How a Woman Learns to Talk



My mother was born with a little string of flesh that tied her tongue to the bottom of her mouth. Until age four she made only small, strangled sounds. Her people thought she couldn’t make words because she wasn’t smart enough. In their words, Retarded.

When she came inside from the barn with red paint on her face and clothes, her parents punished her. She had no way of telling them that a bigger girl had held her down and daubed the paint onto her skin.

One day, a visiting grandmother looked at the four-year-old child and insisted that she see a doctor. The doctor took a pair of scissors and clipped the string away. A speech therapist told my mother to make her tongue like a broom and sweep the cobwebs out of the corners of her mouth.

I wonder, now, if my mother’s life of border crossing began that day. I wonder if her whole life as a transgressor–an activist, a person who presses for change–began right at that moment, when she learned to talk. She became pariah, a person who tells a truth that shames the guilty.

If these walls had tongues …

I can’t remember the first time in my life somebody told me to hush. I came into awareness with it already happening. Esther, don’t talk about that. Don’t say that. Don’t bring that up. Nobody wants to hear about that.

I came into awareness of myself this way, a person saying things other people didn’t want to hear. I thought it was a thing about who I am. My mother’s daughter.

But now I’m 35 years old, and I can’t tell you where that circle started. I don’t know that I did particularly transgress, or if the social world I was born into wasn’t simply bent to compress me, along with every other unique soul, into a shape that would fit between the silences.

These things have been silenced: the tremendous spiritual power of sexuality, menstruation, breastfeeding, and birth; the shame-map of internalized emotional violence that holds these powers in check; the capacity–and obligation–of Gospel love to dissolve the boundaries of gender.

These have been silenced, too: domestic violence, sexual harassment, the private cruelties of public men, what happens to a girl who fails to take her punches without a flinch.

To tell these things has been imund, forbidden. If you tell these things, you may be held responsible for all the feelings of all the people who are shaken in their boots by what you say.

You may be made to feel as though you had created the trauma yourself–drawn it right out of thin air by some treacherous bone in your transgressing body.

YOU are the one disturbing the peace. YOU are the one disrupting order. You have red paint on your clothes and skin, and the smirking older child who marked you is long gone.

I wouldn’t blame you if you made no sound at all. I wouldn’t blame you if you hushed up and played the part.

But that is not the way this story ends.

One day there is a wise woman who sends you to the doctor. One day there is a doctor who unbinds your tongue. One day there is a teacher who tells you to sweep away the cobwebs from the corners of your mouth.

This is how a woman learns to talk.

It is a transgression. But it is not a transgression against life. It is a dangerous act, but not a criminal one. It has a free-falling feeling, and it may look as though it is the cause of pain.

But just as likely it is unlocking pain that was already there, trapped like air bubbles. It is revealing violence already committed. Just as likely it is shining light on darkness already entrenched … raising a flame against the very roots of sin.

We are teaching each other now, in public bathrooms, from podiums and pulpits, in pixels on computer screens. We are talking about sex. And God. We are concocting antidotes to shame. We have learned to become surgeons for ourselves and for each other, learned how to cut through scar tissue and regrow bones. We are using our tongues like brooms to sweep away the cobwebs.

This is how we learn to talk.

Esther Emery
Esther Emery used to direct stage plays in Southern California. But that was a long time ago. Now she is pretty much a runaway, living off the grid in a yurt and tending to three acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life at
Esther Emery
Esther Emery

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