Interpreting Silence in Life-History Interviews

It was almost lunchtime when I completed my life-history interview with Manel. I had arrived at 9.30AM and had spent almost three hours chatting to Manel about her childhood, what she knew about courtship practices and marriage rituals in her extended family, and finally about how she got married. Manel was sixty-six years old and a widow when I met her in 2010. She had worked as a school teacher and now lived with her daughter and her family. My interview with Manel was part of my ethnographic research into changing marriage practices in urban middle-class Sri Lanka. I was an indigenous anthropologist attempting to study a social group that I belonged to and a social world that I had inhabited all my life. I say this because as I left Manel’s house I was filled with a sense of pathos—a feeling that stayed with me for many days after the interview. That evening I wrote my first impressions in my field-notebook:

 Manel was such a warm person […] She was so full of life. She told me such interesting stories about her family. Yet she carries a deep sadness in her. She gave me the impression that she was desperately unhappy in her marriage. Her husband seems to have “fallen in love” with her innocence and then crushed the very thing he claimed to have loved. Sounds like he was a real tyrant.

When I finally had the interview transcribed about a month later I read it for evidence of the unhappiness I had sensed. Reading through the transcription while simultaneously listening to the recording I was struck by how little Manel had actually articulated. It was what she did not say that stood out. For two hours Manel had described her courtship and marriage without once talking about how she felt about these events in her life. She constantly referred to her husband’s attraction to her: “He had a very strange relationship towards me […] he couldn’t let me go.”  It was only in the last twenty minutes of our conversation that Manel referred to her marriage as “sad” and that too while talking about advising her daughter: “I was serious about [my daughter’s] marriage because I had a sad marriage so I was very keen that she should be happy in her marriage.” Surely this was not enough evidence? I wondered: How do women talk about the things they cannot talk about? And, how was I so convinced of my intuition?

First let me provide some background to Manel’s marriage. Manel had met her husband at an art exhibition when she was thirteen. He was eighteen and his painting had won the first price. According to Manel, I had smiled it seems, and that smile was captivating. Manel claimed that after that first encounter he had “obsessively” pursued her by writing love-letters and even publishing poems about her in a local magazine. Her family had eventually found out and the relationship became legitimate. Manel told me that there was no overt opposition as he was educated, had recently secured a job at a prestigious state institution, and his family belonged to the same high-caste group as hers. The only condition Manel’s family had placed was that they could not marry until she completed her teacher training.

As I re-read the transcriptions looking for answers to my question, I immediately noticed that Manel never once referred to her husband by name.  A distinguishing feature of couples who had had a “love marriage” rather than an “arranged marriage” was their use of first names to refer to each other—a way of denoting intimacy. Manel, however, did not even use the more formal references like “my husband” or “my daughter’s father” used by couples who had had “arranged marriages.” Later I noticed the same silence practiced by women who referred to their marriages as “unsuccessful.” It was as if they did not deserve to be named.

Manel also alluded many times to her parents’ misgivings about her husband even though they had formally approved the relationship. “My father used to say that they are not open people, whereas my father used to talk to us . . . [silence]”. While talking about her parents’ loving relationship Manel suddenly said, “my father told me those people always try to put the wife in the kitchen but we are not like that.” She did not say anything more. Was Manel trying to express how she was silenced in her marriage and how her ambitions were thwarted?

The most compelling evidence I found in the words Manel attributed to her daughter Udeshika. Manel told me how her husband’s artistic sensibilities meant that he was very particular about the way she was groomed and would often compare her to beautiful women. She told me: I think he would have loved me in his own way, I know that.  Udeshika of course didn’t like that.  She used to ask me ‘did you not realize the kind of person he was when you saw him?’”  She then told me that she had tried to explain to her daughter about love poems he wrote to her. “Udeshika used to say ‘why did you believe that rubbish?’” Manel later told me that Udeshika often asked her, “Why can’t we go and live in a small house? Even if we are sad it will be just you and me.”

That our subjectivities are constituted in language is now academic commonplace. Narrative psychologist Jerome Bruner (1990) theorises that people tell stories to make sense of their lives. But what if we are possessed by a story we cannot tell? The Danish author Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen) writes “all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them” (epigram quoted in Arendt 1956/1998, p.175). What if some sorrows are held in silence?  Sometimes silence is oppressive: it denies a woman the words to name the violence perpetrated against her. At other times silence can be powerful: it can refuse to acknowledge the existence of another who has caused pain. Manel’s silence can be understood as a culturally coherent way of amplifying her narrative: by giving voice to others—her parents and daughter—Manel claims her sorrow as legitimate.

Asha L. Abeyasekera
Faculty of Graduate Studies
University of Colombo
asha.abeyasekera@gmail.com

 Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Arendt, H. (1958/1998).The human condition. 2nd Edition. University of Chicago Press.

Photograph by the author
Laura Ford. ‘Weeping Girls’. Exhibited at Jupiter Artland, West Lothian, Scotland. May 2016