What Losing His Voice Taught Roger Ebert

Recently-deceased film critic, Roger Ebert, will best be known for his infamous pans of beloved movies, such as “Dead Poet’s Society” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” But it was his late-in-life struggle with cancer that truly gave the world a compelling glimpse at the man behind the movie maven.

Ebert underwent a series of painful, unsuccessful surgeries and radiation treatments in an attempt to keep his cancer at bay. Over the years, his carotid artery ruptured seven separate times and most of his jaw had to be removed. All of this trauma eventually rendered him forever speechless.

“These are my words, but not my voice,” said Ebert in a 2011 TED Talk, using computer software to translate the words he had typed on his computer screen into a mechanical version of a human voice.

Throughout his nearly 20 minute presentation, Ebert, via computerized voice and contributing narrations from his wife and two other TED presenters, Dean Ornish and John Hunter, described the events that caused him to lose his voice, and how his state of forced muteness compelled him to re-examine himself and where he fit into the world.

“The act of speaking, or not speaking, is tied so indelibly to one’s identity as to force the birth of a new person when it is taken away,” he says. “I felt and I still feel a lot of distance from the human mainstream.”

Your voice, yourself

Most of us will never experience the literal loss of voice that Ebert did.

However, we can all empathize with the notion of losing our identity to some degree when no one seems to be willing to listen to what we have to say.

“We are born into a box of time and space. We use words and communication to break out of it and to reach out to others,” Ebert says.

If we reach outside of that box, but no one reaches back, it’s hard not to feel invisible and insignificant. When faced with this scenario, we too often retreat back inside our comfortable boxes, taking our true thoughts and opinions with us.

Over time, we lose our voice in the metaphorical sense–too afraid to speak honestly and from the heart.

There is, however, hope for the voiceless.

As Ebert points out, the advent of the internet has given even the quietest among us a new voice—a digital one, one that is not bounded by physical space.

E-mail, chat rooms, online support groups, blogs and community forums provide us with the unique opportunity to engage and connect with one another in ways that were inconceivable a mere half-a-century ago.

For example, people taking care of elderly relatives can find succor and support from one another on the AgingCare.com caregiver forum. Like-minded activists can gather and collaborate on the Care2 community page.

The possibilities are endless and the potential spreading kindness, and new ideas incalculable.

All we need now is the courage to speak up.

How have you used the internet to break out of your box and help your fellow men and women?

Check out the original story (and the video of Ebert’s TED talk): “Roger Ebert’s Epilogue Gives Guidance for Re-Claiming Your Voice

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47 comments

Bryna Pizzo
Bryna Pizzo2 years ago

Thank you for the wonderful post! As a child, I was painfully shy and withdrawn. I didn't develop the confidence to express myself until I went to college where I was encouraged to participate. (p, t)

Leila Mota
Leila Mota2 years ago

I'm going to watch/read for sure. I have a pale idea of what this is about, because I lost my voice for almost one year. It was not cancer and I'm still alive, but it's indeed very hard to communicate with other human beings as usual. People stop paying attention to you because everybody speaks, or better, yells one's opinions. It's difficult nowadays to have a quiet conversation in a restaurant, for instance. Aggressiveness and violence are becoming trivial. How would a person without a voice stand her/his ground?

Elizabeth M.

His life was inspiring after his cancer

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra3 years ago

Thank you AgingCare, for Sharing this!

Kerryn A.
Kerryn Ayton3 years ago

Thank you for sharing this touching & informative story, I truly appreciate it. Roger Ebert is an incredible man.

Teresa T.
Teresa Tate3 years ago

"We are born into a box of time and space. We use words and communication to break out of it and to reach out to others” What powerful words. Thank you for this article on Roger Ebert, and the mention of his TED talk; I will have to look that up. While I may have disagree with him occasionally, and I LOVED Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I always loved Roger Ebert. RIP Roger, your "voice" will be greatly missed.

Christine W.
Christine W.3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Nancy Black
Nancy Black3 years ago

Ebert know that what connected him to people wasn't just his voice; it was his heart; his desire that everyone should receive equal treatment and his awareness that they didn't. 10 stars for a great man as well as critic.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se3 years ago

ty

Sonya Armenia Redfield

Thanks