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'Your response is your character.' (response to stuttering)

Johnathan Rowe is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.

Her sister had said something about me, she said.

"You know," she recounted, "he almost sounds as though he stuttered once."

We had been visiting her family at their farm in the Upper Midwest. Now we were pulling out onto the Interstate. The observation came totally out of the blue. She must have been waiting to tell me.

As the wheat fields passed outside, I savored every nuance. "Almost." "once." Oh, sweet.

Scenes flashed through my mind. A little kid, lying in bed, wishing that his strange affliction would go away. The adults who kept telling him to "try to relax." A stutterer is always trying, probably too much. The English class in the new high school. His classmates had demanded that the teacher call on the new kid to read aloud, and he had dissolved into a sputtering puddle. And much later: the young woman who told him that she liked him but that his stutter made her nervous.

This last may sound cruel. But the honesty still staggers me. (When the shoe is on the other foot, I tend to slink off into the night.) People who stutter know they make people nervous. They even make themselves nervous. This fact screams out in every conversation, but no one is supposed to notice. This woman was paying me a compliment. She thought me big enough to handle the truth.

People who know me know that the problem is not entirely behind. There are days and times when the gears still seize that connect my mind to my mouth, and when the dread consonants, such as "d" and "p," loom up like guards at the East German border But I'm not complaining. In fact, I hardly think about it anymore.

Self-pity has become a dominant note in our national discourse. George Bush talks about the need for capital gains tax breaks in tones more appropriate for appeals for blankets for homeless children. One hesitates even to appear to add to all this kvetching.

So right off: my problem was not great in the larger scheme of things. Growing up, I could play baseball and read and throw snowballs at cars. Anything that did not require formal speech. Compared to kids whose bodies didn't work, I had it pretty easy. In fact, despite my own problem, I was all too inclined to tease classmates who were slow or fat or had problems of other kinds. I never thought of myself as having "handicap," only a kind of chronic nemesis that I learned to negotiate the way a tennis player negotiates the net.

The last thing I ever wanted-the last thing I suspect most "handicapped" people want-is sympathy. It may make people feel good to offer it. But all it ever did for me was make me feel bad. The people who helped most understood my need to stand on my own; if you want to cut a stutterer off at the knees, finish his sentences for him out of the kindness of your heart. (Unless you know him very, very well.) I am something of a fundamentalist on this point. If I encountered a man with no legs trying to pull himself through a Safeway entrance, I would stand back and let him struggle. Of course, at some point I would offer help, (Note I said offer) But that man's dignity, his whole sense of manhood, might be bound up at that moment in making it through the door.

Friend for life

Talking is something you probably take for granted, just as you take for granted that when you want a drink of milk, your arm will reach for the glass and clutch it. But for someone who stutters, talking is like running air traffic control at O'Hare, during rush hour, with half the staff out sick.

The stutterer is struggling to handle three jobs at once, First, he's thinking about what he's going to say, just as you do. But he's also scanning sentences and even paragraphs ahead for dangers such as "p"s and "d"s that may lie in ambush. (When I first encountered the "search" function on a word processor, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit.) Then, he is frantically constructing jerry-built and circuitous detours that are often painfully obvious in such a person's speech.

As a child, daily life entailed strategies of a similar sort. If a seagull divides the world between "fish" and "not-fish," then a child who stutters divides it between "talk" and "don't have to." It dawned on me early on, for example, that an unruly boy sent to stand in the hall was a boy who wouldn't have to recite in reading group. In junior high school, as I became more socially self-conscious, things got worse. Though hardly an enterprising student, I became an assiduous observer of the recitation habits of different teachers. If one teacher started on the left side of the class, I'd choose my seat to the right and rear, to have the best chance of running out the clock.

My most vivid memory from those years is of Latin class. It is the last period on a sparkling fall afternoon. The football fields beckon outside the window, an incredibly inviting "don't-have-to" zone, The recitation, moving inexorably up and down the rows, is closing in on me. And the minute hand on the wall clock is moving like sludge. I count ahead to the question destined for me, and start repeating the' answer to myself in a low drone. But then someone makes a mistake, and the teacher calls on the pupil next in line, changing the order and forcing me to revise my mantra. This happens several times. I am sweating. My face takes on the color that caused friends to call me "Red-beet Rowe." More than once, l gave an answer that I knew Was wrong, but that at least did not begin with a "d" or a "p." Or I declared simply, "I don't know." Once one starts down that road, it's almost scary how easy it becomes.

It is not east to satnd and watch someone suffer seizures over words. People finish sentences for a stutterer, I suspect, mainly to relieve their own distress. Perhaps this is why people laugh at stutterers as well. I am going to make a horrible admission. Even in my worst periods, listening to others stutter was excruciating for me, too. Perhaps even more so than for most: I knew that the way I was feeling was pretty much how I made others feel.

All I can tell you is that, to a person who stutters, your response is your character. If you stand with patience and poise, if you don't get edgy and start finishing his sentences, you will be deemed among the strong. You will be a trusted friend for life, even if you never see this person again. At times, this has actually helped me as a reporter People reveal themselves in their instinctive response to another's discomfort or distress. On the basis of a brief interview at a recent Dukakis function, I am confident that Boston Mayor Ray Flynn is a genuinely decent man. That Senator John Glenn married a woman with a severe stutter tells me a lot about him as well.

One learns a lot about employers, too, It takes courage to hire, as a representative, someone who might not make the greatest first, impression, especially in a culture as image-conscious as our own. My own personal hall of fame on this score includes Ralph Nader. I was one of his early "Raiders" and took part in the congressional hearing that was held on our report. As I recall, I didn't do a great job in presenting my own brief section at that hearing. This couldn't have enhanced the credibility that Nader was striving to build. But there was never any question that I would get to say my piece.

Because the sources of their problem are so elusive, stutterers tend to be introspective. Whatever else is involved, there is no escaping the strangely social nature of die affliction. When the social stakes were zero, for example, speech came fairly easily. Talking to a dog, for example, or a baby. Like most stutterers, I had no problems reciting in unison in school, as during the Pledge of Allegiance. (This made me a big pledge fan.) It was the presence of other-presumably judging-minds that caused the locks to clank shut. This is why the media portrayals of stutterers are so unfortunate, especially for kids. They reinforce the apprehension that only makes the problem worse. Few would think of making a movie in which epileptic seizures came off as gags. But in movies and on TV (most recently the film A Fish Called Wanda), the stutterer is a stock comic figure, a hapless bumbler whose strainings and contortions are a bundle of laughs. When I was a kid, Porky Pig cartoons were a constant source of pain. And, yes, I'm touchy on the subject to this day. Max Headroom, for example, the stuttering pitchman for Coca-Cola. Perhaps you found him funny. I didn't. And I don't buy Coke or Minute Maid products, which Coke owns, But I also don't think it's necessarily bad to learn, early on, that when a corporation wants to sell something, it will exploit human weakness and affliction to do so.

Curiously, I often had little problem speaking to other people who stuttered. Another curious experience was that if someone made my stutter an object of conversation-that is, if they brought it out into the open-somehow that would take the pressure off, and the stutter would recede. Talking about talking, I could speak fairly freely.

In my own case, to the "tent that I have emerged from this problem, it happened almost incidentally, as I put to rest various inner oppositions and conflicts, Sometime in my teens, I decided that the way to deal with stuffering was to defy it and become a member of the debate team. After that, I pretty much blocked it out. I aspired towards the same kinds of careers as other young people, and thinking myself "a stutterer" was baggage I didn't want.

In elementary school, I got special "speech therapy" for a while. But the drills didn't accomplish much. And being taken out of class-an officially certified problem case-probably did as much harm as good. Once they've fixed the label on you, it can be self-reinforcing in all sorts of subtle ways. On die whole, however, my life was happily free of therapy. I am forever indebted to those teachers who found tactful ways to relieve me of my distress. Instead of going around the table in reading group, for example, calling on people at random. That way, in being skipped over, I would not appear an obvious charity case.

I craved nothing more than to be treated as normal, and people with other forms of impediment have told me they feel this way as well. They want to be part-however awkwardly-of the normal flow of life.

About 12 years ago, someone formed an organization called the "National Stutterers Project'"In the words of rime magazine, the organization regarded the nation's sWtterers as "another oppressed minority" and hoped "to weld them into a potent lobbying group '" If it helps some people deal with their speaking problem, I have no quarrel with it whatsoever. But I don't think I would have joined. I sensed that I did not want this problem to become my identity.

The idea of a stutterers lobby gives me pause for another reason. The world of therapy has come to mimic the market segmentation of the magazine rack and of the Washington PAC bazaar, People cordon themselves off into ever-multiplying ghettos of affliction. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has inspired a legion of counterparts dealing with everything from drug addiction to overeating. Which is understandable at one level. Who's going to confront the president of the Coca-Cola Co. if not an organization of stutterers themselves? But somehow, the goal should be to find what connects individuals with various problems, not what sets them apart,

And wouldn't it be refreshing if someone besides stutterers were to express outrage to the chief of Coke?
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Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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