Finding Her Voice

A mezzo-soprano discovers the source of hidden trauma, healing, and empowerment through the gift of music.
Photograph by Fabrice Villard

By Ellinor Ingvar-Henschen

This story is about my singing voice, and my life. The voice is connected to the body’s innermost muscles, and secrets. If you sing you must reveal them—at least for yourself, or you’ll suffocate. The singing voice massages those inner muscles, and secrets. All voices have their roots in the breathing, the very first condition for life.

As a 24-year-old, a promising mezzo-soprano, I arrived in Florence, Italy, to study with an Italian maestro. It was in the fall of 1993. The maestro was a tenor in the classical bel canto tradition who had sung the big roles by Puccini and Verdi at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera House. He heard my voice’s quality and saw my potential as an opera singer, but he also heard and understood that there was something blocking my heart and mind, preventing me from letting out my gift and using it fully. And he kept asking me: What is it about?

I had come to Florence from my native city, Stockholm. There I had suffered from enigmatic depressions and increasing panic attacks over many years. I had good friends and felt loved by my family; however, I had never experienced a true love affair. I was constantly unhappily and platonically in love, and my sexual experiences were all drowned in alcohol. The scholarship to Florence was a combined rescue and escape. In the singing, I had felt the promise of a solution, a better way of living and hope for revelation. The meeting with my Italian maestro and his soprano wife confirmed this notion, and I stayed in Florence for almost three years, fighting my temper, outbursts, passions and depressions while simultaneously experiencing profound beauty and joy.

It could have been the richness of my surroundings—Renaissance art, architecture and the incomparable beauty of the Tuscan landscape—that eventually opened me up to some of the secrets lodged deep inside. Music was always at the center, the stubborn work with scales and arias, and that question ringing in my head: What is it that prevents me from living and loving? I could not find the answer and I suffered. I considered suicide.

One winter day, after two-and-a-half years in Italy, my father called me from Stockholm and informed me that my mother had a new tumor in her breast. She’d had one before; I instinctively felt that this time she would die. I didn’t want to die before her; I sensed that there was something important that I had to tell her before she passed away.

Then, one rainy afternoon soon after my father’s call, I was on my way home from a rehearsal with a pianist for an audition in Rome that never would take place, repeating the question in my head: What prevented me from singing, and from life? It hit me: I had been sexually abused during my entire childhood by a man who was like an extra father for me! The insight came as a complete shock, absurd and outrageous. But in those seconds in the pouring rain in the Florentine rush hour, I was struck by clarity that shed light on an overwhelmingly different history than the one I had been conscious of so far. When I came home to my housemates, my speaking voice was completely gone! I couldn’t even whisper. My whole voice apparatus had stopped functioning; I felt that it was holding down an apocalypse.

The day after, I forced my voice to come through, and commanded myself firmly to sing from the mental picture of the perpetrator. And after a short struggle, another almost metaphysical experience occurred. A completely new voice came out: warm, strong, high and mellow. The sound and sensation in the body were all new for me. I hardly recognized the voice as mine, but it was—my true voice, connected to my body’s true story. The new voice was higher, more toward soprano than my former mezzo. It showed itself for a while and I sang, full of desire, feeling that I was the happiest person on Earth. Then I started to realize the magnitude of my insight, and had to stop singing. I moved back to Stockholm for help and psychodynamic therapy, and to be with my mother during her last years. I played the piano, thus keeping the music alive, but it took me almost a year until I had the strength to sing again. I spent three years putting together my frightening life puzzle, piece by piece. Talking to my therapist, breathing with her to reach the pain, screaming with her, talking to her again, writing, painting, walking, and in between doing self-healing activities, trying to rest, and to mourn.

I told both my parents what had happened to me as a child in the house where they had left me with friends in fullest confidence. They received my story with great empathy, but also struggled with doubt. My father mostly, since he was a neurologist and important colleagues that he counseled supported the theory that traumatic memories could not be repressed. My mother, however, believed and stood up for me strongly, despite her illness.

Six weeks before she died, my father accompanied me to confront the perpetrator, who forcefully denied my accusations. His reactions, and my mother’s eventual passing, were too much for my father to process, and so for a while he decided that my story about sexual abuse was a fantasy, made up for some obscure self-healing reason.

A complexity in my personal story is that I come from a family of famous brain scientists in Sweden. The family also consists of some famous artists. My mother was a distinguished cultural personality in her time, and my grandmother was a prominent art historian. I grew up watching my mother on TV and my uncle answering the people’s questions about memory and cognition in the same media. My grandfather’s bust is outside one of Sweden’s major research hospitals, and my great-grandfather wrote the international encyclopedia on the brain of the 19th century. The issue of my repressed memories was not embraced by my own generation, my brothers and cousins. But I felt the support and confirmation from other sources.

My sister stood up for me, but after she died of cancer, I left Stockholm like an emotional refugee. For 15 years I have lived in my mother’s hometown, Lund, in the south of Sweden, close to Malmö and the Danish capital Copenhagen. I often go to New York to visit friends and to gain energy.

A couple of years after I left Stockholm, new facts about the perpetrator (from an outside source) came up by coincidence, and that made my father change his view. He called to say that he believed my story. I was pregnant with my first child at the time, and will never forget the sensation as I digested his words: I felt the floor move under my feet. His new standpoint was immensely healing to me. My father lived for quite a while after my mother. We parted with a sense of reconciliation before he died of old age.

I am now a happy mother of two wonderful children, and a singer able to use her voice fully and without fear. As an occupational complement to my artistic career, I also have an MA in the field of music and health, and I work as a music therapist at the psychiatric clinic for children and youth in Malmö, with the voice in focus.

What I think is most important to say in all this, is that I have survived thanks to my belief in music, my inevitable urge to sing and my body’s connection to my voice and words. For the past 20 years I have been writing down my story, in anger and indignation, but most of all with a strong love and wish to talk about the herculean healing forces that exists in music, art, spirituality and love. You can get well from traumatizing experiences. You can overcome them. You can love, laugh and live and have a future.

Ellinor Ingvar-Henschen’s autobiography, A Song of Abuse, Courage and Love is available now in Sweden. The English translation will be out in 2019.