The Girl with No Words
Once upon a time, there was a girl with no words.
I read about her in the yellowing pile of papers that my father has handed to me, because my mother seemed to save everything. The typewriter font gave away its age, hinting at the clinical and nature of the study of this girl. The girl with no words.
She is obviously smart, but there is a problem: She can’t speak. Well, not really. She makes squeaks and can mimic, either telling those around her what she wants through actions or pointing. But she has no language; she doesn’t understand.
The girl is taken in for further evaluation. At three years old, her language skills are registered in the 14th percentile. She can barely form sentences.
Page after page, improvements come, but new challenges rise up. She has awkward social skills. She can’t hold a pencil correctly. There are lots of tears, and temper tantrums that forbid outings to the grocery store. Every step is excruciatingly detailed.
I continue to flip through, not recognizing this girl. Even though she has my family, my birthdate, my name.
Yet she can’t be me. The files go on to show imagination-fueled pages with scribbled drawings, trying desperately to tell stories. It shows test scores rising from language in the 14th percentile at three to my eventual 99th percentile at 16.
In between the reports, there are scribbled notes from teachers and therapists. “She is a great storyteller.” “She reads beautifully in front of class.” “She’s so creative.”
Those I recognize: my love of reading, sharing and storytelling run deep. But it all involved language.
And once upon a time, I was the girl with no words, under extensive language therapy with the freemasons of the Scottish Rite Center for Childhood Aphasia in Los Angeles. Before this point, I was thought to be either deaf or autistic, even almost committed to a psychiatric ward for children. It was the Scottish Rite who reassured my mother in her tears after seeing me throw a tantrum during my first evaluation, “Don’t worry, we see this behavior all the time in children with language problems.”
Half of my therapy was onsite, and the other half was with my mother. She would feed me an M&M every time I got a word — until I got too many words. Then she switched to using wind-up toys as a reward; a visual treat in lieu of a sugary one.
It switched over as I started school. After trying my hand at a normal kindergarten, I was sent to a special school and pulled out of classes for language exercises. We drove long distances for even more training with additional specialists.
Hours and hours were spent on me, without me realizing the consequences of people focusing too much on one individual. Relationships were strained, fights grew stronger, rifts were made that could never be repaired. All these sacrifices made for the girl with no words.
After being seen by a doctor at 10 years old to participate in a UCLA study for ADHD, he was worried when my scans came back with a giant white spot on the brain; something he feared was a tumor. After it came back negative, he asked my mother, “Was there anything unusual about her development?”
“Now that you mention it…” she replied.
The doctor then realized an unusual truth: I was born with no language center in my brain. Rather, years of speech therapy helped develop artificial pathways to make sure that I could learn; as opposed to having a left-brain language center like most people, mine developed on both the right and left sides.
He also told my mother that, as a result, I probably lack a lot of the memories of that time. Language is tied to memory, which makes sense as someone who didn’t always have it. My childhood exists on almost a foreign plane that I can barely recall. Little details come up here and there, of white lace dresses and little porcelain circus animals, but there are very few moments I can recall with certainty.
At age 12, my junior high determined that my language abilities had caught up to my peers, and I was done with therapy. But the resentment had built between my mother and me; a part of me wonders if it’s because she thought I should be more grateful for the sacrifices she made for my speech therapy which I couldn’t remember.
Then, at 13, something strange happened. The girl with no words became a writer.
A teacher singled her out. Her name was Mrs. Meir. She called my mother in the year that was my darkest. I had been inappropriately touched in the hallways of my school. When I told the administration, they didn’t believe me. Eventually I threatened to kill myself at a Jewish weekend retreat. I felt so invisible.
Yet she found me in the darkness.
“Your daughter is getting a C in my English class,” she said. “Your daughter is too good of a writer to be getting a C in my English class.” In those days, I never heard that I was good at anything.
I may have been the girl with no words, but now I was determined to get them.
It led to hours and hours and hours of words on pages, writing in cursive or typing away on a keyboard. Projects and projects piled up, from personal essays and short stories to full-fledged attempts at novels. Poetry-filled notebooks, two-act plays, screenplays, television pilots and experimentations with different writing styles filled up my computer memory; even my Facebook statuses were an excuse to express. From the back of my boring history classes into college and beyond, I never stopped.
Although at times I struggled, particularly when I was hyper-criticized to the point where I could barely move, I would always find a way to put those mental crayons to chaos on a page. If there was one thing I was taught as the girl with no words, it was there was always another way.
Eventually I became an editor, coaching other writers. That has meant correcting my father’s grammar and spelling when he asks, helping my friends write emails and even developing a freelancing career. Suddenly, the girl with no words grew up to be the woman with all of them.
Last August, I participated in the Landmark Advanced Course, almost three months after my mother had died and one year from my seminar. The original Landmark Seminar helped reconcile the two of us before she died; now, in grief, I returned.
We sat in the room with the chalkboards as our instructor drew on them the basic facets of communication — the 101 concepts of sender and receiver, of how we give a message versus how it is caught by the other person.
“Everything in the world is shaped by language,” he said. And I realized in that moment, it shaped me. It was me.
And as we are allowed to do in the seminars, I went to the microphone to speak, and I told them this story: of once upon a time, I was the girl with no words, who couldn’t talk, couldn’t understand, could barely communicate and wasn’t able to make friends. The girl with no words, who became the woman who used words for her art.
“I’m a G-d damn miracle!” I blurted out.
There were cheers after that as I sobbed, because still inside me is the girl with no words, who was a lump of a child until she was molded by therapists, doctors and my very own mother. Who sits and reads yellowed papers and can understand how far she’s come in her life, yet knows she will only stop when she’s dead.