So it begins. In first grade my mother plucks me out of school once a week to see a child psychologist. In the car on the way to this office I eat my lunch of plastic-smelling sandwiches and Oreos. I am already suspicious of adults who want to fix me and sullenly refuse to indulge in "play therapy" with the psychologists. He wants me to move small dolls around in a fake doll house with no roof. The dolls have pink rubbery limbs and wear ugly ill-fitting clothes. I think to myself that he must have gotten them in a special child psychologist supply store.
In second grade I am pulled out of art class each week to go to speech therapy. While the rest of the "normal" kids in my class are free to create in a flurry of cut paper and paste, I am sentenced to spend an hour in a small orange room sitting around a table doing the bouncing method. This consists of fake stuttering on the first letter of each word in a sentence. It feels ridiculous and painful. There are four of us, two others who stutter and one who lisps. Except for me they are all boys. I feel sorry for the speech therapist, a nice lady because with the exception of the boy who lisps, I know that she can't help us. We all just have to go through the motions. She has a job to do and we are children and have to do as we are told.
Since then I have learned that 1 percent of the world population stutters. Stuttering cuts across all class and racial lines. But curiously, not across gender lines, since 75 percent to 80 percent of adults who stutter are male. I have also learned, and this was no surprise to me, that there is no definitive cure and no clear explanation of why stuttering occurs. There are techniques that make us more fluent, breathing and relaxation methods, mechanical devices that trick us into not stuttering, but no sure-fire formula. What works for one person may not work for another. Like a mutating virus, our stuttering minds are always two or three steps ahead.
What is common, at least for adults who stutter, is the presence of fear. We are afraid of speaking, because we are so afraid of stuttering. That leads us to believe we will stutter during a similar situation in the future. Paradoxically once we stop trying so hard not to stutter, we often find that we can speak more fluently. But that is easier said than done.
A moment in time pokes out at me. I am in fifth grade, and we are reading a chapter of our social studies book aloud. We are each to take a paragraph. I feel the familiar heat starting in the middle of my back as soon as we open our books. Can I do it this time? I can read this stuff backwards in my head. Does Mr. Kelly know that? I count ahead to my paragraph and practice in my head. By the time my turn comes I have almost memorized it. Then it is my turn and, as I feared, the words lie stuck and stagnant in my throat. I pull them aching out into the room for all to see, and they lie broken on the floor when they should be flying high in the air. Did I make it through the paragraph? I must have. I always finish what I begin.
Like every other person on Earth, people who stutter want to communicate and have their ideas heard by others. That desire never goes away, no matter how much we have given up hope. In fact, the amazing variety of coping behaviors attests to that fact. In our bids to speak normally we hide our stuttering by substituting words we can say for those we can't. A stutterer is often a walking thesaurus. Or we tap or twitch various parts of our bodies and develop other ingenious tricks to distract our minds long enough to let a few words out.
Winston Churchill crafted his speeches to eliminate those hard-to-say words and developed a distinctive speaking style that used a humming sound to slide into words. Some people, like actor James Earl Jones, have found that they can speak fluently if they take on the personality of the character they are playing. Marilyn Monroe used a breathy style of speaking that allowed her to speak without stuttering.
For most of my life I have been a typical stutterer. Despite being an insatiable reader, I avoided getting too involved with my own words for fear of having to say them out loud. I assumed I would not marry because I wouldn't be able to say the vows. And I worried about reading books aloud to any potential children. When I became a performance artist, I got around talking by projecting slides with text or getting friends to tape a voice-over. I also would hand out printed material that explained what I was doing in case it wasn't that clear. It was like working with a ball and chain tied to my leg that I didn't want anyone to know about.
One year I got tired of this stalemate and decided to find out what would happen if I used my stuttering in my performances instead of hiding it. I took some theater classes with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, who at that time specialized in helping artists with visual art backgrounds use their bodies and voices in a theatrical way. We learned how to play on the stage, much the same way I did as a visual artist. In the safe arena of artistic expression, I felt able to explore my own unique speech. Within a year I had developed a solo performance. Just me and my words on stage. I can still remember how wondrous it felt to write the text, knowing that since I had permission to stutter as much as I wanted, all the words in the English Language were available to me, not just the ones I could say fluently. I called it "Mouth Piece."
The scene: a small spotlight stage in an alternative music club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. I stand, ripped into a skintight, strapless blue sequined gown with a matching blue net bustle. Sprouting from my head are two Styrofoam words, "express" and "desire." The place was packed and all eyes are on me, a spot of bright blue hovering at the edge of the stage. To piano accompaniment I sing "Too Marvelous for Words" by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting as I swish across the stage, caressing the microphone. As the music fades I stand abruptly, lounge singer no more.
"Did you know that the t-two things people fear most are d-death and speaking in p-p-public?" I asked. I have taken the audience by surprise , and they grow even more silent. They are expecting someone all smooth and detached, someone who matches my dress, not someone who stutters. Then I continue. "All my life I would have died rather than speak in public. What if they found out I stuttered? What if they found out there was something wrong with me? What if they found out I wasn't perfect? I would die of embarrassment." I look straight at the audience. "Right now I am totally embarrassed. Am I dead yet?" I wait for the laughter. After a long beat it comes. I want to say to them, "Don't worry, that's my only joke."
For the next 10 minutes I recite the rest of my lines, the poetry I lovingly created out of just the right words. Memories and stories from my childhood. Even some scat singing.
Sometimes I stutter, sometimes I don't. When I don't, I make myself stutter. My voice, made out of uprooted trees, dirty snowdrifts, and overturned garbage cans, jabs angrily at the audience. I notice a man sitting 2 feet away from the front row, slumped down with his hands covering his face. I have never seen him before, but I know that he, too, stutters, and seeing me stutter publicly and brazenly is too painful for him. I know what it is like.
I stand up again and peer wonderingly at the audience, my audience, that by now is hanging on my words.
"I s-see words. I see lace-covered words that walk into the room. I see words b-built out of concrete that do not move. I see stacked dirty dishes of words. I see words that jog by wearing, new running suits. I see words of gossamer silk that drift across our minds. I see words waiting in line at the ladies room. I see words that curl up by the fire and whisper s-sweet nothings."
I hold my hand out invitingly. "Come here little word. Come here. I won't hurt you. I want to be friends. Can we be friends?" My eyes reach out to the whole room and beyond.
"Communications...." I say slowly, savoring each syllable. "Communion...Commune..Union. May I join you? Will you j-j-join me?" I was 35 years old when I performed "Mouth Piece." Not long after that a buried memory came bubbling up to the surface, never to be forgotten again. "I am swinging in the cellar of our house. My strong arms grip the rope and I pull hard..."
added April 1, 1998