Why I Wanted to Write About Selective Mutism

Cover of What I Couldn't Tell You
What I Couldn’t Tell You, my latest novel, started when I heard Sheri Pitman speaking on the radio about her experiences of suffering with Selective or Situational Mutism. I hadn’t ever heard of SM, as it is often referred to, before and was immediately intrigued by Sheri’s experiences. Sheri didn’t have any speech and language difficulties, and at home she chattered on just like any other child her age. So what made Sheri not speak outside of her own home for an incredible nine years?

I started to research Selective Mutism, partly because I wanted to know more about the condition, and partly because I was struck by the idea that a first person narrative could give someone like Sheri a voice in the outside world that she didn’t otherwise have. This is where Tessie in What I Couldn’t Tell You began. 

In doing my research I learnt that SM is caused by severe social anxiety that effectively leaves anyone suffering with it unable to speak in any space that is not familiar, which is most usually any public space outside of the home. The anxiety, as with any other anxiety, has strong physical symptoms. Sufferers often describe their throat becoming tight, locking down and hurting, together with those symptoms that a more general anxiety can bring.

The greatest challenge of the storytelling came at the outset, and it was nothing to do with plot; it was getting Tessie’s ‘voice’ right.

This is what Tessie says of her SM in What I Couldn’t Tell You…

“…I don’t know what started it and no one else knows either. I was shy. I was always a bit shy. I didn’t really talk much. I don’t think anyone even noticed that at first. But then I just stopped talking when I wasn’t at home, and when I was at home I only talked to the people I knew really well – like my family and really close family friends. And by the time everyone noticed there was nothing I could do. If anyone talked to me, asked me to speak, I couldn’t. In fact that made it worse – much worse. I mean if you’re scared of spiders and I give you a spider, it’s not going to make you better, is it? And it’s the same with me and talking. If you try and talk to me, or ask me a question, you’re going to make it worse because all you’re doing is pushing me to try and do something I really can’t do.”

How do you make friends and maintain relationships, if you don’t speak? How do you cope when someone bullies you for your silence? How do you get through your school day? Without doubt the cumulative effect is likely to, and often does, put the SM sufferer’s mental health at risk, a risk that is only compounded in itself by the person’s inability to talk about their experiences.

Writing a character with SM certainly presented a number of challenges for me in the storytelling. I was looking to write a gritty, fast-paced crime story, with Tessie as my first person narrator, and as she couldn’t speak in certain situations or with certain people in certain places, this made the plotting a good deal harder than it might otherwise have been. However, the greatest challenge of the storytelling came at the outset, and it was nothing to do with plot; it was getting Tessie’s ‘voice’ right.

Of course ‘voice’ is always the greatest challenge for any writer of any story, but because I had come to this story inspired by Sheri’s own personal experience, and I knew I wanted the representation of SM to be absolutely true to the realities of the condition, I felt a deep sense of responsibility in this.

I wrote a number of monologues, experiments if you like, in finding Tessie’s voice before I wrote anything at all. At first she came out quirky, light, and this just didn’t work. It showed that I was grasping for tone, second-guessing what a reader might want from the portrayal, rather than writing a realistic depiction of what is was like to have SM. And yet all the time, amongst this need for realism I knew I also needed to write a compelling story - a story not bogged down with detail for my reader.

It definitely took some careful thought and some graft to strike the right balance and find a voice that was authentic, believable and workable within the telling of the story.

The things we need to say in life are often the hardest precisely because they need saying the most.

I think it is Billy in What I Couldn’t Tell You who puts the challenges of the story, indeed the challenges in the story, best when he says, 'And it’s like all the things we need to say are the hardest ones, you know?'

Because as the story evolved, in the writing these words certainly became true for all the characters in the book; they all had something they couldn’t tell, something that they desperately needed to say.

And it strikes me that the things we need to say in life are often the hardest precisely because they need saying the most. And it feels right to remember that this week, during Mental Health Awareness Week, as we work to raise awareness of the importance of talking about our mental health, of sharing our experiences, in an open, meaningful and honest way.

 For more great books on mental health, check out Lynsey Rogers's blog, 5 Young Adult Books for Mental Health Awareness Week and our teen book list, Understanding Mental Health.

Faye Bird

Faye Bird is the author of What I Couldn’t Tell You, out now, published by Usborne. Read the first chapter online at www.usborne.com/readfaye.