What she seems to discover is that telling our story is always an act of careful discrimination. As she continues on her journey she sounds less like a savvy documentary-maker and more like a 15th-century mystic extolling the virtues of the Via Negativa, how we can only speak of ultimate things by saying less. At a time when we are encouraged into endless glib commentary, it’s bracing to read a book that speaks so beautifully of the power of silence for both unhinging and healing. Ditto sex. Ditto love.
Now, as Harriet Shawcross points out in her gripping account of different kinds of aphasia, the preferred term is “selective mutes” – to make it clear that this sort of silence is the result not of choice but of paralysing anxiety. Shawcross knows the territory intimately: at 13, she herself stopped speaking at school for nearly a year. Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Unspeakable is a deeply felt attempt at making sense of this period in her life, and of how others manage when words fail them.
She tells heartbreaking stories of families devastated by their silent children. We hear from a mother whose daughter was unable to cry for help when she was near to drowning. And a young man who cannot leave the house without a parent to speak for him.
At the end of her book, Shawcross finds the courage to marry her girlfriend. Making that commitment means a vow to make space for the peace of shared silences and the intimacy of spoken emotion.
What follows is a zig-zag of concerns, a real helter-skelter of perspectives. I perhaps have a higher tolerance of this kind of book than some readers, who may find it needlessly quirky, since I have written in this form myself and am profoundly convinced of the truth of Laurence Sterne’s phrase “great wits jump”. So in her foray into silence, Shawcross takes in the poetry of George Oppen (who, I must confess, I had not read) who didn’t write for a quarter of a century; Chad Varah and the founding of the Samaritans (Shawcross herself having been a Samaritan); Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and what saying “taboo” things might accomplish; Buddhist and Quaker uses of silence in worship; #MeToo; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; coming out as bisexual; and the great unsaid: death. As the reader will see, it is a particular kind of choreography to weave together these diverse and sometimes divergent topics. But it works, especially in the sense of “conceit” that the Metaphysical Poets used: finding the similarities in the dissimilarities.
There’s so much interesting stuff here — Shawcross volunteers as a Samaritan, visits a silent order of nuns, spends time in Nepal — and the writing is good, but I found myself wanting to read either a family memoir or an inquiry into silence, rather than this hybrid. It’s the vogue to weave a personal story around a wider theme, but Shawcross’s struggles feel slight juxtaposed with those who have suffered horrendous sexual violence...I finished the book still wanting to know more about the grandmother and the family and how Shawcross’s parents managed to stay together. We are also left unsure whether Shawcross has achieved her aim of exorcising silence from her life.
Shawcross is all for speaking out and bearing witness, especially in cases of abuse and trauma. Having been a volunteer Samaritan herself, she is eloquent about the benefits of Chad Varah’s simple but revolutionary idea: expressing yourself can save your life — but you need to find a listener first, and it’s best if that listener says nothing back... Shawcross seems to have got a lot out of proportion here, and it’s bemusing to think that a mature, educated woman in the 21st century could feel significant trauma from kissing another woman and need to go on a Buddhist retreat to help come to terms with it. Shawcross wants to tell stories and see patterns; she is absolutely earnest about expressing her own dilemmas and obviously feels them deeply but, if anything, ends up just saying too much.
Shawcross’s reliance on her own adolescent silence, her anxiety over sex and the slow self-revelation that enabled her to say “I like women” out loud, distorts Unspeakable into a fuzzy mix of memoir and cultural history that can’t quite find the clarity for which it strives...As the book turns towards speaking out rather than staying quiet, it becomes harder to hear what it is saying. Unlike Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, another study of an elusive interior state, Shawcross never quite finds the balance between analysis and memoir, turning inwards again and again. A trip to Nepal to explore the limitations of talk therapy for victims of the 2015 earthquake, for example, is muddied by her own emotional traumas while hiking with her best friend five years earlier. Silence, especially in a world where everyone is primed to broadcast themselves constantly, remains an intriguing subject, but Unspeakable tries to say too much.
I don’t want to discount what Shawcross has been through emotionally in her life. Nevertheless, it is uncomfortable to see her moving rather seamlessly on the page from writing about those who have lost everything in an earthquake to the trouble she had coming out, or the death of her grandmother from old age, as if these things are similar... there are some lovely images in Unspeakable – and she is obviously in possession of a curious and interesting mind. But there is simply not enough for a book here – or not for this book, in this form.