Tessie’s sister Laura lies in a coma after a vicious attack. Laura’s boyfriend Joe is missing, presumed guilty. People think Tessie is safe to talk to, because she doesn’t talk, so they tell her the secrets they’ve been holding since the attack – and as Tessie pieces them together, she gets closer and closer to finding out what actually happened that night.
All the way through What I Couldn’t Tell You I felt that something was slightly off with the portrayal of Tessie’s selective mutism, but in a way that made it hard to pin down. When I discovered that the book had been endorsed by SMIRA (Selective Mutism Information & Research Association: an organisation that is very much “about us without us” where selective mutism is concerned, focusing instead on parents and other adults interacting with selectively mute children) it became much clearer to me.
Selective mutism is an anxiety-related condition where someone can speak in certain situations but not in others. The situations in which an individual can or cannot speak may vary depending on a number of factors, which I’ve talked about in a previous review.
Tessie’s selective mutism mostly follows the pattern of speaking at home and not outside it. This is a common pattern in reality, but is often portrayed as being the only form of selective mutism, so I was glad to see that the book subverted that trope, in that through therapy, Tessie has become able to speak in her best friend’s bedroom. She tries to use the same skills to make Laura’s hospital room a place where she can speak. In all three cases, the door has to be “Proper Shut,” which is perfectly believable, as selective mutism creates its own rules on what makes it “safe” enough to speak. It is this creation of rules that makes the condition so diverse.
Bullying is a constant presence in the book and is a major part of Tessie’s life, and is painfully accurate in the way that the bullies both pressure Tessie to talk and mock her inability to do so. In the same way, her boyfriend Billy uses her inability to speak to him as a reason to attack her physically and verbally, and to blame her for the things that shatter their relationship. This accuracy of the external reactions to Tessie’s selective mutism is part of why it was so hard to pin down the sensation that something wasn’t quite right. The author goes into detail about Tessie’s internal reactions as well, and on re-reading, I realised that the internal emphasis is heavier on the anxiety that commonly co-exists with selective mutism and lighter on the mutism itself – except that the two have been conflated into a single label. The most obvious point at which this happens is when Tessie states that she can’t eat or drink in public because people will look at her. While I can empathise with Tessie’s feeling here, and the outward appearance is again accurate, in my experience this is not a symptom of selective mutism, but rather of an accompanying social anxiety.
The problem here is not that the symptoms of anxiety exist, nor that Tessie clearly, to my reading, has both selective mutism and social anxiety – a very common and realistic pairing. The problem is that Tessie specifically says that all the symptoms are because of her selective mutism. To me, conflating the two only serves to jolt me out of the book. It feels as if the author observed what life looked like for people with selective mutism very carefully and recreated that, but neglected to find out what it was like from the inside. Instead, she seems to have taken common (but not quite accurate) analogies such as stage fright as her guide to Tessie’s internal reactions, just as some of SMIRA’s publications do. In the same way, Tessie’s inability to speak is physically painful, in a way that I have never experienced nor encountered with selective mutism. For me, it is this discord between the very realistic outward appearance and the inaccurate or mislabelled internal reaction that creates the feeling of something slightly off.
Another thing that nagged at me is that a couple of times Tessie loses one of her limitations temporarily, at dramatic moments in the narrative, and there is very little reaction to her doing so. She speaks briefly when her sister begins to wake, in front of non-family members, without checking if the door to the room is “proper shut.” Furthermore, in spite of claiming that she only texts people for informational purposes because chatting by text is too much like talking, she gets into at least two text conversations with people she barely knows. By doing this, the book treats her selective mutism more like a plot device to be ignored if it becomes inconvenient, rather than an actual condition that remains present throughout.
Overall, Tessie is a fairly passive protagonist, who remains reactive rather than proactive throughout the book, and the narrative emphasis tends to lean on all the things that she can’t do or can’t say because she has selective mutism. In the climactic scene at the end where the truth is revealed, she is not just mute, but also frozen rigid with fear while most of the book’s speaking characters act and argue and fight with and around her. While this is again a perfectly plausible reaction to events – selective mutism is a freeze reaction on the fight/flight/freeze options for fear, and the fear reaction can easily spread from freezing just the voice to freezing the whole body – it is also representative of Tessie’s role in the rest of the book
All in all, while I enjoyed sections of the book, and the author clearly did a great deal of research to get it as accurate as it is, there were too many points that bothered me for me to comfortably recommend it.