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'Shame seeded my silence': why I decided to stop talking


As a teenager, journalist and film-maker Harriet Shawcross stopped speaking for almost a year. In later years, her sexuality made her retreat again

One Sunday I came to sit with the dead. The room was almost untouched. Everything and nothing was the same. I was standing in my grandmother’s study. She had lived with us for 25 years, and died six months earlier. Her room had been cleaned and closed – the dark beetles of dried blood scrubbed from the fireplace where she fell and cracked her head. I had come to her room to sit with the silence.

I have always found something deeply compelling about keeping quiet. It began when my grandmother moved in with us, when I was a child. Or at the edge of being a child: 13. The move shifted the family dynamic. It was a time of great upheaval, and it was during this time that I lost the ability to speak. Or not to speak, precisely, but to speak in the ways that make us human. The ways that matter. I could answer direct questions. I could take part in school plays. But I stopped making conversation for nearly a year. When I was at school, I stopped telling jokes, or asking questions. I became a lurker – always almost invisible, on the edge of conversations.

It was shame that seeded my early silence. And shame that kept my sexuality quiet for so long

That this is I,
Not mine, which wakes
To where the present
Sun pours in the present, to the air perhaps
Of love and of

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