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.]