Click 'play' on the above audio player to hear a clip of Tanya talking in her sleep.
Hi. My name is Tanya. And I’m a sleeptalker.
When I was eight, my mom woke up in the middle of the night and heard a scary noise in the kitchen. She went to check it out and saw that the refrigerator door was wide open, casting an eerie glow across the linoleum floor. Following the light, she found me asleep under the kitchen table, babbling baby talk with an entire chicken in my hands. When I was a sixteen year old runaway sleeping on a friend’s blow up mattress, I yelled out of a dead sleep, “Stacy, Stacy! The polar bear is losing it in the snow!” When I was a twenty year old theatre student in Canada, I woke up doing a backflip in mid-air. In mid-air. At the time, I never thought much of these stories, and as an adult, casually told them at dinner parties to give myself a bit of flavor.
In the spring of 2014, I thought it would be fun to get a sound-activated recording app and record myself at night. At first the recordings were pretty basic — a word, a little humming, some giggles — nothing too surprising. But then, four months into recording, I discovered a ‘sleeptalking self’, an entirely different ‘person’ who rolls around in my head, has her own dreams, thoughts and desires, and who talks to herself, to imaginary people, to me, and to the people sleeping next to me. And this younger, cup-half-full ball of joy was in stark contrast to me - a tough, macabre, loud mouthed, swears-like-a-sailor tomboy.
She even introduced herself in one recording.
“Hi, my name is X,” she said, “And X, and X, and X.”
It felt like “X” was leaving me iPhone messages. I was completely baffled.
“We can talk if we need to,” X said in one message.
“I wanna see you,” she giggled in another.
X wants to see me? What the f&*k does that mean? I thought to myself.
At first I thought the voice was funny, but when X started directly addressing me I became scared. At one point I thought I might be speaking to a ghost, which was when a close friend kindly requested that I stop playing him the recordings. I told myself that the messages were not from ghouls but were proof of humanity’s collective dream conscious. Which freaked me out. And totally intrigued me.
I went to my therapist and after a few preliminary questions about whether I lost time, found myself in clothes I didn’t remember buying, or had intimate conversations with people I didn’t recognize, he quickly ruled out Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
“I think you’re just wrestling with a part of your subconscious,” he said, “some part of you that needs to speak.”
As an abuse survivor, I was certain that whatever was hidden deep inside me had to be dark, a yowling demon, a tight fist of trauma. As a young child I had been unable to talk about the abuse that was happening and I suffered through horrible nightmares, sometimes waking up unable to move, feeling that some kind of unforeseeable evil was pressing down on my chest and that I was imprisoned inside my own body, railing against the bars of my ribcage, trying to move. After a few seconds I would jerk into motion, an inhalation like a slap helping me to get up and out of bed.
AS AN ABUSE SURVIVOR, I WAS CERTAIN THAT WHATEVER WAS HIDDEN DEEP INSIDE ME HAD TO BE DARK, A YOWLING DEMON, A TIGHT FIST OF TRAUMA.
This X character was not that. She was not the unforeseeable evil, the dark presence I assumed was lurking in the recesses of my subconscious. These recordings were of a high-pitched, singsongy kid without a care in the world, a child I imagined as a little girl in a yellow print sundress with sun-kissed freckles who wanted to have a slumber party inside my brain.
Her messages lingered in my thoughts.
We can talk if we need to.
I wanna see you.
What did X want?
Being a memoirist and performer living in Brooklyn, I decided to collect the iPhone messages and perform a show about trying to talk to X. I thought the performance could open a doorway, and like a seance, I would find the in-between space where the subconscious eight year old me and the firmly in her thirties me could meet, converse, laugh, and maybe even heal. It didn’t work.
A week after the last performance and during a sleepless night, I reached out to the NPR podcast Invisibilia. Beyond the recordings I had accumulated I was totally lost in the woods and thought Invisibilia, with its interest in psychology and the strange and beautiful ways our inner lives manifest, would be able to help. They got back to me right away and I was paired with podcaster and producer extraordinaire Abby Wendle, who became my co-pilot on the journey to reach X. We spent months trying to locate her. We played association games; I sent her daily recordings, which we both analyzed; we did research. Once, Abby stayed up all night while I slept, trying to see if I would talk so she could interview X. Though I did snore like a trucker, X never appeared. Finally, we contacted sleep scientist Deirdre Barrett, who helped me talk to X using an exercise she developed called ‘Sleep Incubation,’ where you ask your subconscious questions using a visualization technique before bed and a dream journal.
Over the course of two weeks I found X, but not before she took me on a wild goose chase, grinning at me from the dance floor of a fancy yacht party before disappearing. In one dream, I solicited the help of a couple whom I had never met and who gave me a map they said X wanted me to use to find a dark place near the water. Once there I could ask X three questions. I followed the map through a rainforest in Vancouver, a beach in Maui, and an 80s era classroom with an old school projector until I found a cabin located in a no-fly zone of the Adirondacks, where X appeared on the night of a new moon near a window overlooking a glassy, silent lake.
I didn’t know how to start, but X motioned to me with her hand, inviting me to speak.
“What is the message you have for me?” I asked.
X said, “Whatever you see I see, and wherever you go I am there.”
I thought, Okay...
And then I asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I thought X might have a request, and was surprised when she didn’t.
“Well,” I paused, “what do we do now?”
“Well,” X paused mischievously, “what do you wanna do?”
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and the dream faded into the next morning without me finding out. As I rubbed my eyes and sat up, I wasn’t sure if that was the end of our talking, or if we would ever see each other again. That was over a year ago.
Since then I have thought so much about X - filled dream journals, performed four versions of a show, created a verbatim text documenting my recordings of her, discussed her at length with other artists, therapists, and researchers. I am still working in the studio, attempting to cobble together a piece about my experience. As a writer and performer, these are the ways I can best talk about how X manifested in my life and guess at what that experience has to say about the human condition. And though it is embarrassing to admit, nothing I have said, written, or performed so far has really done justice to the discovery of X, waking up every morning for two years and listening to her recordings, knowing that X is a part of myself reaching out from the netherworld, and still wondering, who is that? What is she trying to say?
Sometimes it is very hard for me to believe in X because I can so easily explain away her existence. Early on I discovered that what I dream about and what I say in my sleep have absolutely no relationship. Never, not once, did any of my recordings correlate with anything that I dreamt about, even when I was dreaming of X, even on the night that I met her. And Abby, the Invisibilia producer, spoke with many sleep researchers who concluded, and I think rightly, that because of my childhood trauma, X was my personification of sleep, the body’s natural healing mechanism. All of our bodies are trying to heal us at night, and as a storyteller, I had turned this healing into an imaginary friend. So, neurologically speaking, I am making shit up.
And yet. And yet. At the last recording session with Abby and Deirdre, I asked Deirdre to hypnotize me. She dropped me into that sweet liminal space where I could meet X and I found myself in a dark room with a couple of chairs and a small, plush couch. X was sitting on one of the chairs, obscured by the darkness. In her hands was a tiny black box, no bigger than a children’s jewelry box, except this box had no keyhole and no opening.
Before she put me under, Deirdre had asked if I had a question for X. I wanted to find a way to integrate, and once I was face to face with her I asked, “How can we do that?”
“We can’t,” X said, cradling the box. “I have to protect what’s inside here.”
I looked down at the box and saw its black patina like new PVC piping or a polished piece of onyx. It seemed to be glowing from the inside, and my warped face was reflected on its surface.
X led me outside. It was a fall day and we were in an unnamed suburb surrounded by oaks next to sidewalks covered in orange leaves. We started to walk, X leading me with her child’s hand in mine. At first we were taking an afternoon stroll, letting the autumn light kiss our faces. But then X picked up speed and we were jogging, then sprinting, and then we broke into an all out run. I could barely keep up with X and worried that my feet might drag, tumbling me into a heap on the ground. Our legs were moving so fast they were a streak, two road runners with leaves blasting all around. Sensing that we were going to fly, I spread my arms against the wind, unbearable but also exhilarating. X and I were about to lift off when we opened our mouths at the same time, and hand in hand, arms wide, we howled in delight.
Before final liftoff Deirdre brought me back, and I woke up in a reclining position on her couch, a pillow protectively cradled against my belly. It took a few minutes for the dreamy quality in my head to fall away, the weight of my body slowly becoming real, bringing me back to reality. I wasn’t sure if this would be our final meeting, and made sure to thank Abby and Deirdre before leaving, just in case.
Instead of taking the subway home, I went for a slow walk through the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My body felt a bit fuzzy but it was a warm fuzzy, the city like an embrace, the people and the storefronts awash in a buzz that can only be found in New York.
HEALING ISN’T A LIGHTS ON, INSTANTANEOUS MOMENT WHERE EVERY HORRIBLE THING THAT HAPPENS TO YOU IS WIPED AWAY; FOR ME, IT HAPPENS IN SMALL DEGREES, LIKE MOVING A MOUNTAIN ONE SPOONFUL OF DIRT AT A TIME, THROUGH MEDITATION, THERAPY, YOGA, AND 12 STEP PROGRAMS.
I thought about the abuse that was done to me to cause this fissure, to cause X. My meeting with X had helped, but I knew the black box that X was guarding held the brokenness that was still a part of me. Which made sense. Healing isn’t a lights on, instantaneous moment where every horrible thing that happens to you is wiped away; for me, it happens in small degrees, like moving a mountain one spoonful of dirt at a time, through meditation, therapy, yoga, and 12 step programs. Though I often felt like I was flailing my way through life, I was learning how to pick myself up like a little girl with scraped knees, bandage my emotional cuts and get back on the bike, even as the sixteen-year-old runaway version of me whispers, Hey, let’s down three bottles of wine and disappear to who knows where for a week. Because that girl lives inside me too.
But I didn’t want to disappear anymore, and I didn’t want X to disappear either. On my way to the subway, I walked down a long flight of stone steps. At the bottom was an old bench, also made of stone. I sat and watched the sun setting and though I knew the street lamps would be on soon, I felt like my life was restarting, and that I was whole and full of possibility, like a kid on their first day of school.
Listen to Tanya’s story, told on NPR’S Invisibilia. Produced by Abby Wendle.
"Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep (excerpt)" Written and performed by Tanya Marquardt.
Taken from a years’ worth of sleeptalk recordings, “Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep” imagines what would happen if your ‘waking self’ and ‘sleeping self’ met, conversed, and maybe even healed. A chamber work for two performers and an iPhone, the piece is inspired by TedTalks and seances, inviting you to contemplate the dreaming world through the verbatim transcripts of a sleeptalker.