New York Times  Bestselling Author

Shh…

Diane Chamberlain and SantaHere’s something most people don’t know about me: I had selective mutism from elementary school until graduate school. What’s selective mutism? It’s an anxiety disorder in which a child or adolescent who is capable of speech doesn’t speak in certain situations. I’ll get back to my own experience in a minute, but first let me tell you how selective mutism comes into play in Breaking the Silence.

Five-year-old Emma is home with her stepfather when he kills himself, and from that day forward, she stops speaking. Her Mom, Laura, takes her to a therapist, who recommends that Laura get in touch with Emma’s biological father to see if he can play a helpful role in the little girl’s life. The problem: Emma’s conception was the result of a one-night-stand, and her father, Dylan, doesn’t know of her existence. This is only one of many, many problems in this complicated storyline.

Now back to me. (That’s me with Santa, by the way). The term “selective mutism” didn’t exist when I was a little kid. I was merely considered very shy. In my memory, I was always a shy, anxious child but the mutism began around the first grade. I have no idea why, nor do I believe it matters. All I know is that I stopped speaking in school and certain other situations. I spoke at home and to my friends–I was actually quite outgoing with my friends, even in a school setting. In the classroom, though, I was anxious to the point of being phobic. If called on, I would struggle to speak in class, but raise my hand? No way. I longed to be able to speak up the way my classmates did, but I felt paralyzed. Thank God I could write, and that skill helped me keep up my grades. 

Here’s one of my funniest memories from my high school days as a “selective mute.”

I was with my boyfriend at a diner one night after a movie. We were laughing and loud and having a good time. At the next table was a guy who sat next to me in homeroom. He lit up a cigarette. I was a smoker in those days and asked him for a cigarette, which he gave me. Then he asked me if I had a sister who went to Plainfield High School. “There’s a girl in my homeroom who looks a lot like you,” he said. I was so shocked. He had no idea I was the same girl who sat next to him every day. It really hit home for me how totally different I was in the classroom and out.

I made it through four years of college with excellent grades, a 4.0 in my social work major, still never voluntarily uttering a word. So how did it change? When I was waiting for my first class in graduate school, I made a decision: I was going to be a high participator. I sat in the front row and kept my hand in the air and turned into a different person overnight. It was amazing! When I became a therapist myself (yes, it’s rare to find a therapist who was never a little kooky sometime in his or her own life), I discovered this behavioral approach works in many circumstances, but that’s for another blog.

Even though I had personal experience with mutism, I needed to dig into the current research to write about Emma, because her situation is very different from mine. Her mutism clearly stemmed from an event.  I loved getting to explore Emma’s problem and discover how her therapist would work with her. It was rewarding for me personally to “help” Emma become a healthy little girl again. I’m glad it didn’t take her as long as it took me!

19 Comments

  1. Julie Kibler on December 9, 2009 at 12:05 am

    You experiences sounds very much like mine. We moved far too many times while I was growing up, and I had horrible social anxiety as a result. I’ve always described myself then as painfully shy then, because I was shy to the point it really did almost hurt physically. Then I kind of found my place, then rediscovered writing and how much I love it and my “writer tribe,” and everything changed. Now it’s hard to shut me up. I’m making up for lost time, right? 🙂

  2. Julie Kibler on December 9, 2009 at 12:06 am

    Shew, my proofreading job stunk on that comment. 🙂 (See, that social anxiety still rears its head on occasion!)

  3. Diane Chamberlain on December 9, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Julie, when I talk to old school friends now, those who seemed to have their acts so together, it’s always interesting to discover how insecure they felt as well. I think adolescence is a time when “our insides are observing everyone else’s outsides,” and we come up feeling inadequate and anxious. So glad those days are behind us!

  4. Shelby Dupree on December 9, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Hi! So excited to visit your blog. You will NEVER believe this .. but it is quite true–I also had selective mutism. I remember when I was in Kindergarten, my teacher sent me home with a note to my mother saying, ‘Is your child deaf and dumb?’ I would not make a sound. That lasted for years. I would talk at home and with close family members and friends, but no one else.

    Painfully.. p.a.i.n.f.u.l.l.y shy. It was excruciating. Still is to some extent.

    Intriguing post. Thank you so very mucy for sharing this.

  5. Diane Chamberlain on December 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Welcome to the blog, Shelby. Sorry you, too, suffered with this as a little kid. You’d be amazed (I am) at how many people I’ve heard from OFF the blog in the 24 hours since I put this up.

  6. Margo on December 11, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Diane, we’ve had a major snowstorm/blizzard here and computers have been down…I can finally comment…1st of all this pic is adorable of you…I can’t imagine how debilitating this type of mutism was for you…thank goodness your inner strength gave you the courage to overcome the problem, which must have been a major life change. I can’t help but think this experience influenced you to become a therapist…it must have been very hard to give up your practice to become a writer, but I’m glad you are the novelist and person you are today. (-O:

  7. Diane Chamberlain on December 11, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Thanks, Margo. Yup, my childhood and adolescence definitely made me want to help other kids.

    Sorry about your snowstorm! It’s going into the twenties here tonight, which probably sounds like springtime to you.

  8. Denise on December 11, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    First of all, love those little white gloves!

    I never ever dreamed you suffered from selective mutism. Do the people who know you well now find it surprising?

  9. Diane Chamberlain on December 11, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    I don’t know, Denise, since I rarely mention it. (Just asked John. I don’t think he actually believes me. . . )

  10. Margo on December 12, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Diane, your 20 degrees would be a heatwave for us since we have -3 below here (lol)…AND, over 16 inches of snow piled up everywhere!…it took Gary over 3 hours with the snowblower to plow out our driveway (which is long anyway)…plus, he plowed a snowrun in the back so Kramer could walk…needless to say, Kramer went thru the snowrun nicely and being the ‘wolf’ that he is, decided to leap over the path and bound thru the snow like a kid jumping up and down for joy! No kidding, he is in his element…most people would have thought he literally was a wolf out in the wilderness (-O:

  11. brenda on December 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Diane-I chuckled because I’ll bet John (as most men) might wonder if women ever “not talk”…just kidding…you are such a good writer because of your past-in part…I have had some really rough things in my past, and in part, believe that is why I refuse to judge others…
    On another note, in the midst of cleaning and getting things caught up-and hoping before I get to the national debt that my second new hot water heater will work soon-another story…I am loving Ted Kennedy’s MEMOIR…it is good…he is quite honest in his writing and taking me back to days gone by…He does not go into gruesome detail about the family goings-on…and I like that…often in memoirs, I learn more than I want to know…I also like the fact that he was fine about his first wife, Joan…now I have not gotten to the part about his second wife, but if he puts her on a pedestal higher than the mother of his children…well…what a sad day when the last Kennedy boy…died.

  12. brenda on December 12, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Finished the Kennedy book-loved it-my history too…he did not disappoint…how nice to read a book written by one of them. I donated my whole KENNEDY collection to a library, but I kept one of them…a first addition-autographed by Rose Kennedy. I found it in a little quaint bookstore in Baltimore in 1993 I believe it was…held on to that one…The one thing I liked about this memoir-he was matter of fact.

  13. brenda on December 12, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    P.S. Am reading Breaking the Silence tonight as I wait for my son…and his girlfriend to arrive this weekend.

  14. Denise on December 12, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Diane, do you ever get that painfully shy feeling now? I am thinking that it is pretty amazing that you are able to speak to groups.

  15. Diane Chamberlain on December 12, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Thanks for the heads up on the Kennedy memoir, Brenda, and I hope you’re enjoying rereading Breaking the Silence.

    Denise, no. I’m basically a quiet person, and there are times I choose to be quiet in a social situation, but it’s a choice now and that’s the difference. I actually love speaking to groups! All that attention just for me? I eat it up, but I also worry about being boring, just as I worry about boring my readers when I write. The only thing worse than being bored is being the borer.

  16. brenda on December 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    First…you do not bore your writers. I read B the S. last night again…I loved it as I always do. That is only one of your books that I wish there were a sequel. As to the “goings on” with the “treatments”, I know about those…as a family member=back in the day-was subjected to shock treatments…no kidding…and of course, we know of “famous” families who had relatives with the lobotomy…so so so so sad but so true. My West coast son arrived today with his girlfriend…they are resting. They brought me some James Patterson books to read…after meeting his girlfriend, I have snuggled up with some of the books…this is exciting…although I have to work another week…before vacation. For those of you who have not read B the S==don’t miss it…

  17. Margo on December 13, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Omigosh Diane, no worries when it comes to ‘boring us’…you’re kidding, right?…never, never, never have your books done that to me…
    Brenda, I bought Ted Kennedy’s book for a C-mas gift to Gary…he’s read so much about the family and loves nonfiction…it’s wrapped and under the tree. Also bought lots of copies of BREAKING THE SILENCE for friends for
    C-mas…they will LOVE it.
    Bitter cold again today…I’m officially on vacation and love my time off at home…staying warm by the fireplace.

  18. Diane Chamberlain on December 13, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Brenda, what fun to meet the new girlfriend! I recall your mentioning long ago about a family member receiving shock treatments, and I probably said this then, but will repeat myself. I believe there is a place for them, done judiciously, and I had patients for whom ECT was the only way out of depression. But “back in the day” I believe they were overused and without much understanding as to how or why they should be employed and with little regard for what could be devastating side effects. The experiments I wrote about in B the S, where ECT was used as much as 70 times the recommended ‘dose’, were, like the lobotomies, an abomination. I certainly hope your family member wasn’t subject to that sort of “treatment”.

    Margo, I do worry about being boring, all the time. If I’m not, it’s probably because I DO worry about it and go to great pains not to be. Thanks for giving B the S as gifts! Hope the recipients enjoy it.

  19. brenda on December 14, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    I agree that MAYBE they had a place in society-the shock treatments…but if my loved one were alive today, she would have been treated with other methods…it was horrible, horrible, horrible…I love this book-as I said before–I wish everyone would read it and take care to never let those things happen to those they love.

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