New York Times, August 17, 1997
STUTTERING: A Life Bound Up in Words
AUTHOR By Marty Jezer.
266 pp. New York
Basic Books. $23.
"I've always had difficulty saying my name,'' Marty Jezer informs us early on. Now there speaks a real stutterer. In my own experience with friends and acquaintances who stutter, it is seldom routine tidbits like one's own name that give trouble. No, it is chiefly at the boundaries of unfamiliar phonic territory that they feel compelled to stutter their way forward. But here's Marty Jezer, confronting something he's confronted often, the trivial 10-second task of standing up at a meeting to announce his name, hometown, organization:
''Driving to the meeting . . . I practice saying my name, slowly, with different inflections. I prolong my vowels, stretch the syllables, and, to counter my stress, practice a little voluntary stuttering. . . . I visualize the introductions, and my turn coming, and picture myself in total control.''
And what happens at the meeting? In informal conversation, he was, ''as usual . . . acceptably fluent.'' But, he writes, ''as my turn approached, my stress level rose. . . . The feeling of fluency was slipping away. . . . My turn came, and . . . I blocked on both of my names. . . . I sat down thinking, next time I'll get it right.''
And something like that happens, we gather, nearly always. What a cursed life; yes, ''A Life Bound Up in Words,'' at any rate a life entangled with the inability to utter words with any confidence. In childhood, he recalls, he was ''a kid who couldn't tell a joke without stuttering on the punch line.'' Average stutterers, we learn, ''are disfluent on 10 percent of the words they speak.'' But Marty? In clinical tests at the National Institutes of Health, he tells us, ''I stuttered for more than 80 percent of my speaking time, and on 80 percent of all the syllables and words.'' And Marty as observed by a speech pathologist? ''He was not able to exert any control over the rate and force of the articulatory movements. When he closed his mouth, you could hear his teeth clamp shut. You could see the tremendous amount of muscle tension in the jaws and neck region even when he was vocalizing.''
So what may so extreme a case have to impart to, ah, ''normal'' stutterers, such as might turn to this book for support? Foremost, an example of lifelong courage. ''Like most boys, I 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 the pregame warm-up show or the postgame wrap-up.'' (I can't think of an odder reason for deciding against baseball. Yet for sights set high enough, it's realistic.) He decided to become a writer (biographies of Abbie Hoffman, of Rachel Carson). What's more, he can recount, at length and at first hand, the present state of stuttering research. That topic takes up much of the book.
''I have been treated by some of the best speech therapists in the country,'' Jezer writes. ''The director of one well-known speech clinic invited me to go through his program a second time for free, because I could not achieve the proper 'targets' for fluency the first time around. . . . I spent three years in another program practicing fluency techniques for an hour or more each day. . . . I practiced calling information operators all over the country. . . . I got so good that I could fluently ask any operator in the country for the phone number of the Holiday Inn. But . . . if the operator asked whether I wanted the one at the airport or the one downtown . . . my fluency would break down.''
What a life, what an exercise: hours spent placing calls, and all for something he had no need to know. Stuttering therapy, by Jezer's account, would seem incredibly boring, save that for most acolytes there's always hope, hope normally fulfilled. Our author's case, though, is so complicated he's reconciled (at 57) to the knowledge that, however improved, he's incurable.
En route to that reconciliation with what's not to be overcome, he has accumulated the material for some excellent stories, as of the Freudian who told him stuttering was ''a kind of verbal constipation. As hard as we try to talk, nothing comes out.'' So the problem went back to a failure of toilet training. Or the ''doctor of something or other who lived on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel,'' who sent Marty's father a written promise that he'd effect a cure ''in a fortnight.'' So off to Jersey flew Marty, to confront a sergeant- major type whose idea was ''to toughen us up as if we were recruits in the British Army. . . . To stumble even the slightest bit was to provoke his fury. Not only would he yell at us (and, from six inches away, splatter us with spit), but he'd grab us by the shirt or the scruff of the collar and shake us out of our stammering softness,'' Jezer writes. The doctor ''seemed to think that spontaneous speech was women's talk. Men . . . wouldn't squander their power with idle chatter. We were to be silent unless we had something important, manly, to say.''
Lord, lord. And it all amounted, of course, to nothing. The Jersey doc could bully patients into brief stutter-free performances. Marty's parents wanted badly to believe he was cured. His father died in that belief. Marty's not cured, and lives with the fact that he never will be.
Near the end of his book, he's telling us how things have improved. ''Stutterers of my generation grew up ignorant about our disability. We didn't have Internet discussion groups, self-help groups or telephone pals to help us. Therapists knew very little about what they were doing, raised false expectations, made promises they couldn't fulfill and blamed their failures on their clients.'' Nowadays, though, times are changed, not that there isn't still ''a lot of bad advice.'' But for good advice, the book ends with a list of sources, including a ''stuttering home page.''
Granted, ''Stuttering'' is too long a book by far. It would have made a memorable long article in a magazine like Harper's. But if you stutter, read it; if you don't, well, pick it for nuggets. A nugget I wish had been included is the yarn about the crewman who stuttered. ''Sing it!'' commanded the captain as he dithered and pointed. So he sang: ''Should auld acquaintance be forgot / And never brought to mind / The first mate's fallen overboard / He's half a mile behind. ''
Alas, Jezer dismisses the premise of such a story. What a stutterer can sing, he says, isn't an impromptu message; it's a memorized song. But of such is the kingdom of anecdote.
Hugh Kenner, a professor of English at the University of Georgia, is the author of ''The Pound Erza.''
Mr. Kenner claims that in his experience, few people who stutter have trouble saying their names. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While some stutterers have no difficulty introducing themselves, the National Stuttering Project's experience as the largest U.S. support organization for people who stutter is that many (perhaps most) find this a source of daily embarrassment. It's such a widespread problem among our members, in fact, that we created a poster to dramatize our experience.
Because stuttering knows no cultural, geographic or socioeconomic boundaries, people who stutter are widely diverse. Yet they experience many of the same feelings and frustrations. Support organizations like ours bring hope and dignity to adults and children who stutter by helping them realize that they are not alone. So do books by people like Marty Jezer.
Another common problem for people who stutter is the persistent insensitivity of those who trivialize this disorder. Mr. Kenner's "favorite anecdote" about the stuttering sailor who sings that a man's fallen overboard is a prime example of the demeaning (and completely inaccurate) folklore that makes stuttering an object of ridicule. We can't help wondering: Would Mr. Kenner have treated his readers to a similar cheap shot at the expense of people who are blind or use wheelchairs? And would The New York Times have published it?
Your book section editors could have given readers useful information and valuable insight by having this book reviewed by a leading speech pathologist, or by an author or journalist who stutters. We are disappointed that The New York Times instead chose to insult three million Americans.
National Stuttering Project