Published on September 23rd, 2013 | by Amy Jane Helmericks
(Life & Fiction) Spells of Silence
Spells of Silence is my name for those exasperating moments in a story when something goes wrong that talking might have fixed. The story is extended (or complicated) by a piece of information being concealed or coming out a moment too late.
I always used to roll my eyes at the plot-serving convenience of what information people will hide or reveal, so I shocked myself this year with my realization that fairy tale silences have begun to make a lot more sense.
I am one of the most articulate, word-ready people I know (my kids expect me to explain the unexplainable), but in recent years I have found myself mute in the face of certain circumstances, certain people.
There is a trauma that expresses itself in silence. It is a sense of danger that holds back important truth. Those Truth-words may not be welcomed by those who hear them, or those words may trigger reprisals upon the speaker.
In the stories with spells of silence, that silence is eventually broken, but along the path of the story there is often a process of individual maturing. Frequently this comes through some catalyst. A new reality must enter the story and throw the established orbit off, or it will never travel in a new direction.
This breaking-in is the reason a story is worth listening to: because something is about to change.
There is a long-standing tradition in Story that uses degrees of truth or falsehood to shape a tale’s complications. I made a bit of a flow chart and ran a dozen folktales through it.
Here was the spectrum I used, and its subsets:
Believed — Not-believed —————Partial — Full
I looked at stories in terms of progression of truth (left to right). The lie is believed, then not believed. Truth is revealed partially, then fully.
For example, Rumpelstiltskin (affiliate link).
Here is a story that begins with a blatant LIE (“My daughter can spin straw into gold!”) that, astonishingly, is believed.
The lie is perpetuated enough that the royal household behaves as if the lie is true (filling huge rooms with straw to be spun into gold). Fortunately, someone doesn’t believe the maiden can do it (disbelieving the lie) and shows up to offer his services.
He offers a truth, a partial truth, because the terrified girl doesn’t know yet all she is getting into.
Ultimately, it is learning the full truth (Rumpelstiltskin’s name) that brings the story’s resolution.
When I was a kid, reading these stories, I couldn’t understand why a girl wouldn’t just tell the truth—or argue with her dad, even in front of the king.
Now I know that I was blessed with a loving home and, because I felt completely safe, I had the freedom to speak without fear of physical or emotional reprisal.
What if life for the miller’s daughter was bad enough that bunking with a gold-obsessed king seemed safer? What if she rationalized that she might be able to protect both herself and her child better as queen?
It turned out to be true.
In the end, she had the resources to win the contest. On a simple, physical level, that was growth. Now as the queen, she could (literally) answer a question that she could not answer before.
I experienced my own growth through the progression from lie to truth after my depression beginning in 2010. I wonder now if I would have received some kind of help—more help—if I had tried harder to say how broken I was.
For the most part I kept quiet about it, because I didn’t have any better ideas to give people to give me, and I was pretty sure that criticism without offering alternatives was shameful.
I had little to give in terms of nurturing energy, so I imagined that I was caring for others by keeping the weight of my problems off of them. It made me feel nobler or more generous in my isolation and weakness.
I’ve since learned that “Self-blame is a symptom of the disease” of depression (affiliate link). I learned that:
- people feel ashamed of being depressed
- they feel they should snap out of it
- they feel weak and inadequate
Of course they do: these feelings are symptoms of the disease. And these symptoms all go a long way to keeping us shut-up.
Similar to the miller’s daughter turned queen, I have answers now. I have words—names for things that were elusive before.
I understand why characters stay silent. Sometimes the danger is more than heartbreak that only you know. Sometimes the danger would leave bruises or spill blood. So we stay silent, because brokenness on the inside or outside could be the more-than-I-can-bear that crushes us.
It is not until the safe place arrives that we hear our voices again, raw and unpracticed. And the safety is proven by the acceptance of our imperfect voices. We begin to speak more and more, not because we want to outdo or shame the people still in silence, but because, for some of us, hearing a voice like our own was part of learning to speak again.
They are the gift I have to offer: the gold I’ve found in the burnt stubble of a painfully silent time.