How to Fix a Stutter

This is a great article on John Glenn, now deceased, with a focus on Annie, his wife of 73 years, who had a severe stutter.

For most of her life, Annie was afflicted with an 85 percent stutter, meaning she would become "hung up on 85 percent of the words she tried to speak, which was a severe handicap," as John put it. 

Those years must have been torture for Annie.

Some of the inconveniences might seem small. John recalled them:

For Annie, stuttering meant not being able to take a taxi because she would have to write out the address and give it to the driver because she couldn't get the words out. It would be too embarrassing to try to talk about where she wanted to go. Going to the store is a tremendously difficult and frustrating experience when you can't find what you want and can't ask the clerk because you are too embarrassed of your stutter. 

Others were large. As The Post reported, once her daughter stepped on a nail. As blood gushed out, Annie couldn't speak well enough to call 911. Instead, she found a neighbor to make the call for her.

My own stutter as a youngster was much less severe, more on the order of Jonathan Miller's: "When I got out of bed in the morning, I never knew which consonant was going to be my nemesis that day."  Although frequent, my stutter was usually not disabling, but it was always embarrassing.  I would call a girl's house, intending to ask her mother, "Can I speak to Suzie, please?" and I'd get stuck on the C: "C-c-c-c-c..."  The mother would shout over the phone, "Suzie!  I think it's Jim!"

Christopher Hitchens had the same degree of stutter.  Mel Tillis famously stuttered except when he was singing.  When I entered Brooklyn Prep at age 12, one of the first-semester courses, one hour a week, was public speaking.  I explained my difficulty to the Jesuit scholastic who taught the course, and he agreed to exempt me.  That lasted for a month.  His sister was a speech therapist, and she must have advised him to give me a trial.  When he told me that, I shrugged OK, perfectly fatalistically.

I prepared the required five-minute speech, on the subject of etiquette.  I practiced it to make it last exactly five minutes.  Unfortunately, the first sentence was "Do you eat your peas with a knife?"  Even more unfortunately, that day was a "P" day.  I was on the podium for at least a minute, spluttering and stamping in an attempt to get the word "peas" out.  Mr. Enright (scholastics had the title "Mister") waved me back to my seat, nobody made reference to it, and I never did that again.

Mr. Enright's sister took me on as a project, but after six weeks, she decided I wasn't making progress.

Stutterers become adept at finding synonyms to get around the forbidden consonant – in my case, always an unvoiced consonant.  I was a good mimic – useful in New York City – and found that when I did accents, I didn't stutter.  When I recited poetry, I didn't stutter.  When I sang, I didn't stutter.  Hmm.  I decided that it was a matter of cadence, and if I treated speech musically, I did pretty well.  If you listen to Hitchens speak or read, you'll hear him do exactly that.

When I got to college, a junior year elective course was Experimental Psychology, taught by a newly minted M.S., Mr. Hoffman.  He told us the course would include seminar technique, and each of us would prepare an hour's lecture (no slides) on an assigned subject.  The psych majors were assigned topics like Lashley's Law of Mass Action of the Brain.  I was a pre-med, and I was assigned Endocrinology.

As you can guess, that's a very broad subject to cover in one hour – seven glands doing multiple complicated interwoven things.  And, worse, it was in ferment at that time with the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology just developing oral birth control, and publishing voluminous cutting-edge research on endocrinology.  I decided that I would read that as well as the standard textbooks.  I learned that an incoherent drunk could be brought rapidly to sensibility by administering oral T3 thyroid hormone, even if just dissolved on the tongue.

Luckily, I had six weeks to prepare, and, fueled by fear, I mastered the field summary as well as one might have hoped – so well, in fact, that I gave the lecture with only a single interruption, when Mr. Hoffman stopped me from passing over the pineal gland, and I had to give a couple of minutes on what it used to do when it did something (this was before melatonin).

So: cadence...and solid preparation.  When I was in medical school taking oral exams, and then the oral National Boards, it was the preparation that saved me. 

I suspect that another stutterer would be able to recognize me as a comrade.  I certainly recognize the verbal tricks and tics in others.  Perhaps we should develop a secret handshake, perhaps just a wink and a nod.  I've never met a female stutterer; the statistics are about 4:1 male.  I didn't have the turnaround that Annie Glenn did – just steady improvement after the initial revelation.  But I can imagine her joy at finally being able to tell John to pick up his socks.

As an aside, a third grade teacher – that's when stuttering problems tend to become manifest – was telling her class about stuttering, and the male predominance, and the fact that animals don't stutter.

A little girl at the back said, "My kitty stuttered."   

The teacher said, "Really?  That's very unusual.  Are you sure?"

"Yes.  When the Rottweiler jumped into our yard, the kitty said, 'F-f-f-f-f-f,' and before she could say [expletive!], the Rottweiler ate her."