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.