I was having intimate relationships with two Word Count Feminists (WCFs) and decided to look into WCF’s origins—probably not in the interests of science. Turned out that back in the 1980s researchers in Minneapolis began working on a variant of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) called Constant Counting Disorder (CCD). CCD entails counting every word someone says to you. These researchers, who happened to be women, wanted to know if CCD offered any benefits that might justify relabeling it as a characteristic, not a pathology. Male-dominated funding organizations poo-pooed de-stigmatizing CCD, so the researchers decided to proceed on their own. They began by mastering the practice of counting words themselves and found that counting the words spoken to you facilitates remembering them and also gives you a way to assess, quantitatively, the interests and aims of the person whose words you are reckoning. We call people who talk a lot windy or gabby or motor-mouthed. When do we know for sure these are fair pejoratives? If someone fires off 275 words in a row at you, is that excessive? If you didn’t count that person’s words, how would you draw the line between normalcy and another pathology, Compulsive Talking Disorder (CCT...yep)? Word counting thus raised the question of the “normal” or “right” amount of verbal exchange in a social relationship. Ultimately, their inquiry on this point opened the door to having their agenda hijacked. Words, many think, are potent poisons, stimulants, anesthetics, and noxious elements in developing and maintaining hierarchies of power. As a political scientist, I wasn’t indifferent to all that, although before I met Lucy, with whom I started an affair at a conference in Pittsburg and who first limited me to 750 words, I had no idea how powerful and sensuous and maddening words can be when you are required to listen to someone talk while fashioning your responses almost exclusively by means of facial expressions, physical gestures, and unambiguous actions. I fell hard for Lucy in part because I knew our affair would end if I uttered a 751th word in any 24-hour period. The risk excited me, and I’d fly from Philadelphia to Pittsburg whenever I could to hear myself shut up and surrender my ears to whatever she thought I should hear. But it was true that when I met Samantha, who taught at Penn in Philadelphia like me, and she offered me 1,500 words, I wanted her right away. She was less totalitarian, if you will—some might say less sadistic—or perhaps simply more comfortable in her own skin. Even so, I seldom came close to 1,500 words with her.I’d learned a lot with Lucy, so I tended to tell Samantha only things that were crucially important and of course, I had no time for dishonesty (lying can be an endless drain on the verbal budget). That’s why I told her about Lucy right away, which wasn’t necessary. The moment I introduced myself, she knew that I was a guy who had some experience with WCF. “Lucy obviously has done some good work,” she said. “You listen, you don’t cut me off, you’re not judgmental, you don’t change the subject to football or the stock market or your father. I don’t mind if you kept flying to Pittsburg to see her. The harder she is on you, the less I have to worry you’ll fuck us up.” Actually, Samantha’s indifference to Lucy unsettled me. Now I didn’t have any weekends off, and I began to feel the intimacy of silence changing my entire life. I found that I often talked so I wouldn’t hear what I didn’t want to hear. I talked to avoid seeing things I didn’t want to see. Did that even extend to talking so that I wouldn’t think things I didn’t want to think?Afraid so. Now all those things began to redefine my sense of who I was. And I was unsettled by the knowledge that I often participated in Sunday morning bedroom services for a divinity who wasn’t interested in my prayers and hosannas. I really didn’t think I’d fly to Minneapolis to try to meet the one original researcher I’d been able to locate until I was on the plane, having told Lucy I couldn’t make it to Pittsburg without confessing that I preferred the company of a retired professor, someone who knew something I wanted to know. Agnes Lowry was a tiny woman in a white pleated blouse and a long black skirt. Her silver hair was knotted into a bun about the size of the small black kitten in her lap. And she was fed up with the whole business. “CCD is serious. We wanted to understand it better, and yes, possibly relabel it. We certainly didn’t want to transform it into a social movement.” “You couldn’t get funding, though.” “Exactly, so we taught each other how to count words for free.” She and her colleague, Sylvia Woodcroft, would tape one another talking, try to count the words, and then go to the tape for the accurate count. They also took psychometric anxiety and memory tests to see what word counting did to them as their skills progressed. “It’s very stressful. Eventually, we found graduate student volunteers to help us.” “Girls?” “Yes, boys weren’t interested. Surprise you?” “Nope.” “One thing we wondered about was whether anxiety causes CCD or vice versa. We also faced a larger, theoretical question: Do disorder descriptions worsen the disorders? We called that “infectious heuristics”—diagnostic methodologies that are counterproductive.” Agnes said their work fell apart as medical models of CCD overtook psychological models and pharmaceuticals substantially eased it as a mental tic, but she was fine with having provoked fresh approaches, all except gender-based models, especially Word Count Feminism. “Here’s the truth: men and women talk about the same. What matters most is context, not gender. Men talk more than women in decision-making contexts and women talk more than men in analysis and persuasion contexts. Making men shut up isn’t going to balance social power structures more fairly; it’s going to unbalance them. God knows where that will end, but that’s not what Sylvia and I were up to. Anyway, it’s flattering that you’ve come to see me,” she said, laughing, “even if it does make me anxious.” “How many words have I spoken since we sat down?” “269, pretty good for a man in a 25-minute discussion.” “You do this whether you’re in a personal or impersonal encounter with a man?” “Sure, you never know where things are heading.” I didn’t mind Agnes flirting with me despite our forty years age difference. I liked her and wasn’t afraid to show it.The truth is that after developing relationships with Lucy and Samantha, I stopped concealing myself from women almost entirely. I don’t mean concealing my designs on them—that never fools a woman—I mean concealing my responses to them, “Does word counting help you live your life better regardless of the counter’s gender?” “Absolutely. You’ll reach a number and wonder if someone doesn’t have a firm grasp of what he’s saying and is trying to cover up his ignorance by babbling or someone can’t stand you and doesn’t want you to get a word in edgewise. The numbers don’t tell you everything, but they’re useful. That could be what CCD is all about.” “Does that mean controlling things, maybe leading to Word Count Feminism?” “That’s not science, that’s ideology. I dislike Word Count Feminism, and I bet Sylvia would, too, if she knew about it.” “If she knew about it? I’ve had trouble locating her.” “It wouldn’t do you any good finding her. She’s living at the Abbey of St. Catherine Labouré, the saint of silence, up in Clear Lake.” “How long has she been there?” “Fifteen years.” “Do you see her?” “I don’t drive.” “What if I drove you there for a visit? I’ve got a rental car.” “Mr. Gant, I’ve long since abandoned the practice of dropping everything and rushing into the unknown.” “Are you saying you don’t believe you know Sylvia any longer?” Agnes said that when Sylvia abandoned words altogether, she felt she couldn’t count on her anymore. She laughed at this witticism.“I need just a touch of verbal feedback, about as many words as grains of salt you’d put on your scrambled eggs.” “How many is that?” “Lord, I don’t know. I simply adored the sound of her voice. Would never have gotten into our project if I didn’t.” “You were in love?” “Not romantically, but who knows, things might have worked out better. Besides, what if we were?” “Right, what if you were.” I kept pressing Agnes to let me drive her to Clear Lake and help me see Sylvia, whether that led to an interview or not. At last, she accepted, perhaps enjoying me as much as I was enjoying her. She was tart—lemony with a touch of sugar—and certainly had dropped everything and rushed into the unknown more than once in her life. I told her about Lucy and Samantha. She confessed that if she had known you could get a man to hush, she might have tried it. Her first husband was a great talker, likewise her second, two echo chambers, she said, calling out to themselves more than calling out to her but neither ever finding what he was looking for. “But I knew I could never change them. They both thought I was a smarty-pants professor. Wouldn’t listen to me. When Sylvia and I got interested in WCD, that was it for the first one. He’d look at me like he was afraid I was doing it, which I was, didn’t want me actually listening to him.” “How about the second?” “Oh, he was a sweetheart. Made me laugh all the time, but he went after my students. I couldn’t keep him around the house. He really was so common.” “Common as in?” “Vulgar, you might say, or coarse might be better. Sandpaper you’d start with but not finish. I’d gone on too long in life already not to be thinking about finishing.” Since Agnes strolled down memory lane, I followed suit and told her that maybe I should have held onto a girl I thought I was going to marry when I was struggling to build up my bibliography, perhaps a different kind of word counting disorder, the disorder of needing to reach a high count of papers and books, the academic’s key measure of success.My goal was 1,500 words a day (exactly the quotient Samantha allowed me many years later). That spiked our relationship. Let me finish this paragraph, I would tell her. Just one more page, I would say. Hold on, I’m looking something up in the dictionary. One morning I heard my girlfriend banging suitcases against her legs as she left the apartment. “Because I didn’t talk to her,” I said. “And now I’m involved with two women who don’t want me to talk to them.” “That’s probably why Sylvia left the world behind. She didn’t want to hear it anymore.” “How do you think she’ll react seeing you?” “I just hope she doesn’t shut the door in my face.” Something about the way Agnes said that made realize I was mistaken if I thought she had any intention of mediating an encounter between Sylvia and me. More serious issues were at stake for her. If Sylvia didn’t shut the door in Agnes’s face, what then? Would her vows permit her to speak under these circumstances? Or would they have an intimate encounter based on pure memory? Perhaps.After all, memories frequently don’t involve words.Memories often come in images, they come in scenes, they come in scents, they come in feelings. As I shut up about the girl I’d lost, I began to sense Agnes caught up by those other things after fifteen years of trying to forget how important Sylvia had been to her. She never thought they’d see one another again. Agnes was determined to make the most of this encounter.I knew that as I probably never would have known it had I not been involved with Lucy and Samantha. The Abbey of St. Catherine Labouré is a collection of three prairie-style buildings backed by a hip-roofed barn and fenced off from the roadway by a quarter mile of barbed-wire stretched between rough posts. But the barbed-wire and posts kept little in and little out. There was prairie on both sides, silvery wavering grasses as far as the eye could see. “You sit here,” Agnes commanded me. “All right,” I said, accepting the fact that whatever I might learn would come to me indirectly, through Agnes and Sylvia, not directly. As she approached the center building’s front door, Agnes straightened up and pulled her shoulders back. She was nervous, possibly frightened, but need not have worried. The woman who opened the door turned out to be Sylvia Woodcroft herself. The two of them looked at one another for a brief moment and then Sylvia enveloped Agnes in an embrace and rocked her back and forth. Her lips weren’t moving. With her back to me, I couldn’t see if Agnes’s lips were moving, either. I suspected not. Eventually, Agnes disengaged and gestured toward me in the car. Was she inviting me to get out? Before I could make a move to find out, Sylvia helped Agnes inside and closed the door. It was 4:30 and 20 degrees outside. To conserve fuel, I turned off the engine and sat pondering the cold slipping between my fingers and toes. Every so often I’d start the car again and warm up a little, not daring to get out and knock on the abbey’s front door myself. In Minnesota at that time of year, the afternoon turns from gold to pewter toward sundown, then pewter turns to lead, darkness ultimately spilling across the vast, empty Minnesota sky like brilliant black ink. Lights began appearing in the main abbey building, and I could see shapes moving around inside. Next, five women emerged from the main abbey building, each in a black, hooded cape, one of them very small, Agnes-sized. They walked to the building to the right, the prayer or meditation hall, I assumed. At 5:30 the smallest of the caped figures stepped out of the prayer hall and removed her cape and gave it to another caped figure.Then that small figure crossed the lot toward the car. I got out to help her with the door before returning to the driver’s seat. Agnes didn’t say anything, and I didn’t dare. I knew one word from me would be too many. We kept our silence as we bored back to Minneapolis through the night.