Christina Dalcher is a writer and professor. Her short stories and flash fiction appear in more than one hundred journals worldwide. Recognition includes the Bath Flash Award shortlist, nominations for the Pushcart Prize, and multiple other awards.
In November of 1970, a child was found on the other side of the country. I don’t know her, and I never will, but I know this: At the time, I had a vocabulary of about two hundred words. The child had less than a tenth of that.
I was three years old. She was nearly fourteen.
Genie (the girl’s pseudonym) didn’t give her voice away; it was stolen from her. Years of neglect and abuse caused this little Californian to miss out on something every other child has — the chance to acquire a first language. By the time child welfare authorities found her, it was too late for Genie. She had reached the end of a critical period, a use-it-or-lose-it window for learning what all humans seem to learn almost effortlessly.
I had Genie in mind for much of the time I was writing my first novel, VOX, and in that time, I heard from several early readers that they found the idea of women and girls being limited to a mere one hundred words per day (the average speaker utters about 16,000 words daily) chilling. It makes them angry, this forced silence. It makes me angry too. And something just as frightening to me is the prospect of little girls growing up without a voice. For me, Genie’s story is a constant reminder that we all experience that critical period of language acquisition, and that, unlike Genie, we have a choice to make ourselves heard.
The past year has seen herculean efforts on the part of women to voice their concerns and speak up after years of remaining silent and letting life roll along without interference. I’ve heard painful stories, and I expect you have as well. Celebrities and politicians — those we consider to have the most influential voices — have been called out, interrupted, and mocked. While women who dedicate themselves to marching and protesting are slapped with the names of ‘feminazi’ and ‘bitch,’ while other women who voice unpopular opinions earn equally derogatory labels: anti-feminist, nazi, fascist. People across the country and world have paid the ultimate price for using their voice to stand up for their beliefs — they’ve paid with their lives.
But I often wonder how many people — women and men alike — might still be watching passively. I know I’ve done that many times, and often out of fear. As a young college graduate in my first job, I stayed quiet when the woman I worked for spewed racist comments, trading my integrity for a paycheck. As a university professor teaching in a foreign country, I smiled and nodded when my male students said my “beautiful smile” was the best thing about the class I was teaching. As a more mature woman in a political minority, I’ve kept my mouth shut so I didn’t have to watch the inevitable eye rolls around a dining room table or face the negative feedback in the Twitterverse. There’s risk in speaking out, but I think there’s much more at risk when we choose to stay silent.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: Action requires not just bravery, but effort. Moreover, we have a finite amount of effort within us. Things pull our bodies and minds in multiple directions: Deadlines need to be met at work, bills need paying, laundry needs to be done. It’s no wonder voter turnout hovers somewhere around fifty percent — slightly higher for the big presidential races, much lower for everything else. In my city, local elections draw about thirteen percent of voters.
Before I go too far down the lecture route, a confession: I haven’t always voted. There were reasons, sure — I was living abroad; I didn’t like the main candidates; I refused to cast a vote for the lesser of what I perceived as two political evils; I live in a state where, thanks to our electoral college system, I knew my opinion counted for crap. And local elections? Midterms? What were those if not pointless errands designed to carve an hour out of my day and force me to stand in line? I had a million excuses.
Who are we? Who are the silent ones? I expect we’re as different as our experiences, our racial and ethnic groups, our religions, our identities. And why do we give up our voices? Again, the reasons have to be myriad, but why focus on the speculative details of why and who and when? Why not focus on the indisputable fact that we — all of us — get another shot. And another. And another after that.
Which brings me back to Genie, the child who had her voice — and much of her life — taken away. This hasn’t happened to us, and even though I wrote a fictional story about a world in which forced silence reigns, I don’t really believe we’ll arrive at such a point. We, unlike Genie, have a second chance. If we didn’t vote last year or last month, that’s okay. We can vote next year or next month. We can start over, and we can reclaim the voice we might have given away.
Genie’s story is part of the linguist’s canon, and it hasn’t left me or the students I’ve shared it with. The thought of a child living for nearly fourteen years in silence and isolation — never learning what I, at three years old, took for granted — is a modern horror story. However, we can learn from Genie and her experience; we can think about our own critical period, our own chance to speak and make ourselves heard. That time is at every election, large or small. That time is on a quiet Saturday morning when we put pen to paper and write to our senators and representatives. That time is today and tomorrow — next week and next year.