Susan Schaller and the Story of a Contemporary Miracle — by Richard WhittakerAre there adults living today who have not learned any language, who cannot even conceive of language? They do exist, although, according to Susan Schaller, there's almost nothing written about them. Perhaps that's because, according to the prevailing views of experts, adults who have not acquired language will never be able to do so. This was not an area to which I'd given a single thought until my unexpected meeting with a stranger one day in a Berkeley restaurant. It's a nice coincidence that the unlikely meeting took place in an unlikely setting, on the one afternoon a week that "A Taste of the Himalayas" is taken over by a group of grassroots philanthropists who serve a four-course meal for the price of $0.00. It's Karma Kitchen, where all customers are treated to a pay-it-forward dining experience. The atmosphere that inevitably seems to develop releases some of the reticence of strangers meeting strangers. People are invited to share tables with people they haven't met before. Besides the radical practice of not charging for the meal, it's another piece of the gentle iconoclasm of the place. Without fail, each week lots of stories are generated about unexpected connections, and my meeting Susan Schaller is one of them.
Susan was seated directly across the table from me. I'm less anxious than I used to be about meeting strangers, but it's still an awkward process. We were both feeling our way along. Independent scholarship came up and how if you don't have a Ph.D. you're up against a lot of prejudice. Then we got into the subject of language and soon, presto! I was hearing an extraordinary story. The more I heard, the more extraordinary it sounded. Turns out Schaller had written a book about it [A Man without Words, University of California Press, 1995]. Her story was so remarkable I asked if she'd agree to an interview. A few weeks later we met at my house. As I was preparing tea, the conversation soon headed into territory I wanted to catch on tape. Wait a minute! With cups in hand we sat down and I fumbled with my old Sony Walkman and got it rolling. We'd started talking about adults without language of any kind. Where would one encounter such a person, I wondered?