Stuck in Mute: How Do You Cope?

Why do words escape some of us most of the time?

Posted Jul 18, 2015

All of us have had the experience of being caught wordless by a painful remark or a difficult situation. We all know how obliterating that silence is to our sense of self. During that silence, it’s as if we’ve lost not only our identity, but even our being. Experiences like this are unsettling and, fortunately, most of us experience them only occasionally. Some of us, however, experience them frequently for prolonged periods. This psychological disorder is called selective mutism. It begins in childhood and, without proper treatment, it persists. In severe cases, victims have to type their thoughts. Because they can speak with some people, children with this disorder are often diagnosed, paradoxically, as being simply shy or recalcitrant  Selective mutism  is caused primarily by social anxiety. The disorder needs more attention in the psychological community. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that Shane Meuwissen  has chosen to make a film, "Stuck in Mute," about this disorder.  I was able  to ask the director and the actor Katie Kleiger  some questions about the film.
    1) Shane, how did you come up with selective mutism as a topic for a film?
        I started out thinking about the pain we go through when we’re not part of the group, when we are isolated from other people.  My thoughts went to a person who was scared to talk to others.  As I began to explore this idea, I came across selective mutism.  I was surprised that I had never heard of it.  And I immediately knew that I needed to create a character with selective mutism and explore this topic.
    2) The title, “Stuck in Mute,”  helps us relate immediately to the angst of selective mutism by metaphorically placing us in the same silence that its victims experience. How will you continue that transference of emotions to the viewers during the film?
        Our goal is to use the camera and an intimacy with our actors to help people experience the isolation our characters experience.  I want to make the audience feel trapped. I want them to feel that same inability to speak that the characters with selective mutism are going through.    
      3) What do you hope to accomplish with this film?
        I want people to walk out of this film with a new understanding of selective mutism.  I believe that’s what film can do, give us a glimpse into a world that we know nothing about and give us a feeling of what living in that world feels like. 
      4) Katie, what drew you to this role? 
        I was immediately drawn to Robin because of her story. Although she does not speak, Shane has written the character in such a way that you want to learn more about her—you want to know where she comes from, who she loves, who she hates, what she looks forward to.  I see her as extremely independent and intelligent, as well as creative and caring. She is an observer, and I think there is a lot to be learned from people who take in the world the way Robin does.
     5) How are you preparing for this role?
        Conversations with the director and with therapists and my own research on selective mutism have all helped me prepare for this role. For the past month, I have being slowly forming a three-dimensional character with a history and a future; and I am excited about embodying her.
    6) What are you learning from this role?
        Most importantly, I am learning about selective mutism. I remember being surprised when I learned that selective mutism is most commonly not caused by trauma, but is instead an anxiety disorder. It is most common in children, and can sometimes dissolve as one grows older, so it is telling that Robin still suffers from this disorder as a young adult. The other thing that struck me was the actual physical block that one feels when trying to speak. Selective mutism can manifest itself as a real feeling in the throat, as opposed to just an unwillingness to speak. 
    7) What do you hope the audience will take away after watching this film?
        First and foremost, I hope the audience will learn about a disorder that is not widely known. This film will spread awareness to selective mutism, and I think that is very important. Secondly, and hopefully not overshadowed by the first, I hope the audience will be moved by a beautiful story. This is not just an educational video. Shane has not created a two-dimensional story in the hopes of teaching people about selective mutism. Instead, he has created an incredibly compelling yet simple story about loneliness, friendship, hardship, and overcoming that hardship. All of those things are universal, and I cannot wait until audiences can experience this film and relate to it in their own ways.
        Shane Meuwissen, the director, shows total empathy for victims of selective mutism. Empathy  allows us to feel what the other feels and is a critical element for understanding another. His concept of transferring the emotions of the suffering through the title and the filming will allow the audience to have both an increased emotional as well as intellectual understanding of selective mutism. His title for the film illustrates this ability. Katie Kleiger reveals a great deal of respect for her character, which is essential for portraying illness in a way the audience can empathize with the character. Ms. Kleiger goes even further with her concept, however, indicating that we can learn important lessons from the way her character sees the world. She is able to take a negative and find something positive in it, which provides inspiration and hope. Empathy, respect, understanding, hope, and inspiration—everything we need and so often lack in dealing not only with disabilities but also the world in general.