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John Francis: Before the Ragged Edge of Silence

March 22, 2011

The Ragged Edge of Silence
John Francis, Ph.D.
National Geographic Press 272 pages

When I met John Francis, I was about three years old and he was in the middle of a 17 year vow of silence. I didn’t know anything about oil spills or meditative practice or not riding in cars. All I knew was that he was playing this tremendous game where he didn’t say a word, and I understood him perfectly. I remember handing him my stuffed leopard toy. He skittered his fingertips in a dappled pattern across his face, then pinched lines in the air next to his cheeks. Spotted cat. Perfect sense.

When my parents or other grownups talked to a silent John, they spoke both sides of the conversation, their own words, and a running commentary translating the way John’s hands shaped in the air, the way his face and body drove the meaning home. He got his points across, engaged in dialogues, even, as he describes in his book, took classes, and taught them, without speaking.  As we kept in touch with his progress across the country, none of his journey seemed strange. Impressive, yes, impossible, no.

Even years after I first understood who John was and why he was walking, the idea of not speaking was still tied to my little kid idea that he was some kind of magician. I remember thinking that John’s actual voice, in the Earth Day radio broadcast sounded strange. I’d expected it maybe, to sound deep and big like a tree, or like the kind of not-sound that words on a page make.

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