I’m in the ballroom of a Boston hotel, trying to play it like I deserve to be there, when someone decides that we will go around the room and introduce ourselves. Thud, the dread hits first in my chest. I am a stutterer, and this is my worst-case scenario. I’m the lone PR rep among a hundred New York investment bankers dressed in slick suits competing to take my superhot tech client public. They begin, their effortless, pedigreed voices piping up one at a time. My throat tightens as each person speaks: first name, last name, firm name. Am I seeing stars or is it the jarring yellow of this room? Gold carpet, gold walls, gold words, gold everything except for the white tablecloth underneath my hands. The introductions creep closer, an unstoppable wave. I have no plan, only a desperate hope that my lips will allow the words to pass. When my turn comes, the entire room looks at me, my boss to my left, my client CEO next to her. I open my mouth: nothing comes out. I am twenty-nine years old.
John Updike attributed his stuttering to a “deep doubt” in the “dead center of one’s being.” In his memoir Self-Consciousness, he elaborated, “It happens when I feel myself in a false position.” Updike listed all the situations that made him stutter. When he felt “in the wrong.” When he was with “people of evident refinement or distinction.” In the presence of law enforcement. In the company of men. And last, total heartbreak, what happened to his ability to speak to his children when he divorced their mother and moved away. He’d always been fluent with them before, he wrote, but now, “their cheerful unblaming voices over the phone… summoned into my presence now by appointment and invitation, put a stopper in my throat.”
I’m in the high school science lab, a week before my graduation, the day of the highly anticipated “Krebs Cycle” race. All of us students line up in rows, each assigned to call out one of the eight steps in the biochemical sequence the body uses to convert energy. The fastest row wins. A beloved teacher-coach will time us with her lucky stopwatch. I am in seat three, silently negotiating with the slip of paper holding my assigned phrase, isocitrate dehydrogenase. Specifically, I am begging this vowel, the letter I, to grease my vocal cords and allow me to speak the multisyllabic phrase in front of my peers. My heart is thumping its familiar Edgar Allen Poe thump. Come on, this is fun, I implore myself as classmates bounce merrily with their slips of paper and their easy speech and their spring fever.
That’s when I feel hands on my shoulders.
“Hey,” a voice says. I turn to see the most popular girl in school, a soccer star who happens to be in my row. “You got this,” she says. She wants our team to win. Wants it bad, and she has identified me as her only obstacle. She gives my shoulders a happy shake, “You can do it!” It is the first time she has ever spoken to me. She knows, I realize, my heart falling, falling, falling. Someone told her. All this time—all through high school—I thought I had been hiding my stuttering. I am stunned as the race begins, and when my turn arrives the words, unexplainably, come out. The total body focus required to hold the shame of being discovered appears to have momentarily diverted the block from my throat. Our row wins. I am devastated. I am eighteen years old.
I was eight when I met my first speech therapist. He had a beard like a mountain of coffee grounds and a body like a teddy bear, and he demonstrated how to “stretch” the vowels of my words.
“Helloooo, I’m Daaaaan,” he said.
“I’m Aaaaaaaamy,” I said back.
Stretching in therapy was easy. Nonsense practice sentences didn’t matter when nothing was at stake. Afterward, I couldn’t wait to bolt to gymnastics practice, where my body did what I told it to do. There, I could push hard and get better, leaping, spinning, flip-flopping. This stood in contrast to speaking, where the greater my desire to be heard, the harder my throat fought to silence me.
At home, in the kitchen with my mother, I always blocked up. She would interrupt my contortions. “Streeeeeetch,” she said. Dan had suggested these reminders. He also wanted us to come up with a private signal. We decided that my mom would tug on her ear, like Carol Burnett. But these reminders enraged me. When I was blocked, I couldn’t breathe, let alone stylize my words. Seeing my mother standing there tugging on her ear only reminded me how broken I was.
Making new shapes with my mouth could not cure me, because stuttering does not live in my mouth. It lives in the long, ragged seam between my body and my soul.
Dan didn’t know that place. How could he? He was not a stutterer.
No clear genetic origin has been found for stuttering, and neither have emotional origins like trauma been ruled out. Still there is no cure. Some techniques work for some stutterers, some of the time. A hundred years ago doctors tried cutting out portions of the tongues of stutterers, killing and maiming many, curing none. Online, there are testimonies from people who swear by certain techniques, people who are taking Vitamin B1, people who are gloriously fluent, and people in the midst of a tough recurrence.
The late journalist Francine du Plessix Gray recalls a governess forcing her to stuff her mouth with pebbles and recite Lamartine’s “Le Lac” in French while standing on a seaside overlook. It was an idea from the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes, also a stutterer and advocate of the pebble cure. Recitations are a common prescription. Henry James found relief from stuttering by reciting poetry to friends, recalls Edith Wharton, who witnessed this. Joe Biden swears reciting Yeats in the mirror helped him “overcome” his affliction, a verb with which some of us have a tiny quibble. (Ask any stutterer: we can tell you exactly when he blocks up and when he switches out a word. We feel it in our big sad hearts. Those who criticized him for ending his debate answers before the time was up? They had it all wrong. He didn’t cede the time because he had nothing more to say, he felt a block coming so he wrapped it up quickly to remain fluent.)
“The anxiety caused by stuttering has prevailed for millennia,” Gray wrote in The New York Review of Books. “A prayer to find release from it, dated several centuries before the Christian era, has been found on a cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia.” Moses spoke of the heaviness of his tongue. Aristotle drank to ease his blocks. At the behest of his therapist of The King’s Speech fame, King George VI of England held vowel sounds for fifteen seconds each before an open window. Stuttering has been attributed to everything from the afflicted’s low intelligence to their tongues (too cold, too hard), to their family of origin. One expert theorized “upwardly mobile perfectionist” parents seeking to “influence their children’s prosperity… often interrupting them,” were to blame.
My favorite scene comes early in the film, when the future King George is asked to read a passage with headphones on. With the overture of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro blasting so loud into his ears he can’t hear himself think, he is perfectly fluent. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly how it works. Research is slowly bearing out what all stutterers know intuitively. A recent study at New York University found that the perception of being heard by a listener determines whether a person will get stuck: because stutterers don’t block up when we’re alone, talking to ourselves or our pets. The authors of the study determined there exists a social component to stuttering. During his lifetime, King George’s beloved therapist, Lionel Logue, was dismissed as a quack for his irreverent methods, which were rooted in deep human connection, confronting fear, and a wicked sense of humor.
Most of us are only three or four years old when we begin stuttering. We don’t know to be bothered by it. But soon, we notice the people around us. How they look away, shift their weight, try to fill in words. The more uncomfortable the people in my life looked, the more I fought the force that had started like a thin pink rubber band pulling at my mouth. The more I fought the bigger it got, locking my jaw, lifting the base of my tongue and spreading down my throat. The effort to speak could leave me panting, face red and contorted. That’s when it really started to hurt: when I learned how ugly I was.
The worst part of stuttering is not the block, it’s the shame.
Friends offered hope. “You could grow out of it, some people do.”
But this only made me feel in need of fixing. Throughout my childhood, nobody ever said the one thing I needed to hear most: It’s OK. No one ever said go ahead and stutter, it doesn’t bother me at all. How it could have freed me, had one adult suggested I accept my voice. What would have been the cost, really, to give one shy, serious little girl—who already was making herself so small she barely took up any space at all—permission to be who she was?
When I was nine, my mother drove me to New York City to meet the rock star of stuttering, the author of a book called Stuttering Solved. I can see why the book appealed, promising “a revolutionary new treatment with an 89 percent success rate.” At home, we had the paperback with an incredibly loud cover that repeated the phrase, “Stu-, Stu-, Stu-, Stu-, Stu-, Stu-,” down the length of the page, mocking the act of stuttering itself, before giving way to the title at the bottom: Stuttering Solved. The book was written in the 1970s by a researcher with a PhD and, I imagine, the best of intentions. He also hosted seminars to teach his technique, and I had been signed up to attend. It was very expensive, my parents told me, but worth it. At this point, we were hoping for a cure. For what else were two perfectly fluent parents supposed to do with a daughter whose words got stuck in her throat?
On the big day, my mom delivered me to a gray, windowless conference room at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, where I joined twelve or so other stutterers around the outer edge of a square formed by four long tables pushed together. The first thing the stuttering expert asked us to do was what I dreaded most: to go around the table and introduce ourselves. Name, occupation, where you live, a hobby. At the age of nine, this suggestion already triggered the fight-or-flight response in my body, a reaction so deeply engrained that even now, although I am mostly called to introduce myself only in groups where I feel safe, my body still reacts. The dread begins small, then grows in a slow creep. As the next person goes, and then the next, and my turn ticks closer, my heart thumps and the familiar fist grips my throat.
I was too young to think to ask: why would a doctor ask a group of stutterers, who showed up here in all their vulnerability, to begin by humiliating themselves?
We all looked at our hands in despair, then began the slow, miserable loop around the table. Stutterers don’t talk about stuttering while it’s happening, we are too busy fighting to get the words out. I was the youngest in a group of mostly adults, but there was a boy too. His name was Toby, and he was a few years older than I was. He wore a rust-colored V-neck, a comb sticking out of his back pocket, and his hair was feathered over his ears. I may have only been nine, but I was old enough to know a cool teenage boy when I saw one.
What I remember most about that day is this cute boy being stripped of his mask while we all watched. He struggled to say his name and every subsequent word. His lips twisted, syllables repeating, spewing tiny drops of spit. Before this, I had never met another stutterer. His was even worse than mine, and I felt his humiliation, an adrenaline surge, my heart pounding. With my eyes, I willed him to look at me—I know you, I wanted to say—but he refused. It was exactly what I would have done.
There are two kinds of stutterers. Toby was a repeater, and unfortunately, his name began with a hard consonant. Every time he said it was an opportunity for humiliation. T-T-T-T-Toby. I block up on my name too; it’s common among stutterers. It has something to do with being seen. Every new introduction carries the fear of exposure. Also, you can’t substitute another word for your name, and word substitution is one of our best tricks. We can feel blocks coming, they gather like a warming, starting far away and gaining in strength. We become masterful at sensing them in the distance, managing them by quick-swapping a difficult word with an easier one. If I can’t say “Tchaikovsky” with its hard consonants, I might ask, now who’s that composer who wrote Swan Lake? Even though I know the answer. If I really want the pancakes, but I know I’ll block up on p, I might order waffles instead. I remain fluent, but now I’ve got waffles.
I’m the second type of stutterer. We are so pained by our struggle that we swallow the repetition and fight silently. When I’m blocked, my lips are sealed, trembling from the pressure inside. This creates long, awkward silences. Baby stutterers start out as repeaters. I remember the exact moment I decided not to be a repeater. I was walking to kindergarten with a friend. I heard myself stutter, r-r-r-r. I hated it, got angry and stomped my foot, and the word was released. Recess. But I didn’t like how the word came out. From now on, my small self in pigtails resolved on the sidewalk, I will say the word the first time. We swallow our blocks because we want you to like us, and we can’t handle the look on your face when we stutter. I care more about what you think of me than the point I am trying to make.
By fifth grade, when Mrs. Yamasaki called on me to read aloud in front of the class, I was a practiced swallower. The class went silent as I read, breathless and sputtering, my face growing hot and red while I stopped and started and looked ahead miserably at the endless passage, wondering how long it would be until she decided I’d read enough. My kind teacher never mentioned my stuttering and neither did the other students, but after the second time, Mrs. Yamasaki kept me after class and told me privately she wouldn’t call on me anymore. That’s also common, for stuttering to be unmentionable.
At the seminar, our leader was not a stutterer; he was an academic and a businessman. Only someone trying to market an idea would cook up the concept of a “before” scenario, in which we all stuttered, and an “after,” showing we’d been cured. In between, we spent the day learning his air flow technique. The problem with the before-after scenario was that this man didn’t know about the social pressure that builds when words are stuck, and someone wants information. By the time we repeated our miserable loop at the end of the day, our words of introduction had lost their charge. We stuttered less. He congratulated us and declared the day a success. For years afterward, I followed his single sheet of take-home instructions, sitting in the dark in a hot bath, reading breathy affirmations like “I will speak fluently” by candlelight.
When the workshop was over, Toby’s mother was waiting for him too.
“Did you talk to that boy?” My mom asked in the car on the way home.
“Of course not,” I snapped. Toby and I weren’t anywhere close to accepting ourselves as stutterers. To speak to each other would have been to look in the mirror at our own pain.
There are a lot of alcoholic stutterers; drinking relaxes the knots in our throats. This I discovered as a teenager, the first time someone handed me a red Solo cup at a high school party. I leaned against a wall and marveled at the strange, light feeling in my head, and the looseness in my tongue. For the rest of the night, I blabbered, fluent and free, to anyone who would listen.
Among Winston Churchill scholars, a debate lives on over his speech affectations. One side argues he both lisped and stuttered, while the other, seeking to protect his legacy, insists upon only the lisp. By many accounts, Churchill began his day with a scotch in bed, followed at lunch by champagne, brandy, and a nap. After this, he got down to the evening’s drinking. President Roosevelt was said to require three days to recover from a visit by Churchill.
But I am not a Great Man or an orator or a world leader. I am a very good listener. I am someone who doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time or make anyone feel uncomfortable. What I have been searching for is something more like permission.
At the end of Man’s Search for Meaning, his memoir on surviving Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl describes what he calls “anticipatory anxiety” for which “the fear is mother of the event.” I am out for a walk, listening to the audiobook, when I feel something elemental click into place. Frankl, a psychologist and neurologist, details his technique for “reversing” the anxiety.
A young physician consulted me because of his fear of perspiring. Whenever he expected an outbreak of perspiration, this anticipatory anxiety was enough to precipitate excessive sweating…. I advised the patient, in the event that sweating should recur, to resolve deliberately to show people how much he could sweat. A week later he returned to report that whenever he met anyone who triggered his anticipatory anxiety, he said to himself, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!” The result was that, after suffering from his phobia for four years, he was able, after a single session, to free himself permanently of it within one week. The reader will note that this procedure consists of a reversal of the patient’s attitude, inasmuch as his fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish. By this treatment, the wind is taken out of the sails of the anxiety.
Have you ever noticed how sometimes people who live with grief can recognize each other, no words required? Compassion and humility often are born in our suffering. Here is Frankl, stripped of his humanity in a Nazi death camp, describing the experience of stuttering better than anyone. He knew where sorrow lives.
In college, I reported for my school’s daily newspaper, doing endless interviews, and never experienced a block. My personal list of stuttering situations includes an exception when I’m playing the role of active listener. I never stutter when the conversation is focused squarely on someone else. One day, as a reward for a big investigative scoop, my editor offered me a celebrity interview. Bob Hope was coming to campus to perform, did I want the advance interview?
I prepared my questions, pulled my best reporter buddy into the one office at the paper with a phone and dialed. My old enemy loomed. I started bravely because I never know if the words will pass, and often they do. But feeling unworthy in the face of celebrity (remember Updike’s false position) my throat seized wildly. By question three, I could not squeeze out a word. I handed the phone to my friend and pointed to my notebook. She read the questions into the phone, and together we listened, one ear each at the receiver while I took notes. After it was over, we giggled. We both got to interview Bob Hope, and he never noticed. Yay.
But the truth is, I was sad. What if I had not brought a substitute speaker into the room to enable my avoidance tricks? The idea that I was this close to making a habit of opting out of my best opportunities because I was afraid of stuttering terrified me. That day, I learned what it felt like to give away my agency and my voice. It felt terrible, and I had done it to myself.
The woman known as Pablo Picasso’s muse is famous for the beauty that inspired the artist’s work. These are the well-known facts about her: she catered to Picasso’s every need so he could paint. She was twenty-one when they met, and he was sixty-one. She is the mother of their two children, Claude and Paloma. Less known is that Françoise Gilot lives in New York City, and she is an artist in her own right. Last year one of her paintings sold for $1.3M at Sotheby’s. Recently she told a reporter from The New York Times, “As young women, we were taught to keep silent.… that taking second place is easier than first. You tell yourself that’s all right, but it’s not all right. It is important that we learn to express ourselves, to say what it is that we like, that we want.”
There are so many stories about people who have silenced themselves then decided to stop. “It’s very difficult to become who you are,” Gilot said. “People tell you to be natural. But what is natural, I would like to know?”
“The deaf don’t believe in silence,” writes the poet Ilya Kaminsky. “Silence is the invention of the hearing.”
Another walk, this time at night, in the cold with twinkly lights. “My silences had not protected me,” says the voice in my ears. Again, that remarkable feeling of the earth shifting, of a piece of me sliding into place. When asked to prepare a speech on silence, the poet and activist Audre Lorde tells her daughter she is afraid of the vulnerability that will be necessary. Her daughter responds, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”
Waiting to board a plane one day, inside the jet bridge, I hear something that splits me in half. Louder, sharper than the ordinary hum of voices, a trumpeting, a honk. My eyes search for its origin. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds later, there it is again. I locate the spot, fix my eyes on two men in quiet conversation. A young man, carefully groomed, shirt tucked tight into khakis, speaks earnestly with his neighbor in line, a tall pilot in uniform. At first, nothing stands out about their conversation. From their faces and gestures, I can see it is technical, perhaps involving the aerodynamics of flight. Suddenly, the young man’s head breaks hard to the right, lifts from the neck and emits the loud honk. Then, as if nothing happened, he’s back, and the conversation carries on at its much lower pitch. Inside, I crumple, because what I see is everything he’s trying to be, and the one small thing that cancels it all out. The pattern repeats, the strange, beautiful bird appears and disappears. Neither the young man nor the pilot acknowledges the tic, but my face goes red and hot. It never once occurs to me that the men might not be filled with shame.
Modern research tells us stuttering is distributed evenly among the world’s regions and languages, affecting slightly more than one percent of the population, with an estimated eighty percent of those being male. Though the British take it for granted, Francine du Plessix Gray writes, “seeing it as a mark of good breeding… it is chiefly Great Britain’s upper classes, who have been plagued by the hazing and corporeal misery imposed by the public school system, who stutter.” Indeed, one can watch a two-minute video supercut of every time the actor Hugh Grant stammers in the film, Notting Hill. I had not realized Grant was a childhood stutterer, but my stomach flips in recognition, watching him interrupt one line of dialogue after another with the bumbling “um” he has molded into his own special brand of charm. Um is a greasing word. I use it constantly to disrupt a block. I force myself to watch to the end of the video.
The indignities of stuttering are as old as humanity, but since I live them, they hold no surprises for me. More interesting is a comment from Gray captured in her 2019 obituary. “I write out of a desire for revenge against reality, to destroy forever the stuttering powerless child I once was, to gain the love and attention that silenced child never had, to allay the dissatisfaction I still have with myself, to be something other than what I am.”
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a way to process trauma in therapy. As I watch dots on a screen to get my brain to cross back and forth between hemispheres, my therapist Sarah leads me through a visualization. A childhood memory comes to me.
When I was three, I was sick with croup, and a fever so high I spent a night in the hospital. This much was family lore, but in the memory suddenly I could see it. A nurse settled me into an oxygen tent, a crib with a big square cover of clear plastic that zipped up to close me inside. She showed me a cord with a plastic button to press if I needed her. She pulled the buzzer outside the tent as she zipped closed the plastic. Sealed inside, I could see the problem. The buzzer was outside the tent so even if I wanted to press it I could not. But I was powerless to say anything. I did not have the words.
In the night, I woke alone. Croup is scary because the vocal cords thicken and swell, inhibiting breathing. Congested and upset, I remembered the button, but when I reached for it, my hand was trapped behind the plastic wall. I scratched at it, panicking. Hot and sweaty and crying, my hair stuck to my face, wet with snot and tears, I gasped for air.
How long did this go on? Hours or just minutes? Did I lose consciousness? This was back when parents could only be with their hospitalized children during visiting hours. What’s most distinct about this memory is how sure I am that it happened.
After the EMDR, I called my parents to discuss the memory. I was sure I had told them everything the next morning, when they showed up with a massive stuffed yellow bunny.
“You never told us that,” my dad said.
“Honey, you were too young to say anything like that,” my mom said.
I filed a request for my records from the hospital. They wrote back later to say they couldn’t locate them. But the feeling in my throat when I remember this incident is exactly the same as when I stutter. Was this the moment it began?
Ed Sheeran says he never stuttered until, as a little boy, he had a laser treatment on his face. He was born with a large port-wine stain birthmark, which was removed in stages. One day the doctors forgot to give him anesthetic, and when he left his treatment that day, he was a stutterer. A few years later his dad bought him an Eminem album, and Sheeran became obsessed. He memorized every word. The repetition of rapping Eminem eased his vocal cords.
Bruce Willis recalls acting in plays at his local YMCA, where he discovered that the stage was the only place he did not stutter. “A very wise woman named Eleanor Roosevelt once said, no one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission,” he said, wiping tears from his face while telling this story to an audience of stutterers.
Emily Blunt comes from a long line of stutterers, among them her father, uncle, and grandfather. Her avoidance trick was to do impressions. When she spoke in a voice that was not her own, she didn’t stutter. An observant teacher noticed and suggested she try out for the school play. Blunt thought it was a terrible idea until the teacher suggested she use a different voice. When Blunt did that, she didn’t stutter.
Every time I hear someone talk openly about their stuttering, I feel a soothing blanket of calm press gently on my throat and chest, relaxing me all over.
When I was twenty-two, I met my last speech therapist, the one who changed everything, though it would take me decades to understand what she did for me one hot summer day.
“Hello, I’m Brendan Webster,” she said. Brendan spoke in a distinct, breathy manner, like Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn was a stutterer. Her trademark sexy voice was, in fact, her trick. Breathiness can help with fluency. My new therapist’s eyes sparkled as if we shared a secret. She wore a complicated, many-layered hairstyle streaked with highlights. I trusted her immediately. She was head of the practice, so I would meet with her only twice, she explained, after which she would hand me off to a regular, less glamorous therapist.
Mine was a small woman with scared eyes and a haircut like a black olive, and she and I sat on a sofa in her office for months, volleying mouth sounds back and forth like a tennis match. She was OK, but she did not know about that place where stuttering lives either. She was not a stutterer.
One day I showed up for my appointment, expecting the word tennis routine with my regular therapist, when Brendan surprised me. “You’ll be with me today,” she said in her windy way, then turned and walked outside.
“Where are we going?” I asked, following.
“The Burger Barn.” She pointed down the frontage road, lined by eucalyptus trees, to a small wooden shack. “You’re going to order a lemonade, and you are going to stutter.”
The pavement was hot, and I watched my feet walking. “I won’t stutter,” I said.
Brendan knew that. She knew all about my avoidance strategies. I had told her of the complicated system of word substitution, jokes and tics that allowed me to pretend no one could see me stutter. It worked most of the time. But if much of my world never had heard me stutter, the rumbling under the surface remained constant, and that was what I was there to address.
Brendan stopped walking and turned to face me. “I need you to stutter on purpose.”
“Ha!” I said. No one stuttered on purpose. Stuttering was to be shut down, beaten back, buried, and never, ever exposed. The suggestion that I should stutter intentionally was outrageous. I laughed at her and as I did, I felt the tension drain from my throat. With Brendan, who knew everything about my stuttering, the fist disappeared. Was this how it felt for everyone else? What kind of game was she playing?
Only for her would I do this.
I marched up to the wood-framed Burger Barn window and waited until the guy looked up. “Can I help you?”
Then, for the first time ever, I didn’t swallow my block. I let it rip. “C-c-c-can I have a l-l-l-lemonade p-p-p-please.”
Time slows when you are stuttering. While you are fighting the steel noose, you also have time to reflect. First on how you hate your stuttering and then on how you hate yourself. Next you see it in the person to whom you’re talking. Recognition. Maybe you weren’t ordering a lemonade, but speaking up in class or telling a joke and you thought of something really good, or you were trying to be cute or smart or charming, but you stutter, so your personal score is wiped to zero because you can’t pull off clever or funny or cool while you are stuttering.
Also, while your mouth is contorted and your fists squeeze and your face turns red for lack of air, your eyes work fine, and they look into the eyes of the other person, and you see them, seeing you. Watching my parents watch me stutter was the worst. My dad tried to guess, throwing words at me like a nervous juggler, hoping to guess the right one and end both our pain. His guesses were never correct, though, so I had to interrupt my struggling to say no, then get back to fighting for the word again. One time on the phone I told him about arranging a dinner in San Francisco for my team at work.
“What restaurant?” he asked, pleased, for he knew the city well. This kind of anticipatory pressure tightens the fist. The words “McCormick and Kuleto’s” became impossibly jammed in my mouth. By the time I got them out, our attention had been hijacked to the fact of my horrible block, and then we both felt terrible. I wanted to please him, to be a confident, breezy daughter who could say restaurant names easily. He wanted that for me too.
My mom handled my stuttering by keeping her hands busy. Cooking, wiping the counters, ironing. With her back to me, she didn’t have to see me struggle. She gave me all the time in the world to say whatever it was I had to say. But somehow then what I said didn’t matter anymore. Because someone can’t really see you with their back to you.
Looking into the Burger Barn guy’s face while I repeated p-, p-, p-, I saw the usual gears turning. Surprise. Confusion. Recognition. Then the worst part, pity.
But something new happened after Brendan made me stutter on purpose at the Burger Barn. I survived. It changed me. Not all at once in a grand epiphany. Not, in fact, at all right then. But from time to time, I would consider that day, when Brendan made me stutter on purpose. The knowledge that I did the dreaded thing and didn’t die gradually found its way to that long, ragged seam between my body and soul. Years passed, always with my stuttering rumbling, sometimes better, sometimes worse. Without realizing it, I was developing the kind of awareness that doesn’t arrive until you are an adult and falls into the general category of most people are only thinking about themselves. Maybe my stuttering was a big deal only to me. I began experimenting with allowing tiny repetitions at the beginning of a block, finding that when I didn’t fight so hard, the block seemed more inclined to ease. Like those little basket-woven finger traps. Stick your fingers in from each side, and when you pull the tube gets tighter but when you stop it releases.
I never asked Brendan if she was a stutterer.
Today, people say they’ve never noticed that I stutter. It’s true, the meaty fist around my neck has loosened over time. But stuttering lives inside me all day, every day. Typing these words, I feel the back of my tongue lifting. My mouth is an inactive volcano. You may not see hot lava and ash spewing, but underneath, I am rumbling with activity. Another stutterer would see the occasional pull in the lower corner of my lip, the sudden awkward laugh, the slightly too-long beat in response to a question, the substitutions. I’m on guard constantly, and I see it in others too. Even when we aren’t stuttering, we’re still stutterers.
When I first met my therapist Sarah a few years ago, she pulled out a clear plastic bin of miniature toy plastic people and handed it to me.
“Choose one to be you,” she said.
I sifted around until I found one little girl at the very bottom. She was tiny, half the size of the rest. She wore a pink plastic molded shirt, a plastic helmet of hair that looked like she’d cut her own bangs, and her tiny arms and legs were thick, giving her a small but mighty look.
“This is her,” I said.
Over the months, we talked a lot about my stuttering, then one day Sarah fished my little girl from the bin and set her on the table between us. “Do you think that you stutter,” she asked, “when you’re hustling for your worth?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s it exactly.”
Can I tell you how much I love that little girl?
When I need to remember who I’m trying to be, I open this screenshot I have saved on my desktop. It’s a page from Deborah Levy’s memoir, from the opening chapter entitled, “The Big Silver.” Levy is at a beach resort, watching a young woman in a swimsuit talk to a grey-haired man, who observes the young woman talks a lot. “It was not that easy to convey to him, a man much older than she was, that the world was her world too,” Levy writes. “After all, she came with a whole life and libido of her own. It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character. In this sense, she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with the usual rituals.”
There is a novel for stutterers, when they are ready for it. In Dead Languages, written by David Shields surely as an act of love, a boy tells of his lifelong negotiation with stuttering. The story is structured as one long conversation with a fictional speech therapist Sandra, whose job is to utter truths. Reading it, I felt sure that Shields stutters too. When I finished the book, I emailed to thank him. He responded.
Everything I know I’ve learned from stuttering, and the key is, as you say, to completely own it. “Voluntary stuttering” has helped me a lot in this regard.
I read these words over and over until I memorize them. Maybe he gave me permission to accept myself. Maybe he just waved to me along the path I was already traveling. Maybe I was just sick of hustling.
Recently, I watched a man in his 60s stutter out his order at a restaurant. He was tall, elegant, and he was eating alone. He’d finished his duck entrée. For dessert, he would have the “s-s-souffle.”
When the server left, I did something I’ve never done before.
“Hi,” I said. “I stutter too.”
The man turned to me, a stranger, and said this: “I had a stroke two years ago. My stuttering had been dormant for decades. Since the stroke, I can’t get through a sentence.” It was true, he stuttered about three times per sentence. After the stroke, he and his wife had attended a party, where he could hardly get a word out. He was so upset, he left. Stuttering had installed a permanent hook in his brain. We sat quietly considering this, two strangers who understood each other completely.