Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words

by Marty Jezer
(Basic Books, 1997)

Excerpts From Chapter 15 -- "Sex, Lies, and The Telephone"

Charles Van Riper, who lived a happy and productive life and therefore should have known better, once called stuttering "an impediment in social living." And there is a stereotypical image of people who stutter (fostered by the psychoanalytic profession, about which more later) as socially inept losers. What makes that image so hurtful is that most of us who stutter have, at one time or another, bought into it. Just as striking out in an important baseball game made me feel like a lout, staying home on a Saturday night, when every other teenager in the world (or so I thought) seemed to be having fun on a date, made me feel like a social pariah -- friendless, unloved, forlorn, and unwanted.

There are no studies comparing the lives of people who stutter with those who don't. If one looks at the membership of stuttering self-help groups, people who stutter seem to have boy or girlfriends, marry, have children, get divorced, marry again, and muck through life just like everyone else. But self-help groups probably represent a biased sample. These are the people who are actively dealing with their stuttering and have, to a degree, overcome the social difficulties that most every person who stutters suffers. Just as there are stutterers who are not bothered by their stuttering or who have so successfully overcome their disability that they feel no need for self-help, so there are stutterers who live isolated lives and wallow hopelessly in their stuttering problem. But there are also fluent people who lead sad and lonely lives in fear of the risk inherent in any human interaction. Everyone has flaws, after all. Most people see themselves as being either too fat, too thin, too small, too tall, too ugly, too awkward, too oafish, too this or too that -- suffering always in comparison to the perfection they perceive in others. Those of us who stutter know how easy it is to give into the anxiety of social fears. That many of us seem to live social lives within the general norm is a triumph of pluck, persistence, and the insatiable (and evolutionarily necessary) human coupling desire.

Consider the verbal obstacles to a successful relationship, especially in an era when so much communication is dependent on using the telephone. First, there is the challenge of introducing oneself (or of being introduced by a friend) to a stranger who doesn't know your darkest secret, a secret which is likely to be a secret no longer the first time you open your mouth. And, then, asking for the date: many people, in this situation, fear rejection; stutterers, however, fear the asking. So worried are we about not stuttering when asking for the date that we don't have any worrying-energy left to fret about the answer.

And suppose then that these initial obstacles are surmounted. A friendship begins, the relationship grows, you fall in love. Then comes the communication demands of a loving relationship. Intimate conversations, the sharing of precious secrets and the narrative of one's life. Small talk, love talk, kitchen talk, pillow talk. Imagine trying to whisper sweet nothings into your lover's ear and ending up blocking? One could, I imagine, fake it by blowing softly into a lover's ear. But when one is blocking, one is usually inhaling, holding oneself in, resisting the urge to communicate, to flow into and with the other. To love, on the other hand means, among others things, allowing oneself the risk of letting go, of breathing, exhaling, reaching out, and expressing oneself to the other.

My own stuttering has often served as a dependable love detector. Much to my wonderment, I could always -- even as a teenager in the self-conscious throes of shyness -- flirt fluently with girls. Of course, my style of flirting was based on my style of talking. I did best in groups where I did not have to initiate or further a conversation. As always, I kept to the background, coming in at the end of other people's sentences, commenting upon what they said rather than making bold statements of my own. It was only when I liked a girl that I began to stutter. And the more I liked her the more I was likely to stutter.

Being a flirt was the only role-identity that I could adopt for myself in which I didn't feel as if I was being dragged down by my stuttering. To flirt was to reinvent myself as an actor and become someone who I ordinarily wasn't. Flirting involved, first, something chemical -- the physiological reaction to my natural attraction towards the opposite sex: flushed skin, a tingling sensation, an alertness and an electricity in the way I carried myself, in my body movements and in my posture. Feet apart, my body swaying with the rhythm of my excitement and bobbing with the beat of my enthusiasm. "Doing my dance, my old soft shoe," is how I would describe it when viewing myself from outside my body. I always thought that I moved in the way I did because bobbing and weaving was somehow sexy. But as I write this, in the context of this book about speech, I realize that my body movements were an aid to fluent speech. Rhythmic motions will often carry a stutterer through a block. I had created my particular style of flirting, not to fit some preconceived notion of what would seem sexy, but as a means of getting myself through stuttering blocks.

One flirts or, perhaps I should say, I flirted, not primarily to score. The pleasure for me is private, the joy I feel in being gregarious, getting out from under my social fears and stuttering shyness, the exuberance I feel in expressing a part of me that so often lays dormant, the pride, a lion-like pride, that comes from unabashedly proclaiming my own sexual power. It's more difficult for me to flirt once I connect with the other person. Then we're communicating. Back in my own body, I'm reunited with that part of me that stutters. It's what I say that counts, not what style I'm affecting or how I'm moving.

In the first draft of this book, I wrote, "of course, in assuming this flirtatious role, I was being a total phony." Upon reflection, I'm not so sure about that. Who's to say that this role-identity or that role-identity is not as real as the role- identity we usually inhabit? What's phony about getting out-of- oneself and playing the Lothario, or playing, as I did, the role of a John Wayne/Marlon Brando/James Dean mumbling hero. The same goes for women, too, who, with the help of fashion, can change their image or identity every time they dress. My problem was that I could not imagine myself, for long, as anyone other than who I normally was. Safe, stolid, stuttering, everyday me. . . . Except when I'm flirting, I cannot play-act or assume a new identity. I believe that this has something to do with my stutter. So insistent am I on accepting myself with my stutter that I view with suspicion any desire to change. I interpret any effort to get out of myself, even if only to be playful, as a rejection of what I am: which I further interpret as a rejection of my stutter. Tempted to be smooth and stylish, I hear an inner voice (it must be my own voice for I can't identify it as belonging to either of my parents) making a sardonic comment.

"Whatsamatter, you're not satisfied with who you are?"
To which I instantaneously and defensively respond, "I am satisfied! I am satisfied. I don't want to be anyone but me!" <