Voicelessness: A Personal Account

(Invited talk at Contemporary Spiritual Experience, Brookline, MA, September 2002)

Bemused by her stopping her detailed comments in the middle I mailed it back to her saying how much I valued what she had already done - and wouldn't she just comment on the rest. And she thought I had better things to do than to write it. About ten years ago, soon after my mother was first diagnosed with lymphoma, I drove down to Huntington Long Island where I grew up, and I took her out for dinner - just the two of us. We had spent very little time together since I was a young teen for reasons which will become apparent, and we had never had dinner alone together since I was a child. I was both nervous and confident, knowing that this was the time when a kind of accounting would be revealed about what kind of son I had been. My mother was a bright, educated, strong willed, critical person - intolerant of romanticism or sentimentality. If someone accused her of being tough, they would not be far off the mark. So, our dinner was not going to maudlin, nor was there going to be any gushy revelations. Still, she had not said anything to me about me, good or bad since I was 14 years old. And I rarely asked for her opinion - because it was usually obvious, between the lines. Once I sent her a draft of a short fiction piece that I had written - because she edited a poetry journal on the Island. She carefully annotated half the piece, read the rest, and then said she would stop there, writing a mixed, if somewhat formal review at the end. She finished the task - although I knew she thought she had better things to do than reading my mediocre fiction. But that was a few years back, and now sometime after the waiter removed the soup bowls and after both of us had had half a glass of wine, the time had come for my mother, emboldened by the likelihood of her imminent death, to speak her mind freely about me, her youngest son, for the first time in 25 years. This review, I'm afraid, was not even mixed. "You've been loitering in life," she said with earnestness.

Now children, and even adult, are notoriously poor in distinguishing reality from fiction when it comes to parental evaluations. Depending upon what part of the brain comes into play and also, what time of day - or night - we ponder them, these evaluations can be accurate or not accurate. At 3:00 in the morning, for example, when our reptilian brain is hard at work, parents are always right - especially if they have said something particularly critical the day before. But at 8:00 that evening, I did not panic. I had lived a life motivated, in part, by the need to counter my mother's lack of attention, and the sense that I had little place in her world. And I had generally been successful: honors at Cornell, Boston University PhD program at 21, Massachusetts General Hospital psychology by 23, Harvard Medical post-doc at 24, married and raising three teenagers while still in my twenties, and now another child in my thirties. So I asked her with a smile: what could I do so that she would no longer consider me a loiterer. She answered without hesitation: you should be playing the violin.


I had stopped when I was 14. I remember the day I garnered the courage to tell my mother I would no longer play the violin. She sat in the Danish olive green chair in the living room - the same room where she gave hours of piano lessons, played Mozart and Chopin sonatas, and sang Brahms Lieder. I stood in front of her staring at the floor, avoiding her eyes. She accepted my simple declaration with resignation - but I felt I had seriously hurt her. I then walked off to my room and cried for an hour - knowing full well that I had severed our connection. From that point I knew, unless I resumed my hours worth of scales, etudes, and concerto's, the basic meaning of life beyond passing on one's genes - being valuable to one's mother - was, at best, in question. I guessed she would not look at me in the same way again. And she didn't.

But here we were some 25 years later, continuing the very same living room conversation as if no time had passed. But now, instead of a full, dark head of hair, she wore a kerchief covering her bald pate. And I was suddenly an adult, treating her to dinner for the first and only time in my life.

She said directly it was important that I play again. And I said that I understood her wish, and I would give it some thought.

For four months the thought circled my mind - it came in and out of consciousness on its own accord. When it entered I was not hostile to it, but I could not play solely because my mother wanted me to, especially since it was the only part of me she truly valued. I would not be coerced - if I played, I needed to come to it myself. And I needed to find my own pleasure in it.

And then one day I pulled the violin out of its dusty case. I found an accomplished teacher, and I began practicing an hour a day. When I told my mother, she seemed pleased to hear the news. I would guess she was thrilled, but with my mother, I could never tell for sure. She would ask me, every couple of weeks when I spoke to her, how the practicing was going. I would report honestly: o.k.. I wasn't very accomplished when I had stopped, so the good news was that I hadn't lost much in the way of skill.

A few months after I started playing again my father called to tell me my mother was going to need to have her lungs drained of fluid. Although they tried to stop me, I said I was coming down. I packed an overnight bag, grabbed my violin and Bach's A-minor concerto and drove through a late March snowstorm to Huntington.

When I arrived that evening my mother was, as I suspected, far worse off than my father had let on. I told her I had brought my violin and I would play for her in the morning. The next day I went down to my father's office in the basement to warm up, thinking this was going to be the most important recital I ever played. My hands trembled and I could barely draw the bow across the strings. When it was clear I wasn't going to ever warm up, I went to the bedroom in which she lay, apologized in advance for my sorry effort, and began the concerto. The sounds that came out were pitiful - my hands were shaking so badly, half of the notes were out of tune. Suddenly she stopped me. "Play it like this" she said - and she hummed a few bars with crescendos and decrescendos in an effort to get me to play the piece musically. When I finished, she said nothing more, nor did she ever mention my playing again. I quietly packed up and put the violin away.

That weekend of my mother's death, I asked her many questions about her life. The most important were: Did your mother love you, and how did you know? She answered quickly: yes, my mother loved me, and I knew because she came to my piano recitals. And during that weekend three small things happened that I now hold onto as tightly as I can - because, in my mother's eyes, I fear I barely existed. She said, with genuine and unabashed delight and surprise, that she was so glad I had come. She also said --for the first time since I was ten years old - that I was dear to her. And the afternoon before my father and I drove her to the hospital for the final time, she asked me to look at her last poem, still a work in progress. For an hour we combed through it with equal voice, line by line.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

next: The Voicelessness and Emotional Survival Reading List

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, October 9). Voicelessness: A Personal Account, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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