Everyone stutters occasionally, but only a few of us are stutterers. And those of us who are stutterers don’t always stutter, just as the rest of you don’t always speak perfectly. We all stammer confessing love, but never do if crying out in pain. The well-meaning compliment, “But you’re not stuttering now,” is as hurtful as it is unknowing. A stutterer is always a stutterer, even when silent.
There are Egyptian hieroglyphs they say refer to us, and a Babylonian cuneiform that records a stammer amid inventories of grain. There’s the Bible’s Moses, slow of tongue. Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It recites: “I would thou couldst stammer, that thou might’st pour his concealed man out of thy mouth as wine comes out of a narrow-mouthed bottle—either too much at once, or none at all.” Too much or none at all—that pretty much sums up literature’s purposes for us.
Stutterers are present from Zola to Joyce to Rushdie, from the highest culture to the lowest. Septimus Warren Smith stammers in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Stuttering Bill in Stephen King’s It, like his author, remains a loser until he makes it big as a horror novelist. Children are still treated to the refrain “Th-th that’s all, folks!” in recycled Porky the Pig cartoons on Saturday morning television, whose song “K-K-K-Katy” is what Harvard professor Marc Shell calls “the most deeply humiliating parody of stuttering ever made in the English language.”
Speech, I’m told, requires the coordination of one hundred muscles. When they do not, it is the failure of a complex system that both qualifies and undermines modernity, which may be why there are so many stutterers in literature today. Stutterers introduce inefficiency into every task jointly undertaken: hence our exemption from military service.
But stutterers have always been around, and in the Western world—those places steeped long enough in Judeo-Christian thinking that its prejudices are axiomatic—we have long been credited with the powers of an oracle. The Book of Isaiah says, “For with stammering lips and another tongue will [God] speak to this people.” Even today, says novelist David Shields, “Stutterers are truth-tellers. Everyone else is lying.”
But we’re seldom heroes for all that. By virtue of our inchoate speech, sometimes we do get to stammer out things that ring uncannily true. Consider Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, or Graves’ future Roman emperor Claudius, like Demosthenes an iconic stutterer from antiquity.
But such infrequent moments of clarity come at the expense of spending the balance of our depicted lives as jesters and clowns. Stutterers are seldom central characters, and often make early exits: The stammering cowboy in Howard Hawks’ Red River gets trampled in the cattle drive, and the neurotic, stuttering Storm Trooper in Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood simply vanishes—frankly to the other characters’ relief.
In his 1939 The Personality Structure of Stuttering, James Bender wrote that we have we have a “characteristic leptosomic physique” as well as a “disturbed metabolism.” We are introverted, and our blood sugar runs high even if “the urinary creatinine coefficient is low.” Our saliva is overloaded with carbon dioxide and we have poor motor coordination. We are lazy, cowardly, selfish, and procrastinate. But it’s not all bad news. Science reports the average stutterer is more intelligent. Stuttering, alone among disabilities, can be called “charming.” In women, a stutter is attractive if it belies feminine shyness.
But in the main, writers and other observers of stuttering, rarely stutterers themselves, take the affliction to be the telling tip of an ethical, medical, or psychosocial submerged iceberg; as the register of our moral, bodily or mental failure. We are cast as wicked. We are traitors. Many spies, in fiction or real life, stutter.
Current thinking holds stuttering to be inheritable and neurological. But current thinking has been wrong in the past. Stuttering has been referred to as “the disorder of many theories,” “a bonanza for quacks.” For Aristotle, it was the failure of our tongues to keep up with our imagination, but for Hippocrates, too much black bile in our systems. The therapies prescribed for us over the ages run the gamut from relaxation and gymnastics, to hypnosis, faith healing, electric shock, “ingesting a Finnish insect repellant normally rubbed on cows, bleeding the lips with leeches, and eating the feces of goats.” The Oracle of Delphi told Battus to cure his stutter by raising an army and conquering North Africa.
But unless you’re North African, the worst remedy may have been the 19th century’s, when surgeons had a go at us, with the result that no one was cured but some died on operating tables. Still, I think the cruelest of gratuitous therapies was the psychoanalytical babble of the twentieth century, at whose height one medical authority wrote of us: “They are rarely happy people; but that they very rarely realize all their potentialities, that their lives are often thwarted and sterile is not so much the fault of the stuttering as of the emotional disability that underlies it.”
Stutterers do not seek out each other’s company. We can go to extraordinary ends to avoid each other. I’ve treated stutterers in my classes icily. Stuttering is an echophenomena, like contagious yawning: one of us stammers, and then the rest of the room must follow. And alone among the disabled, stutterers are never asked, “How did it happen?” We’re assumed to have always been this way. Our handicap is still accounted for in myriad ways that might have led to efficacious treatment, were any of those many theories correct.
The fact is that we do not know how to cure stammering, though sometimes it disappears—lies in wait?—or ceases to matter. In Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler writes: “Yankel Schneider, remember him, he had a stammer? So what? He’s become a chartered accountant and drives a Buick now.” But for the rest of us, the best course of action is to remain taciturn.
I was recently seated in the back of coach. I saw the drinks cart slowly making its way down the airplane’s aisle. I had plenty of time to rehearse in my mind what I wanted to say to the flight attendant. “Coffee. Black.” Twenty minutes later, it was finally my turn to order, but I had so thoroughly convinced myself I would stutter that, of course, I did. “Buh-buh-black kah-kah-fee.”
Literary criticism has not done stutterers any favors, either. We are luckiest when ignored. Eve Sedgwick could write forty pages about Melville’s Billy Budd, which some believe literature’s most profound treatment of the tragic stutterer, but she does not mention Billy’s stammer once.
Worse is Gilles Deleuze, who declares stuttering a playground for playful thinking about poetic language. He turns stutterers into avant-garde metaphors. With stuttering, he claims, “Language trembles from head to toe. This is the principle of a poetic comprehension of language itself.” Deleuze theorizes stuttering without regard to stutterers. Disability disappears, along with the disabled themselves, to be replaced with a preternatural power granted to language not only broken but incorporeal. “Is it possible,” Deleuze asks, “to make language stutter without confusing it with speech?”
No, it is not. As a stutterer, I do not take airy theorizing seriously. It’s better to learn lessons from the real world. You might order an entrée at a restaurant you did not want, unable to say the one you really did; not picked up the phone for two years because you could not trust yourself to utter “hello”; or walked thirty city blocks to save yourself the embarrassment of stammering out an address to an impatient taxicab driver.
The United States has a president whose efforts not to stutter are painful to watch, especially for those of us who share his challenge and know all the telltale signs. When I see the muscles on Joe Biden’s face twist and contort as he anticipates struggling with his next word, those muscles are my own. I want to shout to the TV screen: Just stutter, for Christ’s sake. Let them deal with it. Let them cool their heels and they’ll figure out what it is you’re saying in your head even if your tongue has a mind of its own.
I’ve written a novel, First Consonants, about Brian, a stutterer who faces that choice in how to live out his last years after a lifetime of punishing both the innocent and guilty around him for his debility. It is not autobiographical, but every description of his stammer has its origins in my experiences.
My stutter has receded over the years, but the worst of it made me who I am today. When my younger brother began to stutter himself, I beat him mercilessly in the bedroom we shared; Brian mugs a stranger on the street. I no longer try to hide my stammer from those closest to me; Brian chooses a wife with her own history of impediment. Both Brian and I have sought solace in places no one else goes.
It’s the Alaskan outback where Brian goes to hide, save for the company of a dog. (Stutterers, you may have noticed, never stutter when speaking to animals.) Sure, he might have stayed among the “ducks,” his pejorative slang for the non-stuttering world, and continued to endure that world’s pity. But unlike Biden, my stuttering Brian opts for the lonesome course of least resistance: He’ll write out his story rather than tell it to anyone. “He imagined words to be actual objects, things he could feel lodged in his throat, wrap his tongue around; things that were affixed to his lips like glue, even if he just meant to write and not speak them,” I say near the end of First Consonants. “He let words chug their way by fits and starts through his body until, with sufficient mass, they became things he could pick up with his fingers and arrange on the page.”
Despite his efforts to make the oral tangible, Brian never finishes his story. If every stutterer has, according to novelist David Mitchell, his “box of tricks,” all of them fail my hero. The moral lies in Brian’s stubborn resolve to make words work for him on the page if not in speech. He has barely begun when terrible things stop him, though none as terrible as if he hadn’t started in the first place.
I, on the other hand, have finished my story. I mean to share it with readers who may not have given this perhaps most marginal of disabilities its due consideration. That I have to do so with words is the irony of the writer estranged from the very materials he is consigned to work with.
Essay originally published on the lithub website.
John Whittier Treat has lived in the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, for forty years. His fiction has won the Christopher Hewitt Prize, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, was a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Prize for Best Gay Fiction. A novella, Maid Service, was published in 2020 and his second novel, First Consonants, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press in 2022. His opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times and the Huffington Post. Treat is currently at work on his third novel, set among survivalists in rural eastern Washington State, entitled The Sixth City of Refuge.