My Turn: Writer Charles Dubow on Stuttering

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I use the word “torture” on purpose because for most stutterers that’s how speaking often feels. It is not only physically uncomfortable as we strain our neck muscles or grind our teeth to say a word, but it is also mental anguish as well. Poodles Rock/Corbis

In the short period since my debut novel was published on February 5, I have found myself in a position familiar to many writers on book tour: reading to large (and sometimes not-so-large) crowds and taking questions afterward. For most except the unusually extroverted, this can be daunting—especially when the faces in the room are unfamiliar. Palms get sweaty, vocal cords constrict, hearts race. There is an urgent need for a bathroom trip, a drink, or even a cigarette. Mostly what you want is to just get the hell out of there. And that’s for normal people. Imagine how much worse it is when you have a stutter.

What I do before I address the room is “advertise” the fact that I stutter. I inform everyone that I have a stutter and that I am not drunk or having a brain aneurysm, which usually draws a laugh. I do this for three reasons: first, because a speech therapist once told me it was a good idea; second, it puts me more at ease; and third, it puts everyone else more at ease as well.

I have stuttered since I was about 5 or 6 years old. My father stuttered too, but researchers still aren’t entirely clear on why people stutter. While genetics are thought to play a part, it’s not necessarily hereditary. My father’s father didn’t stutter and neither—thank God—do either of my two children. Nor is it necessarily brought on by trauma, although in some rare cases it can be. And it certainly isn’t brought on by any kind of mental defectiveness. I am not being self-serving by saying so; famous stutterers have included some of the most brilliant people in history, including Aristotle, Isaac Newton, and Winston Churchill. (In England they call it a stammer, which always sounded slightly more melodious to my ears and somehow slightly less severe, even if that’s not the case.)

What we do know is that there is a slight trip in the wire as the brain sends voice commands to the mouth. The mouth, and its attendant muscles, don’t always respond the way you want them to. It’s a little like my daughter when she sulks. (Don’t wanna. Can’t make me. Etc.)

In some people, stuttering can be “situational,” which means that it can be better or worse depending on what one is doing and whom one is with. When I am talking with my wife, for example, I rarely stutter. When I feel stress or am tired, I stutter more.

While there is no “cure” for stuttering, there are a number of techniques to lessen one’s stutter. For example, one can use breath control. Often stutterers not only get stuck on words but also their breathing can fall out of synch with their speaking. Imagine when you’re singing and you don’t have enough breath left to finish a note.

One can also “fake” the way one pronounces a word. For example, if one knows one is going to stutter—and there are always certain syllables or vowel sounds that torment us—we can cheat by not saying the word perfectly, e.g., say the word “three” for “tree.”

The last, and most common, technique is word substitution. If stutterers feel they are about to hit a verbal pothole, they can quickly mentally swerve by choosing a different word. For example, I often use the British terms “flat” for “apartment” or “lift” for “elevator.” People think I am being an Anglophile, but really it’s easier for me to use shorter words. It’s also a great way to develop a large vocabulary.

The drawback to all these methods is that they don’t always work.

A few years ago I was a member of the board of the American Institute of Stuttering, which is a pioneering organization helping stutterers to overcome their impediment. I sat in on a few sessions with other patients and I was chagrined to find out how much worse other people stutter. All my life I had always felt sorry for myself, frustrated and enraged by my inability to express myself vocally, but I was actually one of the lucky ones. Sure, I might trip over the odd word, and I have better and worse days, but these poor people could barely get a word out. One nicely dressed man in the group was the picture of confidence until he began to speak. It was torture for him and for the rest of us.

I use the word “torture” on purpose because for most stutterers that’s how speaking often feels. It is not only physically uncomfortable as we strain our neck muscles or grind our teeth to say a word, but it is also mental anguish. We know what we want to say, but we can’t say it. And if that verbal constipation weren’t enough, the discomfort is heightened by the fact that we know our audience is being forced to endure it as well. For children who stutter this can be especially cruel because their peers are quick to taunt and imitate. I remember being teased regularly as a child by little boys saying things like “Hi-hi-hi, Ch-Ch-Charles.” Fortunately, I was a big kid and able to beat up most of my tormentors, but that sense of shame and anger never leaves you even as your audience matures and is, at least to your face, too polite to make fun of you or express irritation or discomfort.

It is especially off-putting when meeting someone for the first time, and watching their reaction go from amusement to confusion. At first they think you’re kidding—or maybe inebriated—and they’ll laugh to conceal their discomfort as the truth sinks in. Sometimes they’ll finish your sentence (FYI, we hate that). Unlike most other handicaps, such as blindness or deafness, stuttering is treated as a second-class condition. Too many people think that the stutterer just isn’t concentrating enough or intelligent enough to form words. “Just spit it out” is the attitude that most people have. Believe me, we’d like nothing more.

The insecurity most stutterers feel speaking in public is reinforced by social and cultural expectations. For years I was an editor at a leading business website. Now, I am not a bad-looking guy and certainly know my stuff, but it was suggested that due to my stutter I probably shouldn’t do things like go on television or radio. On the one hand, I was relieved not to do so, but on the other, I knew it was having a negative impact on my career. The same is true with my current book tour. So far I have had pretty positive reactions to my readings and discussions about the book, even if I have stuttered, but the fact that I cannot promote the book on television or radio means that there are two potentially powerful marketing tools I am unable to take advantage of at a time when authors need every edge they can get to sell their books.

But it is also likely that stuttering is the direct cause of my becoming an author. Frustrated with my inability to express myself verbally, I compensated by writing. On the page, I had no constraints, no lack of fluidity, no struggle to say what I wanted—well, at least no more than most writers. So, while stuttering has been a constant source of pain for me my whole life, it has also been indirectly responsible for my greatest joy. Would I have rathered I didn’t stutter? Once I would have said yes. Today as I hold my book in my hands, I am not so sure.

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