The rhetoric of silence in the captivity narratives of four American women



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Historically, women have been silenced and dismissed. Women have been regarded as suspect and, even, harassed if they have stepped beyond societally-prescribed and highly gendered parameters. Furthermore, women have been excluded from rhetorical tradition by varying methods. Whether by being defined against prescribed ideals of femininity, and found wanting, or by being denied of agency by having their work appropriated, silenced, or trivialized, women have faced dismissal repeatedly as they have sought to engage in rhetoric. Often, women struggle to engage in rhetoric as the silence that is forced upon them is that of a most banal and stealthy sort: the interruption of intellectual work as they navigate the domestic world of housewifery and motherhood. Yet women have insisted and persisted in engaging in rhetoric and, often, in public rhetorics. Paralleling Susan Glaspell’s play, Trifles, women’s rhetoric and rhetorical strategies often inhabit topos that are not recognized as rhetorical spaces. Two such rhetorical spaces women often inhabit as they engage in rhetoric is the gendered spaces of conversation and silence. This study investigates the rhetorical decision to engage in silence and the topos of silence’s relationship with embodied trauma, pain, and torture. By closely examining and providing examples in three captivity narratives written by women spanning the American literary landscape (Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Fanny Kelly’s Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians (1856), and Amanda Berry’s and Gina DeJesus’s Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland), the argument is made that women have always engaged in public rhetorical spaces by engaging in traditionally-dismissed rhetorical strategies as deliberately engaging in silence and breaking said silence by navigating within and, when necessary, without societally-constructed and highly gendered parameters. This study also examines the four captives’ rhetorical negotiations with their captors so that they strive to experience as little trauma by the hands of their captors as possible. Additionally, this study utilizes the relocation of the Aristotelian concept of ethos to be that which exists in the “betweens” (Karen Burke LeFevre and Kate Ronald qtd. in Reynolds 333). Thus, rather than locating the ethos of the four captives within the traditional concept of ethos that depended upon gendered authority to engage in public rhetorical spaces, this study locates ethos as the space between the written text and the reader, a space that is permeated by women’s experiences and, thus, their authority. This study concludes with a discussion of how, by examining the four women captives’ rhetorical strategies, this study will add to the growing body of research into silence as rhetoric. This study further provides interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary benefits by revealing multilayered nuances in the rhetoric of silence, particularly when such rhetorical decisions intersect with embodied trauma.



Rhetoric, Silence, Embodied trauma, Torture