One day, when journalist Harriet Shawcross was a teenager she stopped talking to anyone other than her family. At school, she was silent for nearly a year, except to answer direct questions. She just felt lost for words.
In the age of oversharing, Shawcross explores the power of silence in her new book, Unspeakable: The Things We Cannot Say.
Silence can have a profound effect on your life says Shawcross.
“I lost the ability to talk in the ways that make us human… when I was at school I found that I couldn’t converse with people normally so if a teacher asked me a direct question I would respond but I wouldn’t chat with people, I wouldn’t make jokes with people.”
Shawcross says that as only one of three day-pupils at her boarding school, she was told not to talk about her home life while at school because the other kids couldn’t go home. “I think I kind of took that to heart”. When her father was made redundant Shawcross’ family felt it was a shameful thing.
It was the combination of these two things that led her to take a step back from the world.
“It wasn’t a complete silence, but it was kind of a dehumanising silence I would say.”
Childhood mutism is seen as a type of phobia, moving away from past definitions that held the child was choosing not to speak.
“In the same way that an arachnophobe will see a spider and freeze up, it’s the same kind of thing when a child with selective mutism has an expectation to talk, they will have this physical kind of freeze mechanism and not be able to do anything and the way to treat it is the way you treat a phobia which is very small steps at the child’s own pace, letting them realise that there is nothing to be frightened of and that it is something that they’re able to do.”
In primary school-aged children, mutism is present in 1 in every 150 children, but it becomes more uncommon as they get older.
How do you know when silence is a problem for children?
Shawcross says someone who is shy will warm up in time as they get to know the people or the situation – the silence will fall away. For a child with selective mutism, the more time they spend in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, the more they will retreat and the harder it will be to break.
It becomes difficult or dangerous when the person doesn’t have the ability to choose whether to speak, she says.
In the rare case that children who go into adulthood still don’t speak, other mental health problems can arise. Shawcross had email correspondence with several older teenagers who still had trouble speaking and for many it got more pervasive over time. The longer it carries on the harder it is to break, she says.
For others, vows of silence can be part of a religious experience. Shawcross spoke to an order of silent nuns in the heart of London. Well, she spoke to the nun who deals with the media.
“Even though it’s a silent order, there are checks and balances on the silence so if they need to speak to another order member they can and there are periods of recreation when they are able to converse with each other so even in a silent order the silence is not absolute.”
The media liaison became a nun later in life and when she joined the order she was worried that she wouldn’t be accepted because she had been through counselling and feared the nuns would think she was not mentally up to it.
What she found was that being plunged into silence brought about terrifying visions of abuse. It was only when she realised that these were scenes from movies playing over and over in her mind that the visions went away, says Shawcross.
For others, their experience of silence is far more intense; like the Buddhist monk who spent nine months in solitary silence.
“He’d been dragging some wood up a hill, this was in Southern Spain, and he had pulled a muscle in his chest. He ended up convincing himself that he was having a heart attack and that he was going to die and he described it as he had no control of his mind or of his body, he just couldn’t get a grip on what was actually happening without language. The only way that he could pull himself back to the real world was to break the silence and speak to someone.”
The monk called a doctor friend of his who told him of course he wasn’t having a heart attack.
“It was only adding language to the experience that made it possible for him to make sense of it and deal with it and move on.”
For the monk, it was a profound religious experience.
Silence can come in many forms and for Shawcross, it was her sexuality that she didn’t speak about until she was in her 30s. As a bisexual woman, she says she’s always known she found women attractive, but she wasn’t able to articulate it or speak about it.
In the UK the Samaritans, similar to our own Lifeline, started with the idea that talking and listening can save a life. In the 1950s, a 13-year-old girl took her life after starting her period and thinking she was dying because she had no one to talk about it with. The priest who conducted her funeral felt no one should ever feel that alone and isolated and set up the organisation.
Shawcross spoke to one of the longest serving Samaritans, Alan, who has been volunteering since 1960.
“Back in 1960s, in Liverpool, the things they were dealing with were incredibly taboo, so homosexuality was still illegal, abortion was illegal and often they were talking to people who had nowhere else to express what was happening for them.
“The examples he gave to me were gay men who were being blackmailed, women who either had just had an abortion or were seeking an abortion or even people having extra-marital affairs.”