3.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

We are not the only animal that can communicate. A lot of animals send out warning signals when a threat is sensed. Dolphins and whales have perfected the art of conversation across small and vast distances to keep in touch with one another. But almost no others have the level of language and communication that we have developed. Which is why with that ability that we have as human beings, it is strange that some have made the conscious decision not to talk unless it is unavoidable.

Harriet Shawcross was one of those. As a teenager, she withdrew from communicating and socialising unless really necessary, spending time in obscure parts of the school to avoid contact with fellow pupils. It was something that she thankfully grew out of, but it sparked an interest in why some people chose to not communicate with others but also why some people lost the art of speech and in some cases writing too.

Her journey will take her from the ghosts of her past to the history of the illness where it was first identified by a Swiss doctor, Moritz Tramer, who first named it elective mutism. It has since become known as selective mutism as it is now understood that children are not choosing who and when to speak to people, rather they are gripped by paralysing anxiety. A conversation with the speech therapist, Maggie Johnson, who learnt this the hard way with a boy where the thought of talking to anyone, filled him with abject terror. She now works with children getting to overcome this fear, using exercises to override their flight response.

Her search for silence takes her to America where a camp for children helps them to overcome their silence by pushing them, a technique that has its detractors. Remembering the time she was cast in the play The Vagina Monologues but decided against it as it went to a place that she thought was beyond her comfort zone. She ends up in New York and interviews Eve Ensler in her apartment about the effect that the book and play have had on breaking the taboo about this intimate part of the body. Other travels take her to Nepal where she meets those that lost so much in the 2015 earthquake, attends a service with the Quakers and goes on various retreats.

We live in such a noisy world that the cacophony often hides the silence that some people are overwhelmed by. Shawcross has made a good attempt in this book to open up the discussion about selective mutism and how it affects people in different ways. At times her writing is lucid and full of power. However, I did have a few issues with the book though; it did seem to lack a little focus at times and whilst her personal story was relevant at the beginning as an opening piece, the others seemed unnecessary embellishments to the book. Not bad overall though and some may find it useful to read.

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