In the fifth grade, Meredith Kelly and I kindled a romance through a series of love letters condensed onto 3 by 5 index cards, which we delivered to one another through appointed emissaries. At recess, she often waited for me to come talk to her, but I never gathered up the courage to do it. I explained to her in my notes that I couldn’t speak to her because of my stutter. Meredith assured me, in handwriting that managed both neatness and warmth, that she thought my stutter was “cute.” I didn’t buy it. I was perfectly content to let our relationship exist in theory, unmarred by the messiness of physical contact and the spoken word. The relationship buckled under the weight of my silence, and Meredith moved on to Ben, a charismatic class clown.
I’d begun stuttering four years earlier, at the age of seven. I don’t remember much from the beginning of my life as a stutterer, except that my speech had suddenly become of great concern to what seemed like a growing number of people. Guidance counselors, speech therapists, and teachers alike flocked to my suddenly choked speech, forming what amounted to a team of advisers: my Stutter Cabinet.
The Cabinet’s self-appointed membership waxed confident about Winston Churchill and James Earl Jones—stuttering’s most notable successes—certain that with hard work and resilience I, too, would “overcome” my stutter. I first tried overcoming it in the office of my school’s speech therapist, where I practiced reading aloud in an elongated, droning manner that sounded something like Forrest Gump on quaaludes but allowed me to get through long passages of Frog and Toad without stuttering. This was technically “fluency,” in the way that riding a bike with training wheels is still technically riding a bike but in the end makes you seem somehow less competent than if you’d just admitted you couldn’t ride a bike. Outside of speech therapy, my therapized voice felt totally ridiculous, and my classmates were quick to assure me that it sounded just as ridiculous as I thought. I was shy even before the stutter, and this catch-22 only nourished my propensity for withdrawal. Between stuttering and languid fluency, the best choice seemed to be silence.
The Cabinet, though, was not so resigned. In order to coax me out of an increasingly comfortable shell, the Cabinet devised a series of “barriers” for me to “break down.” Despite my stuttered protests, I was appointed to read the morning announcements over my school’s PA system, and made to do daily presentations in lieu of regular homework assignments. The Cabinet’s aim, ostensibly, was to run me through the whole miserable process of public speaking enough times that I’d realize that no one cared whether I stuttered or droned, and that there was, consequently, nothing to fear.
But behind the Cabinet’s barriers I found none of the promised solace or nuggets of confidence. The long walk back to class after choking and gasping through the morning announcements felt more like a reverse order, somehow post-execution green mile than a victory lap. Megan Lee could never stop giggling during my class presentations. Other students asked the teacher if they could do presentations instead of homework, too, and accused me of getting “special treatment.”
That I was getting any treatment at all owes in part to the particular timing of my stutter’s onset. For much of the twentieth century, it was widely believed that bringing any attention—especially that which might be perceived as “negative” or “anxious”—to a nascent stutter should be avoided at all costs. This protocol had its roots in American psychologist Wendell Johnson, who in the 1930s theorized that stuttering was a learned behavior, which, paradoxically, could be reinforced by diagnosis and treatment.
Johnson’s “diagnosogenic theory” drew partly from personal experience. A stutterer himself, Johnson believed that he’d spoken just fine until a teacher pointed out to his parents that he occasionally stuttered. The informal diagnosis caused Johnson to become preoccupied with his speech, which in turn led to frustration, and—he thought—more stuttering. He was also influenced by a mysterious phenomenon known as “spontaneous recovery,” by which eighty percent of stutters appeared to disappear organically within two years of onset. His conclusion was that a stutter should be diagnosed and treated only if it lasted longer than two years.
Johnson’s laissez faire protocol dictated much of the course of stuttering treatment throughout the century, but by the late 1980s, speech language pathologists (SLPs) were growing skeptical. Despite widespread adherence to Johnsonian principles, recovery rates remained stagnant, casting doubt as to whether early interventions could actually do any harm. Then, in 1996, researchers at the University of Arizona demonstrated that stutters were too rapid and consistent in their onset for Johnson’s diagnosogenic theory to hold up. By the time I’d begun stuttering in 1997, early interventions were becoming the norm.
SLPs now believe that most stutters (around seventy-five percent, by most estimates) do in fact remit on their own, as Johnson suspected. But there’s no evidence that early interventions can interfere with this process—it either occurs innately, or it doesn’t. Still, there remain those who worry that early interventions can do more harm than good, especially if mismanaged. As one 2005 study grimly concludes: “[Stutterers] are often noticeably removed from their classrooms, trained to use unnatural sounding speech patterns that are often embarrassing to use beyond the clinical setting, and are often destined to underachieve in one or more facets of life due to their fear of stuttering.”
We now know that a persistent stutter cannot be, in the literal sense, “cured.” For the twenty percent of stutters that survive the two-year window for “spontaneous recovery,” the best that treatment can do is to manage the symptoms. “Management,” as a clinical objective, is open to interpretation, since it depends on ambiguously valuable trade-offs rather than a clear cut set of curative procedures—with management, something is always lost.
Sometimes this loss is material. In the nineteenth century, Prussian surgeon Johann Frederick Dieffenbach found he could partially ameliorate stuttering by surgically removing triangular wedges from the backs of his patients’ tongues. Other losses are more intangible. Winston Churchill suffocated his stutter with liters of whiskey. James Earl Jones found he could speak more fluently by speaking in an abnormally deep register. Neither was a particular useful role model for a seven-year old stutterer.
As I got older, I wised up to my stutter’s nuances and developed my own concealment tactics, eventually becoming what the stuttering community now calls a “covert stutterer”— someone who evades their stutter with a series of carefully honed maneuvers, designed to avoid words, tones, and social situations likely to cause a “flare-up.” My own playbook consisted of a mental Rolodex of consonant-led synonyms that I substituted in place of “trouble words,” and a snarky terseness that felt like the most socially acceptable way of avoiding long sentences.
In high school, some girls mistook my terse aloofness for stoicism, and a few began trying to lure me out of my Xbox-centered basement life and into a saucy social milieu that I’d only known from the fringes. But even with my Rolodex, I was never quite comfortable in social situations, since there was always the chance that I’d let my guard down and stutter—or, that I’d say something stupid trying to avoid stuttering. At any rate, I was eager to start mingling with the opposite sex, and so I expanded my playbook, burying my anxiety at the bottom of liquor bottles and cans of chewing tobacco; the latter had the added benefit of contorting my mouth in such a way that I was temporarily rid of my stutter (Greek orator Demosthenes used rocks in a similar manner).
My overindulgence quickly shattered any façade of stoicism. At parties, I was shitfaced, brash, and a liability to whoever’s house we were at. In school, I was quiet and avoidant, preferring to communicate over text with my increasingly disinterested suitors. I was not what they’d hoped for, nor was I the confident kid who they’d seen reclining in his seat, hands behind his head with a pencil in his ear. All of me appeared to be one messy off-key ruse. I soon left my garish suburban high school party scene with pariah status, and returned to the basement.
Poor participation grades and sour relationships with authority figures were made inconsequential by the fact that I’d planned on making it to college mostly on athletic merit. I leveraged a solid SAT score and a decent junior hockey career into a college admission. But it soon became apparent that I wouldn’t make it much further in life if people didn’t like me. My hockey coach, confused by my skittish gaze and terse manner of speech, had made it a point each year to ask all of the graduating seniors exactly what my “deal” was. I worried that Professor M, a literature professor that I admired, thought I was an asshole because of a few snarky replies I’d rattled off out of panic. I didn’t dare even speak in front of my military history professor, Professor P., whose academic achievements and background in military intelligence made the prospect of projecting my sophomoric alter ego nauseating.
It was in Professor M.’s literature class that all this dissonance reached its crescendo, when, after years beneath the surface, my stutter finally beached itself on The Song of Roland. For someone who evades stuttering by circumlocution, reading from a text presents a rather obvious if unavoidable obstacle: a pre-defined train of speech, the words of which cannot be subbed out or hurdled.
That I’d managed to avoid this hazard up to this point is a testament to the habitual diligence with which I hid my stutter. I’d deduced in the first week of class that Professor M. would only call on students to read if they’d not yet participated in the class discussion. So every morning before class, I would carefully scan the assigned pages for participatory ammo. During class, I would wait for a question to which the answer did not begin with a vowel, or require a long explanation, and quickly jettison a response. If asked for clarification, I’d either shrugged or claimed that my answer was self-explanatory, in order to avoid any further dialogue. This was painfully gauche—but it seemed far less gauche than stuttering, so I stuck with it.
But on this one fateful morning, I let my guard down, and mistakenly skimmed the wrong pages. During the class discussion, I waited for Professor M. to ask a more general question—about the history or geography of France—but such a question was never posed, and when the discussion concluded, Professor M. reached for his book, surveyed the classroom, and spoke the seven words I’d long dreaded: “Parker, why don’t you read for us?” My first instinct was to answer honestly: “Because I stutter.” But I couldn’t stomach the awkwardness of revelation, or the crack it might put in my jaded veneer, so I decided instead to go for broke. I cleared my throat, and charged miserably into the translated text, my eyes a few words ahead of my mouth, on patrol for lexical trouble.
I tried to side step the first vowel-led word I came across by replacing “they aren’t” with “they’re not” but Professor M., who always read carefully along, finger on the page, duly snuffed out the effort.
“They a—ah—. Ah Ach-hem, They a—a—ah.”
My precarious fluency abandoned me entirely. My diaphragm expanded and contracted with rapidly multiplying urgency as I tried to heave the words from the bottom of my increasingly oxygen deprived lungs. In my peripheral vision, classmates bit their lips, stared at the floor, fiddled with pencils. I felt my face redden with humiliation. I was a varsity athlete, capable of performing on Friday nights in front of two thousand screaming fans, and yet somehow incapable of reading to a class of twenty. I’d presented and even come to see myself as someone unflappable, and yet here I sat red-faced, choking on my words and fighting back tears. As I came to the end of the passage, I felt no relief, only the familiar dissonant sensation of not making any unified sense.
An increasingly popular idea in the stuttering community is that the best way to manage a stutter is to stop trying to manage it altogether. While stutterers tend to be anxious in general, there is some evidence to suggest that covert stutterers experience higher levels of anxiety than the general stuttering population. In a 1991 study, covert stutterers reported feeling more affected by their speech than did those who stuttered more openly (by some definitions, more “severely”).
To formally accept one’s stutter is to relieve oneself of the psychological burden of “faking it.” But acceptance comes with its own expressive limitations. Not only is stuttered speech extremely distracting to listeners on a neurophysiological level, it also hemorrhages the conviction that gives our words weight. Studies show that stutterers are often perceived as being less stable, confident, witty, and natural. Pop culture seems to concur. In the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny, the well-educated but stammering lawyer Austin Pendleton plays foil to the under-practiced but charismatic Vinny. In the premier episode of Criminal Minds, criminal profiler Agent Gideon speculates (correctly) that the perpetrator of a series of stalk-and-kill murders on an isolated footpath is a stutterer—Gideon’s reasoning being that a stutterer wouldn’t be able to charm people into a car like Bundy.
Some have found an inherent moral value in the expressive limitations of the stutter. In John Updike’s 1988 essay “Getting the Words Out,” he credited his stutter with limiting his engagement in “all that socially approved yet spiritually corrupting public talking that writers of even modest note are asked to do.” In 2011, Nathan Heller wrote in Slate: “In a moment when the words of leadership are routinely distrusted as fleeting or opportunistic, The King’s Speech champions a notion of the public voice as something impervious to glib manipulation. The difficulty of the stutterer’s speech proves its good faith.”
Heller is actually on to something here, but the relationship between “good faith” and credibility is perversely adversarial. Research shows that while stutterers are frequently judged as being “nice,” “patient,” and “trustworthy,” they are often simultaneously perceived as “nervous,” “tense,” “incompetent,” even “unemployable.” The more severe the stutter, the harsher the judgments tend to be.
Such judgments are often the product of a crude associative math: listeners observe the tension in the stutterer’s speech, and conclude that this tension is causing the stutter, not the other way around; studies show that listeners who attribute stuttering to psychological causes tend to view stutterers more negatively.
The attributive risks of stuttering would seem to be a sound rationale for concealment. But here’s the kicker: listeners more familiar with stuttering tend to be less likely to view it as a psychological problem, and are therefore more forgiving in their assessments of stutterers. So when a covert stutterer conceals their lack of fluency to avoid judgment, they’re also forgoing an opportunity to build a potentially corrective familiarity. It’s conflicts like this that, in the course of every day interactions, push and pull just below the surface of the stutterer’s conscious mind.
Over the last one hundred years, there’s been no shortage of theories as to whether such conflicts might actually cause stuttering in the first place. A more popular theory is that of American psychologist Joseph Sheehan, who in the 1950s attributed the origins of stuttering to a kind of neurotic fear of the consequences of one’s own speech. Sheehan thought that stuttering began as a conflict between the impulse to speak and the impulse to remain silent, which in turn branched off into more specific conflicts, like whether or not to say a particular word, or to speak to a certain person. Sheehan believed that stutterers resolved these conflicts by unconsciously choosing the type of speech most representative of their attitudes toward themselves and their audiences.
But attempts to empirically verify theories like Sheehan’s have been broadly fruitless. SLPs now believe that stuttering owes mainly to neurological causes. Personality might be implicated to a lesser degree, but definitively pinpointing its etiological role is difficult, since it’s nearly impossible to tell whether personality is influencing the stutter, or whether the stutter is influencing personality. With each day that passes from a stutter’s onset, the empirical fog grows thicker.
That I emerged from the catastrophic reading in Professor M.’s class with a plan for how to deal with my stutter feels less true than saying that my stutter emerged with a plan for how to deal with me. Whatever its genesis, my depleted willingness to speak up has mostly served me well. Professor P., the military history professor who I’d made a point of not speaking in front of, approached me at the end of the semester to see if I’d be interested in doing an honors project on account of a few eloquent papers I’d written for her. I managed something along the lines of “Thank you, yes, I’ll think about it,” and rushed home to pitch her ideas over email. A year later, Professor P. wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation for my graduate school applications, the lone caveat to which was, “Oral work is not Parker’s forte.” I smiled with relief when I read it. It was understated, apt—a caveat I could live with.
But silence hasn’t been a completely faithful servant. Absent the context afforded by weekly papers and emails, silence acts as a blank slate onto which people tend to project their own insecurities, expectations, even paranoia. It can masquerade as apathy, or rudeness—I’m thinking here of the neighbor I walked past a month or so ago, who, apparently expecting something more than a nervous smile and a pittance of eye contact, muttered, “good talk.”
Silence easily passes for sinister, too. I’m thinking here of the time I’d forgotten my keys and was waiting outside the door to my apartment building, and decided to follow an approaching neighbor into the building rather than asking her to let me in. Clearly nervous, she ducked into the mailroom as I headed for the elevator—which is when I remembered that I was expecting a package. I started towards the mailroom, and, just as I’d gotten close enough to see my package hadn’t arrived, she warily darted back to the elevator. I turned around, followed her into the elevator, and pressed my floor without a word. The door was halfway closed when she ran out.
Since these bad impressions aren’t liable to have any impact on my career prospects or broader life goals, I can live with them. Which begs the question why I’d avoid stuttering in such frivolous encounters in the first place. Maybe it’s because it feels better to seem scary than nervous and incompetent. Maybe it’s habit, ingrained long ago by Megan Lee’s giggles. Or maybe I really just never liked talking to strangers to begin with. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s a question best left to the professionals.