from The Sound of Nothing

Paige Towers



The drive from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities takes around five hours when the weather is decent, but by the time I neared the Minnesota border on a Friday afternoon in mid-November, rain heaved across the interstate. I’d felt so nervous about arriving late that I pulled into the parking lot of Orfield Labs—a commercial sound lab on the industrial southeast side of Minneapolis—over a half hour before my reserved private tour and killed the engine. Through my rearview mirror, I studied the lab’s indistinctive exterior. Inside, there was a room that the Guinness World Records deemed the “quietest place on earth,” but without GPS, I would have driven right past the featureless, vine-smothered cement building.

Rain no longer smacked against my windshield, but it was too cold to wait in the car. I grabbed my satchel and shuffled towards the sound lab’s entrance. In a city park across the street, a few pre-teen boys in puffy coats gathered underneath the steel-hued sky. Despite the hum of interstate traffic from four blocks away, their laughter was audible, triggering a memory: kids grouped together like that in a park near my parents’ house on the east side of Iowa City. The park was cut in half by a street, underneath which ran two parallel cement tunnels. If the creek flooded, they became an overflow route. My older sister and I used to race through the graffiti-filled tubes, the rumble of cars over our heads, our tennis shoes getting soggy in the muck.

It was my favorite game, until one day she didn’t come out the other side.

Shuddering in the damp air, I listened to the kids for a moment more before opening the sound lab’s door. Their voices faded, a rush of heated air hit my face, and a woman behind the front desk directed me to a couch where I could wait.

Too anxious to sit, I jotted down observations in my journal. The front room was cluttered with unsheathed vinyl records, wooden clocks, and clippings of news stories written about Orfield Labs. Almost a dozen framed album covers also hung on the wall. The building originally functioned as Sound80, a recording studio founded in 1969, and had been used by a diverse range of musicians, including Minnesota native, Prince. Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan and Izitso by Cat Stevens had also both been recorded here. But the label sold the building in 1990 to Steve Orfield, an acoustics and sound researcher.  

Eventually two older men—one with a thick beard, one with a long silver ponytail, both hippie throwbacks and longtime employees—appeared from another room. After introductions, the man with the beard crossed his arms and asked me why I’d booked a tour. Warmth rising in my cheeks, I told them I was curious about noise and hearing, that I wanted to write a story on the lab and its silent chamber. They nodded and signaled for me to follow them towards the first studio. I exhaled in relief. I’d dreaded the inevitable question, as there was more to the answer.

During the past few years, I’d noticed that sound seemed to be the connecting force between my past and present. Everyday noises snapped me back into moments from childhood. I heard kids laughing and thought of my sister. Thunder rumbled and I was once again a teenager alone in the woods, scrambling to get home before a storm let loose. A chair dragged across a wooden floor and I remembered nothing—but, for a moment, my body pulsed with nausea. Voices came to me in waves, as muffled as they’d be underwater, but I couldn’t flesh out any other senses enough to solidify memories.

As I walked through the sound lab, I wondered if silence could unlock some insight about the past, or allow me to tap into an inner, hidden layer of my being. At the age of thirty-one, I felt like there were holes where blocks of time should have been. Maybe a visit to this room would allow me the clarity to retrace memories—memories, I sensed, that were somehow related to my sister. If I stripped away all the noise, would it finally be quiet enough for me to remember what had occurred?

The first room the two men showed me was an old recording studio where producers and musicians had played backing tracks. The booth still functioned, but now the low-lit room was crammed with consumer goods, microphones, and machines—not with instruments. Corporations hired the lab to evaluate and adjust the sound of their products. New vacuum cleaner models can’t be too quiet, for instance, or else users will subconsciously perceive them as being less efficient. Motorcycles pose a similar problem. European markets require lower decibel levels, but according to the manufacturers, if you drastically change the roar of an engine, you take away the nostalgia and feeling of power elicited in the rider. Architectural firms pay the lab to test designs and materials as well. I fiddled with a few of their experiments and imagined living in a house with sound-absorbing carpet. Few noises would enter and challenge my sense of peace; even the beat of my own footfalls would be dampened.

The tour continued in a whitewashed room used to measure reverberation, which was reminiscent of a school gymnasium. Door-sized sheets of metal were strung from the high ceilings. I amused myself by wandering to each corner and testing the acoustics. My voice was canceled out in a few small pockets of space, and I whispered nonsensical words, trying to push them away from me and out into the air. They were deadened upon rolling over my lips. But after taking one or two steps to my right or left, a simple note I sung went pinballing around the room.

My echoing voice took me back to where it always takes me: I was eight and my sister was eleven when I ran the length of one cement tunnel and, blinking in the sunlight, waited on the steep south-facing overhang for her to emerge from the other. I heard a car passing on the street overhead, the sound of birdsong, the slow trickle of the creek, and my heartbeat in my ears. It was too quiet. I couldn’t detect the thump of her footsteps, so I sidled over to the opening of the second tunnel, turned my head, and called her name. My voice reverberated down the empty tube and out the other side. She was gone.

Lowering my head, I stepped into the cement tube where my sister was supposed to be and ran back to the other side, pressing my outstretched arms against the curved walls for balance. When I reached the end and still she wasn’t there, my throat tightened. After sidestepping along the north-facing overhang, I climbed to street level. Gazing over a tree-lined field, I noticed a figure sitting cross-legged in the grass, facing away from me. I sprinted across the field, sweat beading on my back, and grabbed her shoulder. Out of breath, I asked what happened. She looked up at me, flashed a slight closed-mouth smile, and with a flat expression in her eyes, said, “Nothing.”

I used that same word over twenty years later, when she called me from her home in Iowa and asked if I knew what had happened to us. My husband was still at work, the house was quiet, and I was staring at a blank document on my laptop screen while my smallest dog snored in my lap. She told me she’d been questioning for a long time if there was something we weren’t remembering. Her years of depression and anxiety refused to be alleviated by medication. She was flooded with flashbacks—memories mostly comprised of sounds and feelings. Every therapist she and I had seen said our issues resembled those of someone who’d been sexually abused as a child.

“You have the same issues as me,” she said in a hushed voice. “The depression, the anxiety, the low self-esteem—haven’t you even considered it?”

I could hear the muffled voices of her children in the background. The muscles in my shoulders tensed, my skin turned cold and I clutched my dog tighter. It was before noon and the half-empty bottle of local Wisconsin beer sitting before me took on new meaning: guilt, shame, a constant need to escape. Still, I told her the truth, which was the only truth I knew: I didn’t remember anything, and I was suspicious of any mental health professional I’d worked with in the past who’d questioned me about the possibility of abuse. They asked things like, “Were you touched? Were you assaulted? Was it ongoing or maybe just once?”

Stop poking at it, I wanted to say to them. There’s nothing there.

My last psychiatrist had leaned forward in her armchair and suggested, again, that we could work on remembering—it’s possible that those memories are repressed, she’d said—and I’d told her “no,” that I’ve tried, but I didn’t want to be influenced to fill those holes with warped or invented happenings.

Since I was a child growing up in Iowa, I’d searched my brain for a sound, a hand, a face, a ceiling or floor. My mind seemed to do it almost automatically while I lay in bed at night, or stood naked and vulnerable in the shower. I scrolled through mental checklists, remembering my earliest interactions with men. At night, I even dreamt of walking through houses with endless rooms, peering under washing machines or opening kitchen cupboards. These houses weren’t vast or old or abandoned, like they often are in horror films. They were lower middle-class ranch homes with wood-paneled walls and dark orange carpet. The bathrooms were tiled in mint green; the windows were framed with thick polyester curtains. They were houses from the Midwest, conglomerates, likely, of family and friends’ homes that I’d visited as a kid. And in these dreams, I was searching for one thing: clues that would reveal my silent, supposed, invisible abuser.

Before that phone call, I had no idea my sister was doing the same.

In Milwaukee, with the phone pressed to my ear, I took another swig of beer and told her I needed to get back to my freelance work. I could hear at least two of her children pleading for her attention but, despite the commotion, she seemed disappointed. We said “bye” and, like usual, didn’t talk again for months.

Inside the reverberation room in Minnesota, I listened to my words deflect off the metal pieces hung round the room.

“Echo! Echo!” my voice repeated. “Can you hear me?”

“I can hear you!” the man with the silver ponytail answered. He smiled as his response bounced from wall to wall. I laughed, picked up my bag, and followed him into the hallway. Both men stood in front of a door that looked like the entrance to a meatpacking plant’s industrial-sized freezer.

“Are you ready to try out the anechoic chamber?” the man with the beard asked. I nodded, and he wished me luck as the other man opened the massive door.

Upon entering the space, I tried to ignore the fact that I’d just followed a stranger into a room with no exits, no cellphone reception, a door that locks upon closing, and from which no sound can leave or enter.

The chamber itself was 99.99% silent. All four walls, the ceiling, and the floor were constructed from thick chunks of cardboard-colored fiberglass, resembling accordion files. Stacked in alternating horizontal and vertical rows, the fiberglass was held together by chicken wire that had been wrapped in sound-absorbing foam. These rows of insulation were placed on top of giant springs, creating the feeling that we were inside a life-sized jack-in-the-box. Outside, two thick walls of concrete, separated by a layer of air space, encased the room.

This level of sound deprivation not only earned Orfield Labs a record for being home to the quietest place in the world, but also raised concerns about the reactions it might cause in its visitors. Over the years, a story had spread in the local media claiming that a person could “lose their mind” after just forty-five minutes inside the chamber. According to my tour guides, the claim was false. Still, due to safety concerns, visitors were only allotted a maximum of fifteen minutes. 


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Paige Towers is a creative and freelance writer who earned her BA from the University of Iowa and her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College. She currently lives in the diverse Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee and is at work on a book of essays about sound. She’s currently the Senior Editor of TRUE, a weekly publication from Proximity Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney’s, Midwestern Gothic, Prime Number, Rock & Sling, So to Speak, and many other publications. Her work has also been anthologized in Belt Publishing’s city anthology series. You can read more of her published work on www.paigetowers.com.