Out of My Mind is a book about the power of language, and it explores in depth the ability of language to forge mutual understanding and shape personal identity. Melody, although she cannot speak, has a rich inner life constructed through her own internal monologue. Who she sees herself to be is based on her language ability, but other people—who assume that her inability to speak means that she has no language ability—perceive her much differently than she perceives herself. Melody’s journey from nonverbal to communicating through her personal computer radically changes the way she interacts with the world and how she is treated by others. As Melody’s ability to communicate shifts throughout the text, her satisfaction with the wider world grows.
Language represents freedom to Melody. Before she can communicate, her thoughts and imagination allow her to transcend the limitations of her body. Once she finally can communicate Melody is able to better participate in the world. She can have conversations, make jokes, ask questions, and speak up in class. Initially, Melody has a Plexiglas tray attached to her wheelchair, which allows her to “say” a few basic words. She describes being trapped by this limited vocabulary as living “in a cage with no door and no key. And I have no way to tell someone how to get me out.” The book is framed by the same passage repeated twice, in which Melody praises the power of words. Although she cannot actually speak, words give her a sense of agency because of their potential for self-expression. Since she cannot speak, words become even more precious: she observes, “Everybody uses words to express themselves. Except me. And I bet most people don’t realize the real power of words. But I do.”
Public perception of Melody is entirely based on her ability to communicate her thoughts and emotions. Her Medi-Talker, the personal computer that speaks for her, allows Melody to better connect with her parents and classmates, although it does not allow her to fit in completely. After receiving the Medi-Talker (named Elvira), Melody is the center of attention for the first time. She cracks jokes in class, answers questions, and even asks another student to be her friend. Although Melody’s parents understand her to some extent and believe that she understands them, one of the novel’s most moving moments is when Melody first speaks to her parents through Elvira and tells them that she loves them.
Although communication is most often liberating in the novel, when it fails or breaks down, it leads to heartache and tragedy. Even with Elvira, Melody is sometimes unable to make herself understood. As a young child, Melody’s goldfish jumps out of his bowl. Unable to call for her mother, Melody has to watch her fish die. She carries this guilt with her throughout the novel. Similarly, in the novel’s climax, Melody sees her little sister Penny run out behind her mother’s car. Although Melody tries her best to alert her mother, without words her mother doesn’t understand her message, and backs the car into Penny. Melody blames herself for being unable to help her sister, but Mrs. V tries to explain to Melody that she did everything right. Out of My Mind shows that language is a tool whose absence can be an unbearable burden. When Melody is able to communicate she is given a new kind of freedom, and a new ability to socialize. However, when she is unable to communicate, either because Elvira is not available or she is not fast enough to relay her thoughts, Melody is left trapped and frustrated with a mind full of words and a body unable to express them.
Language, Communication, and Identity ThemeTracker
Language, Communication, and Identity Quotes in Out of My Mind
Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes—each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.
Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas. Clever expressions. Jokes. Love songs.
I knew the words and melodies of hundreds of songs—a symphony exploding inside my head with no one to hear it but me. But he never asked me about music.
I knew all the colors and shapes and animals that children my age were supposed to know, plus lots more. In my head I could count to one thousand—forward and backward. I could identity hundreds of words on sight. But all that was stuck inside.
Dr. Hugely, even though he had been to college for like, a million years, would never be smart enough to see inside of me.
There’s an alphabet strip at the top, so I can spell out words, and a row of numbers under that, so I can count or say how many or talk about time. But for the majority of my life, I’ve had the communication tools of a little kid on my board. It’s no wonder everybody thinks I’m retarded. I hate that word, by the way. Retarded.
I like all the kids in room H-5, and I understand their situations better than anybody, but there’s nobody else like me. It’s like I live in a cage with no door and no key. And I have no way to tell someone how to get me out.
Ollie spent all day long swimming around that small bowl, ducking through the fake log, and then swimming around again. He always swam in the same direction. The only time he’d change his course was when Mom dropped a few grains of fish food into his bowl each morning and evening. I’d watch him gobble the food, then poop it out, then swim around and around once again. I felt sorry for him.
At least I got to go outside and to the store and to school. Ollie just swam in a circle all day. I wondered if fish ever slept. But any time I woke up in the middle of the night, Ollie was still swimming, his little mouth opening and closing like he was trying to say something.
I can’t believe Dad is making a video of me saying my first words. It’s almost like when he filmed Penny’s first words—well, not really.
I type very carefully and push the button to make the machine speak.
“Hi, Dad. Hi, Mom. I am so happy.”
Mom gets all teary-eyed, and her nose gets red. She is looking at me all soft and gooey.
When I think about it, I realize I have never, ever said any words directly to my parents. So I push a couple of buttons, and the machine speaks the words I’ve never been able to say.
“I love you.”
“I’m not trying to be mean—honest—but it just never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head.”
A couple of other kids nod slightly.
Miss Gordon doesn’t raise her voice. Instead, she responds thoughtfully: “You’ve always been able to say whatever came to your mind, Claire. All of you. But Melody has been forced to be silent. She probably has mountains of stuff to say.”
I can answer questions in class lots better with Elvira to help me. For the first time, instead of “pretend” grades that teachers would give me because they weren’t quite sure if I knew the answer or not, I get real grades recorded in the teachers’ grade book that are based on actual answers I’ve given. Printed out and everything!
But at recess I still sit alone. It’s been too cold to go outside, so we sit in the far corner of the overheated cafeteria until it’s time to go back to class. None of the girls gossip with me about some silly thing a boy has said. Nobody promises to call me after school. Nobody asks me to come to a birthday party or a sleepover. Not even Rose.
Sure, she’ll stop and chat for a minute or two, but as soon as Janice or Paula calls her to come and look at a picture on a cell phone, Rose will say, “I’ll be right back!” then skip away as if she’s glad she has a reason to cut out on me.
Catherine jumped out of her chair and stormed over to where Claire and Molly were sitting, her new black leather boots clicking sharply on the tiled classroom floor. “I did not help her! Did it ever occur to you that she might have some smarts of her own?”
“She can’t even sit up by herself!” Claire replied, her voice petulant.
“What your body looks like has nothing to do with how well your brain works! You ought to know that by looking in a mirror!”
I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was part of the team. Okay. Truth. There was the team, and there was me, and we were in the same room. But we weren’t quite a team. They appreciated the fact that I usually got the answers right, but…
When Mr. Dimming gave us multiple-choice questions to answer, I had to think for only a moment, then hit the correct letter on my machine. But lots of the preparation involved fast-and-furious, back-and-forth discussions, and I had trouble adding anything to what was being said—most of the time.