Exploring silence!

Harriet Shawcross, author of Unspeakable, reveals how her ability to observe silence has helped her evolve as a writer and journalist

July 11, 2019 02:44 pm | Updated 02:44 pm IST

Silence is not always golden, says Harriet Shawcross, journalist and author of “Unspeakable: The Things We Cannot Say”. She explores the nature of silence in her book, not inspired by her time spent with earthquake survivors or a silent order of Buddhist nuns in Paris, but her own silence.

Shawncross talks of her days at school, “There would be days when you'd be standing near people in a conversation, and you'd think, I haven't said anything for a really long time. And you'd wonder if people that you were talking to were going to notice or say anything. And most of the time they didn't, to be honest…. It was a very kind of lonely time, and I think I was very ashamed of the fact that I wasn't talking normally. As a child, I'd never had any problems like this before. Looking back, I guess - my father was fired and my mom was very much, like, don't tell people about what's happening here. This is a kind of shameful thing that's happened. And I think - in the book, I talk about kind of taking a step back from the world. It was kind of very much like a retreat. Like, if you don't offer anything of yourself, you can't get hurt…”

Shawcross speaks of “selective mutism” as, “… quite common in younger children, but it's more unusual for it to persist into the teenage years. It is a phobia, but it's a phobia with incredibly brutal consequences. I mean, you talk about this one girl who has scarring on her bladder because she's so afraid even to ask to go to the bathroom. And in the past, it's kind of been misunderstood, and people think that either they're being difficult or that it's shyness. Selective mutism is very different to shyness because whereas a shy child might warm up the more they get to know people, with a child with selective mutism, often, the more they get to know people, the less likely they are to be able to... when I first started looking into this, I don't think I'd understood how deeply ingrained silence can get.”

Even though her ability to observe silence was born out of an unhappy experience, Shawcross talks of how it helped her as a journalist, “Many times I've said just pretend I'm not here; you know, talk to the camera; don't look at me. And you'll know yourself. The art of an interview is in disappearing a little bit and knowing when not to speak and knowing how to use silence and that it's often in silence that people reveal themselves... But personally, I very much held onto that as a kind of survival strategy for a long time and, in terms of particularly, romantic relationships with someone, found it really hard to say what I felt or what I wanted. And in a way, that's one of the things that prompted me to write the book - I was getting married.”

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