Stubbornness or a Case of Selective Mutism?

The story was always told to prove that I can be stubborn, rebellious, or strong-willed, but no one ever told the story to illustrate how a child copes with a perceived trauma or injustice when he or she feels otherwise powerless.

In December 1950, my parents were transferred from Matopo Mission to Wanezi Mission. I was not yet three years old. Sometime after we moved, I stopped speaking to my father and, according to family lore, I didn’t speak to him for nine months. My mother always said she tried every trick in the book to make me forget myself and talk to him, but I never did. The only thing I remember from that time is when my dad took me shopping for a book while we were on holiday; he had strict instructions from my mother not to buy it for me unless I asked him (see “Early African Memories” for the outcome of that excursion).

Why did I stop talking to him? The only real clue is that I told my brother I would talk to Daddy when he took us back to Matopo Mission. A number of questions immediately come to mind: Why did I want to go back to Matopo? Why did I apparently blame my dad for moving us away? Why didn’t my parents attempt to address the reasons I stopped talking rather than try to trick me into ending my little protest? And how on earth could a three-year-old sustain nine months of not speaking to her father?

This story was trotted out over the years as evidence of my stubborn streak, and it is surely that. At family gatherings when the story was rehashed, I remember feeling a strange mixture of pride in myself and shame for having hurt my father, mixed with some anger at how my mother would characterize it. My dad’s laughter at the memory was always tinged with sadness and hurt, and my mother would describe the various ways she tried to trick me into talking, always repeating that I would not be tricked, and again reinforcing Harriet as “the stubborn one.”


Me with my nanny, circa 1950

As I’ve tried to make sense of myself as an adult, I’ve reflected a lot on this story. Way into adulthood, when my husband and I talked about this incident, I finally concluded that there must have been a connection between the nanny I had at Matopo Mission and my refusal to speak to my father. After all, she figures prominently in my earliest memory (of falling out of a child’s wagon), and my parents always told me that I dearly loved her. In many ways, she functioned as a surrogate mother, taking care of me most days while my parents went about their missionary duties. So this is what I think might have happened: When we moved away from Matopo, no one explained to me why my nanny couldn’t and wouldn’t be going with us. All I knew was that one day we moved and I never saw her again. I believe I grieved for her as a child might grieve the loss of a parent, and I blamed my father for the move because even at the age of three I sensed that he made all the important decisions in our family. I further reasoned that if Daddy took us back to Matopo, I could see my nanny again.

How I managed to sustain the protest for so long is something of a mystery, I’ll admit. Most three-year-olds I have known might be able to sustain it for a day or two, but nine months? Not likely. It seems obvious to me in hindsight (and especially from the perspective of having worked among children’s mental health professionals for the past 20 years) that I experienced a trauma no one recognized or thought to address. Whether the trauma was losing my nanny I’ll never know for sure, but I believe something happened. In those days, of course, any kind of psychological reaction to events wouldn’t have been something my parents understood or recognized. Plus, I had them and my brother; why would I grieve for an African nanny who from their point of view was only performing a service and certainly wasn’t part of our family? Since they did nothing to find out or address the root cause of my not talking, I responded the only way I knew how – by refusing to talk to the person I held responsible.

Did I deserve to be called the “stubborn one”? Perhaps. Certainly, as my husband will tell you, I have a stubborn streak! However, I prefer to view my response to trauma and what I perceived as injustice a little more positively than the word “stubborn” generally implies. I believe that my ability to sustain the not-talking thing for nine months shows my strength of character and is a harbinger of the passion for justice that has been so much a part of my adult life. Even as a small child, I knew something was wrong. While I am sorry for the hurt I caused my father, I am also proud of myself for having stood up against something that seemed like a great wrong.

In more recent years in my work in children’s mental health, I have learned about something called “selective mutism.” Wikipedia defines selective mutism as a “psychiatric disorder in which a person who is normally capable of speech is unable to speak in given situations or to specific people. [It] usually co-exists with shyness and social anxiety.” Among the characteristics of the condition that seem to fit me are the following:

  • Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations (in which there is an expectation for speaking, e.g., at school) despite speaking in other situations [not speaking to my dad while continuing to speak to my mother and brother]
  • A duration of at least one month [for me nine months]
  • Difficulty expressing feelings, even to family members [I couldn’t express what I was feeling; perhaps I didn’t even really know my feelings]
  • Tendency to worry more than most people of the same age [a chronic condition with me!]
  • Desire for routine and dislike of changes [we had just moved]

The Wikipedia article goes on to list some positive attributes of people with selective mutism, some of which I’d like to think also fit: above-average intelligence, perception, or inquisitiveness; empathy and sensitivity to others’ thoughts and feelings; and a strong sense of right and wrong.

So was I just being stubborn, or was this a case of selective mutism?


10 thoughts on “Stubbornness or a Case of Selective Mutism?

  1. Most interesting to read the full account–having previously read a condensed version.
    I didn’t know you had that stubborn streak!
    I suspect it was both–to answer your last question. Intertwined.

  2. I remember that time in your life very well. And I find your analysis of it in more recent years fascinating. And I think you are right on. As an MK myself (from 1½ years to 10 years of age) my parents were not moved. Those nearly 9 years of my life were all at Matopo Mission, & whether I had the same “Nurse Girl” (aka. “Nanny”) I don’t remember.
    Uncle David

  3. Certainly the changes we experienced as children had many and varied effects on us — some positive and some negative. Staying in one home all your life — like our friend here in Steinbach who noted that the big move in his life was from one corner of the farm house (growing up) to the other (as the new owner) — equally has a varied set of positive and negative effects on those who experience it. It sounds as though you dealt with the situation as well as a three-year old could. No need for any guilty feelings, although the hurt is completely understandable. Such changes include their fair share of hurt. Thanks for the account, Harriet.

  4. We just mentioned this part of the family lore to someone recently. Addressing how you perceived and were affected by the retelling of it over the years is a challenge to me as I think of how and where I so casually relate tales of my children. I know I have not always been as sensitive as I should and want to be

  5. Photos: Can’t believe you were actually allowed to wear pants. That would not have been part of my 2 yr. old wardrobe. I think you were being groomed to “wear the pants.”

    • Martha, it is kind of amazing, isn’t it? I NEVER remember wearing pants as a child, so it obviously must have ended not long after these pictures were taken. Every other picture from my childhood that I can think of has me in a dress.

  6. Absolutely fascinating. Of course you were attached to your nanny who probably gave you a kind of love and affection and acceptance that our Germanic parents were rarely capable of giving. Losses at this age are deep and certainly could have resulted in “selective mutism” as you regressed to an earlier stage of not talking aimed at the authority figure you held responsible. All aberrant behavior in our upbringing was branded as “bad” in some form–in this case, “stubborn” which is another word for bad, especially in a girl. Come to think of it, I rarely hear that epithet thrown at a male. They’re strong or persistent. (Just like the word “bossy” is never assigned to a boy. They’re assertive or leaders.) Laughing at the behavior of a child is another way of branding it by using shame and humililation–not taking the child’s actions seriously. But our parents didn’t have a clue about such subtleties. Anyway, I could go on (obviously). This is a really thought provoking piece.

  7. One more thing: This piece made me think of the attachment of children to their nannies in the South that is so beautifully elucidated in “The Help” (both the book and the film.)

  8. Pingback: Who’s the Rebel? | Pieces of Peace

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