When Silence Is as Deafening as Sound

by Cameron Gearen

Image via  Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

Last Wednesday night found me hunched in a consulting room at my daughter's orthodontist's office, hoping to consult with no one. I was hiding from the noise—giant sound that pervades every inch of the expansive office. Experience told me I would be here over an hour, and my earbuds were at home.

I had walked by the TV that is large as a car, the one in the front waiting room with approximately 35 chairs lined up facing it, the one that always showcases a Disney or Pixar movie at top volume. Even if I had remembered my earplugs, that room was not a place I could do work.

I had ducked past the middle waiting area where children and teens — patients — could select their own video game to play or could, on a smaller screen, continue watching the same movie that was on in front. From that area I could hear two distinct game soundtracks as well as the blaring movie: overlooping, overlapping.

I was one step away, in a room with a door. This room had a screen, but it was blessedly black, turned off. I had my laptop on my lap and was attempting to edit college essays for work. My 14-year-old came to find me to complain that it was too loud to do homework. I shrugged and pointed to the seat next to me. She wandered back out into noise-pollution land.

That's when they called her name: back to the exam room with reclinable chairs in a row. Each one has — you guessed it — a screen on the ceiling, soundtrack running, the same movie that's on at the front.

It wasn't what I wanted last Wednesday, but there have been times when sound has been a relief to me.

My biological father sexually abused me from a young age. In my flashbacks, the sound is turned off, but I can see that there's a gag in my mouth. Maybe to prevent me from crying out in pain, a bleat that might give him away. He has thought of everything. I can't tell, in the flashbacks, what the gag is made of, but my guess is that his ubiquitous handkerchiefs, colorful and always adorning his neck, served a dual purpose. 

The odd thing is that I didn't fight, and wouldn't have. When he started his ritual, I went limp like a kitten that had been picked up by the scruff of the neck. I didn't need the gag. I trusted him and, tragically, I wouldn't have run. I wouldn't have known where to go, or what to say when I got there.

Inside those flashbacks, sound is the way it is in a swimming pool: absent and deafening at once. Shouldn't a little girl who is being harmed cry and holler and bellow? Sometimes in memory I can hear his rant and his vitriol. But I know — knew from the beginning — that any utterance on my part would be a risk bigger than I could afford. 

I lived inside that quiet. Or I let it unspool and I went to a place, not in my body, where normal sounds continued: my grandmother making dinner, a car passing on the street, a TV left on in a distant room. 

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Later, I learned quiet from religion: Mass that came along with Catholic grade school, but there were only seconds of holy silence between the incantations of the priest. 

I became a Quaker, and earnestly so, in my early 20s. I loved that bath of mostly silence once a week every Sunday morning, loved the way latecomers had to creep in precisely at the 15-minute mark so as to minimally disturb the precious silence others were nurturing. This silence — a corporate one, one with guidelines even — was safe and different from the silence of terror I had already known.

I also dabbled in Buddhism, living for a year as a layperson in a Thai Buddhist monastery. I did a 10-day silent retreat that fall, my stay dappled with walking meditation, working meditation, meditation meditation, eating meditation, sleeping meditation. Except for my two short interviews with the western leaders of the retreat, I didn't speak for 10 days. For a girl who had proudly worn a yellow T-shirt sporting the word "Chatterbox" for many years of her childhood, this was a feat for me, a stretch that started to return me to myself.

In life, I am extroverted. I can talk to an iron fence or a piece of wood and enjoy myself immensely. I can make friends on the bus or train and get even the most surly barista to smile. This trait has made me an effective classroom teacher. Like my mother and grandmother before me, I am gregarious to a fault. 

It took me some time to make friends with silence, to befriend silence on my own terms. It doesn't come naturally, but it does come.

There was a time after the abuse but before I remembered it. Several years where I felt something was very wrong, something was banging inside to get out. But the doorway was blocked. 

During that time, I was an active Quaker. I was a member of a large Meeting and served on several committees, and my children came to First Day School every Sunday while I sat upstairs in the big, light-filled room where (mostly) no one talked.

I had very recently loved that room, how different that hour was from every other hour of the week. But when the banging from inside grew insistent, I could not sit there. I could not be in a chair. I have never been a twitchy type or one who craved movement. At that juncture, I couldn't stay in my seat. I took up running and stopped going to Meeting (permanently, it turned out). 

Was that silence in the Meetingroom, so protected, suddenly reminiscent of the other, not-yet-remembered but horrible silence, the one where I had been gagged and harmed repeatedly for so many years?

I can't know. 

During Meeting in those fraught pre-recovery days, I felt like I was being dangled out over a precipice and that the string holding me was not nearly sturdy enough. In my regular life, filled with job and spouse and friends and daughters, I could mostly navigate using those landmarks. But this: it was too much aloneness and the banging inside became deafening. As I had been when I was small, I became afraid of the silence. Even after I remembered and pieced together my abuse history, made it into a coherent narrative, I didn't return to that room or the light or the quiet breathing of all the souls.

You might think that an environment like the one at the orthodontist's would be up my alley. Levels and layers of sound might scrub memories, like a coherent soundtrack dropped into that eerie pool. 

It's not that way. I still like and need silence. I work at home, and without music on. We have a TV we almost never turn on. I am a fan of NPR, in smallish doses. On this side of my recovery, I find silence soothing most of the time. And if it isn't, I can select what I would like to listen to: the sound of a friend or a family member talking, a book on CD, music I'm learning for choir.

Deafening sound. Deafening silence. 

What matters most is not the quiet or the sound but who chooses it. 

I'm very patient, pretty easy-going, and not a control freak. I can sit in a noisy bar and I can enjoy a blasting movie and I don't mind downtown Chicago traffic mess and I can sometimes play my music turned all the way up in the car with the windows down. But I prefer to be the one choosing. Or if I'm not, I must know that I can leave, that there is a way out if I want it. And there's the legacy of the terrible sound and the terrible silence.

Being "captive" in a silent Meeting or being "captive" in a noisy office, waiting for an appointment that doesn't come for an hour: those two events are nearly the same in my psyche.

The thing that is most reminiscent of the abuse, and therefore most triggering, is the thing that has its way with me. It might be silence. It might be sound, banging up against my eardrums. Unless I choose them, both remind me of a time when I truly had no filter, no agency, no way to stop or alter the soundtrack that went along with the abuse. Now I do have filter and agency, and I will use them to turn the volume up and down and up again as I please.


Cameron Gearen's book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out in early 2016 from Shearsman Press. Her short fiction and non­fiction is up at The Easy Chair podcast. She recently launched a project, #onmyown, on her blog: text and photos celebrating solitude and singlehood. You can read it at camazon.tumblr.com. She works as a freelance writer and college counselor in the Chicago area, where she lives with her two teenaged daughters and her dog, Roxy. Her YA novel is currently with an agent.