Silence: A book review by Bob Morris

Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives
Jane Brox
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (January 2019)

“The stronger the silence, the more it will be able to withstand the noise and distractions of our world.”

Jane Box’s lively narrative frames its conclusion with the observation just quoted after having examined “a social history of one of the least understood elements of our lives,” silence. She compares and contrasts two social environments, an inmate’s life in a penitentiary, notably Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary near Philadelphia, and a monk’s life in a monastery such as the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The two environments are gently juxtaposed with the societies within which they existed for decades.

As I began to read this book, I also began to think about what the primary purposes of a penitentiary and a monastery are. For example, to what extent should a penitentiary be punitive? How about redemptive? To what extent should a monastery be spiritually fulfilling? How about humiliating? Is silence a defining characteristic of both, for better or worse?

In her review of Silence for The New York Times, Gal Beckerman observes, “These two settings, scrutinized intensely, present silence as many textured. The inmates of Eastern State were condemned to individual cells, with only a small window in the barrel-vaulted ceiling letting in a circle of sky — a design thought to be a vast improvement over the prisons of the day, crowded and disorderly spaces associated with violence. Everything was done to avoid sound. The wheels of the meal carts were covered in leather and guards wore socks over their shoes. This silence, meant to be restorative, became destructive. Although the inmates left little record of their time there, Charles Dickens, who took a tour in 1842, deemed the enforced silence ‘immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.’ Brox also quotes an eloquent inmate of the Soviet gulag, Eugenia Ginzburg, on the sensation of an annihilating quiet: ‘The silence thickened, became tangible and stifling. Depression attacked not only the mind but the whole body. Even my hair seemed to bristle with despair. I would have given anything to have heard just one sound.’”

Frankly, I found the details about life in a penitentiary such as Eastern State almost impossible to absorb and digest.  With regard to the Abbey of Gethsemani, Brox provides far fewer details and her primary focus is on Thomas Merton and his struggles to balance (if that’s the right word) his obligations as a Cistercian monk with the challenges of his celebrity status as author of The Seven Story Mountain, a bestseller when first published in 1948 and still in print.

For prison inmates, institutional silence was so severe that many (most?) of them felt wholly disconnected from the human race. Some transcend their isolation; others are crushed by it. For residents of a monastery, there are other challenges that seem to me more like crucibles than limitations. If they fail the given terms and conditions, they are released, whereas if prison inmates do so, their residence is extended.

No brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the scope and depth of Jane Brox’s exploration of a neglected social history of “one of the least understood elements of our lives.” However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of her and her brilliant achievement. Bravo!




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