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How Silence Evolved in My Childhood

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

While scrolling through the visuals of silence on Serendip, I found myself deliberately returning to the image of Irene’s bedroom. I was captivated by the soft lighting, the warm brown colors and the simplicity of its decoration. I was reminded of my own bedroom back home. Similarly, the image of my bedroom is a place of peace and rest with its array of books, wall of mirrors and made bed. While I enjoyed seeing a bedroom that projected similar sentiments of comfort and intimacy, I know that the appealing visual of my bedroom is a facade. In contrast to the expected hospitable nature of a bedroom, my bedroom was a rather lonely and confined space for much of my life. So, as much as I wanted to feel the welcoming silence emanating from Irene’s image, I could not ignore how it was a visual reminder of my isolating relationship with silence.

            Before I divulge into my relationship with silence, it is important to note that much of my childhood, despite being American-born, was heavily influenced by my Haitian culture by way of my immigrant mom and my predominantly Haitian neighborhood. Thus, the foundation of my upbringing included the same norms and values that one, particularly a young female, would experience in Haiti. As a young person, disrespecting an adult (even though what counted as disrespect was often times subjective and vague) was a huge offense; so, my default was to be silent around older people. As a female, it was not abnormal to learn how to cook, clean, care for younger siblings and to have restrictions on my outings. With love, my mother was simply preparing me for a future, one with a husband and kids, which could be considered limiting beyond the perimeters of our community. And yet, being an obedient child never felt oppressive and, for the most part, enforced because, to me, it felt intuitive. At the time, I could not foresee how my upbringing could produce a silence that was harmful once it was challenged.

            My step-father became part of my family when I was eight years old. Like any young person, especially one that is protective of her mother, I was both skeptical and excited about the new addition to my family. Nonetheless, I accepted him with no questions as I was raised to do with Haitian adults. Out of respect, I called him "Daddy," out of discipline, I obeyed his rules. Life was perfect—I had a new Dad and I was constantly rewarded with hugs and affection for being good. When I was not "good," for instance, on days when I forgot to say "good morning" to him, I was reprimanded and reminded of how children must always respect adults. From these experiences and others, I noted early on that the responsibility of constantly being respectful fell solely on me and my siblings. It did not seem to matter if adults were respectful—my step-father and his future actions made it clear that they could do no wrong.

To save my family from overexposure in the public eye and to maintain the dignity of my step-father, in short, my father's authoritative character led to an abuse of power. His power-tripping ways saturated my home with his ego. Silence, once a comfortable feeling, was now unbearable because my silence, and that of my young siblings and mother, fueled, and excused, his ways. Fed up, I began to speak against his wishes in protest. However, I had never felt the urge to break my silence before and so, my unfamiliarity with speaking out of line resulted in heated conversations as I replicated the only form of communication I learned from him: excessive yelling.

Unable to part with the upbringing she was rearing me for, my mother was passive. As a result of her inactions, I was drawn to my room as an escape. Initially, a space of comfort, the silence of my room allowed me to reflect on my new outspoken identity. I was willing to be silent again. Silence for me had always been a norm, an act of endearment, and the upholding of my cultural values. I was not willing to have my silence (an empowering characteristic before my step-father's arrival) manipulated as a means of exercising control.

Alone in my room to avoid speaking to my step-father, there was only so much thinking I could do about the oppressive environment he had created. As the years went by of me spending hours in my room with occasional sounds of music for company, my meticulously clean room, a visual representation of my upbringing as a Haitian female, became devoid of meaning. As soon as silence resembled its oppressive nature versus its original meaning of nurture in my life, the remnants of what silence used to mean for me, i.e. my tidy room, were now pointless. I couldn't stand to be in my room just like I couldn't stand to be around my step-father. And although the turbulent years between him and I have passed, when I am home, the stillness of my room continues to haunt me with thoughts of a silence—a large part of my childhood—that no longer exists.



Anne Dalke's picture

Haunting silence

I think you've seen already that both jo and Michaela used your initial image of protest to preface their reflections; so interesting that--having put public speaking into our archive--you turn to a much more private image here....

When you chose that first image, you said that "the best representation of silence is its opposite: noise," that "silence is best represented when people...add their own original sound to the ever-present soundtrack around them." These are very powerful claims (and very powerfully expressed; I love the "ever-present soundtrack"....)

And so it's particularly poignant to have you explore, here, some of the familial experiences that lie behind those claims, the evolution of silence, throughout your childhood, from a space of comfort, peace and rest to one that is lonely, isolating and confining. The move you made from the "default" of being "silent around older people" to "excessive yelling" in response to an abuse of power meant both that you needed the comfort of silence--the retreat to your room "to reflect on your new outspoken identity"--and that you realized you were not "willing to be silent again," that the "stillness of your room" was a "facade," one that continues to haunt you...

and that now haunts me. Thank you for telling this story.