The Sound of My Voice

I was a quiet child.

My shyness was for no good reason, really, other than that I was strange. I felt quite out of place in childhood; rambunctiousness didn’t suit me. The ability of most children to inhabit their bodies without inhibitions—flailing arms and legs, tumbling somersaults, endless spinning to a dizziness that left them stumbling until they collapsed to the floor in a giggling heap—was as foreign to me as I must have seemed to other children, with my knitted brow studying them curiously, or my nose buried in a book. I was ever acutely conscious of my own physical presence, intimidating myself with my own awkward gestures, until I folded myself inward and tried to stay very still. I couldn’t relate, and so I retreated.

Nothing brought me outside the safe space in my head more quickly than the sound of my own voice in a public space. I spoke so rarely that, when I did, my classmates would stare at me, which made me miserable. I never raised my hand in class, and when I was called on, hot tears would burn my eyes, and I would desperately will them away as I choked through giving my answer. Painfully shy only begins to describe it. I was 13 when I laughed out loud in a classroom full of my peers for the first time.

At 14, the shyness went away, disappearing one day so completely it was as if it had never existed at all. Suddenly, the eyes out of which I looked at the world seemed to belong to me; I no longer felt like an interloper in my own skin. I happily contributed to conversations in and outside class, and I discovered I was an unafraid (and hence skillful) public speaker. Accused of being weird for the books I read or the music I liked felt like a badge of honor, even if it wasn’t intended to be so. There only needed to be one other person in a high school of 3,000 who carried a copy of Camus’ The Stranger under his arm and knew down to his bones what I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar really means to make the world perfect, and I found him (or he found me), and so it was.

And then I was raped. I’d barely ever kissed a boy, no less had sex with one; of course, rape isn’t about sex, but about control. It’s about controlling another person, both during the act and often, particularly in the cases of acquaintance rape, afterwards. Victims of acquaintance rape, especially young ones, as I was, are easily controlled (and silenced) using fear, threats of imminent danger to themselves or loved ones, and, for the most unfortunate among us, repeated abuse. After three years of such a cycle, my shyness had returned. I spent many of my days at university crumbling inside myself and hating the sound of my own voice. Only with my Camus-carrying friend could I find any peace—and even that was dependent on his compassion, and his infinite patience with my madness.

The shyness has never quite gone away again.

But I’m not called quiet anymore. Aloof, maybe; bitchy, definitely, in those moments when the shyness takes me, because even though I can sound terse, I won’t be quiet, or still, and eventually people realize I was just being awkward. Better to be awkward, I’ve decided, than quiet; it’s important to have a strong voice, and a loud laugh, and to use them both as often as you can, even when it feels futile.

Being a politically active feminist in the current political climate, met with a constant barrage of attempts to silence complaint about a culture that’s so beautifully and broadly beneficial to those who benefit from it, is difficult. It’s easy to become weak with not being heard, and frustrated to the point of apathy with the indifference to those things some even ostensibly on the same side blithely call “issues” while you call them, collectively, my life. I doubt, sometimes, whether anything, anyone, can make a difference.

But lately, I’ve started to appreciate the sound of my voice again. It’s the voice of a former smoker, low, infused sometimes with gravel and always with sibilant S’s—a speech impediment that will never leave me. My voice has become familiar in a way it has not been before, and useful, too. When I think about the time I have spent stranded in my self-imposed quiet, I am scared of my own will taking me there again. I remind myself, then, firmly and as often as is needed, that whether it is I, or someone else, who demands my silence, it is simply not something that I can afford to offer. And all it takes to break the silence is the sound of my voice, which now, finally, makes me happy.

[Originally published in similar form at Shakespeare’s Sister on June 23, 2005. I felt it was worth a republish, with regard to Online, Offline, Everywhere and the ongoing discussion about whether we are going to allow threats of sexual assault silence women’s voices online.]

16 Comments

Filed under 01_shakespeares_sister

16 responses to “The Sound of My Voice

  1. Thank you for this post.

    It speaks to me on many different levels.

    As one who never quite conformed to what society seemed to think I should be, I appreciate the feeling of camaraderie I feel when I read something like this. Believe me when I say that your voice rings loud and clear and mellifluously to those of us who come here daily.

  2. oddjob

    (OT, but it’s hard to believe you posted that almost two years ago!)

  3. I had the opposite journey. I was unbelievably self-confident as a child, I freely offered my opinions on everything, I corrected my teachers if they made a mistake, etc.

    I lost my self-confidence over a span of several years – from being in 4th grade with a big chest and getting teased and taunted about it, to getting my period at an early age and feeling deeply ashamed about it because my mother was so ashamed to talk about it; to being short and chubby and ugly, everything I had was what no one liked – red hair, a limp, a big nose, freckles.

    And then my parents responded to my growing up years by clamping down – where I once had the run of the country at age 10, I suddenly couldn’t go anywhere or do anything unless they knew exactly where I was, who I was with, what I would be doing, and when I had to be home.

    I feel like I’m swinging back the other way and regaining that sense of self I had when I was a kid, but it is slow going.

    Anywhooo, I should send this post to my sister, you sound like you two were exactly alike as children.

  4. This is such an excellent message. As a mother, I often find myself telling my children to just be quiet. Be quiet about idiotic school policies because the retaliation of teachers and administrators isn’t worth anything you’ll stir up. Be quiet about not believing in God because I don’t want to have to answer awkward (there’s that word) questions. Don’t talk about politics because there’s no point in trying to change the minds of children of rightwingers. Don’t talk about Daddy being Jewish because I don’t trust our neighbors to not be haters.

    No more. As this post points out, silence in the face of anything only renders you complicit in what you disagree with. Yes, I may get hauled into the principle’s office to answer questions. Yes, the children might not be invited to sleepovers and parties. Yes, the church bus might drive by so that all the good little Christian children can point at our house and talk about the bad people who live there. But being afraid to be who we are in this small community isn’t winning us any points with the people who really matter – us.

    Thanks for re-publishing this post. I missed it the first time around.

  5. PinkOrangeRed

    That’s beautiful, Shakes. Much of your experience rings true with me, and I am still working on finding my voice. You are an inspiration.

  6. Thanks for posting this again. It’s one of my favorites!

    “Bravo!” to all of us wonderful loudmouthed oddballs out there!!!

  7. Maurinsky: I had the same confusing experience, and I have never seen it discussed specifically. As I matured (10 to 12 or so), all of a sudden MY behavior and rights were curtailed, as though I had done something wrong! Suddenly I was under house arrest, yet toally innocent of any rule breaking.

    I am still FURIOUS about it, which, apparently, I have been repressing all this time!

    (and my brother, he was sneakng out at night and doing drugs. I was making straight A’s and reading for fun, but because I was sprouting breasts, I needed to be punishedand controlled)

  8. katecontinued

    Being a politically active feminist in the current political climate, met with a constant barrage of attempts to silence complaint about a culture that’s so beautifully and broadly beneficial to those who benefit from it, is difficult. It’s easy to become weak with not being heard, and frustrated to the point of apathy with the indifference to those things some even ostensibly on the same side blithely call “issues” while you call them, collectively, my life. I doubt, sometimes, whether anything, anyone, can make a difference.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for so eloquently stating the status quo and my frustrations. I just copied this paragraph to include in a letter to lenore for mother’s day.(I start early and add a bit here and there). I had just been writing to her how important it was for me to rant and how wonderful to start at the center of my little universe with my own mother.

    I know she would really prefer I not bring up unpleasant things. My childhood was in the 50′s when it was in the rulebook to keep everything a secret. My silence wasn’t from shyness (bless your little heart) but from a pleasant faced shunning.

    I wish you were my kid.

  9. David K

    Shakes wrote:

    Only with my Camus-carrying friend could I find any peace—and even that was dependent on his compassion, and his infinite patience with my madness.

    But I’m not called quiet anymore. Aloof, maybe; bitchy, definitely, in those moments when the shyness takes me, because even though I can sound terse, I won’t be quiet, or still, and eventually people realize I was just being awkward.

    I SO needed to hear this today. I have a friend who’s been uncharacteristly bitchy and terse lately. I understand something horrible happened to her in her past and that thoughts of it come up for her time and again. Because I haven’t known her long enough to actually see this happen, I was almost ready to demand an explanation as to why she’s mad at me, even though I know better than this since she initiates most of our contact and tells me how much she values our friendship. Thank you for reminding me I don’t have to take this on and that I can instead just be there with compassion and patience for her while she works things through for herself.

    As for the post generally, your ability to personalize an issue in ways that I can so thoroughly identify with is the thing that has kept me reading this blog everyday since I discovered it. My experience doesn’t include rape, but I do know how it feels to live in that silence. Thank you for your inspiring story of overcoming it.

  10. Darling Shakes- I think we may have had the same childhood. I had speech lessons in elementary school because i was so afraid when I talked that I squeaked and they thought I would do permanent damage to my vocal cords. Then there was the rape and I just wanted to curl up in a ball inside myself and never come out.

    After having my kid though- I discovered just how much power and satisfaction there is in being fearless, pissed off and more knowledgeable than the average bear. It’s my job to stand up for the kid and to teach him to stand up for other people too. He loves to watch me get all ballistic on someone.

    Thanks for the repost.

  11. it’s not even a big female thing shakes. i can be totally awkward in social situations. i either dummy up totally and get thought of as aloof or haughty, or i blurt something stupid or inapropos. but the whole core of it is shyness. bog simple shyness. sometimes it can be funny later, but while it’s happening it is uncomfortable to say the least.

  12. it’s not even a big female thing shakes.

    It was my intention just to recount my experience–part of which is, naturally, being a woman–but if I somehow implied that this reaction to sexual assault is a ‘female thing,’ it was unintentional.

  13. This is kind of on topic. Consider this when thinking about the sound of your voice…

    Watch any TV game show and you’ll notice a difference between the way women and men answer a question.

    Frequently, women answer a question with a questioning intonation — even if they’re 100% certain they know the answer:

    “What is two plus two?”
    “Four?”

    Most men will almost always answer without a questioning intonation — even if they don’t know the answer?

    “What is name of the current prime minister of Japan?”
    “Abe Schintso!”

    My brother made an effort to prevent his daughters from answering questions in this passive manner. When they would use a questioning intonation, he would ask them, “Are you asking me or telling me?” It broke them of the habit pretty quickly.

    I think more parents should try this. It will make their daughters more assertive and comfortable using a declarative voice.

  14. Grandjester

    Shakes, had to ponder this post for a day before coming back to comment. You see, to me, your “voice” is the one I read here (and at the old place).

    So I have always thought of your voice as intelligent, really fucking funny and above all STRONG.

  15. Alix

    Thank you for this. (I’m commenting way late, so I don’t know that you’ll see this.) It resonates strongly with me.

    I, too, was/am painfully shy, but the primary factor in my shyness has been my mind. I have some sort of mental disorder (or more than one) – and frankly, I’ve yet to have success getting help.

    I learned to shut up so I wouldn’t put people off by commenting on the weird things I see or notice, or by my running commentary (which goes on CONSTANTLY in my head), or by talking to the people I create. It doesn’t help that I sometimes don’t hear people, and that I have a phone phobia.

    I’m learning, though, to talk anyways. I’m learning, slowly, to love being the crazy one, the eccentric, the person who sputters out inane things and talks to books and walls. I’m a motormouth, though, if I start talking, so I still need to work on a happy medium.

    But there’s huge shame in this country surrounding mental illness, which parallels what you wrote concerning your rape. It’s even worse when I have to admit that yes, something’s wrong in my head, but no, it’s not official yet – as if my problem doesn’t exist until a doctor or therapist writes it down.

    I used to refuse to believe I had some sort of mental problem, despite all evidence to the contrary. Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy, see, when I knew I wasn’t – am not – interacting with the world right.

    But when you see flying shrimp out by the azaleas, something is definitely wrong with you.

    …Sorry for the long comment.

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