I have always had the gift of language. I spoke early and articulately, and for me, language was like food: each word was onomatopoeic and tasted and smelled, even sustained me as a whole thing of its kind. I digested words, sentences and stories as if my life depended on it. Again, like food, I saw language as a necessary element for survival and a web of interdependencies.
Ironically, I always had difficulties describing what language meant to me as a small child in the midst of this glorious language fabric. The world that words made whole for me was always rent asunder by my attempts to make language a means of connecting with speaking people. Knowing enough to see that I experienced language in a way that was very different from others, language as a phenomenon tore me away and reinforced my social disabilities. The very way I used language led me further from meaningful communication with human beings.
For example, I remember learning the word "hippopotamus." My favorite game was to skip by the kitchen table in my grandparents' house, where some adult would shout out a word and then I would skip down the hall that ran a circular path around the house. "Hippopotamus," I would say, going by my grandparents' bedroom, and the word would become infused with the security of their sleeping, the cedar of the clothes chest against the wall, my grandmother's make up in muted colors. "Hippopotamus," I would say, as I skipped past the bathroom and the word would partake of the smells there and the joyful sound of running water and the warmth of bathing. I would say the word, or any other I was learning in this game, as I passed my bedroom, the stairs leading to the dark, the living room; each room lending the word properties that made them and the word one. To me, it was a completely valid response when someone asked me, "Do you need to go to the bathroom?" to answer "Hippopotamus."
For me, language was blended inextricably to context and memory. This melding represented the most important thing in the world, and everything, from bathrooms to snails, to dogs, had language. If a thing existed, it existed as a living part of language and had a deep understanding of its place in the vibrations of speech, in the vibrations of existence. This whole cloth of speech and living things made my world a magical place.
However, I learned very early that for most people, language was a kind of weapon rather than an amorphous mist of the birth waters of reality. It seemed that for most speaking humans, language could be considered a violent activity, in that it cut up the world, and its use also cut groups of people one from another. A knife was just a knife and bore no relationship to the cutting of language. A chair was just a chair where nothing sat. A breath was just a breath, a singular thing, apart from the heart, apart from the atmosphere, a thing separate from saying.
Unconsciously, I heard people using language to shout division. I heard from my family the unmistakably violent brackets of racial epithets and the kind of simple dichotomies of speech that boil down to "us" and "them." White-black, fat-thin, Christian-heathen, the living and the dead. Further, there was something wrong with anyone who talked too much, but worse, there was something even more wrong with someone, or something, who never spoke at all.
When I spoke to my grandmother about Japanese babies born into Buddhism, she would calmly state that they were all going to go to hell. She would sigh mournfully, another shade of language, accepting the sad fact that they might grow up to be good people but that it would make no difference in the end. The bible said so, she said, just so. I would point out that babies had no means to say out loud, in the fashion accepted as normal, whether they believed in Jesus or not. "Well, he knows their hearts," she would say. "But if their hearts are known and they are good, then why wouldn't they go to heaven? And why couldn't animals go to heaven if God saw their hearts, too?" She never had a spoken answer for those questions. In this way I knew that language was as important to other people as it was to me, but in a dangerous way. The silence between their words was just as full of cutting as the silence between my words was a place of connection.
When I was young I talked to animals in that language of silence. I knew what trees and streams were saying because they told me. I knew what sow bugs and snakes were saying because they molded me. I grew together with them because of the words of living together in a world where everything needed everything else. Sometimes my grandfather would ask me in the garden, "What are the worms saying today," "Fine fine slither dirt push good rotting green," I would answer, smiling. My grandfather, in his love and understanding, never told me how important it was to talk like everyone you were supposed to be like. There was no place for saying that tomato plants said, "Sun warm summer, pushing pushing green, greenred, red." Or that fish said, "Cold float shade shade shade."
In school, people made fun of me, more cutting language, more language as a weapon. What teachers left unsaid was eloquent. I was strange. I was even crazy. Lazy in so many ways, I didn't do the work. All they said, they said, went in one ear and out the other, as if I didn't have the thick words people learned early to keep normal conversation from leaking out.
I still don't know how I just kept passing through grade after grade being so defective, my attempts to compromise so ineffectual. Junk for brains, I flunked and flunked. But they passed me on. Third grade, sixth grade, sophomore. I quit school before I graduated, though, and I remember it was over something simple that someone said to me one morning. I think it's funny that I can't remember what they said that made me walk out and never come back. I think its funny that memory and language and connection were the most important things of all to me even then, but I don't remember what they said that led me to leave them all behind.
After years of living misunderstood as an autistic person, I had gotten to the point where I even quit talking to plants and animals because there was just pain, and pain has a rich language of its own, a language without any silence or opportunity for connection. In the din of the city, homeless, except for the box of shouting in my head, I went to the zoo one day. Many people now know my story — that I found an instant connection with the gorillas there, that they re-taught me the language of wholeness, that they taught me their own language, a different flavor of speaking and knowing, and with their slowness of storytelling they brought me to a new life, a life with a happier ending.
After I had regained my personhood and was encouraged to go back to school, I renewed my efforts to follow the rules that normal people use in language. Maybe it was easier for me to follow certain rules because by then I was in an academic setting and the rules are very specific when it comes to sharing your reality through the use of language. For example, you must always show when and where someone said something before you did. You must show that your ideas are not original, but built on the previous ideas of others; specifically, the ideas of people who have learned to follow the rules and say what still other people said before them. Another example, the necessity of showing your distance from the things you are communicating because if you have strong feelings about it then you aren't being objective. Why people would want to write and talk about things they had no definite opinions on escaped me, but I tried to follow the rules.
I remember trying to write academically about a Bonobo chimpanzee I met during my time as a professor. Kanzi, a captive born man, is still famous for his participation in language studies, using a board with words represented by abstract symbols. I flew down to Decatur, Georgia to visit him at the invitation of his partner, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Sue left us alone to get to know each other for a while. Naturally, I fell into the gorilla language I knew, a language of body, mind, and spirit. Kanzi and I played chase up and down the fence line, both of us on all fours, smiling in a sea of fun and deep breaths.
He stopped suddenly and grabbed his word board off the ground. He pointed to a symbol and then pointed to me and made a hand gesture with his eyebrows raised. It was clear that he was asking me a question. He repeated this series of words and movements over and over, until I said, out loud, "I'm sorry, I can't understand, Kanzi. Let me get Sue and maybe she can help me." At first, she was at a loss. Then after asking him to point to the word again, she realized he was pointing to the word "gorilla" on his board and making the American Sign Language sign for question after pointing to me. It was clear he was asking me if I was a gorilla. What was amazing, though, is that he didn't know American Sign Language: he had seen a video of the gorilla Koko using it and must have not only remembered the signed words, but, not having known other gorillas, assumed that all gorillas understood sign language. If I was a gorilla, he thought, this must be a way of communicating that I would understand. There were so many miracles of language in that one interaction that I didn't know where to start writing about it within the rules: I couldn't build on other peoples' ideas, I couldn't cite previous research, I couldn't capture what had happened in terse and distant language. Even the subject itself was taboo as "anthropomorphism."
Primarily, in those days, I was writing about primates, their language — which was punctuated by long, integrating silences that I understood, rich in concepts of being still in the world and not designed to cut things apart — and I realized that their way of speaking, the language that I listened to and took for granted, once again whole, might as well have been a stone in the bottom of a pond to the other academics I talked to. Always the debate raged about whether gorillas could be sentient, could be intelligent. It always boiled down to the "fact" that they didn't have language. What Kanzi had said to me on that first day and all he said after that as our relationship grew, didn't matter. The "fact" was that "animals" were stupid.
Whenever people would say "fact" in this way, I would feel a catch in my chest and a tear across the language I knew. If you say it carefully, you will hear that fact is a terrible word: the first letter starting out angry, the same letter that starts words like "freak," "fuck" or "forget." The harsh "a" sound that comes next is the sound of terror, of someone falling off a cliff and knowing the end will come and can't be stopped. The "c" and the "t" that finish it might as well just spell cut and be done. The whole word conjured in my mind a gorilla, a person, stabbed in the heart and pushed off a precipice, quickly forgotten.
I encountered this language prejudice when it came to autistic people, too. If you couldn't speak the Lingua Franca of the normal, then you had to be stupid and, therefore, disposable. I remember hearing the story of my friend Tito in India. He was autistic, couldn't speak or understand language like most people, or so people assumed of his silence and told his mother to put him in an institution. Undaunted, she taught him to use a computer keyboard and, with his newfound means of discrete communication with the normal world, showed that he had an IQ of 180. Tito now writes poetry in several languages every day. I wonder how many people can understand its depths, what is said between the words they believe they see.
Tito's is just one of hundreds of stories I have heard about people underestimated in the ways he was. Kanzi is just one example of the non-human beings that have gone to amazing lengths to find common language with our species, which, to them, must seem deaf and blind to rich and healing language. It seems they would do anything for us.
I am not surprised at all by the unfolding realization that animals and people who don't communicate in the normal ways form deep bonds. Normal people often view these relationships with a kind of awe, like the awe they reserve for magic or heaven.
I am overjoyed that so many "service animals" are now working — and speaking — in harmony with people who have no voice, these relationships giving voice to the value of both partners.
As I write this piece, my own service dog is sleeping at my side, pressed against my thigh. She is the second service dog, and like my first, she herself is disabled. She has elbow dysplasia, luxating patellas, and internal problems as well. My first service dog, who chose her for me two weeks before his own death, was himself a tiny poodle rescued from a puppy mill. After eight years in a cage in the dark, he had an enlarged heart, hardening kidneys, lungs seared from his own urine and feces, an infection that ate a hole through his mouth into his skull. He was bald and starving. I can't imagine the hours he spent barking in the dark, barking to no one, unheard in his misery and loneliness. The dog that lies at my side was in a similar situation before I found her. I don't have to imagine her barking to no one, since they cut her vocal cords so they wouldn't have to listen to her bark. She still tries to make sound. She gives up and looks at me with sadness in her eyes.
All of these creatures the normal world imagines silent. The autistic child, the ape in the zoo or in the laboratory, the homeless, the dogs in cages. Thinking their silence means they lack language, lack consciousness, is convenient. We are starting to speak the language of the masses, though, and the time of silence without meaning is drawing to a close. The words of the few, those who say, "They don't suffer like people" or "Their suffering is worth the betterment of humanity," are sounding thin and high pitched, like a bomb as it whistles to earth. A language of masses larger than us — the world as it warms, the ground as it's choked with trash, the animals saying goodbye — is either having the last word or the first. It depends on our conception of language.
The difficulties we have had describing what language means to us in the midst of this possible unfolding dialogue are now being bridged. I hope that autistic people, and others that have been beyond understanding until recently, will be the natural interpreters of an important patois. The world that words are making whole for us will no longer be rent asunder, and our attempts to share our experiences of language in ways that are very different will not cut. It will be a softer fact, corrected, setting things on a wider and more sustainable path. We will be connected with ear and spirit; what people often forget is that listening is the superior half of speaking.