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Paul Madaule’s Story

Chapter 1 of 'When Listening Comes Alive'

My parents tried everything available in France in the sixties, to understand what was wrong with me and to do something about it. They took me to psychologists, psychiatrists and orthophonists - the French equivalent of a speech therapist. All the specialists agreed that I was bright and that there was nothing wrong with my brain, body, or mind. Then why was I having difficulties at school? I had to repeat three grades and kept getting the lowest marks. The answer of the many specialists was dyslexia - a mysterious name that I could never pronounce properly.

Of course, I understood that dyslexia meant difficulty in reading and writing, but then I already knew I had that problem. Some experts went so as far as to describe certain signs of dyslexia, such as reversals of words or letters, or confusions of right and left.

What could be done to overcome this dyslexia? There were as many opinions as there were specialists, and all kinds of therapies and tutoring sessions were recommended. They were all alike to me and they all meant more work after school or during the holidays... with no results.


Year after year, I was losing ground; school was becoming a nightmare. The situation at home had always been tense, but by the time I reached puberty, the conflicts had become unbearable. The report cards I brought home were a source of constant arguments between my parents. According to my mother, I was simply lazy. My father was more understanding and always ready to give me another chance. Originally, I would shy away from the arguments and bite my nails in a corner. Then, I started to interject, making matters even worse. This, together with endless disputes between my brother, my sister and myself resulted in yelling, crying, and slammed doors. It was hell for everybody.

When I won a class competition in painting - the first time I ever won anything at school - I started building up great hopes for my artistic talents, and art quickly became my only window into the future. I would spend hours sketching and painting, at the expense of my school work. Modern art seemed to suit me perfectly with its freedom of expression and with what appeared to be its improvisations, with its tolerance for distortion and disharmony. It was only later when I began to study the work and technique of the modern masters - Matisse, Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso- in more depth that I realized that before becoming “modern,” they had all followed the path of traditional art and all had traditional educations. School again? The very thought brought me down to earth and the art window started to close - there was nothing I could see myself doing in the future, nothing I felt like doing.

Friends and activities such as scouting had played a very important role in my life, but by the age of sixteen I gave it all up and was spending more and more time alone in my room, just listening to the same songs over and over again.

At the end of the American equivalent of grade nine, when I was seventeen, I had failed all subjects. However, because I was two years older than my classmates, repeating the grade was out of the question. What could I do? Perhaps I could become an apprentice or switch to a vocational school. But I was so clumsy and so poorly coordinated that I couldn’t even put the chain back on my bike. I could never remember which way the screwdriver had to be turned; my fingers would tremble with fear at the mere thought of using a hammer. Most of all, I could not picture myself making a living that way. The school finally came up with a solution: I was allowed to audit the grade ten courses without writing the exams. After a few weeks of that, I gave up school altogether.

I now had a lot of time on my hands and I spent some of it in a monastery a bicycle ride away from my hometown. It was an oasis of peace, away from the family tensions and the isolation of my own room. I enjoyed watching the monks doing artwork. One of the monks, Father Marie, was always there to listen to me and to give me friendly encouragement.

One morning, Father Marie unexpectedly arrived on my doorstep. He had just heard a lecture on dyslexia by a physician visiting the monastery. What the doctor described during his lecture was strikingly similar to the problems I had - and not just the problems with school. The physician consented to meet me before going back to Paris that afternoon.


As soon as we arrived in the monastery, I was sent to a room filled with all kinds of electronic machines. I sat down, and a monk explained that he was going to test my ears by using headphones. The instructions were straightforward. I had to raise my hand as soon as I heard a beep - my right hand if I heard it in the right ear, left hand if I heard it in the left one. In the next part I heard many beeps one after another, and I had to say if the sound I was hearing at the moment was higher or lower than the one before. This test was identical to hearing tests I’d previously had, and I could not understand the reason for it as I already knew that my hearing was fine.

The monk handed me the result of my test and sent me to the park of the abbey. There I met the doctor, a completely bald man who stood very straight and introduced himself. “Tomatis” he said, shaking my hand. He then asked me to give him the paper I had in my hand and suggested that we talk while walking along the paths of the park.

After a quick glance at the graphs of the test, he started asking me all kinds of unexpected questions. We talked about everything from family to sexuality and modern art. I was surprised by how much he knew about art and the artists I liked. A doctor who held consultations in the park of an abbey, talking about contemporary art - I could not believe it! I quickly forgot that I was speaking with a doctor and started to chat with a man, an easy-to-talk-to man who took a genuine interest in my views and who understood them even if they were not clearly spelled out. I talked about what preoccupied me at the time: the isolation I felt, my ambivalence about religion, my parents’ lack of understanding, the artistic value of The Beatles and Bob Dylan.... Dr. Tomatis had opinions on everything. They often differed from my own, but he always made me feel that my view counted.

In the course of our conversation, Dr. Tomatis described with amazing clarity the world of confusions, contradictions, and conflicts in which I lived and which made my life miserable my inhibition, temper tantrums, absent-mindedness, the difficult relationship with my parents, fits of anxiety, extreme shyness, sleepless nights, difficulty expressing myself, fear of the future, clumsiness. It was hard to believe that a test of my ears could tell him so much information about me. He also explained that there was nothing abnormal about me and my difficulties were not my fault. They were nobody’s fault.

As a conclusion, Dr. Tomatis told me, “You are like a locomotive astray in the meadow. You have to be put back on track.” This image summarized what I had gone through for years, and it became my Ariadne’s thread for years to come. He then added that if I wanted to get rid of my “annoying little problems,” he would be glad to help me at his centre in Paris. Should I decide to come, he asked that I bring with me a recording of my mother’s voice.

Alone again, I continued to walk in the park trying to recollect the conversation in its most minute details. I was extremely enthusiastic about what I had heard, and yet the only question I had asked Dr. Tomatis about his treatment was if it would change my dreams and aspirations. That day I realized that it’s one thing to want to change, but to actually change is another. Changing means letting some things go. Would I have to relinquish my dreams?

As I continued to recall our conversation, I suddenly realized that he had never brought up school. He had reduced years of difficulties, disappointments and failures to “annoying little problems.”

I tried to explain to my parents what the treatment involved. I remembered Father Marie saying that Dr. Tomatis therapy consisted of listening to sounds modified by special electronic machines. My enthusiasm had more of an impact on them than my explanation.

A few weeks later, in June 1967, I found myself on the platform of the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, suitcase in my hand, a tape recording of my mother’s voice in my pocket, dreams in my head and hopes in my heart.


I was to attend Dr. Tomatis’ centre every day for four weeks, and I quickly learned the daily routine. When I arrived in the morning, the receptionist gave me four tickets, one each for a half-hour session. My name and a code made up of letters and numbers were written on each of them.

I would then go to another room where I was greeted by a lady who took my tickets and indicated where I should sit. She would then put headphones on my ears, place a reel on a tape recorder and set the many knobs of an imposing machine with flickering lights, while asking if the volume was comfortable for me. She would then give me paper, crayons, paints and brushes and suggest I spend the time drawing and painting.

I was not alone in the room. Some people slept, others painted, wrote, knitted, talked to each other or with one of the éducatrices - the ladies looking after us. There were people in booths, sitting erect on high stools and singing or talking into microphones with our headphones on; we must have all looked like creatures straight out of a science fiction movie.

The noises that I heard through the headphones, scratchy, static noises which were unlike anything I had ever heard before, intensified my feeling of being in a science fiction movie. These sounds, not at all disagreeable, seemed to come from faraway, as if they were from another world. Gradually, I was able to identify some isolated words, and then whole sentences would pop out of this sound jumble. It was a few weeks before I realized that it was my mother’s voice that I had been listening to all along.

I remember that during those first weeks I had the sensation of living in a muffled environment away from the street noises, and the busyness of Paris. It was as if I were on a cloud.

 Once or twice a week I had an interview with Dr. Tomatis. I knew perfectly well by now why I was doing the program, but I needed to hear the reasons again and again. The clarity and richness of his explanations fascinated me.

Before each of my interviews, I had a test similar to the one the monk had given me at the abbey. Dr. Tomatis explained that this test not only indicated whether or not I was hearing properly, but also gave him information on how I was hearing. Among other things, my test showed that the language sounds I heard were mixed and distorted, as if they were coming from a poorly tuned radio. That is why I often had to ask people to repeat themselves and frequently heard one word instead of another. Because I was used to perceiving sounds this way, I was not aware of it, just as we forget that we don’t see colors as they really are when we wear sunglasses for a long time.

Once, the whole class had laughed to the point of tears after I described Plato’s myth of the cave (caverne in French) as the myth of the tavern (taverne in French). I saw Plato’s characters sitting around tables, drinking wine and beer in a dark and smoky tavern, shadows of pedestrians walking on the street cast on the back wall. The whole picture was clear in my mind, but a sound confusion put me “off track” creating a misunderstanding. A distorted perception of words, in turn, affected my understanding of the world.

Tomatis often talked about what he called my dyslateralité: “mixed dominance.” While I wrote and drew with my right hand, I used my left hand for virtually everything else. I even had the brakes inverted on the handlebar of my bicycle so that I could reach the rear brake with my left hand. I wore my watch on my right arm because it was easier to put on that way. I never knew which way the key had to be turned to open or close the door. Was the hot water tap on the right or on the left? If the switch was up, was the light on or off?

I learned that the mixed dominance also affected my eyes and ears. In looking at something, I used the left eye to focus. When listening, I tuned into the sounds predominantly with my left ear and I talked “left.” This meant that I was using my left ear to control my speech. How did Dr. Tomatis know all that? Apparently, he could see my lips projecting words to the left side of my mouth, and the left side of my face was more animated when I talked. I learned that the route from the left ear to the “language centre of the brain” is longer and therefore less efficient. That explained the time-lapse that occurred when expressing my thoughts in words. The words tried to “catch up” with my ideas and most of the time they arrived too late. This time-lapse caused the stammering, the hesitations, and the difficulties I had in finding the right word. It also accounted for my tendency to substitute one word for another and the fact that I frequently lost my train of thought and shifted from one idea to another in mid- sentence.

My brain was working faster than my tongue, and I felt it most when in a group discussion. By the time I was finally able to express my ideas, the other people would already be talking about something else. Another effect of the left ear control was my monotonous and mumbled voice. No wonder nobody in a group had the patience to pay attention to what I had to say!

I also found out that in addition to registering sounds and monitoring speech, the ears control balance and body movements. When, as in my case, the ears did not work in harmony, this control was imprecise and unstable. I understood the reason for my clumsiness, the hard time I had had learning to ride a bike, my dislike of all sports, and my strange duck-like gait, which was the source of many jokes. I also understood why I had to give up guitar lessons: I was unable to dissociate the movements of the right and left hand.

Poor mastery of the body also distorted my perceptions of time and space. It was difficult for me to learn to tell time, and I would wear a watch just for show. It also explained why I had to make the sign of the cross to determine which side was right or left.

My poorly defined notion of time and space also accounted for my lack of organization, which was why my mind was so confused. I was unable to express my ideas in a clear, concise and structured way. When writing, I would get lost in my sentences. Teachers’ comments on my essays were always, “good ideas, but poorly worded.” I also had a very hard time with syntax. The “floating space” in which I lived was also a reason for my total incompetence in math.

In order to read and write well, one needs not only good control of language, but also good control of the body, and both of these systems are regulated by the ear. The movements of the eyes that are essential to reading, and those of the arms, hands and fingers involved in writing are controlled by the body. In my case, sound analysis and body control were “off,” causing all sorts of “annoying little problems” usually described as dyslexia.

Dr. Tomatis added: “the way your ears work, you can’t help but think about something else or look out the window after five or ten minutes in the classroom. It takes too much out of you to listen. Our intelligence should be used to make us smart, but you are using yours to compensate for the distortions.”

The purpose of the sound training program was to suppress the distortions that prevented me from clearly perceiving and emitting certain sounds. It was also designed to establish dominance of the right ear. The tuning system of my ear had to be improved - tuning to the language sounds, tuning to the body, tuning to space and time. The sensation of dizziness I had complained of at the beginning of the program was an indication that both my ears were listening and thereby finding a new balance.

Dr. Tomatis also explained that in order to understand the root of my problem one has to go back to the time in life when the ears first started to operate, to the time before birth and during infancy.

The recorded mother’s voice modified by electronic filters helps to imitate the way the fetus hears before birth. The use of this voice at the beginning of the sound program allows one to re-experience all the stages of development of the ear and of the desire to communicate.

During one of the interviews, Dr. Tomatis recommended that I spend a month in England instead of going back home. “At the very least you will learn some English, which may be of help to you later.”


I was not at all enthusiastic about going to England. Twice before, I had spent a month there to improve my English. Both times the family with whom I lived initially tried their best to establish some rapport with me, but no matter how hard I tried I was unable to break the linguistic barrier. They quickly gave up trying and so did I. These trips had done nothing to improve my skills in English, which was one of my weakest subjects.

On the ferry to England, I met a happy-go-lucky French guy. We immediately hit it off. Together we began to “discover” London. We went to Picadilly Circus, Soho, the clubs.... We bought eccentric clothes at Carnaby Street and soon became part of the peculiar world which was London in the late sixties. Despite my serious limitations with English I could make myself understood, laugh and even make others laugh.

Once I returned to Paris, I began to wonder about what had happened in England. Why had it been so easy to get along with this guy, to have such an instant friendship and all the encounters, the laughter, the fun...? Everything had seemed surprisingly easy, even the English language! I was both puzzled and ecstatic and so excited about the prospect of talking to Dr. Tomatis at my next interview.

When I met with him, he listened to me and then suggested: “Well, after the good time, it’s the time to think about serious matters. What plans do you have in mind?” I had none. I had been out of the classroom for more than a year and had forgotten all about schooling. But it was August and classes were starting in September. As I had no ideas, Dr. Tomatis suggested that I enrol at a boarding school close to Paris. The very idea of school made me nauseous, but a boarding school was even worse! I had no choice but to agree. Right there, on the spot, Dr. Tomatis called the headmaster and asked him if there was any room for me in grade eleven.

Once he had hung up the phone, I reminded Dr. Tomatis that I had never gone to grade ten and that I had been the worst student in the class for all the other grades. He told me that he was aware of that but I could not afford to waste any more time. What counted was to get my baccalaureate within two years, and he added: “If you put as much energy into studying as you did into having fun in England, you are sure to succeed.”


Now it was my turn to sit erect on a stool in a small booth. I had to breathe deeply and repeat into the microphone what I heard through the headphones. At the beginning of the sessions, I vocalized to the sound of a Gregorian chant. Then came lists of words and sentences loaded with sounds such as s, ch, f, z. Modified by the electronic filters, these words seemed to whistle in the ears. I also heard my voice whistle when I repeated them. This was an unusual sensation, since I was used to hearing my voice sound very low. Not only did I have to sit straight as a ramrod, but I also had to push my lips forward, as if I wanted to “kiss the microphone,” as the recording instructed me. Between sessions, I could rest, listening to scratchy classical music. Later, I was asked to read out loud, still using the microphone. These reading sessions were tiring and frustrating at first. I would mix up words and hesitate. My voice quickly lost its volume and I would start mumbling. I also found I could not keep up the straight posture for more than a few minutes. An éducatrice would come in to remind me of the correct posture and to help me with articulation. She would insist that it was the sound of the words that was important at this stage, not the meaning.

Little by little, my voice was becoming stronger, more colourful, more expressive, and the text began to have some meaning. The exercise became more interesting, less tiring. I even started to like it! After these reading sessions, I felt refreshed, invigorated and ready for long walks on the streets of Paris.

I remember that during one of these walks I was looking at books in a store and suddenly realized that I was not simply leafing through to look at pictures but was actually reading, and I understood what I read! Towards the end of August, I could easily read out loud for a full half-hour at the centre. This exercise filled me with physical energy. It was a new sensation, a sort of euphoria. I felt my entire body vibrating. I could go on and on reading aloud, well after the half- hour session was over.


Boarding school was not so bad after all! It wasn’t long before I made a few good friends, and I found the teachers quite likeable. Work was hard, but I quickly realized that the sense of not being able to apply the new knowledge in a more general context - the sense of being lost - had disappeared. I was far from being a good student, but I was plugging along. Apart from math, which was still a nut to be cracked, “difficult” no longer meant “impossible.”

Throughout the two years of boarding school, I practiced the reading aloud exercise recommended by Dr. Tomatis every day. I would use it to review the French literature texts. More and more often, I found myself reading a book in my spare time. I could now be carried away by a good story.

I spent a lot of my time writing letters to family and friends. “Chatting” on paper was a new and fascinating experience, and for some time, my drawing and painting retreated into the background. I started to write poetry; my observations, thoughts and feelings would take the form of free verse. The words replaced paints and brushes to create images. As for lines, there were straight words, curved words, words which would zigzag. As for colours, there were both “hot” and “cold” words. Words could convey light, clarity, shades, darkness or transparency.

On Saturdays, I would take the bus to Paris to continue my program at the centre. From time to time I met Dr. Tomatis, who monitored my progress and gave me advice and encouragement. During the first year in boarding school, I passed my driver’s test the first test I ever passed in my life!

In the French academic system, the baccalaureate is the examination students take at the end of high school in order to get into university. To all of us it was the armoured door between school and freedom.

At first, I didn’t believe I could pass the first time around. There were so many horror stories of good students failing after several attempts. On the other hand, there were also few miracle stories of bad students who managed to pass, and those stories were quite contagious. Dr. Tomatis was firm in his opinion: “you can succeed, if your books become your only friends for a while.”

I turned twenty in February of 1969. Twenty and still at school! It was so humiliating that on my weekend outings in Paris I passed myself off as a university student. It was time I decided to start studying for real, and it worked!


When I told the wonderful news to Dr. Tomatis, he asked about my plans. This time I was prepared for his question. I had already put a lot of thought into it. Helping people always interested me. In the boarding school, I had the opportunity to observe the effect of his sound treatment not only on myself but also on other students. I also heard extraordinary stories from clients I met at the centre. The field of application of this treatment seemed to spread well beyond the language and learning difficulties of children and adolescents. At the centre, there were people of all ages from all walks of life - singers, disabled people, famous actors, expectant mothers, the elderly, religious people. Each and every one of them seemed to benefit from Dr. Tomatis’ technique in one way or another. I saw in this technique a concrete, efficient, holistic and humanistic approach that could be used on a large scale. That is what helping people meant to me. It was a therapy of the future.

Several times during my interviews with Dr. Tomatis I had alluded to my wish to study and work with him. His answer invariably had been: “Get your baccalaureate first, then we’ll talk.”

Now that I had my “bac,” I told Dr. Tomatis that I intended to study psychology, and that I would like to be introduced to his work while studying at university. He offered me the position of part-time trainee at the centre and concluded, “Now the real work begins.” We were in 1969 and the work still goes on....

When Listening Comes Alive                         © Paul Madaule 1993