By Elissa Wald
My daughter’s trouble began with the word Mommy. One day I noticed that her name for me had become prolonged, so that it sounded like “Ma-ah-my.” And I guess it was wishful thinking, but at first it seemed as if she were nursing the word, drawing it out on purpose, perhaps out of pleasure.
This special rendering of Mommy went on for a few days before another development surfaced. Charlotte began to repeat the first syllable of whatever she had to say: “I-yi-yi want to go outside.” I thought nothing of this either. Every excitable child sounded like that sometimes.
Then the repetitions became more frequent, sprinkled throughout her sentences. Two or three echoes each time, with not much notice on her part. “Are you hearing this?” I asked my husband. “This speech pattern?” He didn’t, and then he did. We consulted What To Expect: The Toddler Years, and right in the section corresponding with her age, there was a paragraph or two about stuttering. It was very common, the book reassured us, for children her age to experience a period of some disfluency. I told myself not to let my family history distort what was going on here. Her repetitions were few and brief; she was in no apparent distress; it was just a little hitch that she would surely outgrow.
And then came the moment during story hour, just before Charlotte’s bedtime. She was asking for one of her Frog and Toad books when I finally understood exactly where we were. “Fr … fr … fr …” she said. “Fr … fr … fr …”
She stared at me as she tried to talk. She was wide-eyed, as if something had her by the throat.
“Fr … fr … fr … fr …”
I held her gaze without flinching, even as I waited to be able to breathe.
Stuttering is a mysterious affliction that even the most informed experts don’t understand. The disorder affects more than three million Americans, about one percent of the population. Long thought to be a manifestation of psychological and emotional issues, it is now recognized as a neurological phenomenon with a genetic component (about two-thirds of people who stutter have at least one other relative with the impediment). Stutterers are usually fluent when they whisper, or sing, or impersonate another voice, or speak in unison with other people. They rarely stutter when they talk to animals or to themselves.
In my mother’s family, stuttering has surfaced in every generation as far back as we can trace, affecting her great-uncle, one of her maternal uncles, her cousin, her son (and my brother) Eric, and now her first grandchild. Because of my brother’s lifelong struggle with his speech—which is still with him at the age of thirty-nine—I grew up as a witness to what stuttering can do to a life. I know about the fear of introducing oneself, ordering in a restaurant, picking up the phone, or being called on in class. I know about the weeks or even months of dread that may be inspired by having to deliver a spoken presentation.
While growing up, Eric was resourceful in the ways that stutterers usually are. When his fourth-grade class put on a pageant portraying the history of Pittsburgh—our hometown—Eric imitated the speaking style of sportscaster Howard Cosell while reciting his part about the Steelers. Whenever we went out to eat, he would avoid attempting a hard “c” by asking for a Pepsi.
“We don’t have Pepsi,” was the usual response. “Is Coke okay?”
He never went so far—as so many stutterers have—as to order something he didn’t like, or to incur major inconveniences, for the sake of word substitution. In his memoir Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words, Marty Jezer describes buying train tickets to Hartsdale rather than his true destination of White Plains, because the letter “w” was his nemesis: “There were no buses or taxis from the Hartsdale train station, but walking four miles home was preferable to stuttering in front of the ticket seller.” Jaik Campbell, a stutterer who does stand-up comedy, once joked that he was performing for the British Stammering Association when a would-be heckler yelled out: “You’re sh … you’re sh … you’re quite good.”
Eric also never went to the lengths that other stutterers have described in order to avoid speaking. “Often I would make myself physically sick so that I wouldn’t have to talk to or be around people,” prominent zoologist and wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz has confessed. “Once I stabbed a pencil through my hand and had to be taken to the hospital so that I wouldn’t have to read in front of the class.”
Still, there was the time Eric was trying to order in a diner, unable to get the words out, when the waitress sighed with impatience and stalked away. There were the phone calls he made, in which he couldn’t respond to someone’s hello and the person who’d answered would hang up, thinking no one was on the line. There were the taunts on the playground: “W-w-what’s wrong w-w-with you? W-w-why can’t you t-t-talk?” There was the time that even a friend—angry after losing to Eric in a basketball game—called him a stuttering monkey.
And there is also one of my worst memories:
My brother and I were with our grandmother at a McDonald’s in Florida. I was eleven and Eric was nine. We had brought our trays to a table when my brother asked me to get him one of the little packets of salt that they kept behind the counter.
“Why can’t you get it yourself?” I asked.
“You go and get it,” my grandmother told me.
“Me?” I said. “He’s the one who wants it. Why do I have to get it for him?”
“You go,” she said again.
I turned to Eric. “Why can’t you get it yourself?”
“Forget it,” he said.
“No, tell me. Why can’t you?”
“Why are you being this way?” my grandmother asked.
“Being what way?”
“Why are you being mean?”
“How am I being mean? If he wants salt, why doesn’t he get it for himself?”
“You know why,” she said.
“No, I don’t.”
“You know he doesn’t want to ask them for it. Because of his speech.”
I looked at my brother in surprise. (I don’t know how to explain, even to myself, the fact that I was startled at that moment. How could I have failed to understand what his reluctance was about?) He was glaring at me and his eyes had filled with tears. He had to take off his glasses to swipe them away. His little paw was grubby and left faint smears of dirt on his face
After my daughter started to stutter, nearly everyone I knew felt compelled to tell me, “Well, it didn’t hold your brother back.” And certainly that’s true. Eric is now married to a lovely and accomplished woman with whom he has a beautiful son. He is respected and successful, a pediatrician and intensive care specialist, and I believe he brings a special integrity and compassion to his work. Though he puts in long hours and is often exhausted, I have never heard him speak to a child without empathy or warmth. No one would have guessed the words that came to him in response to a young patient’s recent remark.
“You talk funny,” the boy told him.
Yeah, well, my brother refrained from saying, that’s not as bad as having Crohn’s disease, you little bastard.
Because of Charlotte’s physical agility, her intrepid nature, and her ready joy, I had assumed a certain social ease would always be hers. That notion has since deserted me, along with certain traits I’d thought inherent to her character. Within days of beginning to stutter, my little chatterbox seemed to go silent. She no longer prattled in the car, no longer supplied the words she knew in familiar books, no longer tried out every new word she heard me say. Suddenly the most commonplace parental request—”Can you say please?”—was laden with danger. (“P-” she began gamely, the last time I tried that. “P-p-p-…”)
What had been the most empowering part of her life—her ever-increasing speech skills—has become something that frustrates and inhibits her. It’s as if her small body has already betrayed her.
Soon after her speech became affected, I picked Charlotte up from preschool and found a bright orange envelope in her file folder. Inside was an invitation to a classmate’s birthday party. Charlotte had been invited to plenty of parties in the past, but never before had it occurred to me to do what I did then, which was to glance through all the other children’s folders—twelve in all. There were only two other orange envelopes among them. And suddenly I found myself in the midst of an anxious little analysis: Okay … it’s not that they invited every kid in the class. Not even close. And we’re not friends with his parents either. So he chose her; he must have. And standing there, I was overcome by a rush of love for this child. A rush of gratitude, even—gratitude to a three-year-old. Of course this was not only pathetic but far from rational: These kids were too young to discern anything amiss in one another’s speech. But somehow it felt like reassurance that Charlotte would continue to be invited, to be included. I went shopping for the birthday boy the very next morning and spent too much on his present.
Most websites devoted to stuttering post a list of famous people who have struggled with the disorder. When Charlotte joined their ranks, I looked these people up and read about how stuttering had affected their lives. A fairly reliable pattern emerged: early on, stuttering was a source of pain, humiliation and inhibition. The famous person was teased, bullied, silenced, estranged. Then an art form or other calling presented itself—usually as an antidote to, or reprieve from, stuttering—and transcendence was achieved. Stuttering is usually cited as the most essential part of this alchemy.
“I was in a play and when I got onstage I stopped stuttering—I couldn’t believe it. I realized that the reason the stutter stopped was because I was acting.” (Bruce Willis)
“The written word is safe for the stutterer. The script is a sanctuary.” (James Earl Jones)
“Animals were the only things I could talk to as a child.” (Alan Rabinowitz)
“I felt so strangulated talking that I did the natural thing, which is to write songs, because I could sing without stammering.” (Carly Simon)
“It’s a funny thing to say, but even if I could, I wouldn’t wish away the darkest days of my stutter. [It] ended up being a godsend for me … the very things it taught me turned out to be invaluable lessons for my life and my career.” (Joe Biden)
“Scatman” John Larkin, a jazz musician and poet who stuttered, referred to his creative shift into scat singing (a vocal art form comprised of random syllables, nonsense words, or no words at all) as a process of “turning my biggest problem into my biggest asset.”
It would seem that as a culture, we are deeply invested in this particular narrative. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that everything happens for a reason; that every problem is an opportunity. Those in whom I confided about Charlotte responded much in the same way.
“Maybe she’s meant to do something really introspective, like writing, and this is the experience that will draw her inward,” one of my closest friends suggested. (If an axe had been handy, I might have split open her skull. Writing? A fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Inward? This is my boisterous little spirit, who loves to make noise.)
“I’ll just say—without trying to downplay the difficulties stuttering will create for her—that our troubles and strengths are usually interlinked,” another wrote in an e-mail. This insistence—that the affliction and the gift are inextricable—is reflected even in songs about stuttering, even in jokes:
Everybody’s sayin’ that the Scatman stutters,
But doesn’t ever stutter when he sings.
But what you don’t know, I’m gonna tell you right now:?That the stutter and the scat is the same thing.? (“Scatman” by John Larkin.)
A man asks his doctor, “C-c-can you c-c-cure my s-s-stutter?” After a thorough examination, the doctor says, “I’ve discovered the problem: your penis is too big. If you’ll consent to have half of it removed, your stutter should disappear.” The desperate man agrees to the surgery, the operation is a success, but a few weeks later the guy’s back in the doctor’s office. “I can talk with no trouble now,” he reports, “but my wife and my mistress have both left me. I want you to reattach what you cut off.” The doctor replies: “F-f-fuck y-y-you.”
A scene from the week that Charlotte started to stutter:
It is the middle of the night, and I’ve been awake for hours. I’m in bed beside my sleeping husband, staring at the ceiling. It has been a terrible day. Charlotte had trouble with almost every word she said. I’m picturing her in some future schoolyard, surrounded by jackals. Tears are sliding down my face and into my ears.
This isn’t the worst thing; I know there are far worse things. But I’m heartsick and afraid. I can’t bear the thought of other kids making fun of her, the idea of her singled out and set apart. I feel as if I can’t draw a deep breath and can’t get warm. I’m trembling beneath every extra blanket in the house.
When people attest to having received a divine message, they usually describe it as happening during moments like this. I’m not a believer, but in the deep of this night I find myself overwhelmed by a desire to pray. The only way I can ease into the endeavor is to think of it as an exercise: If I were a person who prayed, what would I say? For that matter, what kind of God would I seek to address? Not some omnipotent magician who might lift the curse—that’s so far afield for me that prayers of this nature would feel worse than useless. But what about just … some source of otherworldly sustenance … some current of gentleness and love, to be accessed on Charlotte’s behalf? I lie there trying to visualize this presence and the closest I can come are the faces—some living, some dead—of the kindest and best people I’ve ever known. I try to hold their images in my mind, but they blur and fade and burn out. Before long, I’m left with only a sense of their collective essence, but it occurs to me that I’m not cold anymore. And then toward four a.m., a message does in fact present itself, like a lone hold high on a rock wall, and I close around it and cling for all I’m worth.
The whole world is hurting.
It would be hard to explain the comfort I took from this idea. It went beyond misery’s love of company, beyond an inventory of the ways that others have it bad or worse. It was more like a sudden and visceral conviction that stuttering did not truly place Charlotte outside of anything. In his song “Scatman,” John Larkin says, Everybody stutters one way or the other. It’s not an insight that adversity and suffering are inevitable, no matter who you are; this is something we all know. But like the fact that one day you’re going to die, it’s one thing to know it in the abstract, another to wake alone in the middle of night and know it in your bones.
My parents used to tell my brother that everyone had problems and struggles and pain, whether it was apparent or not. This seemed like just another lie that adults not only told but appeared to believe. Well, I recall thinking, maybe a few other kids do, but most don’t.
It occurs to me that I know better now; that in fact, the reverse is true. There might be a few kids who are truly (and temporarily) untroubled, but most aren’t—and undreamed-of grief can lodge beneath a faultless surface.
I think of the seven-year-old son of my former boss: The boy might have been a poster child for Aryan supremacy. Once I overheard his father talking to him on the phone. You’re a pussy, he told the kid. You’ll never do the right thing.
And there’s the situation related by my friend Amy, who has chosen to maintain an open adoption policy for her two grade-school-aged sons, Samuel and Matthew. Samuel’s family of origin is eager for regular involvement in his life, but Matthew’s biological mother refuses contact with him. Matthew is tall and good-looking and plays several sports. His birth mother’s ongoing rejection of him is a deep and secret sorrow, of which his classmates have no clue. In fact, he looks so much like Amy that no one would even guess that he’s adopted.
I remember a classmate of my own, from middle school: a talented actress even then, with a flair for comic roles. I didn’t find out until well into adulthood that her father committed suicide when she was in the third grade. He hanged himself in the basement, and she was the one who found him.
Then there are the children whose parents are divorcing, or fighting every day, or just mired in separate miseries. Kids with parents who are gone, or sick, or just terminally preoccupied. Children of alcoholics and drug addicts, kids who are abused and neglected. Driving around, listening to the country music that dominates the airwaves where I live, I hear songs about orphans, unwashed and unwanted children, dirt-poor and hungry children, cowards of the county, boys named Sue.
The whole world is hurting.
My husband and I spend a lot of time reading the current stuttering literature, which tells us there are things we can do to help Charlotte. We can slow our own speech as much as possible, pause often, take turns talking and refrain from interrupting. We should try to do all this not only in conversation with Charlotte, but even with each other when she is present.
These changes, it must be said, do not come naturally to me. I talk too fast; everyone has always said so. I cut in when other people are speaking. I ramble and rant.
We consult a speech therapist, who confirms that these changes are difficult, and that they won’t happen all at once. She suggests that we start by trying to implement them for just five minutes a day.
There are other efforts we can make as well:
Hold her gaze while she’s talking, even when she’s having trouble, despite any temptation to avert your eyes.
Resist the urge to supply a word for her, or finish her sentences.
Listen to what she says, not how she’s saying it.
This last directive is startling, and I wonder what would happen if I tried to heed it in every interpersonal exchange. What if, say, I could listen to a friend’s relentless stream of self-promotion and instead of hearing him say that he’s the greatest, I could hear that he needs affirmation more than he does his next meal?
With the therapist’s advice in mind, I decide to try this for just five minutes a day. The effect is immediate and profound. Right away it’s less manifest that people are power-hungry and greedy and obnoxious and hostile, and more apparent that the whole world is hurting.
On that list of famous people trotted out by the stuttering community, there is one man without a whiff of gratitude about him, and that is John Melendez of The Tonight Show (formerly known as Stuttering John during his time with The Howard Stern Show). In a wildly ironic inversion of the usual scenario, Melendez was one of Stern’s many interns when he was chosen—sight unseen—by the master provocateur to conduct celebrity interviews. (“He stutters?” Stern said. “Hire him.”) Stern was delighted by the possibilities posed by a stuttering interviewer: the tension inherent in every exchange; the idea that celebrities would be afraid to look heartless by snubbing him; its consistency with the “freak factor” that is the show’s trademark.
“Stuttering’s a great defect for radio,” Stern mused on the air to Melendez the day the latter joined the team, “because obviously, we have a guy with no arms or something, no one can see it and … only we enjoy it here in the studio, but stuttering … we always wanted a stutterer. I mean … you’re priceless!”
And Melendez did not disappoint. While on camera, he peppered dozens of celebrities with insulting questions, asking Oliver North if he’d ever had a nightmare where his penis got caught in a paper shredder, Gennifer Flowers whether she would be sleeping with any other presidential candidates. To Imelda Marcos: “If you pass gas at home in front of others, do you blame the family dog?” And to supermodel Claudia Schiffer: “Who’s smarter, Christie Brinkley or Forrest Gump?”
I’m not sure why, among the dozens of other famous people on these lists, Melendez was the one who mesmerized me. Maybe it’s that my brother’s experience of stuttering is the only one I’ve witnessed intimately, and his main response to it seemed to be anger, and John’s chosen line of work was arguably an angry thing to be doing. Or it could be the fact that Melendez is one of the only celebrities who has stuttered mightily in the public eye. Those who identify stuttering as a gift tend to do so in fluent voices; they are usually the ones who have “conquered” the disorder, at least to the extent of controlling it on camera.
On Melendez’s website, along with his bio and blog and event calendar, is a list of tips for stutterers. Over the past several months, I’ve seen many such lists, without much variation among them. But Melendez offers tips that I haven’t read before:
“Know in your heart that whomever you are talking to is no better than you.”
“Laugh at it, let people make fun of it … don’t let it define you, it’s something you do, it’s not who you are.”
And perhaps the one that is most interesting to me: “Get angry in your mind when speaking.”
Late one night, researching Melendez online, I stumble across an interview he did for a radio program called Stuttertalk. Has every parent of a child with a “challenge” flashed on their own version of this fantasy? Let’s find a place where everyone stutters; let’s move there immediately. This channel creates an illusion that there is such a place: Let’s call it The Isle of Stuttering. Everyone on it stutters: the moderators, the guests, the voices on the promotional clips. As on any other radio station, there’s a little riff where a succession of guest stars introduce themselves, saying some version of: This is J-j-joe Blow, and you’re l-l-listening to Stuttertalk. Most dramatically, one woman says, “This is…” and more than ten tortured seconds elapse before she is able to say her name. In this interview, the show’s two stuttering hosts talk at length with Melendez. Listening in the dark to three stuttering voices feels a little surreal, even a little eerie, as if I’m standing in the shadows beside some house on the Isle of Stuttering, eavesdropping beneath the kitchen window.
Toward the end of the interview, Melendez is asked whether he has ever used his stutter to help him pick up women. He seems truly bewildered by the question and says no, if anything it has been a hindrance to picking up women.
The next query, by now, seems inevitable to me.
“John, do you think of your stuttering as a gift? H-h-has it been a gift in your life?”
“A gift?” John repeats. His tone is half incredulous and half uncertain, as if he suspects he has heard wrong, or maybe the host is putting him on.
“Yeah,” his interviewer persists. “A gift.”
“No,” he says. “I think it’s a handicap. The truth is, if I could trade in and say, you know, let’s start again, and I’ll be twenty-three again and … here’s my choice: I could be Stuttering John, or I could just speak fluently and go on in my life the way that I would want to—I would choose speaking fluently.”
Ah, I think. Finally.
Having said all this, let me say as well that I wouldn’t choose John Melendez as a role model for Charlotte. And I’m glad that so many inspiring people have wrested something redemptive from their struggles with stuttering.
But I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe every problem is an opportunity, or at least, an opportunity worth the price. And I think that stuttering is unmitigated misery for the majority of those with the disorder. The truth is that if I could choose either happiness or greatness for Charlotte—not that they’re mutually exclusive, and not that the choice is mine—but if it were up to me, and it could only be one or the other, I would want her to be happy. I don’t have any reason to doubt that she’ll eventually be all right. But I want her to be happy now; I want her to have a happy childhood.
Of course, this isn’t up to me either, at least not past a certain point.
Whenever I’m asked whether I see the proverbial glass as half empty or half full, I like to say—truthfully—that I see it as half empty and half full. And so I take a certain satisfaction in this same equivocation from the collective stuttering community. I’m glad that Joe Biden and his ilk are there, and I’m glad that John Melendez is there. And I can even concede that stuttering has already offered me some benefits as a mother: a different way of speaking and hearing; a deeper apprehension of the fellowship of suffering; the understanding, finally, that the point of parenting is not to forever keep adversity at bay for one’s children. The point, I believe—one of the most important points, anyway—is to help one’s children feel at home in the human family.
Not long ago, my husband said something that—in its very simplicity and self-evidence—seemed to me as lovely and wise as anything I’d ever heard. “We will do everything we possibly can to make this go away,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, then we’ll live with it.”
If Charlotte ultimately feels that there’s no silver lining to stuttering, if it offers her not a shred of transcendence, I want her to know that’s all right. And if, on the other hand, she comes to regard it as a gift—one that was given to her for a reason—I devoutly hope I’ll have the grace to stay out of her way.
Someday, in any case, she’ll have made her own way with it. She’ll tell me how it is. And I’ll be listening.
Author’s Note: Although my brother’s struggle with stuttering was a part of everyday life within our childhood home, he and I didn’t talk about it very often. Writing this essay gave me a chance to ask him intimate questions about this very formative experience. I know that it wasn’t easy for him to revisit some of the territory we covered, and I am deeply grateful for his thoughtful and candid answers.