Silence is a crime

‘Someone with a capacity for silence,’ writes Jacinta Halloran in her book Resistance about a man who keeps things to himself.

When I read these words in isolation, ‘a capacity for silence’, they sound like a positive attribute, someone unafraid of stillness, someone prepared to sit in silence for long periods, someone not in love with the sound of their own voice. A circumspect person, not given to prattling, to ‘exercising their tongues’.

As my list rolls on I recognise the wisdom of these words. A capacity for silence bespeaks a spy, someone who holds their cards close to their chest, someone who gives little away. A person who refuses to let their vulnerability show; a person who lets others appear foolish, prattling on about the weather, desperate to share their thoughts while the person capable of silence keeps everyone guessing.

I find such silent people difficult. I am not such a person, although I can hold my tongue when circumstances require. At least I like to think I can.

Other times, I’m bursting with wanting a turn to speak.

In every group I have ever attended, be it large or small, there are always a few who speak up first. They have something to say, make a point, share their thoughts, while most other attendees remain silent. 

I am not one of the silent ones. The number of times, especially at analytical gatherings where I have felt the weight of the microphone in my hands, my pulse racing, my hands sticky around the clunky loudspeaker, when I hope my words do not reveal too much of the tremble behind them. 

It is a daunting thing to speak at such conferences. The audience thrums with disapproval. Only the guest speaker is allowed to have a say or their appointed discussants, their presenters, the rest of us must sit back in awe.

When it comes discussion time and questions or comments are invited, there falls a long, agonising silence across the room. Sometimes the presenter might urge the room to feel okay about the silence as people gather their thoughts.

Karen Maroda during a recent zoom conference to some 200 participants, after she had talked at length about enactments in therapy, asked for questions, and the zoom room fell silent.

‘You’re kidding’. Maroda could not believe the timidity of her audience. Timid or taciturn. Leave the speaker to stew in their juices. Leave them to gather almost no sense of how their words have landed.

When people participate in discussion they begin a conversation that is the bread and butter of relationality. The to and fro, the back and forth, the give and take that is a hall mark of the human condition. 

We get along because we share our thoughts and when we do not, and leave others in the dark, we are withholding and cruel, however much we might imagine we are timid, shy, or too frightened and do not want to upset the other.

Silence is a crime. 

When we’re babies we learn to vocalise and ultimately to talk through a process of turn taking. You see it all the time. The baby makes a cooing, gurgling, burbling sound to the parent and the parent, or whoever else is interacting with the baby, tosses back clear, exaggerated words. 

Baby talk. It’s a form of marking that helps babies to recognise the difference between themselves and others. Your turn, my turn. But the silent one, the one with a capacity for silence breaks these rules by refusing to play the game. 

Think of the still face experiment when babies are confronted with a mother who fails to respond. One minute she engages in her usual playful interactive way then she turns her back and when she turns back she holds her face stony still. She refuses to interact with her baby who then throws their arms around, grimaces and grunts, or shrieks, burbles, and coos, all to get a mother’s attention. To find again the mother they once knew.

When you witness this experiment you witness the slow unhinging of a baby. They cannot get a response and thereafter lose sight of themselves in a void of absence, of silence.

It’s devastating to watch.

The experimenters allow only a minute or two to spare the babies going fully mad but long enough to distress them. To demonstrate the point: Babies need live company. 

In television crime series when police or barristers ask the prisoner a question and the reply comes: ‘No comment’, we’re left with a similar sensation. Some one who remains tight lipped.

Rather as the infamous video clip that went viral many years ago. After Tony Abbott, then Prime minister of Australia, refused to answer a question put to him by a reporter about his response on hearing of the death of a soldier in Afghanistan, that ‘Shit happens’.

He stood still, for what seemed like minutes, only his head nodding, as though he had heard but was could not speak, or could not/would not share his thoughts. 

How often have you heard someone, at least in my day, say words like ‘Hold your tongue’ or reflect on the women in America who cut out their tongues to protest those who raped them?

Or the women whose tongues are otherwise cut out to silence them. Saints in the church, too. Saints Agatha, Anastasia, Hilary among others. All these people, women mainly, forced to hold their tongues.

My father’s demand of our mother to hou op, which to me as a child meant ‘shut up’. But now I discover, means ‘don’t, which then makes me wonder, did my mother say this to my father when he attacked? Or were they his words? 

The Dutch for shut up is Hou je mond. Hold your mouth. An insult. Shut your trap.

You who must hold that capacity for silence because another person does not want to hear from you. You, your words, your existence is too hard to bear.

Chain of hearts which I prefer to call bleeding hearts.

When I was a schoolgirl of thirteen travelling home with my sister on the red rattler from Richmond where our convent school squatted on top of Vaucluse hill to the flat lands of Cheltenham, which once housed acres of fruit gardens, a man told me I talked too much. 

He overheard me talking to my sister and a friend. It was not his business that I should speak as often as I did. I don’t remember being loud or obnoxious. But at one point this man told me I was too loud.

‘You’re schizophrenic,’ he said, and the word stuck in my head like a piece of shrapnel. I did not understand its meaning but recognised it as a word of derision. I did not understand why he found my enjoyable conversation with my sister and friend, talking about something as innocuous as a poem we enjoyed in class or our pleasure over some series on the television. Something like our favourite variety of chocolate, so offensive.

We were immature girls bent on the small pleasures of life. We were otherwise shy souls. This man seemed like one of extraordinary audacity. To intrude on our conversation.

When we came home, in one of those rare moments when my father was not drunk and surly in the lounge room, when he had stayed sober at least for this part of the evening. He sat across from my mother and they seemed to be enjoying an unpredictably calm conversation about something safe.

I told them what the man on the train had said. 

My father dismissed the word without explaining its meaning and I was forced to visit the dictionary.

Years later when the film One flew over the cuckoo’s nest came out, I watched the treatment of people with so-called schizophrenia, appalled at the inhumanity. And then several years later when I read Angel at my Table, Janet Frame’s memoir. Childhood poverty in New Zealand and family troubles led her to such depression she was hospitalised. And deemed schizophrenic in a heartbeat. This during the nineteen fifties where such a diagnosis could lead to electro convulsive therapy, or cold baths. Sleep therapy at best. At worst a lobotomy.

Frame was spared because a doctor, about to order the final procedure, read her manuscript and realised she did after all have a mind that was not worth removing. As if anyone’s brain is. 

Years later in England, another doctor reversed the diagnosis. The cruelty of humankind to label in pejorative ways and to keep silent about the possibility that so many other trauma related events in a person’s life can turn them into people they might otherwise never become. To label them in pejorative ways, made more so by the power to intimidate. They sound serious and authoritative these words and leave the ordinary person feeling they must indeed be suffering some terrible infirmity, so unspeakably sad as to be thus labelled.

The powerful professional who once hid inside the white coat of anonymity and silence who announces in short snatches what is wrong with you the other and washes their hands of you, vermin and despicable. You are then left buried under the weight of shame. And shame leads to silence. You go silent at the risk of further shaming.

And what needs to be said is never able to be spoken and the cruel practices of the past are allowed to flourish into perpetuity. A capacity for silence is not always called for. And sometimes needs to be replaced by the ability to find words against an avalanche of silencing.

Eastbourne Beach Art House. Geelong.

This morning in that half-awake state where sleep has left me, reluctant to abandon the warmth of my bed, I agonise over a ship in a bottle.

How to get the boat inside? 

Piece by piece with tweezers, a steady surgeon’s hand, glued onto a flimsy plinth?

The memory from childhood of four children who threw stones at their bottled ship after casting it adrift at the edge of a stream running below their family home.

One stone collided after several others had fallen afield and sunk. 

The children in darkness on top of a cliff overlooking the sea. Salt spray in their noses and the last of the night gulls calling. The mast of their ship released now from its glass prison, afloat on the ocean. 

Two boys, two girls. The eldest scales the cliff then leads his siblings on board their ship. The journey begins.

In search of adventure. In search of treasure.

The sky is a cross between grey and blue. The Ferris wheel is still. Boats lie at anchor outside my window like slick lazy seals. People jog along the sand beyond the road that runs alongside this art house, a white painted brick dwelling built a century ago and pitched perfect across from the sea.

The usual composition, eight women writers, this time led by the inimitable Cate Kennedy and my mind is word-logged, ideas abundant. All of it needing time to percolate and process. Cate is a master storyteller, a weaver of yarns. She works magic with words. 

My own words flag at my fingertips, but I shall not let my childhood awe stop me from my own lumpy efforts to bring to life a story.

In springtime before the turn of this century, my family of four small daughters, husband, and one French exchange student travelled through Geelong on our way to Anglesea for a holiday by the ocean. 

We passed through the sloping highway that runs alongside the water before a bridge that took us further down the coast. I marvelled at this city, once home to a young man who came into my life as an eighteen-year-old innocent on a holiday job at Hall’s Book store in Elizabeth Street in the city.

I did not tell you the name of the older female daughter in the story of my ship in its bottle is Elizabeth, after the Queen. My own Elisabeth after several saints. My mother’s name. My name. 

How I despise this name. Its vulgarity, as though it has been around too long and needs up dating.

Give me a name that sings. A name with music in its path. Like Persephone, or Felicity, Marigold. But I digress.

We pre-booked a beach house in Anglesea at great cost for this holiday. While two of our number stayed nearby in the house of friends, we others languished in the cold. Caught in the lag of seasons, winter still biting at our heels. Although there were electric blankets on the beds, this was the only warm place in the house. None of the heaters worked. 

In a fit of pique, my husband and I travelled back to Geelong that first morning while our girls stayed in their cosy beds and we bought a couple of moveable oil heaters, upstanding and expensive to run. Who was to care? The owners of the house from whom we rented could fit the cost of the cold. They had misled us into imagining a cosy retreat by the beach.

We were not about to freeze.

Geelong, gateway to the sea. One side of the bay. 

I have been married to the same man for 46 years and during those years what looks like a long and so-called happy marriage was anything but. Give us full marks for perseverance. Me, especially. I took that vow in church or at least the religious centre where we chose to make our promises to one another, to love, honour and cherish, but never to obey. Obedience belongs in the army or boy scouts; it does not belong in marriage. 

At twenty-five years of age, the idea of forever was as alien to me as wrinkles on my skin. I saw them on other people but could not imagine my own. I tested this marriage, pulled at its strings, dragged up the anchor, tried to take off, but stayed, even as the fantasy of a better life with someone else whispered in my ear. 

I came back. 

The rages of his ways when he was under pressure with his career in law, negotiating deals for other people with millions of dollars at stake while we struggled to cover the cost of school fees have softened. 

Even as he is still fearful that during our ancient years, we will wind up in a Rosebud caravan park. This will not happen, at least not to him. Of this I’m certain. 

In moments of despair when he lambasts me with his anguish, ‘You made a bad bargain,’ he says. And I rant back, ‘Which one of us has made the bad bargain’. As if marriage is a bargain, where you buy a product in the store with a lifetime guarantee of success. Even as you know this bargain will wear and wither with age. Its internal mechanisms will rust and squeak for lack of oil, and you will patch it up as best you can until the wheels fall off and you need artificial means by which to lug it around.

This to me is marriage and it becomes as familiar as old and favourite socks. The ones you might darn again and again. Museum pieces. They belong in hard rubbish, but you cannot bear to part with the feel of the wool on your feet. The way they hug your ankles, lightly now their elasticity has stretched. 

I’m loading the dishwasher with the evening plates crusted with leftovers once delicious and now in the process of digestion. My mind whirls over the day’s events, back in time to the past. 

I take a dishcloth and squeeze it under running water almost too hot, but my asbestos fingers from years of abuse can still enjoy the rigour of heat. Squeeze out the cloth and spray eucalyptus disinfectant over the silver body of the cook top. 

It should not be a gas cooktop anymore. It should be one of the glass-topped digital devices two of my daughters enjoy where there are no flames. Where something happens as if by magic after a click of the digital switch ignites molecules that dance into action under the base of specially designed saucepans with special bases to co-create the heat. 

To use such a cook top is bliss but mine must do for now. As must everything else in my house that is now over a century old despite two renovations. Although this house cries out for restoration or abandonment, I am not ready yet.

This house, like my body, in early stages of decay. 

I see my mother as she lay dying. Furious to be leaving at last. Furious to be there alone under the white sheets of a hospital-tall bed.

In her daydreams she had envisaged a movie star death in her home, in her bed, her children surrounding her like guardian angels filled with love and concern. Each taking on the nightly vigil so she was never alone. I did not realise then when my meltier died that death was not like her dream. Not as in movies where a person is able to speak in whispers. Although struggling, they are lucid and directed at you the living, to offer a farewell, of sorts.

Not so for us, to say goodbye to my mother on her death bed. My mother, already in her shroud of sheets, closed her eyes one last time.

Before she closed her eyes, she looked at me one day when I came to visit. She looked at me with eyes that said, ‘Look away. I do not want you to see me like this. I do not want to see you like this.’ 

I have always been thirty-three years younger than my mother. I have always been behind her in knowledge and understanding. 

She often reminded me of this. I was a fledgling social worker. My mother’s words: 

‘I would never want to see someone as young as you.’ What would you know? You, my baby. Why did you not stay my baby? Why did you have to grow up and become the adult you are? An adult with a mind of her own. An adult who defies my religious convictions. 

‘I can see you go your own way,’ my mother writes in letters to me. Letters written from Cheltenham a half hour’s drive from my house. She cannot speak to me directly. I have fallen from grace. I have lost my religion. She cannot see the value of the cook tops now in use in kitchens throughout the western world. 

Environmentally friendly and far less mess. She wants to open a fire, the log burning stuff that reminds her of childhood even as the smoke floats through the chimney to pollute the skies with more than this earth can handle. 

My mind wanders beyond the stove top to the generational change in our lives. And I promise my daughters I will never let myself believe I know more than they. They teach me about a world they have entered, one out of my reach and soon to be out of theirs as other children race ahead and invent new ways of cooking, of living, and of dying.