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In 'Unspeakable,' A Journalist Gives Silence An Investigative Treatment

May 14, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 5:25 pm

Journalist Harriet Shawcross is fascinated by silence: why we speak, and why we don't.

She's traveled the world seeking answers to those questions, meeting earthquake survivors in Nepal, a silent order of nuns in Paris, a Buddhist retreat in Scotland. She's written a book about it, called Unspeakable: The Things We Cannot Say.

But it was her own silence that inspired this book. When she was a teenager, Shawcross stopped speaking at school for nearly a year. She could answer direct questions — she wasn't mute — but she wasn't able to engage in the kind of conversations that, she says, make us human.

"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,'" Shawcross says in an interview. "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."


Interview Highlights

On her childhood episode

It was a very 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.

And I mean, looking back, I guess it was more circumstantial. I was in a very prestigious all-girls boarding school. And then I say in the book my father was made redundant ... he was fired. 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" ... in the book I talk about taking a step back from the world. It was very much like a retreat. If you don't offer anything of yourself, you can't get hurt.

On selective mutism

In its simplest form, the way it's understood is as a phobia of speaking — so, the same way an arachnophobe would be if they were presented with a spider. And in the past it's been misunderstood, and people think that either they're being difficult, or that it's shyness. Selective mutism is very different to shyness, 'cause whereas a shy child might warm up the more they get to know people, with a child with selective mutism — often particularly in a school setting — the more they get to know people, the less likely they are to be able to speak. The silence gets more and more entrenched. ...

On visiting an intensive therapy camp for children with selective mutism, where they are taught how to conduct a conversation

Selective mutism is quite common in younger children, but it's more unusual for it to persist into the teenage years. And their children, at this stage, didn't have any friends — that was the kind of thing that came up a lot, with the parents. ...

You know, someone will ask a question, and how can you respond to that? You can respond with a question or a comment. And then what will you do? And it was this kind of breaking conversation down into its component parts. And what they were doing was so far from what a conversation should be. ... And for them, that's absolutely massive, 'cause it's the first time maybe in years that they've actually been able to just talk to a peer that they don't know, that isn't one of their family members.

On how her experience with silence has informed her career and adult life

So I work in TV, as a TV producer and a journalist, and many times, I've said, "Just pretend I'm not here. 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 — in knowing when not to speak, in knowing how to use silence, and that it's often in silence that people reveal themselves. It felt very familiar to me — that slight disappearing act that I think, as a filmmaker, you often have to do. ...

Conversely — professionally, I think silence has served me very well — but personally, I don't think it necessarily has. That act of retreating back into silence — I very much held onto that as a survival strategy for a long time. And in terms of, particularly, romantic relationships with someone, I 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, was that I was getting married, and it was causing problems in our relationship. And my future wife was like: "You need to get to the bottom of this. Why do you find it so difficult to really say you what it is that you want or you need?" That's what started the journey of the book, and brought me back to that time where I was not expressing or saying what I needed to say at school.

Lauren Hodges and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The journalist Harriet Shawcross is fascinated by silence - why we speak and why we don't. She's traveled the world seeking answers to those questions. And our co-host Ailsa Chang spoke with her about her new book, "Unspeakable."

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Shawcross has spent time with earthquake survivors in Nepal, a silent order of nuns in Paris and Buddhists at a retreat in Scotland. But it was her own silence that inspired this book. She stopped speaking at school for nearly a year when she was a teenager. She could answer direct questions. She wasn't mute. But she wasn't able to engage in the kind of conversations that she says make us human.

HARRIET SHAWCROSS: There would be days when you'd kind of be standing, you know, 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.

CHANG: How did that feel to not even have your silence acknowledged?

SHAWCROSS: Yeah, it was a very kind of lonely time, and I think I was very ashamed of the fact that I wasn't talking kind of normally. And you know, as a child, I'd never had any problems like this before. And I mean, looking back, I guess - I say in the book my father was made redundant.

CHANG: He was fired.

SHAWCROSS: Yeah, exactly, he was fired. So 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.

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAWCROSS: But I mean, in the book, I go into - so one of the things I look at is kind of selective mutism, which is when - I don't think I had selective mutism, but...

CHANG: Yeah, you spent a lot of time in this book talking about selective mutism. Can you just take a moment? Explain what exactly is that.

SHAWCROSS: In its simplest form, the way it's understood is as, like, a phobia of speaking - so the same way that, you know, an arachnophobe would be if they were presented with a spider.

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAWCROSS: 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...

CHANG: Oh.

SHAWCROSS: ...Speak. Like, the silence gets more and more...

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAWCROSS: ...Kind of entrenched.

CHANG: 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.

SHAWCROSS: Yeah, exactly. So I think when I first started looking into this, I don't think I'd understood how - kind of how deeply ingrained silence can get. That thing of not being able to kind of put your hand up and say, I need to go, is very common.

CHANG: Now, you visited a summer camp for these kids, right?

SHAWCROSS: Yeah.

CHANG: It was, like, an intensive therapy camp.

SHAWCROSS: Yeah.

CHANG: What did you see there?

SHAWCROSS: So selective mutism is quite common in younger children, but it's more unusual for it to persist into the kind of teenage years. And most of the parents at this camp were, you know, really quite desperate by this point because there aren't a lot of treatment options. And their children at this stage are - many of them were just - were not speaking at school, you know, didn't have any friends. That was the kind of thing that came up a lot with the parents - was, you know, we just want our child to have the chance to have a normal life.

CHANG: Yeah. There was this one scene that just jumped out at me where these two girls were practicing...

SHAWCROSS: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Just the very basics of making conversation. And it made me think to myself, you know, what is a conversation in the first place anyway - because there are some people I know who talk so much who are terrible conversationalists. To teach what a conversation is is actually very complex.

SHAWCROSS: Right, yeah. You know, someone will ask a question, and how can you respond to that? You can respond with a question or a comment. And then what will you do? And it was this kind of breaking conversation down into its component parts. And then what they were doing was so far from what a conversation should be...

CHANG: Right.

SHAWCROSS: ...Right?

CHANG: It was so stilted. It was so forced.

SHAWCROSS: Oh, gosh.

CHANG: It was formal.

SHAWCROSS: It was just, you know...

CHANG: But it was an opening. It was a beginning.

SHAWCROSS: Right. And for them, that's absolutely massive 'cause it's the first time maybe in years that they've actually been able to just talk to a peer that they don't know, that isn't one of their family members.

CHANG: Well, now that you're a journalist, you're a writer, you observe people for a living. And in a way, you can revert back to fading into the background but in a useful way.

SHAWCROSS: Yeah, exactly. You know, many times I've said, you know, just pretend I'm not here; you know, talk to the camera; don't look at me. And you know, 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, you know, reveal themselves.

CHANG: Yes. Isn't it so interesting that this relatively unhappy period in your life has given you the skills to navigate this profession that now means so much to you?

SHAWCROSS: Yeah, I guess so.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAWCROSS: No, I know - just been lucky. But personally I very much held onto that as a kind of survival strategy for a long time and, in terms of particularly, you know, 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 - was that I was getting married.

CHANG: Right.

SHAWCROSS: And it was causing problems in our relationship. And my future wife was kind of like, you know, you need to get to the bottom of this. Like, why do you find it so difficult to, like, really say what it is that you want or you need?

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAWCROSS: That's what started the journey of the book and brought me back to that time when I was not expressing or saying what I needed to say at school.

CHANG: Harriet Shawcross is the author of the new book "Unspeakable: The Things We Cannot Say." Thank you very much for joining us. I really enjoyed this conversation.

SHAWCROSS: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.