CONTENT WARNING: SUBSTANCE ABUSE + SEXUAL ASSAULT
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
—Wislawa Szymborska, The Three Oddest Words
For me, it has strangely always been the word more than the experience. Shot down from the mind or up from the gut. It hangs in the throat. It sticks. Behind the teeth an intrusion. Terrible on the tongue. So very unwelcome on the lips.
The tearing violence of the first letter. The grate of the center vowel. The propulsion of the final consonant. Consonant: whose very meaning is obstructor of breath, closure of the vocal tract.
And then the soft finish of the E. Oh that E, it encapsulates so easily the very problem of the word. Its presence drives home the whole of it, makes the word itself. Rings the alarm of those two core coupled letters, the A and the P, all while remaining in its own relative silence.
It was—I was—after all, that silent E. I disappeared during the action that made for the signifier. I went quiet and my spirit left the room. So it was not the experience, not the R, but the letters that came after, that made for my suffering. It was not the description of it, even long form, but that single-syllabic word which tore at me.
“BUT THAT WORD...I SOFTENED ITS BLADE ON MY TONGUE WITH DRINK AND I WRAPPED MY SIGNIFIERS WITH SMOKE.”
The word itself is so perfect. It feels every time like what it signifies.
Those four letters. How suitable they are in concert. Each repetition is a new violation.
Yet, despite how proper the sound and sense is for its object of denotation, the word can have a special power of somehow negating the very purpose of language, the very reason for the property itself.
This is what I mean. I’m no studied theorist, but as I see it, naming is a method of controlling. A means of shaping the object it points to. For me, this signifier swept away control as it grappled for articulation. To give the action a proper word was to take away the meager power I’d found in silence, in the namelessness of it. I could pretend away the images. I could let them drift by as on the black box television propped in the corner that afternoon. (You see, a TV talk show therapy session played out during the off-screen episode. Its topic was the very same thing taking place. I listened to the word come out the mouths of others as it was happening to me.)
But that word. I could not pronounce it in relation to myself. Instead I softened its blade on my tongue with drink and I wrapped my signifiers with smoke. I disarmed the experience by taking myself to places words were not. I felt a brittle strength in the responsibility that came with my silence.
I had never spoken that word to describe my own experience, and since I had not spoken it, it had not happened. Since I had not spoken it, no one could speak it about me. It was an act that I had manifested. It was not a word put upon me. No one wants a word put upon them.
But with time and some healing came clearing of the smoke and there behind was the glow of the old blaze. In the morning, waking, I began to say it to myself, behind my tongue, behind my teeth. I began to say it without breath in my quaking chest.
For a while still I could not say it out. Again, a dark part of me felt to speak it would strip me of my agency. Better to cause a bad thing to happen to oneself than have one inflicted upon you. At least from the standpoint of control. Which is all words are doing right? Controlling? Shaping? And I, silent, acquiescing there, and acquiescing then, was my means of subversion. My method of control.
I’ve learned since that it just doesn’t work like that. Language doesn’t work like that.
Remaining silent does not negate the act. And unlike the speaking of silence, saying Rape does not destroy the object of the word. But saying it needn’t destroy the subject of the word either. I may not destroy it or control it, but it doesn’t—it cannot—do those things to me.
Danielle Aykroyd is a writer, voice actor, and musician. She performs under the name Vera Sola.