Silence is relative. Silence is never the absence of all sound. Silence is not the nonexistence of the sounds of life, but it, as we tend to define it, is relief from ordinary, unpleasant, bothersome, unwelcome, or uncomfortable sounds.
People from my mother and her mother’s generation believed that to survive many abuses and traumas, they had to silence them or not talk about them. They believed that if we didn’t talk about certain things, if we insisted upon silence, that those things would be forgotten, that they would exercise no power over us. They believed (and have convinced some of us) that if we don’t talk about certain things, if we act as if they never were, those things would not consume us. But silence has a sound of its own. Self-imposed, forced, delusional, artificial silence cannot mask the sounds of the human heartbeat, the sounds of whimpers, the unending DVD that our mind is playing, stopping, and replaying of our abuse(s).
In 1990, I bought my first new car, a red Toyota Corolla. I drove it from Maryland to Ohio to visit my mother (as I often did). While I was at my mother’s house, she, my younger sister and I were watching TV (as we sometimes did) when a show about sexual abuse aired. While watching I blurted out “mommy I was molested by papa” (as I never did).
My mother sat in silence. My sister, as I remember, did the same. She said nothing, as if I had not said a word. They kept watching the TV.
My mother was visibly shaken. She asked me, when? When did her father, my grandfather, molest me? I told her when I was about 12-years-old (but I would later realize I had been under 8).
I then asked her what was she thinking and how she was feeling. She said she was deeply hurt that this happened to me; that her father hurt me. She rocked back and forth in her wheelchair as she did when her legs ached. It was clear that she did not want to talk about it. She was uncomfortable, and this time not from the pain in her legs. She eventually said that my grandfather was dead now and there is nothing we can do about it; that it would do no good to talk about it. I insisted that it was important for me to talk about it. I don’t remember where I got that idea, whether I read it or whether I instinctively knew I needed to talk about it to heal and to move forward in a healthy way.
I was extremely shy as a little girl. But I wasn’t always shy, according to my mother. She said that when the mailman, Mr. Calvin, would come by to deliver the post, I would grab his rubber thumb, the one he used to sort the mail, and insist on a dollar in return for it. “Ain’t you got a dollar,” I would say. He would offer a nickel for its return. At some point, that boisterous, talkative, bold little girl I was became scared, unsure, and extremely quiet, so much so one could barely hear me speak when I did muster up the courage to open my mouth. My grandmother said I would sit on the steps in her kitchen silently gazing through the banister. I wonder what I was thinking.
I’m not sure if then, or later, I stashed away the memory of my molestation. It wasn’t until years later that I blurted it out. And even then I wished I hadn’t since an uncomfortable silence forced me to repack it. I simply gave up trying to discuss it with my mother.
At first, her silence angered me. But I eventually made peace with it. I understood her inability to talk to me when I realized that she too was forced to lock away pain. The pain she suffered as a result of an old scar hidden from public view.
When she was about four or five (maybe as young as three) she and her sister Nellie were fighting over a doll, and my mother fell head first into the fireplace. She lost the skin and hair on the crown of her head. At the time she could not wear a wig because the wound had to breathe and heal. Children teased her; they called her a big ball-headed baby, she said. Even one of her elementary school teachers indiscreetly laughed at her. Through sixty something year old tears streaming down her silky brown face, she finally told me the stories. We cried together. I understood then why she required silence from me. She feared the noise from me, would unleash hers. For decades she bottled up her painful memories. If she had let me speak, maybe her own silence would burst forth in recognizable sounds. She was not ready for that.
Before I was married, I thought it wise to share my experience of molestation with my then fiancé, just in case it might have an unforeseen impact on our marriage. His immediate response was to pray for/with me. From my then uncritical religious perspective I thought his was a good spiritual response. But he too could not talk about it with me. Prayer is no substitute for dialogue especially when it comes to exorcising the things that haunt and afflict us. Unfortunately, my husband would use my secret against me. It became the only reason I could possibly not be interested in sex whenever he was!
In matters of abuse, silence is never a virtue. It is not acceptable to turn a deaf ear (or blind eye) to an abusive situation or person whoever or wherever he/she may be found. It is neither holy nor charitable to expect the victim to be silent; to act as if the abuse never happened. The breaking of my silence with my mother and my family was the beginning of my journey to healing cut short, interrupted by more silence. I wanted to talk, needed to talk to someone I could trust, but couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me.
Silence is crippling and diminishing. It diminishes the person and voice of the abused. And if the victimizer is still alive, it paves the way for more victims. According to recent research, as many as one-third of Americans have been abused as children. It is a silent and silenced epidemic.
About the author
Mitzi Smith is a an Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Origins at the Ashland Theological Seminary in Southfield, Michigan. She is also the Founder and President of Living in Full Empowerment. She obtained her PhD from Harvard University in 2006 and has published several academic works in journals. You can find her writings at www.womanistntprof.blogspot and www.angelicaharris.com.