Francine du Plessix Gray, at the New York Review of Books, has a review of half a dozen books on stuttering:

The anxiety caused by stuttering has prevailed for millennia. A prayer to find release from it, dated several centuries before the Christian era, has been found on a cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia. One of the first remedies for stuttering recorded in Greek mythology concerns a Prince Battus, who in the seventh century BC implored the oracle of Delphi to alleviate his flaw. The cure imposed by the oracle was expensive and distressing: Battus had to assemble an army, prevail over the inhabitants of an inimical foreign island, and never return to his homeland. At first dismayed by the prospect of a lifelong exile, Battus obeyed, and after winning his battles became as golden-tongued a monarch as any in the Mediterranean, founding, and then ruling over, the Greek colony of Cyrene in present-day Libya.

I always read such articles with great interest because I stuttered when I was younger, and in my experience it was pretty miserable. The cause was unspecified; I'm left-handed, and can be high-strung, although the latter, one suspects, might be a consequence of having had a speech impediment more than a correlate or cause. Like most people who stutter, I had a whole litany of tactical responses: I wouldn't say much, or I wouldn't speak in certain settings, and I had a running mental list of words to avoid, if forced to talk. (My all-time nemesis: "San Francisco".) As in most cases of stuttering, it would come and go from hour to hour, not entirely predictably, so the anxiety about the possibility of stuttering was perhaps more distressing than the stutter itself. Certainly other kids, and strangers, and teachers (!) sometimes teased me about it, but I never saw it as a character issue, although I was aware that others did. People would often scold me to speak more clearly, which I certainly would have done if it had been possible.

And as is usually the case, the stutter eventually abated. I wish I would have seen a speech therapist when I was younger rather than being left to my own devices, although as Gray explains, many stutterers have found the interventions to be harsh and distressing in themselves. My improvised response was straightforward. I started talking more quickly, trying to get the words out before the stutter descended, even if they came out in a jumble.

The results were mixed: I don't stutter any more, but I still speak quickly, and I have a fair number of dysfluencies, as internet commenters have noted with varying degrees of derision (thanks, guys). Unrelatedly, I have a low-pitched voice for a woman, and I'm not very loud. The overall effect is, I think, that of a lazy but kind-hearted lady carnie. It appears to be worse in my mind than it is in real life. I did see a speech therapist a couple of years ago, who gave me a lot of exercises, and after a few weeks politely suggested that I didn't need her services, because the way I talk was slightly idiosyncratic but not incomprehensible or unpleasant. More recently I've been stoically pushing myself into public speaking, with generally good outcomes, but still--walking up to a podium feels like an out-of-body experience, like I'm about to watch myself get shot. I'm not sure I'll ever find it pleasant, but it has gotten a little easier. 

Is there a bright side to stuttering? Not in my view. As you would imagine, a number of stutterers have become well-known writers. Surprisingly, perhaps, some have gone on to become well-known as speakers (Gray cites a number; I would add Joe Biden, James Earl Jones, Tavis Smiley, and Carly Simon; see here for a clip of the latter two talking about it.) The armchair psychology explanation would be that people with a stutter are alienated from their own ability to communicate, and reminded of that at every opportunity; they may therefore be more sensitive to both the value of speech and its limits. (Another armchair explanation is that suggested by the film The King's Speech, that stutterers lack confidence; this one, in my experience, seems to get the causality backwards.) I would trade being able to write for being able to speak without being miserably self-conscious most of the time, but perhaps people who have the opposite problem have the opposite feeling. Maybe the silver lining of this experience is that it gave me an early lesson in empathy, some sense that people should be more gentle with others, even when it's not clear why. That is, I've been lucky enough to escape almost everything that people (particularly women) get belittled for--except for this one thing, which isn't even apparent to other people at this point, but which is a pretty big issue for me. Everyone has something. Now, in case that was all too sincere for the internet: here's a thought-provoking essay by Pamela Haag, "Death by Treacle."
04/20/2012 13:59

I had a severe stutter from age 5 onward. Somewhere around age 29 it mostly went away, for utterly mysterious reasons. People I have met since then don't know I ever stuttered.

I agree that it sucks to stutter as a child, but I thought I had put it all behind me with years and years of newfound fluency.

Then my 2 year old daughter started stuttering. Literally from one day to the next. One day she was a completely fluent, gabby two-year old speaker, and the next day she could barely make it through a sentence, so severe was her stutter. Interestingly to me, she didn't seem to notice or care. Also interesting to me was that I completely FREAKED OUT. Outwardly I think I was very calm, but inwardly I did not handle it well at all. My own experiences as a child stutterer had not left me after all, it turned out, and I felt absolutely horrible that I had inflicted this on my own child. (Yes, that's what it felt like. My wife never stuttered, so clearly this was my fault. That's how it felt that day). Fortunately, I did some reading and managed to calm down, and, as happens with most kids, her stutter went away within a year. Now it only exists on a few snippets of video. I confess to being unbelievably relieved that she doesn't have to travel down that particular path.

04/20/2012 17:56

Whoa, the master curator has linked to this post.

I'd say that if it gave you more empathy, it's a big win. It is a very advanced and powerful emotion.

It is interesting that we can trace back stuttering from tablets in Mesopotamia. It took just one or few people to record it officially. I'm wondering if the digital age means that the history of the elites will eventually be replaced by the history of the masses, as we dig into the Internet archives, reconstructing history from tons of material.

04/21/2012 02:51

It never occurred to me that you (ever) had a speech impediment when I saw you on Bloggingheads. You have a nice voice.


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