Thursday, September 12, 2013
Out with It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice
Read: 31 August 2013
4 / 5 stars
I've stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn't mean I'm completely at peace with it. The little girl who was too afraid to assert herself for fear of sputtering all over the difference between what she wanted to say and the tangled ghost of approximation she had to settle for quickly supplanted the even younger girl who had no problem hamming it up with improvised songs and dances on home videos; the adult she grew up to be, on less fluent days, automatically apologizes for stuttering and will feel a wave of relief no less powerful than the countless ones before when her conversational partner says they've never noticed. The wild dream of unblemished speech is just not a realistic one after a certain point, making acceptance the only viable option: Realizing that one merely chooses to live in fear of their own voice and can just as easily choose not to is a moment nearly as empowering as sudden fluency.
Speech therapy was presented as an option exactly once, in what felt like an ambush when my elementary school's speech therapist pulled me aside during class a year later. Not being able to withstand the internally embellished embarrassment of a public outing as someone needing to be fixed while also imagining all the ways I could be reprimanded for interrupting class, I insisted I didn't need help just to end the inquisition as quickly as possible; I now have to assume that academic professionals wouldn't let a clueless seven-year-old have the last say, and that my parents (who, after asking my pediatrician how to treat my stutter, summarily ignored his advice and chose to make fun of me for years to come -- which did have the benefit of making the surprisingly few schoolyard jabs roll right off my otherwise too-sensitive self) or whatever teacher initiated this encounter didn't see the worth in pressing on.
The first time I decided I was ready to try speech therapy was in high school. I only wound up seeing the school's specialist a handful of times, as the sessions pretty much involved me reading aloud from whatever book she had available and her declaration that I didn't have a problem. At that point, after nearly a decade of living with a stutter, I knew my own patterns well enough to be frustrated with a seemingly optimistic prognosis: I have good days and I have bad days, with the problems mostly flaring up at double consonants or when speaking on the phone, and rarely occur when a book or a script supplies my every word.
I doubt I'll ever work with someone to "fix" the way I talk just as much as I doubt the possibility of shedding the verbal flaw I've sported for more than two decades, as I am now more interested in what I can do to encourage understanding but have been unsure of what exactly my options are. So when I stumbled upon an article about this book, I had two immediate reactions: "I absolutely need to read this" and "I absolutely should have written this." (Later, "Why wasn't I interviewed for this?" would come, but fleetingly and only half seriously.) I have never spoken to another stutterer and certainly never had a chance to ask the probing and probably eagerly invasive questions I've been dying to lob at someone else who knows what it's like to live with an invisible hand at one's throat: This book was that chance. Here is someone offering up not only her own experiences but also those of so many others.
Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice is a story in two parts. It is an unflinchingly honest account of its author's nearly lifelong battle with her stutter as well as a study of how the condition manifests itself in others, the schools of thought proposing various coping methods and solutions to hide behind, and the search to understand just what exactly causes this particular speech impediment. It is the need for inner reflection happening in tandem with outward-focused curiosity that turned Katherine Preston's debut into exactly what I expected a stutterer's memoir to be, as the affliction makes it impossible for a person to remain in ignorance of how his or her faltering speech affects and is perceived by every single person who serves as our audience. To stutter at an early age is to find out what happens when childhood's blissful lack of self-awareness is replaced, with a callous prematurity, by adolescence's almost paranoid perception of harsh scrutiny.
It is a book fraught with disappointment, frustration and embarrassment, but also determination, hope and self-discovery. Stuttering is, as Katherine quickly points out, not a fatal disease but it is a decidedly unexplored and misunderstood one. It is a condition that is unpredictable and humbling, that lays the afflicted vulnerable to the slings and arrows of society. It is a childhood bully who tends to retreat by adulthood, though not all of us will reach the wonderland of fluency: "Statistics will later break us into two groups," Katherine writes. "Those who "recover" and those who don't."
Katherine traces her journey with an unwanted passenger whose mission it is to mangle her every word -- her phonetic renderings of a voice made exasperatingly arrhythmic brought to mind another stutterer, the estimable David Mitchell, and his personification of the impediment through the inimical Hangman -- from its first appearance at the age of seven through the already daunting terrain of adolescence to finding a place in the adult world that will accommodate her years of accrued baggage. It is a personal voyage so punctuated with objective reflection and the slow growth of inner strength that any stutterer would be proud to call it their own.
For all my knee-jerk self-reproachment at having been beaten to the punch in terms of penning the definitive stutterer's memoir, Katherine's is by no means the path we all have followed. Despite her numerous attempts to find "success" in speech therapy, her gradual shift in knowing that she would give anything to divest herself of a speech impediment that makes simple verbal communication grounds for a panic attack (let's not even approach the unique horror the prospect of phone calls brings) to realizing that the hurdles such a condition has helped her overcome and the resolve it has instilled in her is empowering and paved with tiny victories but it is her own path to self-acceptance and hers alone, though her milestones and breakthroughs and jumbled emotions are all stops along the way that I can't help but believe are common to all stutterers' experiences.
The part of me that read this book in the hopes of recognizing echoes of myself and feeling a little less alone for it was dizzyingly satisfied. Katherine is roughly the same age as me and began stuttering around the same time I did. She, too, is a rarity among rarities, being a female stutterer who carried the disorder into adulthood. She is able to examine her younger self, her fears and her insecurities with a clinical eye and an improbable amount of heart. Reading about her early retreat inward, her horror over being seen as something broken, her struggle to overcome a speech impediment that overshadows all she is and is capable of every time she ventures a spoken thought offered me a sense of empathetic kinship that is usually reserved for the beautifully damaged fictional characters I've come to favor. Like me, she is no stranger to deploying an arsenal of thesaurus-gleaned stutter-friendly synonyms to dodge the words that are habitual problems. She adopted accents and affectations to gloss over verbal traps. She was reluctant to identify herself as a stutterer, preferring to ignore that which plagued her until she finally had to learn all she could about the foe within. Later, having realized that she could make her written voice do all the things her spoken one couldn't but being unsure of how to make it as a writer, she tried her hand at journalism.
It was what Katherine and I shared that made the differences in just our two stories appear so divergent, though: It was so easy to sympathetically nod along when she was navigating familiar territory that being jarred from it had the strange sensation of an out-of-body experience, or seeing the same role played by two different people. She emphasizes her parents' unflagging support and willingness to help her "get better" without pushing her beyond her comfort zone and reducing her to incurable disfluency, and I couldn't help but envy her of that. Her tales of speech therapy, the brief spurts of hopeful fluency that sputtered into the resurgence of the stutter she thought she had finally put to rest, were genuinely surprising, as I had always fancied that corrective measures were the ticket to speech unencumbered. And, because I can't help it, yes, I compared the severity of my stutter to those both reprinted and spoken of in this book, and was profoundly grateful that my worst days are what someone else wakes up hoping for.
The bravery Katherine embraces in exposing that which has been the most fiercely guarded part of herself is incredible. She digs into old diaries and painful memories to pinpoint relevant stopping points along her journey, which read as an offer of trust to the reader rather than cheap bids for congratulations. As an adult stutterer, I found it reassuring that someone was so open and detailed about this things so few people truly understand; as a younger stutterer, I imagine I would have found relief in knowing that someone else has trod this path before without letting the all-too-easy giant-in-chains excuse keep her down.
It is that honesty and refusal to sugarcoat her life as a stutterer that makes Katherine such a perfect voice for those who have yet to embrace their own. She examines how stuttering twists the things most people take for granted, like being able to supply one's own name quickly and effortlessly or making a joke without fearing that the punchline and timing will be ruined by an inopportune loop of repetition, but it is her straightforward examination of how a stutter affects one's professional path that nearly had me giving myself whiplash by nodding in such vigorous assent. "It turns out that careers are a sticky subject for stutters," she writes as an introduction:
Many advocates argue that any job is possible. They have a point. I have met stutterers in every career that, at twenty-two years old, I had assumed were nigh on impossible. ... Their hearts were in the right place, but there was one rather large problem. They gave me the distinct impression that any job was possible as long as there wasn't a discernible speech impediment. I could have anything I wanted as long as I didn't stutter obviously. ...
If you have the advocates on one hand, you have the realists on the other. They appreciate the sentiment that no job is impossible, but they refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. Instead they take to emphasizing the degree of the stutter. What may be possible for a mild stutterer is not always possible for someone who stalls on every word.
Katherine is able to take a step back from a condition she knows all too well in order to consider the non-stutterer's vantage point, to recognize the severity of each stutterer's impediment. She is a narrator who is remarkably adept at sidestepping the pitfalls of judgement in favor of considering all sides before attempting a thoughtful, logical assessment.
Out With It is engaging and insightful, showcasing its author's curiosity and capacity for overlooking the worst of a situation in order to focus on its benefits. While it's obviously got loads of appeal for stutters in particular, the gist of the story is making peace with one's imperfect demons and learning to look outward. Katherine's book "is not one of deliverance" nor does it have that moment where she is "magically fixed as the curtain drops" -- and it's all the better for delivering one of the book's unexpected messages: Recognize the difference between being grateful for what you have and settling, and know when wanting to be better becomes the same as demanding too much.
Katherine bemoans how she was in her twenties when Hollywood finally presented a stuttering cinematic hero in The King's Speech, and how there are few role models for stutterers beyond those who have successfully hidden their impediment to land some some of societal prominence. In unloading so much of herself in a book that's less of a memoir and more of a promise that someone has not only shared those moments of seemingly insurmountable mortification but also overcame all those same hurdles to become what she knew she was meant to be, I can't help but believe that Katherine Preston is filling that once-absent role all by herself.