I'm sitting in the back of a taxi with someone I've been dating for about a month now when he says something about the way I talk—"it's sort of deadpan, delayed, like there's a remove between what you're thinking and what you're saying." It's an innocuous comment, but a wave of embarrassment washes over me. Although we've talked about stuttering, it's hard to explain how it affects everything that comes out of my mouth, even when my speech sounds smooth.
I argue that it's probably because of my stutter, but he's not convinced. "I really do think you're holding something back," he says. "I'm never sure what you're thinking." I'm intensely aware of my own voice as I try to respond naturally. He goes on, using his hands to mime the wall between my thoughts and words, describing what happens when I talk.
Growing up with a mother whose speech was what her friend described as "immaculate," I understood that women should be pleasing in conversation.
I feel queasy at the thought that something about how I speak makes me incapable of connecting with people in conversation—that the extra dimension my stuttering adds to my voice strips it of affect; the kind of bubbling emotional overflow that other people base relationships on.
For the rest of that week, I listen to myself talk, checking for the ironic, stiff tone he pointed out. The truth is, there is sometimes a disconnect—despite my efforts to be as present in conversation as anyone else, I approach talking gingerly, pausing at strange moments and dodging words to keep myself from getting stuck in an ugly block. It's one of many ways stuttering has shaped my speech.
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The way that women talk is obviously subject to some scrutiny—take the recent essays about vocal fry and uptalk—and having a speech-language disability adds another layer of critique to that. Growing up with a mother whose speech was what her friend described as "immaculate," I understood that women should be pleasing in conversation. At least in my family, they keep the conversation going over Thanksgiving dinner, they ask questions, they show feeling at every turn. They're interesting.
My mother and my sister both have rapid-fire ways of speaking; for a lot of my life, I hung on the sidelines. Their beautiful voices, along with people like Lorelai Gilmore, who could talk to anyone, were my models for many years—once I could speak like them, after enough speech therapy or whatever it took, I would go out into the world and talk my way into any situation I wanted.
Erasure of women even permeates sources that seek to assist stutterers.
Between outright stutters—I can get stuck on my name for easily fifteen seconds when introducing myself to someone—and the more subtle detachment in rhythm and tone that gives me a tenuous fluency, I've never quite felt like I was part of the speaking world. And, of course, much of the world is discriminatory against non-standard voices—just look at the data about people who stutter being routinely turned down for jobs, and the fact that many stutterers' speech therapists urge them to work toward a stutter-free voice—which, even with diligent practice, is simply not possible for many people.
But talking with other women who stutter has given me a model for speaking that doesn't necessarily involve a smooth, spontaneous voice. Instead, it's characterized by sometimes-uncomfortable periods of stuttering and silence and, above all, a demand to be heard with patience and respect.
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The ratio of men to women who stutter is, by some estimates, about five to one for adults, so that women who stutter are a minority within a minority—people who stutter make up about one percent of the population. A note at the beginning of The Stuttering Foundation's Self Therapy for the Stutterer reads: "The person who stutters in this book is often referred to as 'he' or 'him.' This is done for editorial reasons but may be considered as fairly representative since it is estimated that 3 to 4 times as many males stutter as female"—erasure of women even permeates sources that seek to assist stutterers.
But the number of women in "the stuttering community," or the world of people interested in stuttering advocacy and support groups, doesn't reflect that deep of a divide. The typical explanation is that women are more likely to seek help, but it's not totally clear why they have such a strong presence as organizers.
"I think that stuttering has a very deep emotional impact on men to the point where they just don't even want to talk about it," says Jacquelyn Joyce Revere, an actress living in Harlem. "There are so many men I encounter who would just not step foot in a meeting."
Revere, after being "ashamed of speaking" for years, talks about stuttering all the time. It's the first thing she mentions when a guy approaches her. "I never apologize about it," Revere says. "Any conversation you're going to have with me, from my point of view, it will be interesting. He's going to enjoy it; he's just going to have to wait a few seconds."
But for most stutterers, there's a phase of life when not talking is preferable to talking with a stutter. It's an experience that comes up when I talk to Róisín McManus, a 27-year-old nurse living in Queens, who leads the Brooklyn chapter of the National Stuttering Association. "I know for myself the worst thing about stuttering, growing up, was that I knew I had all these good things to say, and I wasn't saying them, and that infuriated me. I don't hear that kind of fury as much from men who stutter. For men, it's about feeling weak, emasculated… Maybe women see more and understand more that it's unacceptable in the world."
That belief that it's unacceptable that stutterers are taught to see their voices as inadequate informs Erin Schick's writing at Did I Stutter, which looks at stuttering from a disability-rights perspective. Schick, a 22-year-old student living in Portland, Oregon, gained visibility when a video of her performing a poem about stuttering at the 2014 National Poetry Slam spread across the Internet.
Schick grew up without speech therapy, barely even knowing that she stuttered, although she was aware that "something was up" with her speech. "I never had that word, I didn't know what it was, but I could still talk, so I didn't care… I think a large part of that [not caring] was that I didn't have speech therapy."
But the video went viral among speech-language pathologists (SLPs). "The poem… doesn't really have a political message to it," Schick says. "You can't tell from it how I feel about speech therapy." Although she sees the value in speech therapy for some people, "I'm not here for fluent people to use as an inspiration," as she puts it. (And as with other disabilities, when stuttering is in the media, the smarmy and condescending word "inspiring" is usually involved.)
Although speech-language pathologists have too strong of a presence in the stuttering self-help community for some—as Schick sees it, the National Stuttering Association is "very friendly with SLPs, and they're promoting acceptance, but they really think it would be better if people didn't stutter"—it's a place for many of us to talk about our voices with other people who stutter, often for the first time. For me, at least, meeting other stutterers was at once terrifying and thrilling, like seeing myself, but with a surge of compassion, that I had always struggled to direct toward my own voice.
McManus' first stuttering self-help meeting was at Brooklyn College, in a room mostly filled with Orthodox Jewish men. She felt safe there—as she puts it, "I was the only one like me."
And in general, gender almost falls away for her in the stuttering community. "I can come up with a million reasons why being a woman changes my experience of everything," she says, "but not so much in this world. I think there's an equalization in the social scene." It's a feeling that comes from a set of intense shared experiences. Almost all of us have had someone laugh as we struggle, felt dread while waiting for our turn to read aloud in school, avoided phone calls at all costs.
These near-universal stuttering experiences create the sense that stuttering is not okay. In a world set up for able-bodied speaking people, any deviation—however brief—feels unforgivable. Looking into stranger's eyes as I stutter has made it obvious to me that it's not conventionally pleasing to see someone struggle to get a word out.
Stuttering openly is a far cry from the kind of emotional labor that people, particularly women, perform to make conversations seem happy and effortless. If I've talked to you for any length of time, you've probably seen me get stuck on a word, and it's hard to hide my panic when that happens—panic that I've ruined the conversation, that I'll never get unstuck, that you've seen into my soul.
In a world set up for able-bodied speaking people, any deviation—however brief—feels unforgivable.
In a weird twist, though, that exposure can have its own rhetorical effects. "I hate to say that you need to have something debilitating to forge the most intimate relationships," says Samantha Gennuso, a 28-year-old writer living in New Jersey, "but it's all I know, so that's how I feel. Stuttering is my deepest vulnerability. For them to really see that… not all people have something they can be so vulnerable about. In return, we get deep intimacy and love back."
And it's true that when I really know someone, especially in a romantic relationship, my speech around them starts to change in two ways. First, I stutter less overall; I think less about my speech. I'm more comfortable. And second, I stutter more intensely when I do stutter. I stop trying to hide those moments of panic. And that brings me much closer to them than bouts of fluency.
Stuttering can close you off from other people, but it can also open you up.
Put it this way: Stuttering can close you off from other people, but it can also open you up. The same thing that leads me to dodge the way I talk during some conversations also creates a deep well of emotion that comes out during others. It doesn't take away my anger at a culture that pushes us toward a standardized speech, but those moments of stuttering, their intensity, can end up feeling precious.
"Vulnerability is almost an asset for women, in speech," Schick says. But the emotional charge in those moments is something I don't owe anyone all the time—it's earned. As McManus says, "Sometimes I look people in the eye as I stutter and communicate, silently, 'yeah, I'm in this situation, and it kinda sucks'… but lately, I'm into defense."
Years ago, a different boyfriend in a different car said, after seeing me cry after speech therapy appointments, "You should be angrier. It's a tragedy." I appreciated his anger, and I still feel angry, but it turned out to be so much more complicated than that--and so much less of a tragedy.