The Geology of Silence

I need you to hear everything I say, and everything I can’t say must be heard too. It is terrifying to listen this way, leaving everything behind. Maybe I ask something impossible.
— Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault

Oh that there were more words for silence.

Many years ago I worked in an elementary school and a six year old girl was brought in to talk to me by her teacher because she had filled an entire notebook with the sentence “I hate myself’ in black marker. This is not what six year olds usually do, even when they get upset. She was an adorable chubby girl with tears streaming down her face, and she didn’t say anything. She just sat on my lap and cried. When I asked her to talk she said everything was fine. But she continued to cry. Eventually she stopped and we played awhile. It was the end of the school day and her teacher sent her mother in to pick her up and talk to me. Her mother’s first question in a defensive tone was, “So. What did she tell you?”

‘Nothing,’  I said. Which was both true and untrue. She said nothing with her words, but her writing and tears said a lot. I told the mom I was concerned and that this type of behavior was worrying—her daughter was asking for help, and we could fit her in to our counseling schedule. Her mother said, “Absolutely not, we don’t talk to outsiders.” I said I understood and suggested she find a counseling center in her neighborhood, where she felt more comfortable. I also was pretty sure this would never happen. She took her daughter’s hand and left, saying nothing more to me.

This was one of many, many lessons I learned about the Code of Silence that is the cultural underpinning to many of the communities around Boston. But my travels and work have taken me much further than Somerville or Dorchester or Southie and I have found that the Code of Silence expands across the wide world. Wherever there has been great hurt, great shame, great loss, great despair—where people have endured years of struggle, there you will find a reverence and an obedience to silence that has a power and vortex of its own. Silence becomes one of the natural laws, like gravity. You have no other choice but to follow it because if you don’t, it feels like the world you know would come apart. Silence becomes something that everyone can agree on, even when nothing at all seems certain. In a world of hurt, or rage or shame, silence can be the one thing that everyone is proud of.

Silence gets treated as if it were all the same thing. Maybe the legend of 100 words for snow wasn’t accurate, but it is true that the Inupiaq of Wales, Alaska have over 70 words for ice, and the Inuit of the Nunavik region of Canada have 53 words for snow.  Silence—all the many types of silence—could really benefit from this same linguistic expertise. The many words for ice were a necessity—they describe conditions that could make distinctions that allowed people to be safe or fed –matters of life and death.

And silence is its own complex landscape. The study of trauma is, in many ways, the study of silence--the way geology and archaeology are also the study of time. Silence exists in layers, and needs names and descriptions the way we can name the layers of geologic time in the Grand Canyon. Layers and layers of silence. For there is no long term trauma without a deluge of silence that overwhelms it. Silences rush in to trauma like the endorphins that flood our bodies and help us survive. Silence cushions our identity, our sense of safety and our ability to think. It connects our communities even as it keeps us apart.

I have found that most people see silence as a form of direct resistance: a sort of a defiant silence. The kind of silence where you know what to say but just refuse to say it. And in my experience working with trauma and working with people all over the world, this is the most rare form of silence.

When this form of silence shows up the biggest obstacle is typically fear. I am silent because I am afraid—afraid of retaliation, afraid of conflict, afraid to hurt someone, afraid of my own feelings.  I am silent because I feel shame or fear being shamed for what I must speak.  It can feel impossible to speak because what you need to say, what has happened is 'unspeakable.' I’m not dismissing the difficulty of this silence, and the courage it takes to overcome it. Or the need for compassionate listening to witness the conversations.

But when you encounter this silence in yourself (I know what I need to say but I am afraid or it feels impossible) or in others (I can’t trust you yet). You know where you are, you know where the work is, you have found the trail. Now you just have the slow and arduous and rewarding work of staying on it. Of trying over and over to get the words out.

But with repeated trauma and deep grief you can experience a far bigger, deeper canyon of silence. Sometimes it is the silence of despair: It feels as if there is just no point to talking about it. No one would get it. I just don’t have the energy or the interest to try because it just doesn’t matter. This is an exhausting silence. It feels endless and hopeless and it makes you want to sleep. To go where silence is just the expected norm.

And then there is the silence that can come from no words at all. No story at all. You may have feelings, or a sense of something. But it can feel so amorphous or disconnected that you don’t feel like you can talk because it feels like there is literally ‘nothing’ to talk about. A fog has descended on memory or experience.

Some of this has to do with traumatic memory. Science tells us that stress hormones inhibit our memory for knowledge, making it more likely that we will store trauma as emotional and implicit memory. Memory of experience that we don’t have a story about. And to make that even more likely, during trauma there is reduced blood flow to the language centers in our brain making it even more difficult to attach language to the experience.

This is where I wish for other words for silence. For the silences that are foggy, or distant. For when you aren’t afraid to speak the words, you can’t find them at all. For the silences that are a complete blank and the silences where words float in and out so quickly, like wispy clouds and when you try to grab them they disappear. For silences that feel like a heavy weight that you can’t lift off your chest or the ones that grab your throat. There are just layers and layers of silence.

And the thing about silence, about the layers of silence, is that in trauma, you usually get all the layers. And just like the canyon, the forces of your life and time itself will wear away the layers--and will expose some of the story and some of the feelings and you will begin to try to talk. You will have some things you know and don’t want to talk about, some things you feel that you can’t find words for. And some things that just feel so big or so far away, so ineffable, they don’t yet have any way of being described—things that don’t feel like yours yet, or maybe never were.

Rumi said that "Silence was the language of God and all else was a poor translation." I don’t know about that, but I would say that Silence is the language of creation. Silence protects a place that needed to grow under better conditions. That hid away seeds and spores that would grow and bloom when the floods came to take them away to a new place where they could find light. So whether it is your silence or someone else’s –wonder what word for silence would better describe it. Wonder where in the layers of your history this silence exists. And be in awe of what you can create when you are courageous enough to work with it. 

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD