While Louder Than Words is a good representation of selective/progressive mutism, it’s not a book I can recommend wholeheartedly.
Rafi idolises her seventeen-year-old brother, Silas, who is popular, generous, and a borderline genius. Ever protective, Silas always includes her when he’s with his friends, and because she can’t talk, they forget she’s there. This means Rafi gets to hear all sorts of things that younger sisters wouldn’t normally be a part of. Like the time Silas hacks a gaming site to help out his friend Josie, who has been trashed by her ex. This launches the rest of the plot, and when Silas winds up unconscious in hospital as a result, it’s time for Rafi to tell his story. She can’t speak the truth, but she can write it …
Selective mutism is an anxiety-related condition where someone can speak in certain situations but not in others. Progressive mutism is a subset of selective mutism where the number of situations someone can speak in diminishes to the point that they end up not speaking at all for weeks, months, or occasionally even years.
One of the main tropes associated with selective/progressive mutism is that the person is just being rude and choosing not to speak, which Louder Than Words quite rightly emphasises is not the case. The other major selective mutism trope is that all cases consist of small children who are mute at school and chatterboxes at home. While this is the most common (or at least most spotted) variation of selective/progressive mutism, it only touches on the edge of a wide spectrum. The situations in which an individual can or cannot speak may depend on who they are speaking to (eg. some can speak to friends or family, but not to authority figures), where they are when speaking (eg. home, shop, school), how many people they are speaking to (eg. some can speak one on one, but not to larger groups), the subject being talked about (eg. school can’t be talked about even at home), the type of interaction (eg. some can give brief answers to direct questions, but can’t initiate speech or explain at length), or any combination of those factors. Rafi encounters this second trope when her pre-book therapist assumes that Rafi can speak to her family. However, the narrative itself avoids the trope, as Rafi is no longer a small child, and her mutism begins at home rather than at school.
Rafi’s eight-year silence makes it the rarest and most extreme form of progressive mutism, but it does happen, and the explanations given of it between the characters are accurate and well-researched. While it is very much present and a realistic part of Rafi’s everyday life, her progressive mutism doesn’t drive the plot. I identified strongly with Rafi taking to writing as a way of expressing herself, but less so with the speed that she took to texting. On the fight/flight/freeze spectrum of anxiety reactions, my selective mutism comes down very much in “freeze.” My voice freezes, and at its worst, all my communication channels freeze including gesture and writing. Real-time and face-to-face communications suffer the most when this happens, even non-spoken ones like texting. In contrast, Rafi has several conversations where she is texting the person right beside her.
Rafi’s ability to remember when she stopped talking is also clearer than mine, though not necessarily unrealistic. I remember sitting in class aged about 15, trying to remember the last time I’d spoken (I had been selective for years at that point) and finally deciding it must have been between ten days and two weeks ago.
In my experience, most reactions to selective/progressive mutism fall neatly into two categories. Either the person forgets you are there, or they decide you’re just pretending and try to force you to talk to prove you’re a faker. Rafi gets both of these reactions, and the first one is even instrumental in setting up the book’s plot. Rafi hears information because the people talking have forgotten she’s there, and the actions she and her brother take as a result set everything else in motion. Rafi is very much an active protagonist, and her responses, both written/texted and non-verbal, are treated as normal dialogue, which is wonderful.
This is done mostly by page layout, and helped by the fact that Rafi is the main first person narrator, so the reader spends most of the book inside her head. (Silas also has some first-person sections told as unsent emails.) Each of Rafi’s contributions to the conversation is given its own new line/paragraph, just as it would be if she was speaking out loud. They are also treated by Josie and Silas as normal parts of the conversation. Written contributions are indicated by a change in font, texted ones by triangular brackets. Direct actions have no indication except the new line for a new “speaker.” Here’s an example that includes both actions and texting:
‘Is your brother serious about stopping Lloyd?’ Josie asked me as we walked back home from the bus stop.
‘But how? I mean, what can he do?’
<I don’t know, but if he said he’s going to do it then he will.>
And another with a longer action:
I yanked the fridge door open and held up the juice carton, and simultaneously pointed to the coffee jar on the worktop.
‘Oh, juice would be great, thanks.’
Rafi’s re-learning to speak is also handled realistically, and though in the end her first spoken words come with plot-perfect timing (which is not ideal, and one of the few mutism tropes the book does stumble into), I was pleased that those first words were not treated as an instant cure. She still struggles with speech afterwards, as I do.
Louder Than Words also discusses various aspects of love, the differences between crushes and actual love, between deep passion and quieter sustaining kinds of love, and this is where it fell apart for me. Early in the book there is a scene that rings so absolutely true to my own experiences as an aromantic teenager that I wanted to reach into the book and reassure Silas that we exist, we’re real, and he doesn’t need to beat himself up over feeling that way. It doesn’t use the word, but it remains one of the best descriptions of what it feels like to be aromantic that I have ever seen, and I can’t see Silas any other way.
And then I came to this exchange. And after it I put the book down and only picked it up because I was reviewing it.
‘All the books, all the songs,’ [Silas] said after a while in a quiet, flat voice, ‘the films – all about love. Like it’s some amazing be-all and end-all, But what if there are people who just don’t have that capacity, Rafi?’
I didn’t know the answer to that … But I couldn’t believe it of him, If there were people who couldn’t love in the way the poets and songwriters wrote about it, then Silas couldn’t be one of them, could he?
This segment implicitly calls “those people” who feel no attraction wrong, broken, and generally a bad thing to be. Worse, this all ends predictably: Silas suddenly falls hopelessly, madly in love at first sight, and since he’s attracted to a second person by the end of the book, it’s implied he’s now “fixed” or “normal.” Even if the author did not intend to write the character as aromantic, the book plays into all the tropes, and the way the narrative frames his character arc can end up severely alienating and even hurting those who do identify that way.
It is for that reason that I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly despite its deftly handled portrayal of progressive mutism.