ONE OF the questions in the Ungame is this: "What do you think you'll be doing in 10 years?" The first night Rhea Zakich played the game she'd just dreamed up with her family, her 10-year-old son picked that card. He said, "Aw heck, I'll be dead." And he fled.
He had not been an easy child. Says Rhea Zakich," . . . didn't clean his room . . . didn't do homework . . . That was in 1970. The Vietnam war had been raging -- and on TV -- since he was born. Later his dad asked him why he thought he'd be dead -- it had been like a knife wound -- and he said: 'Dad, the war. Doesn't every guy get killed when they're 18?'
"No wonder," says his mother today, "this child wasn't motivated to study, didn't like anybody. Why would he want to learn manners or clean his fingernails or brush his teeth? Who cares about cavities? . . ."
She was a woman who never cried. Brought up that way. She was considered one of those together people -- cool, in control, husband, two little boys . . . good wife, good mother, good works, good life . . .
"For 35 years," says Rhea Zakich, "I functioned that way and I thought I had perfected the act."
And then she lost her voice.
"My two sons were 9 and 10," she says, "and the way I thought mothering needed to be done, I was always saying, comb your hair, brush your teeth and tie your shoes and shut the door and quit hitting your brother and don't bounce the ball and do your homework . . . and when the doctor told me I would have to stop talking -- first of all he said for one month -- I could not imagine how my kids would get along without my constant nagging to death, you know. And I was in for some surprise."
She had had six weeks of laryngitis and then underwent surgery to remove growths in her throat.
She discovered two main things. First: "Everything I did that had my meaning at all involved my voice. Without it there was no meaning . . . I had set up a pattern in my family of me being the interrogator. My husband would come home and I'd say 'How's your work? How's your boss? How's his wife? When is your vacation?' And I'd ask the kids, 'How's school? How was the test? What did you do? . . .' And I found out, when I quit questioning, they quit expressing. It was the shock of my life."
Second: "As word got out to my friends that I could no longer speak, they assurred me I couldn't hear. They would wave to me and then walk on past. There I was starved for communication and I'd see a friend and they'd just give me this little wave, and I'd wave back and it sort of fostered this feeling that I was, well, a little bit lame, you know . . . So then they began to shout, very slowly, HOW . . . ARE . . . YOU? Or they'd talk about me to my husband as if I weren't there, you know, a sideward glance at me and then 'Oh, how is she, the poor thing, does she need anything?'" . . .
Rhea Zakich began to fill with rage and frustration. It didn't help that she'd do things that, in retrospect, she realized were consummately dumb. Like the time she went to the bank and handed the teller a note. Of course the teller tripped the switch and then she couldn't explain . . .
Her Ungame is a board game. At first glance it looks like a cross between Monopoly and Candyland. The fact is, it isn't a game at all. It is literally an anti-game, something to get around the word games we all play with our emotions. "It give people permission to feel, what they've been covering up."
The board displays what Zakich calls "the road of life. People are all on the same road," she says, "maybe just different place at different times . . ."
Then there are question cards of several categories: "lighthearted" cards like "Say Something About Policemen" to "deep understanding" cards like "How Do You Feel When Someone Laughs at You?"
Nobody loses the Ungame. It's a device for expression. It's communication, not competition.
At the end of her first month of silence, Rhea Zakich's doctor plunked her into the hospital for surgery. And at the end of her second month, into the hospital again for more sugery. And then a dismissal with the warning that she might never be able to speak again. Just like that.
She had been angry and she had been so depressed that she had holed up in the family den for weeks. But the day of that ominous prognosis, she prowled her house for hours "like a caged animal." She doesn't remember much until she found herself in the living room of her California home. It was, perhaps, 2 a.m. She huddled, lonely and frightened. She felt something happening and she thought she was having a nervous breakdown, although she wasn't sure what one was. She remembers it was like an explosion inside and suddenly an unbearable anguish began to well up.
And she began to weep. Her sobs seemed to well up from her toes. She had never cried before.
The weeks that had been filled with rage and self-pity and a howling loneliness had left her helpless and unwilling to be helped. All these emotions, she felt, were straining for release.
And then at the deepest of miserable depths, she had that rare kind of transcendential experience that in our age is known as the born-again phenomenon, although it was only in retrospect that she explored its religious aspects, and she still is not certain.
But as the anguish wracked her, as she felt literally vomited grief, it seemed as though her life played itself backward, "like a movie." Every harsh word she spoke to her children before her voice went she recalled and grieved over. She couldn't remember when she'd last told them she loved them. She wept over that. A fight with a brother months before, "unfinished business" with her mother . . . and then back further, each image as real as it was when it had happened.
Every humiliation she had ever known in her life she relived that night -- and wailed over as she had never permitted herself to do before.
The time, in high school, when she made herself a prom dress out of expensive material she had persuaded her parents she "just had to have . . . and then I didn't get invited. And I sat there in my prom dress on the prom night having told my parents that I was just waiting . . ." It was better, somehow, to be stood up, "to blame him," than ever to deal with the fact that no none asked her at all.
"Then," she says, "there I was back to a third-grade spelling bee and I saw myself spelling hero 'h-e-o-r' and having all the kids laugh and our team lost . . ." And she wept over that.
Rhea Zakrich, 10 years later, talks almost nonstop, as though she is still trying to make up for the weeks she was mute -- part of the time merely under doctor's orders and part of the time literlly.
Her blue eyes dance or soften as she tells her story. She is intent on being believable, and she is. And she is still struggling to understand the night she cried.
"After some length of time," she says, she must have been exorcised "all the painful things I'd buried for 35 years and never dealt with, and I reached a place where I felt empty. There was nothing there, no fear, no panic, no nothing. 'Well,' I thought. 'I died.' I lay there in this dark place and I wasn't moving and I thought, 'This is it. I'm dead.'
"I know now why I was so lonely in the silence," she says. "Nobody knew the me in there. Nobody knew who lived in this body. They always saw me as this put-together person, this confident commnity leader, and now I simply wasn't around, and it didn't occur to anybody that I was lonely and desperate and rejected because I'd never shared a feeling."
"I knew if I had to adjust to being a mute all my life I could not be a hermit, so I began to go out and I noticed I was hearing things I'd never noticed before. I began to observe that people didn't say what they really wanted to say, that somehow the messages were getting mixed up. I thought I knew the real message now . . . I heard a husband and wife at a PTA meeting and she said to him, 'Why don't we go to that meeting? We never do anything,' and he answered, 'What are you talking about, I went to the store with you last week and we went to your mother's . . .' And I wanted to lean over and top him and shout, 'Listen, that's not what she meant. Can't you see? She's lonely . . .'
It was about then that she invented the Ungame.
Today Rhea Zakich looks together, competent -- all the things she had looked before, but now she can let all the things hang out that she had bottled up for most of her life. And her mission is to get the world to do the same.
Her zeal burns as bright as any 11th-century crusader.
It is spiritual, but it is not theological. She is a Christian, and is a popular guest on such religious programs as PTL and the 700 Club and others, but she is a witness not so much for finding God as for finding emotional well-being. She doesn't actually say that her changed attitude that last month of silence contributed to the healing of her throat, but she teaches courses in "inner healing," at the Crystal Cathedral ("You know," she says, "the big rhinestone in the sky") in Garden Grove, Calif. She will say cheerfully that "one of the biggest turnoffs to me is somebody who comes up to me and tells me how to get to heaven . . . but if a Pentecostal asks me if I thought I was filled with the Holy Spirit, I say,'Well, probably . . .'
The most important rule of the Ungame is this: Nobody talks when IT IS YOUR TURN. It is "Rule Number Seven," but there are reminders of it throughout.
"If you say you feel afraid, there shouldn't be anyone to tell you that you shouldn't feel that way, nobody to put you down, to say, 'Don't be silly . . . show can you be afraid of that? . . .'" says Zakich.
The response of her children to that first handmade, cardboard version of the Ungame and then the response of friends and neighbors prompted her to try to sell it.
The big game firms laughed at her. "They'd say, 'Well, nobody wants to talk about feelings,' and 'Whoever heard of a game where nobody can win? Noncempetitive? It's not the American way.'"
By accident, a version she'd thrown away was rescued by a neighbor's chid, and found its way to a couple who have been manufacturing the Ungame now for some eight years.
By word-of-mouth alone, nearly a million sets have been sold to psychologists, family therapists, marriage counselors, teachers, senior-citizen groups as well as individuals and families. It is used in alcoholic rehabilitation programs for families of alcoholics and in group and family therapies of more than 100 psychiatrists and psychologists.
In fact, there are extra sets of cards available, prepared from questions submitted by psychologists, teen-agers and ministers. There is a Spanish-language version and another version "for married couples only."
zakich, with only a high school diploma, lectures at psychiatric or counseling meetings and workshops as well as at schools and churches, to anyone, in fact, who will listen to her theories on how emotions affect physical well-being and the importance of person-to-person communication.
She devours new material on these subjects, which have only recently become the object of detached scientific research, with an elation akin to jubilation. tFor example, reports that tears have now been shown to help eliminate chemicals that can cause depression draws from her this: "Of course I knew that. Isn't it wonderful?"
Today, Rhea Zakich and her family are closer than ever, she says. Her husband is an aerospace engineer at McDonnell Douglas; Both sons, now 20 and 21, are living at home. Darin, the elder, is a junior at California State; Dean, the son who didn't think he'd live so long, is studying to be a travel agent.
The last month of Zakich's silence was a period in which she forgot about her throat. She was too busy to worry about needing to talk, and when she went back to the doctor, a copy of the Ungame in a grocery bag tucked under her arm, she was unprepared for his surprised "I don't know what you did, but you're all healed. You can talk."
"I just stared," she said. "I was afraid I would blow it. I didn't tell anybody. I was too aware I could go back to being that domineering, manipulating person I had been . . . I really didn't even need to talk that much.
"I realized I didn't need my voice to affect my family."
The Ungame can be as much or as little as its players make it. A cocktail party game, or a heavy therapy session. Says Rhea Zakich: "If you're playing with someone, and not too sure of them, if you draw a card that says, for example, 'Tell About a Time You Were Lonely,' you might talk about a fourth-grade experience where you weren't invited to a birthday party. You could tell the truth, but it might not be something really too threatening. If you learned a little more about the other players, if you were a little more comfortable, you might answer something like:
"Well, I'm lonely all the time . . ."