- Janet Pelz
Her own childhood marked by a series of 11 checkerboard moves -- from Belgium to Germany to Switzerland to England to Germany and back to England -- Sandy Hirsch brings a certain empathy to her clients.
“I had an immediate affinity with never really feeling at home anywhere as well as feeling at home everywhere because of all the traveling I’ve done. Never feeling ‘bien de sa peau’ -- feeling right in one’s skin. I have the ability to morph constantly because that was what I was trained to do as a child. I know what it’s like to feel as if you don’t belong.”
Sandy’s clients, those who make up about 95% of her private voice and communication practice, are transgender women -- men in the process of becoming women. People in the middle of a complex journey to become the person they’ve always wanted to be.
Whether through her studies of French and the classics, teaching herself languages as she moved throughout Europe, or her first career as an actress and singer, Sandy’s life has all been about communication. “My passion is voice. Mimicry is something I’ve done since I’ve been able to speak.”
But after tiring of waitressing while trying to support herself as an actress, Sandy went to graduate school to study speech language pathology.
“My very first voice client in graduate school was a transgender woman. I was one of a few ‘mature’ students there. People knew about my theater background.” The match was made. “Working with her was such fun, so challenging.
“In that period of time before starting my practice, it was obvious to me that I would be seeing transgender clients.” One of the supervisors at the UW Voice Clinic had a two year wait list “so she started sending her clients over to me because I was the only one in town. Then once the web hit, it went national and then international.
“Suddenly, you’re the person in the world who does it -- along with a bunch of other people, but there’s only a small group. When I started there were fewer of us, but there’s been a real explosion of people transitioning and coming out. Society’s views have changed, and by definition, the need has increased the number of services.
“Which is why we wrote the book because there was no clinical text for people to turn to in the voice world.”
Sandy shows me the book she edited and co-authored: Voice and Communication Therapy for the Transgender/Transsexual Client: A Comprehensive Clinical Guide (Plural Publishing, March, 2006). Included within are cd’s which we listen to together. They feature transgender women speaking before and after therapy. The difference is dramatic – the ‘after’ voice every bit female.
In addition to speech and voice work, Sandy provides training in other aspects of communication, such as walking, posture, sitting, facial expressions, and gestures. Counting off her fingers with delight, Sandy points out “I get to do my theater, I get to meet really interesting people, I help people speak the truth, which is what being a speech pathologist is all about -- you get to help people express themselves the way they always wanted to, or get them back to where they were before.”
It is for this reason she calls her business Give Voice.
Her clients come to her at varying times in their transition. She sees most of them in her home office and Skypes with others further away. “It’s a little different with everybody. They come to me having just started hormones, and others have been transitioning for a couple years, and they’ve never done any voice.”
Her one criterion, “I require that people come to me in their feminine mode, in some relatively honest manifestation of their gender transition. They may not be out at work yet, but they’re spending enough time as a woman to use what I’m teaching them. It’s like the difference between textbook French and being in France. Their goals and outcomes are more achievable with a certain amount of immersion time.”
As part of their gender transition, Sandy helps her clients learn a new way to use the body to produce different sound. She works on pitch -- how high or low the sound is; resonance -- the timbre of the voice; where the sound resonates (men tend to resonate in the chest or lower larynx, and women in the upper larynx or head); and inflection -- how the sounds move higher or lower in pitch from word to word.
“Women produce a light sound, which is not just about pitch, but where the voice plays the mouth and in the head. The sound is out front,” she says, pouting her lips forward. “I’m training people to begin raising pitch so the vocal chords are vibrating faster. It’s nearly all ear training. Really, it’s like learning a foreign language, but learning sounds rather than words.”
Sandy clicked on a video to show me the affect of her work with a client.
In it you’ll see Jerica alternating clips from before and after her therapy over the course of nine months. “Initially, she’s presenting as an obviously transgender woman and later, you wouldn’t know if you saw her on the street.”
(click the above to hear Jerica’s challenges with mastering a new voice at work, her estrangement from her parents, and her new boyfriend)
The vast majority of her transgender clients are men transitioning to becoming women. “There’s a reason for that. For transgender men, testosterone does change pitch.” Transgender women, on the other hand, have to train their bodies to produce sound in a different way.
But changing voice requires a lot more than the physical work. “I warn people that when they want to move to complete change in the way they sound they will hit a psychological wall at three months. It’s like going through the Looking Glass -- they begin to ask, where’s this other part of me? As long as you sound the same, you can still pretend you haven’t changed.”
Who among us can’t relate? I hear my own voice and think I’m still 35 years old.
(When Felicity Huffman was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Transamerica, NPR produced a story about her voice training and that of transgender women. Listen here and you’ll hear Sandy at the end of the story).
“Our voice is our inner anchor.” The hardest time to retain one’s new voice is with family or on the job -- in a context where you’re either forced to be hyper-intellectual, or with people who evoke from you your former self. Sandy knows those situations well.
“I can speak street German pretty well, but I could never give a professional presentation in that language. The higher the cognitive level, the harder it is. It’s just like levels of fluency. For my clients, being able to present professionally, that’s a much higher level test vs. can I order my coffee.”
Similarly, when Sandy gets on the phone with English friends or family, her childhood voice returns. “A while ago I went to London to present to a conference. It was like I’d never left -- It was like putting on my bedroom slippers. The way I communicated, the way I behaved -- everything -- the pace of my walk. I fell back into being in London.
“That’s the change my transgender clients have going back to their families I sometimes tell my clients to make sure there’s a mirror around so they can constantly remind themselves of who they are.”
If voice is such a critical inner anchor, I asked Sandy how she reconciled her own voice shift. During the course of our conversation I hear traces of her native British accent fluently intermingled with American ‘r’s’ and idioms. “I have a pretty confused voice -- I don’t mean that in a deep psychological blah-blah way. It’s really different all day long.” Sandy finds herself moving from a very English voice to one that is very American, depending on whom she is speaking to and what sort of mood she is in. “When I’m doing my community volunteer work I’m in my American head, because I never did any of that in England – I was too young. But when I’m annoyed at my kids I’ll often realize I’m using a very English sound. Or like after I’ve spent time with (our mutual friend) Jane, I’ll say, “How are you? How’s Jim? How’re the boys?”
Her replication of Jane’s voice is uncanny. I wonder immediately about how Sandy will imitate me to Jane when she sees her next.
(Sandy with her husband Jim West, and sons John and Finn West)
She relies on her speech pathology training to work on voice with her clients, but for the other package of verbal and non-verbal communication, she falls back on her experience in acting and the fact that she is both “an acute observer and a woman.”
Much of the information she imparts has to do with how women relate to one another. “If we were men,” she says leaning back against her chair, “we’d be talking like this.” She drapes one arm across the back of the chair and extends her legs in front of her, “instead of like this.” She caresses her coffee cup in both hands placing her elbows on the table and leaning toward me. “It’s the art of the chin wag, that’s a British expression, which means getting together to chat.” Women do this; men, not so much.
Laughing, I pointed out that in addition to different posture, we also weren’t likely to be having this conversation if we were both men – I wouldn’t have called her to ask for an interview and not knowing me, she wouldn’t have accepted.
Sandy has taught workshops about the secrets of Girl Talk at a Port Angeles conference called Esprit. “We’ve done everything to quilting to bead sorting, to looking at photographs together -- experiences that force people into this different kind of communicative style.” As I listen, I imagine her students taking notes: women choose beads and talk like this when they are sewing quilting squares… It’s fascinating to consider how her students are working intellectually to adopt a whole series of actions that women perform everyday, whether they come to it naturally or train themselves over a lifetime.
“There’s a book called I Know Just What you Mean – the Power of Friendship in Women’s Lives, by Ellen Goodman and Patricia O’Brien. (From Publisher’s Weekly: Goodman and O'Brien discuss how women listen, talk, care for and empathize with their women friends). “An exercise I’ll have my clients do when they’re out there in the real world is to say at least five times an hour, ‘I know just what you mean.’ Men don’t have that empathy piece. They are more like to say, ‘Just give me the facts, ma’am’.”
Sandy’s approach towards teaching “authenticity”, which includes everything from hand and facial movements, to voice and ways of thinking, has made a huge difference in my confidence and ability to live more fully in my chosen gender. I would recommend her without reservation to anyone seeking true authenticity in their chosen gender presentation and voice.
Her private practice is just one leg of Sandy’s professional stool. She also works part-time doing acute care at Swedish Hospital Edmonds with patients on “everything from the neck up: language retrieval, speech, reading, writing -- the whole communication ball of wax.” Issues that could come about from stroke, cardiac arrest, traumatic brain injury or other causes. She also works with an agency in long-term care facilities, mostly with geriatrics in rehab.
“My patients make me laugh; they make me cry.” Sandy played for me the role of a recent 83 year-old patient – a woman with a southern accent who married for the first time at the age of 72. “I was an undiscovered treasure,” she mimics, whistling the ‘s’ in treasure in a way that would make Tennessee Williams smile.
Juggling different part-time jobs leaves time for Sandy to be involved in her kids’ schools and in community work and provides some freedom to pursue her many other interests. “Singing is a huge part of my life – our whole family is very musical. My husband plays sax and I sing classical and jazz.” (click here to listen to Sandy sing jazz at Tula’s). “Food is a huge part of my life -- having people over for dinner gives me great joy. If someone moves into the neighborhood, I make them welcome -- I’m a networker. The community work I do has fed me. I feel enormously lucky in the randomness of my life and so I do feel a need to be giving back.
“I feel like there’s so much in the world to feel, smell, see, eat and hear, and the patients I work with remind me every single day that I could not have this in an hour, in five minutes. That keeps me moving forward. Realizing, I can do this, I can do this. It makes me think, how dare I not? When I was trying to decide whether to write an update to my book, my sister reminded me, it’s not bloody rehearsal, come on!”, she says in her English accent. “Why wouldn’t you write that book? How dare I not?”
Sandy’s not-so secrets for How She Does It:
- My life is: Danny Kay, Nichols and May, opera, languages, good food, skiing and visual arts. All of those things have led me to where I am now.
- The obvious answer, this is the only way I know how to do it -- to have many different things going on because it’s never boring. Life is never boring -- that’s how I do it.
- I was lucky enough to have been born to great parents who offered me lots of wonderful experiences as well as a superb education. I'm constantly shocked at the randomness of that fact. They were very organized parents, so I have a sense of multi-tasking.
- I have an unbelievably supportive husband; we support each other’s careers a lot.
- It goes without saying that my kids give me huge joy, but that’s sort of a category of its own.
- I feel really privileged to have a healthy mind and feel like it’s my duty to use what I have – there’s no excuse for being bored or lying fallow. My mother died when she was really, really young, so in some ways I feel it’s my responsibility to live my life fully in honor of what she didn’t have.
- Keeping things new as well as keeping tradition.
- My brother and sister give me tremendous joy. We have a language we speak together – our own terms of family humor
- Traveling with my husband and sons gives me an enormous joy; being outside of my comfort zone culturally.
What books has Sandy read recently?
- Consider This, Senora: by Harriet Doerr
- Enduring Love: by Ian McEwan
- Half of a Yellow Sun: by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Whom does Sandy want me to interview next?
- Our mutual friend Jane Zalutsky, who knows everyone and everything interesting, “obviously.”
- Liz Bullard – a speech/language pathologist who spearheaded the creation of The Children’s Playgarden – a playground designed for children with special needs.
- Sandy Eshelman – very interesting friend who has had every career known to man.