Journalist reveals how she stopped talking after her father lost job

‘My father lost his job and I didn’t speak for a year’: Journalist reveals how she stopped talking when she was a teenager and still finds it hard to say ‘I love you’

  • Journalist Harriet Shawcross’ memoir reveals how she stopped talking as a teen
  • While day student at boarding school she would only answer questions briefly
  • Gradually began talking again when love of poetry found her engaging in recitals
  • Harriet meets families devastated by selective mutism in her fascinating book



by Harriet Shawcross (Canongate £16.99, 352 pp)

On a rainy day in Lincoln in 1935, a young assistant curate called Chad Varah led the grieving family of a 14-year-old girl through a series of soggy open fields to a plot of unconsecrated ground beyond the churchyard.

The child had taken her own life in a fit of shame and terror at the sight of her first menstrual blood.

As the mourners left the graveside to seek shelter, the compassionate cleric stood alone above the corpse and said: ‘Little girl, I never knew you, but you have changed my life. 

‘I promise you that I will teach children your age what they need to know, and be someone they can ask.’

Harriet Shawcross’s (pictured) memoir reveals how she stopped talking as a teenager after her father lost his job and she started going to a posh girls’ school

In an interview shortly before his death aged 95 in 2007, Varah said he hoped he would be remembered as Britain’s first sex therapist.

But we know him better as the founder of the Samaritans: the world’s first telephone helpline, offering an anonymous listening ear to the lonely and desperate, giving people permission to voice fear, shame, grief, rage, sorrow and secrets they might never speak aloud in other contexts.

The things we find ‘unspeakable’ are the subject of Harriet Shawcross’s fascinating book. As a journalist, she has made a career of exposing truths. Yet, as a child, she found her words drying up.

Her book, cover pictured, explains how she gradually began talking again when her love of poetry found her engaging in recitals

It happened as she turned 13 and moved to a posh girls’ school, as one of only three day students among nearly 100 boarders in her year. 

‘I think it’s best if you don’t mention your parents too much,’ cautioned the housemistress. ‘This is the first time most of the boarders will have been away, and some might get a bit homesicky.’

Shawcross took these words to heart and her home life became ‘a guilty secret’.

Things got worse when her father was made redundant, money ran short and marital rows saw her parents sleeping apart. 

The family didn’t discuss their problems and the children were forbidden from speaking of them to outsiders: certainly not Shawcross’s classmates, with their swanky skiing holidays in Verbier.

The shame, says Shawcross, ‘became almost unbearable’. And though she continued to answer direct questions as briefly as possible, she stopped making conversation for nearly a year.

‘It felt safer, easier somehow, to say the bare minimum. I knew my behaviour was odd — and would try to will myself to speak — but I didn’t know how to break into conversations.’

Shawcross gradually began talking again when her love of poetry found her engaging in recitals.

The housemistress at Harriet’s school said it was best she didn’t talk about her parents and she took the words to heart (file picture)

But silence remained at the ‘core’ of her identity. ‘I have always found it hard to say how I feel,’ she admits, ‘and this silence has driven my relationships to the edge of existence as I often couldn’t find the words to articulate my doubts and fears, or even say I love you.’

In an attempt to understand this paralysing reserve, Shawcross attended conferences on ‘selective mutism’ (SM), which affects around one in 150 children in the UK and is often caused by anxiety. It is characterised by a person’s inability to speak to certain people, or in certain situations.

She tells heartbreaking stories of families devastated by their silent children. We hear from a mother whose daughter was unable to cry for help when she was near to drowning. And a young man who cannot leave the house without a parent to speak for him.

At the end of her book, Shawcross finds the courage to marry her girlfriend. Making that commitment means a vow to make space for the peace of shared silences and the intimacy of spoken emotion.

She concludes with lines from George Oppen — the American poet who stopped writing between 1933-1958 for fear his words were frivolous in the face of war, poverty and his wife’s repeated miscarriages.

He wrote: ‘Say as much as I dare, as much as I can/sustain I don’t know how to say it/I say all that I can.’


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