In her own words...the lure of not speaking - or "mutism" in the wake of trauma. Many people know that Maya Angelou did not speak after she was raped...She held the belief that her voice killed a man, when her rapist was killed after the trial in which she named him. But most people don't know about what happened in those 5 years of silence between ages 7 - 13.
"All those years ago I’d been a mute, and my mother and my brother knew that in times of strife and extreme stress, I was likely to retreat to mutism. Mutism is so addictive. And I don’t think its powers ever go away. It’s as if it’s just behind my view, just behind my right shoulder or my left shoulder. If I move quickly, it moves, so I can’t see it. But it’s always there saying, “You can always come back to me. You have nothing to do—just stop talking.” So, when I’ve been in stress, my mother or my brother, or both sometimes, would come wherever I was, New York, California, anywhere, and say, “Hello, hello, talk to me. Come on, let’s go. We’ll have a game of Scrabble or pinochle and let’s talk. Tell me a story.” Because they were astute enough to recognize the power of mutism, I finally was astute enough to recognize the power of their love.
"While mute, I memorized poetry. I would test myself, memorizing a conversation that went by when I wasn’t in it. I memorized 60 Shakespearean sonnets. And some of the things I memorized, I’d never heard them spoken, so I memorized them according to the cadence that I heard in my head. I loved Edgar Allan Poe and I memorized everything I could find. And I loved Paul Laurence Dunbar—still do—so I would memorize 75 poems. It was like putting a CD on. If I wanted to, I’d just run through my memory and think, that’s one I want to hear.
"So I believe that my brain reconstructed itself during those years. I believe that the areas in the brain which provide and promote physical speech had nothing to do. I believe that the synapses of the brain, instead of just going from A to B, since B wasn’t receptive, the synapses went from Ato R. You see what I mean? And so, I’ve been able to develop a memory quite unusual, which has allowed me to learn languages, really quite a few. I seem to be able to direct the brain; I can say, do that. I say, remember this, remember that. And it’s caught!"