Symptomatically defined as involuntary repetitions or prolongations of sounds with blocking or other interruptions in the rhythmical flow of speech, it may, from case to case, include blinking and other facial tics, tremors of the lips and jaw, gasping, stamping of the feet, jerking of the head, contortions of the whole body, and even foaming at the mouth as in an epileptic fit. Although no one stutters all the time, and every stutterer is capable of fluent asides, in the vivid daily anticipation of glottal catastrophe, the disorder is apt to dominate the victim's social and emotional life.
Theories about its cause abound. At one time or another, stuttering has been traced to childhood trauma, sibling rivalry, suppressed anger, infantile sexual fixations, deformations of the tongue, lips, palate, jaw, or larynx, chemical imbalance, strict upbringing, vicious habit, guilt, approach-avoidance conflicts, and so on, and treated by biofeedback, hypnosis, operant conditioning, electric shock, faith healing, drugs, and of course psychotherapy. Mounting clinical evidence today, however, indicates that stuttering is, after all, an inheritable, physically-based problem involving some neurological defect in brain function, perhaps pertaining to the auditory feedback loop.
In his splendid personal memoir, Stuttering: A Life Bound Up in Words, Marty Jezer vividly recounts the impact of stuttering on his own life. Jezer, whose previous works include biographies of Rachel Carson and Abbie Hoffman, is a gifted writer and moves with beguiling skill between general theory and and the lessons of personal experience. Certainly his command of the theory is solid; but the heart of the book is the personal story he has to tell. And this he does engagingly, from beginning to end.
There is wit in the title. Since the author is also a wordsmith, his "life bound up in words" is not only about his lingual bondage (or "verbal handcuffs," in Edward Hoagland's phrase) but his larger relationship to language. We also learn about his youth in the Bronx, his enterprise as a political activist and rebel, marriages and other relationships, experiment with communal living, exploration of different speech therapies, and (not incidentally) something about the advantages of living in Brattleboro, Vermont.
None of this turns out to be irrelevant.
Many of the details are painful. In school (despite good grades) he is placed in a class for slow kids; meets a girl at camp but cannot call her once summer is over--so the chance for romance slips away; and upon the approach of his Bar Mitzvah (which hundreds will attend), he has nightmares for weeks about "the dreaded 'B' word, Baruch" that opens a prayer he must recite.
Adulthood brings scant relief. The daughter of a friend tells him "You talk funny"; he tries to give his credit card number to a ticket agent on the phone and starts to shake and sweat; he risks impotency and other side effects from an experimental "Fluency Pill" (clomiphamine) administered by the National Institutes of Health; is told by an employment agency that he is unemployable; and when invited to introduce himself at a political meeting blocks on both his names.
Yet the life the author conveys is a full one, and his fundamental dignity and perseverance, not to mention his appreciation of the inadvertantly comic in his predicament, help to make his story much more than a lament. His reconstruction of some family table talk (in which no one pays any apparent attention to anybody else) is simply hilarious, and there is an amusing account of his Bar Mitzvah reading, when a divinely administered thwack on the back gets him past a stuttering block. "The force of the blow made me let go of my breath. My vocal cords opened, my jaw became unglued, my locked lips loosened, and the "b" sound came out. Before I could overcome the shock of being hit..., I was past "ruch atoy adonoi" and rolling through the "melech, har-oh-lum." I had found my voice and with it the rhythm of the prayer. I raced through the blessings in a clear alto voice, building confidence with each fluent word and able to segue, without a hitch, into the Torah text itself." When it is all over, family and friends gather round to congratulate him, and, to his mother's relief, his father has escaped a heart attack.
Yet overall one is left with a sense of what a crippling disability stuttering can be.
Anyone who stutters, or who is interested in stuttering, will benefit from reading this book. They will come away from it with admiration for the courage and determination of the author, and (if they happen to be fluent) with a wiser and more sympathetic appreciation of those less fortunate than themselves.