Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words

by Marty Jezer
(Basic Books, 1997)

Excerpts From Chapter 11 -- "The Double-Edged Sword of Denial"

The same child psychologists who told my parents not to fuss over my stuttering because I would probably outgrow it also advised them to encourage me in whatever I was good at and liked to do. It was good advice and my parents took it seriously: foster my self-confidence, nurture my self-esteem. Consequently, they never held me back from doing what I wanted to do, even when what I wanted to do most, which was to hang out with my pals on the corner of Creston Avenue and 178th Street in the Bronx, was something of which they didn't altogether approve.

Wendell Johnson spoke of cultural inheritance, an attitude towards speech (and other things) passed down from generation to generation. My inheritance, as I have written earlier, was that of a congenital optimism, a sense of belonging to my culture, a belief that I was everyone's equal, and a delight in being part of a conversation, whether it be on a street corner or at a kitchen table. My reality, however, was that most of the world was closed to me, inaccessible. My desire to enter into the verbal fray was neutralized by my sense of verbal inadequacy. Not being willing to stutter in front of anyone who didn't already know of my stutter, and reluctant to stutter even in front of those who knew I stuttered, I didn't feel like a kid who had access to anything. Deep in the silence of my heart, however, I knew that I did. My fear of speaking was a veneer. At my core I had absorbed my parent's sense of belongingness and their sense of place. The speech that was in me was never dormant. It was always wanting to get out. To cope with my fear of speech and my need to speak, I learned to live cautiously, focus on what I could confidently pull off, protect myself from the humiliation I risked every time I opened my mouth, and pick my spots whenever I wanted to talk.

Children are resilient. They know how to protect themselves, they know how to cope. My strategy of coping was to learn my limitations, excel within them, and avoid everything else. Because I was smart and athletic, I seemed always to be doing well: good in academics, good in sports, cheerful, upbeat, never without playmates, surrounded by friends. But I did not take risks. I made my friends and I stuck to them. I was loyal, but only to a past in which I had become comfortable, that I wished would never change.

Many people who stutter recall being laughed at and harassed by other kids. Males, especially, tell tales of using their fists because they could not defend themselves with words. . . .

As one of the youngest kids on my block (and as a kind of mascot to the older kids), I always felt secure. I don't remember ever having to defend my self because of my speech. I do, however, remember my older friends egging me on to fight other kids. With my friends in my corner (and because of my need to please them), I never backed down from those fights. One time they instigated a fight between me and an overweight boy named Bobby. While my friends never made fun of my stuttering (at least to my face), they always taunted Bobby about his fatness. The older kids on the block liked to watch us duke it out because of the contrast in our fighting styles. I was skinny but fast with my hands, a real boxer. Bobby moved slowly, but if he was able to get me down and sit on top of me, there was nothing for me to do but cry "uncle." In one of our many fights I really belted him, right in the kisser. He fell do his knees with blood pouring from his face. My friends held my arm up in triumph and called me the champ of Creston Ave. Bobby slunk home alone crying. Later, thinking about what happened, I too started crying. Instead of savoring my victory, I identified with my victim. I probably did not make the connection then, but I suspect I realized that as a kid with a stutter, I was as vulnerable to attack as was my fat friend Bobby.

Nevertheless, I seemed to have lived a charmed life -- even when I didn't have my older friends around as protectors. To get to my junior high school, I had to walk past a Catholic parochial school. In the early 1950's, religious prejudice was much more prevalent than it is now, and the Catholic kids used to extort money out of the Jewish kids walking to school. One of the leaders of the Catholic gang was Tommy O'Connor, a strapping Irish youth with a fearsome reputation. Perhaps it was because of my stutter, or the fact that when stopped by his gang I wouldn't run, cry or back down, but Tommy O'Connor became my protector who would greet me heartily as I walked past his gang to school, "Hey, Marty, you're OK," he would declaim, a 1950's version of giving me a "high five." Experiences such as this gave me a rather benign view of my stuttering. As long as I kept within my own safe and defined bounds, I didn't feel that it caused me insurmountable problems.

There are many different ways that people use speech beyond the necessity of communicating information. For some, speech is an extension of their ego: they use it to show off, to dominate a scene, to control the content of a conversation. For many talkative people, speech is a defense mechanism: they use it not to communicate or engage others, but to prevent others from asking them personal, intimate, truth-challenging questions. Afraid of contact, they construct a wall of verbiage that keep people at bay. I've a friend whose entertaining but non-stop commentary about the lives of other people serves to prevent others from asking personal questions about him. I have other friends who are non-stop funny. I love to listen to their shticks, but I can't get close to them. Their comedic gift is a barrier that keeps me and others away.

For me, speech has always been a way of connecting, a way of making contact with another person. Some people, taking their speech for granted, can connect by touch, demeanor, a friendly smile, a look in their eye. More so in the past, but still some today, I feel the need to connect through speaking. Speech, even stuttered speech, affirms my existence. In a funny way, my silence bothers me as much as my stuttering. My stuttering is a fact of my life; silence, however, is an admission that it affects my life. The silent one in a noisy conversation, I often feared that I would disappear into nothingness unless I asserted myself by speech. So I am compelled to speak, even if only to grunt an affirmation or to make some other "look I'm here" kind of noise.

As an adult I am sometimes complimented for being concise in my speech, direct and to the point. To the degree that this is true, it's a result of coping tactics I developed in my youth. As much as I wanted, nay, needed, to speak, I wanted to finish what I had to say as quickly as possible. Trying to say more than one sentence at a time was asking for trouble. I wasn't going to utter any extraneous words that I might stutter on. I was not going to give any long-winded speeches that would call attention to my disfluent speech.

My challenge in speaking was to pick my speaking-spot. I needed to gain recognition from others in a conversation without calling attention to the intrusion of my stuttering. For example, I knew that I would not stutter if I reserved my thoughts for the tail end of other people's statements. I didn't know it, but I was using the "masking principle" to get my two cents into the conversation. People who stutter usually don't stutter when they don't hear the sound of themselves speaking. By entering the conversation while someone else was speaking, I could use the sound of their voice to mask the sound of my own. This allowed me a few fluent words to get my confidence up and, perhaps, get me fluently through an entire sentence. But I never wanted to push my luck.

Picking my spot so as to come into the tail end of someone else's speech meant that I risked interrupting the person who was speaking. Growing up with the knowledge of good manners (and given my speech-induced insecurity, always trying to please), I didn't want anyone to be mad at me because of my butting in on them. So I tried to be precise in when I entered into a conversation. As a result, I became super-sensitive to other people's speaking patterns and learned to detect when their verbal energy was trailing off and it was safe for me to come in. (At the same time, I am very impatient -- and can still become infuriated -- when a speaker comes to what I consider the proper ending of his speech and yet continues to go on). I also came to realize that people liked to hear what they said acknowledged. So I always began my brief burst of speech with an enthusiastic affirmation of what the person I was interrupting had just finished saying. Because of this acknowledgement, my interruptions did not make me unpopular. But they greatly limited the substance of my conversation. To get my words in edgewise, I had to make a positive statement. I couldn't argue, disagree or say anything that was counter to the general drift. To state my own view would mean that I would have to then defend it and use more words. I could not trust myself to be fluent in my own defense and, in addition, I believed that my stuttering would undermine my argument. Who would believe or take seriously someone who couldn't speak fluently? -- That is what I thought. This made me seem to be very agreeable. If someone had said "Do you know, the earth is flat," I would have chimed in at the precise moment that the speaker, having articulated the "fl," was completing the "at" with something like, "Yes, that's a very good point...." Whether I was affirming a statement that I believed to be right or wrong, perceptive or obtuse, was of no consideration. What mattered to me was that I was saying something and thereby connecting with another human being. "I think therefore I am," said the French philosopher Diderot. "I speak therefore I am," I reply in response. I affirm my existence by being a participant in a conversation.

There is a principle of compensation working here. Because I feared speech, speech took on excessive importance. Unable to speak articulately, I looked for ways to speak symbolically: I was less interested in what I had to say than I was in the fact that I was able to say something -- anything -- just for the sake of feeling that I was heard. This desperate belief that if I didn't assert myself through speech I would somehow disappear, had one positive affect. Where many stutterers find safety in silence and go through childhood saying as little as they can get away with, I, being horrified at the sound of my own silence, have the gumption to talk. My participation in a conversation, no matter how meager and unimportant, gives me a giddy sensation, and I go away from it feeling like Gene Kelly singing in the rain.

What some might seem as a proclivity for avoidance, I saw as a determination to excel. By focusing on my strong points; that is, by figuring what I knew I could do and then limiting myself to doing just that, I was able to ignore the constrictions I was placing on my life. There were so many things that I would not do. I would not talk to strangers. I would clam up in front of adults, authority figures, and people who didn't know that I stuttered. My parents, as I have noted, had an active social life and were always dragging me on week-end visits to their friends. I never went without a fight. They couldn't pry me away from my friends on the street-corner, my verbal comfort zone. So safe did I feel within my limited area of success, that I saw no need to branch out and extend myself. I saw no need to deal with or improve my disfluent speech. Within the safe area that I had constructed, I could convince myself that I was doing all right.

The speech pathologist Woody Starkweather describes my coping strategy exactly: "Most of the stutterers I have known," he wrote in an internet discussion, "have been so hurt and shamed and frightened by their stuttering that they have adopted a number of defensive mechanisms to minimize their hurt. One of the most common ones is denial. Sometimes the only way a person can get relief from pain is to act as though it isn't there, to find distracting thoughts or competing emotions, or some way to just not be present during those tough moments when nothing will come out or when what does come out is embarrassing or frightening. The only problem with denial, is that although it protects you from pain, it also puts you out of touch with the problem."

Denial, as I experienced it, was both an act of courage and a self-destructive act. By concentrating on what I did well, I was able to diminish the impact that stuttering had on my life. This boosted my self-confidence and encouraged a positive and upbeat attitude. There are many stutterers who, as kids, surrendered to their difficulties and now, as adults, recollect only the difficulties they faced growing up. I remember only good things. Just as I did as a youth, I find it easy to deny that my stuttering caused me hardship, that I suffered and experienced woe.

There was a "man in the street" character on the old Steve Allen television show played by the comedian Don Knotts. Knotts would appear on camera with his eyes bulging, his head shaking, and his body trembling as if his spine was a jackhammer or as if he was in the frenzied throes of mega-voltage electro-shock. Steve Allen, playing a newspaper reporter, would ask Knotts if he was nervous. For the briefest moment, as if the jackhammer or the electro-magnetic switch was suddenly turned off, a calm would come over Knotts and he'd purse his lips in mock surprise that anyone would be asking so immaterial a question and answer "nope." I always identified with Don Knott's very funny shtick.

Does stuttering bother me?

For most of my life, I would answer this question with phony composure and practiced calm. I would flash my most ingratiating smile and swallow my lie.

"Does stuttering bother you?"


People would then tell me how brave I was and how wonderful it is that I could have such a severe disability and not let it bother me. Did I bask in their compliment?


Did I believe them?


And once the glow of my deceit faded, the truth would kick in. I would then feel shamed, embarrassed, stupid, scared. Not only for my stutter, but also because of how easy it was for me to lie. The truthful answer was that my stuttering was the defining fact of my life. It was my shadow, a ghost, the darkness within. In one sense, I was lucky. I stuttered so often that I could not let everyday incidents of stuttered speech get me down. But if I couldn't hide the fact of my stuttering, I could at least try to make a secret of the suffering that it caused. To do that, one has to become tough. Like a delicate plant being readied to survive a cold winter, I had to learn to harden off. And so I learned to sit on my grief, suppress emotion. I learned to move past embarrassing moments as quickly as I could. Like the great Ali, I learned to "dance like a butterfly" in order to dodge life's knockout blows. Like Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, I adopted a "What Me Worry" attitude every time I got hit.

If my denial discouraged me from retreating into myself and totally surrendering to my stuttering-induced fears, it also encouraged me to pass up opportunities to learn better speech. For example, my speech therapists wanted me to practice speaking slowly and fluently for a half-an-hour every day, but I would not do it. I could not get past the first exercise, slowly shaping and speaking the five vowel sounds -- a, e, i, o, and u -- without starting to cry. For to practice my speech was to admit to myself that I had a problem, that I was someone who was not normal, that I was weird. Practicing undercut the positive self- image I was determined to create. Practicing introduced a measure of reality I was determined to avoid.

In my mind, I drew a distinction between embarrassment and humiliation. An embarrassing incident, for me, was something that I could quickly shrug off and forget. Like stuttering in front of a stranger, and having someone hang up on me on the phone or walk away from me when I stuttered in the middle of a conversation. I felt bad, yes; but it was easy to bounce back with my confidence intact. Humiliation however, cut deep. It was often triggered not by an incident of my stuttering but by my feeling of being recognized as a stutterer, a person with a problem, a handicap, a flawed human being. The shame of being so identified -- of having that "S" letter draped around my neck -- was so powerful that it became etched into my consciousness. Recalling a humiliating incident forty years after the fact, I can still feel the blow in my gut, my stomach tightening up.

A humiliating incident could be as trivial as a momentary glance in my direction. As a teenager, I went with a friend to see the British comedy, "I'm [It's] All Right, Jack." In one scene a wizened old trade unionist severely stutters as he tries, incomprehensibly, to articulate his support for a strike. The scene is a cheap shot at rank-and-file trade unionists: they can't effectively articulate a reason for going out on strike. But the movie's retrograde politics was not what upset me. What burned was that my friend turned towards me to gauge my reaction to the stuttering character in the movie. Correctly, she understood that I would identify with his stuttering and, having a lively curiosity, she wanted to see how I'd react to it. Had I been able, then, to confront my feelings about my stuttering, I might have engaged her after the movie in a fascinating friendship-bonding conversation. The thought of that possibility, of saying "I disliked the way they used that stuttering character," went through my mind, but I quickly shut the door to that opening. Instead, I interpreted her glance as her wanting to see if I was as embarrassed by the portrayal as she (as I projected my feelings on to her) thought I ought to be. As for myself, I was admitting to nothing. My response, typical for me, was to steel myself against any show of emotion. "I'm All Right, Lynn," was the message I wanted to convey by my frozen body language. But I felt naked and exposed just the same, as if all my efforts to cover up my stuttering problem were stripped from me. Although I often stuttered in talking to her and had no illusion that my stuttering was a secret, I could not tolerate her recognizing me for what I was. And what I was or, more accurately, what I thought myself to be was a stutterer and nothing else. Although we lived in the same apartment building and her family and my family were friends, I literally never risked a conversation with her again. She knew my darkest secret. Not that I stuttered, but that I was ashamed to admit that my stuttering hurt.

Why did I become so dogged in my optimism, so persistent in denying the trouble I was in? I don't know where I got my positive outlook except, perhaps, from my father. My magnanimous father was a great conductor, he viewed the world from up on a podium and, with his billfold as his baton, attempted to orchestrate everyone's life. My father would not countenance any negativity (which he defined as a disagreement with what he had planned). He found it difficult to accept or acknowledge setbacks -- whether it was in his life or with my speech. My father, I believe, willed his death at the age of 65 because he couldn't deal with the pain of shattered illusions and a broken heart. First it was his protege, his young partner whom he had hired fresh out of law school, who was caught cooking the books and stealing money from the firm. And then it was the death from cancer at the age of 35 of his daughter, my sister Ruth. With those two setbacks, especially the death of my sister, he lost his faith in God and his interest in life. To live with his kind of optimism is to dance at the edge of despair. It's like riding a bicycle on a high wire. You can't afford to stop and look down. To maintain balance, you have to look straight ahead and keep pedaling. My father stopped pedaling and fell down. I keep pedaling on.

I had my father's spirit, but it was contradicted by a quiet despair. I always liked what Jack Kennedy said, "life is unfair." I'm of a different generation. I've had help from good psychotherapists (and the insights and self-awareness that come from psychotherapy are something that men of my father's generation resisted) and good friends. But more, because of my stutter I've become hardened to pain; somewhere inside of me is the expectation that every time I block in my speech, my listener will laugh, turn away, or otherwise do something that is embarrassing or, worse, humiliating to me. One can't go on living obsessed by defeat. So I've had to learn to shrug defeatism off - - and I am good at shrugging it off. Once, playing basketball, I missed three game-winning foul shots. When the third one bounced off the rim, I started to laugh. My coach blew up at me, but I knew what I was doing. If I didn't laugh, I would have been drowning in guilt. And I had perspective. What's a few missed foul shots compared with the consistent failure at fluency every day of my life? What's a few disfluencies compared with the joy and wonder of life?

My father, who never saw me struggling inside the speech clinic, always wanted to believe that I was on the verge of outgrowing my stutter. In a sense, I got my desperate optimism and proclivity for denial from him. Every time I got out a fluent sentence in his presence, he took it as evidence that my speech was improving. And every time I stuttered in his presence, which was most of the time, I felt further defeated for not living up to his hope and expectation. Worse, he seemed to collect stories of children who, as many did, overcame their stuttering. I suppose that from his perspective, he was trying to assure me that it could be done. From my perspective, however, it only confirmed the hopelessness of my situation.

Was it my negativity, my oedipal requirement that I disagree with everything he said, or was I being realistic about my speech? I knew what I was up against and was not going to fall for any pollyannaish lie. Although I went head to head with my father on any number of issues, I don't think I was being negative here. I knew that getting off a few fluent words didn't mean my speech was improving. I knew what my limitations were. I knew in what situations I had a chance to be fluent and in what situations I would probably stutter. I knew in what situations to risk speaking and in what situations to play it safe and not speak at all. It bugged me that my father would not deal with my difficulties in speech as they were, but would find any excuse to declare that I was getting better.

My father's optimism created in me a wariness about fluency, and, when it came to speech, a reluctance to change. As long as my stuttering was constant, I felt safe. To be fluent, to even speak a few words fluently was to set up an expectation in my father that I could be fluent, and create, in that expectation, a situation in which I felt bound to fail -- and also that the fault was mine. The more I recreated this dynamic, the stronger the idea of myself as a stutterer became.

Yet what a burden my speech must have been in my father's eyes. He was a believer in possibilities, but in me all he saw was limitations. So he tried to deny them. I could do anything, or so he thought, even stop stuttering. Wasn't I fluent on the last word I said? On the one hand, his attitude pushed me to try stuff that, self-protective as I was, I never would have tried. On the other hand, he set me up, over and over again, for an inevitable fall.

In order to create a strong and positive self-image, I had to bury the ache that stuttering (and missed foul shots) caused me, squash it down in its box every time it threatened to appear. But I'm not all right, Jack (recalling that movie again). As I get older the box keeps opening and the repressed pain of half-a- lifetime keeps popping up. More and more, I lack the energy -- and the desire -- to force it shut. By repressing memories of stuttering in my youth, I have been able to create a private mythology that has sustained me through difficult (and usually disfluent) periods of my adult life. But there's also been a price to pay: a dulling of sensation, a desensitivity towards personal pain, an intellectuality that overwhelms my emotions. The coping mechanisms that I mastered as a kid are still very much with me even though I no longer need them. The fears of speaking and the shame of being identified as someone with a flaw no longer exist -- but it's a struggle to come unbound from them.

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