Everyone stutters from time to time, but only a few of us stutter. And those of us who stutter don’t always stutter, just like the rest of you don’t always speak perfectly. We all stutter when confessing our love, but never do so if we’re crying out in pain. The well-meaning compliment, “But you’re not stuttering now,” is as hurtful as he knows it. A stutterer is always a stutterer, even silent.
There are Egyptian hieroglyphs that they say refer to us, and a Babylonian cuneiform that records a stutter amid grain inventories. This is the slow-tongued Moses of the Bible. Rosalind in Shakespeare As you like it recites, “I wish you could stutter, so that you could pour her hidden man out of your mouth like wine from a narrow-necked bottle – either too much at once or not at all. Too much or not at all, that pretty much sums up the goals of literature for us.
Stutterers are present from Zola to Joyce to Rushdie, from the highest culture to the lowest. Septimus Warren Smith stammers in Woolf’s Mrs Dallowayand Stuttering Bill in Stephen King This, like its author, remains a loser until he makes it big as a horror novelist. Children are still treated to the chorus”Th-th that’s all, friends! in recycled Porky the Pig cartoons on Saturday morning TV, including the song “KKK-Katy” is what Harvard professor Marc Shell calls “the most deeply humiliating parody of stuttering ever in English”.
Speech, I was told, requires the coordination of a hundred muscles. When they don’t, it’s the failure of a complex system that both qualifies and undermines modernity, which perhaps explains why there are so many stutterers in literature today. Stutterers introduce inefficiency into any task undertaken in common: hence our exemption from military service.
But stutterers have always existed, and in the Western world – those places long enough steeped in Judeo-Christian thought whose biases are axiomatic – we have long been credited with the powers of an oracle. The book of Isaiah says, “For with stammering lips and another tongue [God] talk to this people. Even today, says novelist David Shields, “stutterers tell the truth. Everyone else lies.
But we are rarely heroes. Because of our incomplete speech, we sometimes manage to stammer out things that ring strangely true. Consider Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s Brideshead revisited, or the future Roman emperor of Graves, Claudius, as Demosthenes, an emblematic stutterer of antiquity.
But those rare moments of clarity come at the expense of spending the rest of our lives portrayed as jesters and clowns. Stutterers are rarely central characters and often make early exits: the stuttering cowboy in Howard Hawks red river gets trampled in cattle drive, and the neurotic, stuttering Storm Trooper in Murakami Haruki norwegian forest just disappears – frankly to the relief of the other characters.
In his 1939 The personality structure of stuttering, James Bender wrote that we have a “characteristic leptosomal physique” as well as a “disturbed metabolism”. We are introverted and our blood sugar is high even though “the urinary creatinine coefficient is low”. Our saliva is overloaded with carbon dioxide and we have poor motor coordination. We are lazy, cowardly, selfish and procrastinators. But it’s not all bad news. Science reports that the average stutterer is smarter. Stuttering, alone among disabilities, can be called “charming”. In women, a stutter is attractive if it belies female shyness.
But on the whole, writers and other observers of stuttering, rarely stutterers themselves, view the affliction as the telltale tip of a submerged ethical, medical, or psychosocial iceberg; as the register of our moral, bodily or mental failure. We are considered wicked. We are traitors. Many spies, in fiction or in real life, stutter.
My stutter has receded over the years, but the worst has made me who I am today.
Current thinking considers stuttering to be hereditary and neurological. But current thinking has been wrong in the past. Stuttering has been called “a mess of many theories”, “a boon to quacks”. For Aristotle, it was the inability of our languages to follow our imagination, but for Hippocrates, too much black bile in our systems. The therapies prescribed to us through the ages range from relaxation and gymnastics to hypnosis, faith healing, electric shocks, “the ingestion of a Finnish insect repellent normally rubbed on cows, the bleeding from the lips with leeches and eating the excrement of goats”. The Oracle of Delphi told Battus to cure his stutter by raising an army and conquering North Africa.
But unless you are from the Maghreb, perhaps the worst remedy was that of the 19th century, when surgeons attacked us, with the result that no one was cured but some died on operating tables. Yet I think the cruellest of gratuitous therapies was the psychoanalytical babble of the 20th century, at the height of which a medical authority wrote about us: “These are seldom happy people; but that they very rarely realize their full potential, that their lives are often thwarted and barren, is not so much the fault of the stutter as of the underlying emotional handicap.
Stutterers do not seek the company of others. We can go to extraordinary ends to avoid ourselves. I dealt coldly with stutterers in my classes. Stuttering is an echophenomenon, like contagious yawning: one of us stutters, and then the rest of the room must follow. And alone among the disabled, stutterers are never asked, “How did this happen?” It is assumed that we have always been like this. Our disability is still explained in a myriad of ways that could have led to effective treatment, if any of these many theories were correct.
The thing is, we don’t know how to cure stuttering, although sometimes it goes away — watch out? — or ceases to matter. In Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler writes: “Yankel Schneider, do you remember him, he had a stutter? So what? He became a chartered accountant and now drives a Buick. But for the rest of us, the best course of action is to keep quiet.
I was recently sitting in the back of the coach. I saw the beverage cart slowly coming down the aisle of the plane. I had plenty of time to repeat in my head what I wanted to say to the flight attendant. “Coffee. The black.” Twenty minutes later, it was finally my turn to order, but I had convinced myself so much that I was going to stutter that, of course, I did. “Buh-buh-black kah-kah-costs.”
Literary criticism has not done the stutterers any favors either. We are luckier when they are ignored. Eve Sedgwick could write forty pages on Melville Billy Bouddconsidered by some to be the most profound treatment in the literature of tragic stuttering, but it does not once mention Billy’s stutter.
Worse still, Gilles Deleuze states that stuttering is a playground for playful reflection on poetic language. He transforms stutterers into avant-garde metaphors. Stuttering, he says: “Language trembles from head to toe. This is the principle of a poetic understanding of language itself. Deleuze theorizes stuttering without taking stutterers into account. Disability disappears, along with the disabled themselves, to be replaced by a supernatural power granted to language not only broken but incorporeal. “Is it possible, asks Deleuze, to make language stutter without confusing it with speech?
I no longer try to hide my stutter from those close to me.
No, this is not the case. As a stutterer, I don’t take airy theories seriously. It is better to learn lessons from the real world. You might order a main course in a restaurant that you didn’t want, unable to tell which one you really chose; you didn’t pick up the phone for two years because you couldn’t trust yourself to say “hello”; or walked thirty blocks to save yourself the embarrassment of stuttering an address to an impatient taxi driver.
The United States has a president whose efforts not to stutter are painful to watch, especially for those of us who share his challenge and know all the telltale signs. When I see the muscles in Joe Biden’s face twist and contort as he anticipates difficulty with his next word, those muscles are mine. I want to shout at the TV screen: just to stutter, for the love of Christ. Let their Go with it. Let their calm down and they will understand what you are saying in your head, even if your tongue has a mind of its own.
I wrote a novel, First consonants, about Brian, a stutterer who faces this choice about how to live out his final years after a life of punishing both the innocent and the guilty around him for his debility. It’s not autobiographical, but every description of his stuttering stems from my experiences.
My stutter has receded over the years, but the worst has made me who I am today. When my younger brother started to stutter, I beat him mercilessly in the room we shared; Brian attacks a stranger in the street. I no longer try to hide my stutter from those close to me; Brian chooses a woman with her own history of impediment. Brian and I have sought solace in places no one else goes.
This is the Alaskan backcountry where Brian goes to hide, except for the company of a dog. (Stutterers, you may have noticed, never stutter when talking to animals.) Of course, he could have stayed among the “ducks”, his pejorative slang for the non-stuttering world, and continued to endure the pity of this world. But unlike Biden, my stutter Brian opts for the solitary path of least resistance: he will write his story rather than tell it to anyone. “He imagined the words to be real objects, things he could feel lodged in his throat, wrapped around his tongue; things that were stuck on his lips like glue, even though he just wanted to write them and not say them,” I said towards the end of First consonants. “He let the words work their way through his body in spurts until, with sufficient mass, they became things he could grasp with his fingers and lay out on the page.”
Despite his efforts to make the oral tangible, Brian never finishes his story. If every stutterer has, according to the novelist David Mitchell, his “box of tricks”, all fail my hero. The moral is Brian’s dogged determination to make the words work for him on the page if not in speech. He’s barely started when terrible things stop him, though none as terrible as if he hadn’t started in the first place.
I, on the other hand, have finished my story. I mean to share it with readers who may not have given this handicap, perhaps the most marginal, all the attention it deserves. That I have to do it with words is the irony of the writer being removed from the very materials with which he is consigned to work.
First consonants by John Whittier Treat is available through Jaded Ibis Press.