of that fruit, Ted’s slack-jawed smacking ricocheting off the sheetrock of our hillbilly suburbia. And I live with the haunting regret of not having jabbed a nearby ballpoint into his gulping windpipe to defend myself. I was afraid that sound might be even worse.

All this to say I have a lifelong sensitivity to noise. Not just the slurpy/chewy kind, but the hissy, clangy, screamy, tinny, thumpy, and rattly varieties as well. And because there is no form of personal irritation in America that cannot be pathologized, my urge to kill Ted Barrett has a diagnosis: Misophonia. This is an extreme sensitivity to certain kinds of noise, triggering a fight-or-flight response in the precious nervous system of the afflicted snowflake. In short, I will kill you if you don’t stop crunching those Funyuns.

I’m not a proponent of this modern rush to medicalize the mundane, whereby disliking ABBA or feeling lonely during parades is considered a Pfizer-worthy condition. I don’t believe my murderous response to sloppy eaters and squeaky hinges should be inscribed in the DSM or confessed on a  self-help podcast about my inspiring journey. I just think you people are making too much goddamned noise.

And this is why I worked in libraries for twenty years. It should come as no surprise that your local library is staffed by nervous wrecks, delicate souls with pathological aversions to rattling keychains, chemical aromas, contrasting colors, and the many other micro-aggressions of modern life. The library is a safe house for such basket cases, who quietly organize research materials as therapy for their crippling fear of cufflinks or what have you. It is the emotional support animal of occupations.

It is also a vocation which allows power-mad malcontents like me a Stasi-lite level of control over the jabbering masses. There is the stereotypical librarian shushing, of course, but even better is the cell phone smackdown, in which anyone engaging in the willfully-assholish practice of public Facetiming or walkie-talkie-style broadcast of their mindless chat can be removed from the premises under threat of police action. Not that I am given to authoritarian impulses, mind you. I have no desire to impose my violent will onto noble drug smugglers or intoxicated speeders late for the cock fights. I just want everybody to be quiet.

The cell phone is a particularly noxious offender in the western noisescape. For the misophoniac, the preponderance of twittering electronic devices creates a micro-processed hell of high-frequency stabs to the auditory nerves. Ringtones, game apps, message notifications, and Tik Tok groin injuries, all wafting through the atmosphere with a tinny disregard for proper EQ. The communal squares of airports and Applebee’s provide additional layers of surround-sound Hannity and Kidz Bop dance groves via TVs and music streams to further agitate the afflicted. Add the crunching of Double Stuf Doritos to that playlist and the AR-15 starts to seem utilitarian. Sadly, the librarian’s powers are useless in the real world, and the buzzing, yammering, tweeting, booming, crunching, slurping, and autotuned yawping of Americaland continue without restraint. This can understandably drive the sound-sensitives to pharmaceuticals. Or maybe even to leave the country.

Germany, as you’d imagine, is quieter. The German people, with their Asiatic stoicism and relentless adherence to personal space, maintain a vow of silence in public as a rule (an unspoken rule, of course). Train travel is such a tomb of respectful lip buttoning that I expect to be instructed to rise with my hymnal at any moment. Retail spaces are generally Bieber-free. Even the stores selling flatscreens and car stereos have the din of funeral parlors. Deutschers be quiet is what I’m saying.

But for the misophonia victim, this silence can do more harm than good, emphasizing as it does every wheezing deviated septum or chomping of sausage dog. As I write this, the quiet of our German apartment intensifies the victorious hoots of soccer-playing youth down the block. The gentle whizzing of electric cars by my window becomes as distracting as a suicide bomber. The walls are so thin I can hear the snoring of the tenant above. I can hear the woman next door putting her silverware in the kitchen drawer.

Soon the wife will look for something to eat, breaking the relative calm with crunching or slurping. Or else she will brush her teeth, the greatest horror of all. And I will quietly suffer the guilt and shame of my annoyance, rationalizing that she is only a human being, the one I adore most, engaging in basic diet and hygiene practices. She never shot me with a BB gun, and she certainly has no intention of wearing my Batman cape. If she wants to eat a tangerine, my murderous rage is more than a bit disproportionate; it’s totally irrational.

I was at a party once, complaining with a friend about all of the noise crimes of society. I loudly expressed my desire to be blissfully deaf, to lose my hearing completely and live in silence for the rest of my days, never having to hear Huey Lewis ever again. At this point, the hostess introduced me to her seven-year-old daughter and explained how the girl’s cochlear implants worked. The not-so-subtle implication being that this youngster would love to hear “The Heart of Rock and Roll” beating someday.

Deafness is impractical, and moving away from leaf-blower America was no escape from the chewing of juicy foodstuffs. The nerve-shattering noise is everywhere. Maybe misophonia really is a form of mental illness, one for the books. I know that for the super-sensitives like me, even in the quietest moments, some small noise will appear and become ever more vivid. Even the water running through the pipes in the wall might keep me awake. And if I listen too closely, that trickling behind the wall will begin to sound like voices whispering to me, voices that may never shaddup.

Year ago, I mentioned this wall-whispering issue to my friend Tim, a lifelong schizophrenic with a long history of auditory hallucinations. He gave me some good advice I pass along often to this day.

“If you start hearing the voices, don’t fight it, man. Don’t fight it. Hear ‘em out. Just don’t do what they’re telling you to do!