A recent Humans of New York photograph captured a young boy whose baby teeth were framed by a wide smile. The caption, attributed to his mum, read, “He probably won’t answer you. He has a speech delay. He talks plenty at home, but strangers have a hard time understanding him. So he’s learned that if he just smiles a lot, people will like him, and they won’t know that he has trouble speaking.”
There was something deeply melancholy about the image. Something that spoke less to his speech challenges and more to the reactions he had seen from the outside world. Somewhere down the line he had seen that mute and smiling elicited better responses than speaking. Silence was both a way of hiding and a way of being accepted.
With that image still crisp in my mind, I sat down to watch the final few episodes of this season’s Orange Is The New Black (if you haven’t seen it and don’t want any spoilers, I recommend you stop reading right now). I hadn’t read anything about the season and it was with some degree of shock that I learned that Norma’s silence throughout the season traces back to a stutter.
In a flashback, we see a wide-eyed teenage Norma walk into a meeting with the comically named Guru Mack. As he asks her to speak and she starts to stutter he comes up to her, presses his finger to her forehead and breathily tells her, “I feel your spirit. You don’t ever have to speak with me.” We watch relief wash over her as he says, “I hear you.”
The truth is, he doesn’t. Because for all of Norma’s emotive expressions, her scribbled notes and her ‘magic’ cult-leader status at Litchfield, she is a blank slate. Her silence allows others to project their own hopes on to her and to take advantage of her apparent meekness. By refusing to speak, others speak for her and she watches as bullying and ignorance take hold.
Much like the young boy in the picture, people are drawn to Norma because of her apparently warm ways and her kindness in listening to them. She offers a form of silent solace. She never has to tell them that she is magical, they make that decision on their own.
We see a very different side of her in the flashback, when her husband, now a washed up cult leader himself, calls her a “silent nothing”. In that instant, her rage takes over and she hurls him over a cliff with a stuttered, “ssssssssson of a b……itch”. It is here that Norma slides into another stuttering stereotype. She is the crazed and frustrated stutterer, the person that everyone underestimates, much like hapless Ken in A Fish Called Wanda.
Beyond the starkly contrasting stereotypes, it is impossible to know who Norma is. Her silence makes her unreadable.
The truth is that speaking is both dangerous and humanizing. It may not always be easy, but it is necessary to take that risk if we can going to make true connections with the world around us.