1/8/2021: Now that the 2020 Presidential Election is behind us (HA!), I’m coming back to this post I started back in November…
Samuel L. Jackson. James Earl Jones, Charlie Sheen. Jack Welch. Winston Churchill. Joe Biden.
During the runup to the November election, much was made about Joe Biden’s verbal gaffes. People were concerned if these supposed gaffes reflected senility or another ailment that would limit his ability to serve as President. To those of us who are stutterers, these verbal variances were immediately identifiable and made perfect sense.
While the list of prominent people and celebrities who stutter is a long one, when I think about these people speaking in commercials, movies, etc. I can identify certain tells. One of the ones I know all too well could be described as “a bit of bombast,” or a bit more vocal volume than might be called for.
We all have our own ways of working around our vocal impediment. There’s no one method that works consistently for everyone because stuttering manifests itself in everyone a bit differently. Mine is speaking a bit LOUD: I pull in more air in order to get enough volume in my lungs to propel the words out in a stream — so the muscles won’t have a chance to tense up into a stammer or lock up in a full-fledged stutter. It doesn’t mean I’m angry. It’s just how I work around my impediment. Think of the soliloquies of Sir John Gielgud doing Shakespeare and you get the idea.
It’s definitely a reason why I developed a larger-than-normal vocabulary: when you lock up on a small common word, you switch to the large, uncommon, multisyllabic word in order to drive the sound out by working the muscles hard…
…which also led to my first chosen profession: journalism. Being able to tell stories with words that I couldn’t get out aloud. Were it not for my chosen degree path being killed off at the University of Tulsa in 1981-82, who knows where THAT would have led?
I imagine the names above have stories of childhood traumas and aggressions, micro- and macro-, that pushed us in particular directions, life choices, vocations, etc. My personal nadir was probably in 5th Grade when a new, young, and enthusiastic Math teacher told me and my parents that “he was going to get Gary to stop that.” It was the worst year of torture and killed my previous love of math and algebra. For the child of a father who was an artilleryman in Hungary, trained to calculate firing angles and trajectories in his head, I think it perhaps changed how my father looked at me. One could perhaps infer that choosing technology as a profession was a choice that allowed me to exercise all my best skills, except that “speaking thing.” But I am an organizational behaviorist first, a technologist second. This blend led to training, and leadership, which then required more speaking. Damn.
When I started to climb up the managerial ladder, in the early 90s, one of the first things I found on that newfangled Internet was Malcolm Fraser’s book, “Self Therapy for the Stutterer.” This was EARLY Internet. I’m sure the Stuttering Foundation’s web presence was one of the very earliest: no PDFs yet, but I could download a raw PostScript file (!) that I couldn’t read but could print on one of the University of Tulsa printers. I won’t say it was a total revelation, but it gave me new approaches and ammunition that made my particular form of stuttering much easier to cope with and workaround. I still have my yellowing copy in a binder.
Fast-forward to today: I give speeches — either departmental, office, or whole congregation. My daughter is surprised to find that I’m an Introvert because everything she’s seen of me for 15 years appears to be the exact opposite. More than just talk, I listen. I persuade.
Sometimes the bombast, coupled with years of ingrained technological superiority makes true listening hard. I would guess it’s an occupational hazard of many techies and former techies, who KNOW without a doubt what’s the right approach. Or it’s what happens when after years of not being able to express one’s opinion verbally, maybe I’m catching up for the lost time…
Like James Earl Jones has said, he is still a stutterer and always will be. I feel the same way. People perhaps won’t know that I still struggle with the mechanics of speech that most people take for granted, but it’s always there.
So cut our new incoming President a bit of slack, will ya?
Addendum, 1/9/2021: So today, while taking down the Christmas lights, I’m listening to the Washington Post “Presidential” podcast entry on Joe Biden. The host is interviewing Evan Osnos about his book “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now.” One of the interesting things for me so far is Joe realized early that if he would start conversations rather than passively join them, he’d lock up and stutter less. I HAVE ALWAYS DONE THAT. I never realized it before. This is why a walk up to the ATM in Seattle for me resulted in a 30-minute conversation with someone on the street. To my wife Karen: I’m sorry!
I’m sure people who are concerned about assumed male privilege would perhaps assign this as yet another example of Mansplaining. But in the case of a stutterer, it is yet another coping mechanism.