I grew up during the 1950s, a period that was the golden age of television comedy -- The Great Gleason, Lucille Ball, Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen and his men in the street, Martin and Lewis, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, Groucho Marx, and Sid Caesar. I loved comedy. All I wanted was to be around people -- in the movies, on television, in the school yard, on the street corner, and at the dinner table -- who could make me laugh. The joke is on me, as I see it. Here I was, a kid who couldn't tell a joke without stuttering on the punch line. Prudence should have led me to admire and want to emulate strong, silent-types like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, or James Dean -- and, as I said, I tried. But I dug funny men instead, guys who talked, guys with "shticks."
Of course, like most boys, I at first wanted to be a ballplayer. But in some things, at least, I was a realist. Although I was a good athlete, I knew that I could not appear on pregame warm-up shows or the postgame wrap-up. I also knew that I couldn't be a standup comedian or a comic actor. But I could think funny things and, so I thought, write funny lines. And since writers, I figured, do not have to talk, I thought I could be one. In addition to reading Mad (then a ten cent comic book), I would peruse the magazine rack at my corner candy store. On one of the shelves, next to the crossword puzzle books, were large softcover joke compendiums with titles like 1000 Jokes! or One Thousand More Jokes! Inside were mother-in-law jokes, ethnic jokes, fat people jokes, kid and parent jokes, armed service jokes, employee-boss jokes, take-my-wife jokes, and in one collection, this stuttering joke:
A stutterer met a friend at a tavern and said, "Y-y-ya g-g-got t-ten m-m-minutes? I w-w-wannna h-h-have a f-five m-m-m-minute c-c-c-conversation."I closed that book as if a rattlesnake lay coiled in its pages. My stomach tightened and for a moment I thought that I would throw up. I put the book back on the shelf and never opened it or any other book like it again. I still liked comedy and loved to laugh, but I never ever considered writing gags again. Until that moment, I had found ways to compensate, if not for the fact of my stutter, then for the pain that it caused me. I was popular, had lots of friends, and was smart in school. I didn't then know how humor can cut to the bone, and I especially didn't know how vulnerable I was to seeing my problem as the butt of somebody else's laughter.
I've spent a good part of my life learning to cope as a stutterer and overcoming my embarrassment at stuttered speech. And I'm still overcoming. But one lesson I have learned is that it's better to talk and to stutter than to feign fluency by being silent -- even if there are going to be occasional listeners who laugh at my disfluency. Yes, a five minute conversation with me might take a few minutes more than it would were I perfectly fluent -- and that's no joke. But what's the hurry? I've learned by hard knocks that if I've got something to say, most people will listen. And if they don't, what of it? Stuttering is a fact and a facet of my life that I have had to learn to live with. No matter how fluently I happen to speak at any given time, I know there is going to be another time when fluency deserts me.
Abraham Maslow, one of the seminal thinkers in the field of humanist psychology, theorized that people are motivated by instinctive needs and inner drives to become self-actualized. These needs are structured as a pyramid. At the base are the physiological needs of hunger, thirst, shelter, the instinct to survive. Higher on the pyramid are the associated needs for personal safety and security. When one is comfortably and safely sheltered and has enough to eat, more individualistic needs come to the fore: the need for love and belongingness, the drive to feel self-confident and develop self-esteem. At the top of the pyramid, and sometimes buried by the psychological baggage and physiological weight of life's hard-knocks, comes the need for self-actualization, the drive for self-fulfillment, the need to be true to oneself and everything that one is able to be. Somewhere within Maslow's hierarchy, connected to and as deep as the need for love and belongingness is, I believe, another need. The need to communicate, to interact and express oneself with one's family, friends, neighbors, and community. Everyone has this need. The grammar of language, we are told, is an entitlement of being human; it's encoded into every person's brain. Deaf people, Oliver Sacks tells us, instinctively develop a language of sign even when they are isolated from other deaf people. Speech, whether it be spoken or signed, is not the only medium for communication, of course. We know that the earliest communicative interactions between infant and caregiver -- touching, holding, rocking, gazing, "cooing," "gooing," smiling, etc., are critical to the survival and development of infants. For example, infants "placed" in overcrowded orphanages all over the world, where they may be fed, clothed, and changed, but who have very little human interaction and opportunity for communication, are more likely to have health and emotional problems, are more likely even to die than children who grow with the opportunity of human communication.
Speech may not be the be and end-all of communication but once a child develops speech, it becomes the medium of choice. What happens, then, to a young child physiologically predisposed to stutter (the best evidence, as I shall show, now indicates a genetically-based organic predisposition), and instinctively determined to say his piece. He's got an idea in his head and the words to go with it. But when he opens his mouth to speak, the words (that he is so sure of) are blocked by the discoordination of his speech. We call this stuttering but the actual violation cuts much deeper than the temporary interruption of the ability to communicate. Stuttering is not only a blockage of speech: it is a blow to the psyche, an impediment to a basic and inherent inner need.
And then people react to stuttered speech differently than they react to fluent speech. They fidget, they cover their eyes, they interrupt, they say the word they think you are trying to say, they give advice, they make faces, they mimic, they laugh, they look way, they walk away -- and the wound cuts deeper. Speech, for the child who stutters and for the adult for whom stuttering is chronic, becomes not a medium for communication, but a recording of humiliation, a confirmation of ineptitude, an indication of abnormality, a violation of what everyone else in the world considers fundamentally human.
This then is a book about stuttering that, by necessity, will also be a book about speaking, silence, and the pleasures and pitfalls of everyday communication. As a person who can never take fluent speech for granted, I want to address the complex dynamics of verbal communication and describe the barriers that are erected when the mechanics of speech break down. I see stuttering not only as a disability that is challenging to live with and difficult to overcome, but as a metaphor for other impediments -- physical and psychological, real and imagined -- that inhibit so many peoples' lives and block their path towards self-actualization.