Does He Stutter?

In his memoir ‘Life On Delay,’ John Hendrickson beautifully gives voice to the struggles that all stutterers face

Senior Editor at The Atlantic John Hendrickson makes clear in his heartbreaking memoir, Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter, how his life experiences have made him a much more introspective and empathic man.  But it has also left him scarred from a lifetime of almost overwhelming challenges.  Think about it.  The most mundane experiences are fraught with danger; he always is aware his body can betray him.

Despite Hendrickson’s good looks, intelligence, and athletic ability, he always had to sit nervously in classes worried a teacher might call on him.  He had to endure endless taunting from peers.  When he worked up the courage to call a girl in junior high, he was tongue-tied by the time the young lady got on the phone. The next day at school he had to stomach what he would come to call “The Look,” which was watching someone recoil from his advances simply because he could not speak fluently.

Even though he faced here hardships, Hendrickson deserves high marks for his persistence in attempting to pursue a meaningful life and find an antidote to his loneliness.  His parents were of little help.  His mother took him countless speech therapists hoping one would finally ‘cure’ him.  But his father ignored his stutter and was emotionally unavailable to him. Worst of all, his brother, who had also stuttered but stopped doing so in kindergarten, became an aggressive child and a violent teen-ager who would torture his brother and mock his stutter.  One of the most difficult realizations for Hendrickson was thinking about how his parents witnessed this abuse and did little to stop it.

Life on Delay

Hendrickson gained national attention writing a piece for The Atlantic on Joe Biden, who is a fellow stutterer.  Hendrickson is disappointed with how Biden frames his stuttering narrative as one of vanquishing his stutter when it was clear to Hendrickson he had not.  He heard how frequently Biden used ‘ahs’ and ‘uh’s” to maintain fluency, or substituted words at the last moment, when he realized he was having trouble getting a word out.  Hendrickson fantasized about how wonderful it would be if the President could admit he was a stutterer and that being one was all right.

There was no need for Biden to pretend he had achieved a level of perfection, when it was clear to all he had not. This interview  prompted Hendrickson to write this book, fueled by a growing defiance that insisted he needed to take possession of his identity as a stutterer and speak about the experience.  His psychotherapy sessions played a role in this realization.  His psychotherapist was not like his speech therapists who seemed to be continually grading him.  Or telling him to slow down which Hendrickson knew was simply code for telling him not to stutter so much.

He’s relieved that many of today’s speech therapists embrace treating the entire person, instead of focusing exclusively on perfecting fluency, which for many is an impossible task.  Or leads the stutterer to adopt a false persona that stifles their authenticity as an individual which can be extremely repressive.  We come to love Hendrickson early on in his narrative because he shows us that despite the cruelties thrust upon him, he remains purehearted.

Hendrickson describes what it is like to stutter.  He speaks of becoming blocked and gasping for air shocked at the power of his disfluency to paralyze his vocal cords.  Or other times when he attempts to say a multisyllabic word and gets hopelessly locked on one syllable before moving on to finish the word.  He explains how scientists know very little about the one percent of the world’s population who stutter and there is no consensus on what causes it.  Scientists are flummoxed by the fact that most stutters do not stutter at all when they sing or recite poetry.  Nor do they understand why most stutterers have trouble saying their names.

Hendrickson explains how he always hated the word stutter.  He writes, “When you’re young, you internalize that ‘stutter’ is an ugly word.  Everything about stutter is weird, those three t’s, the ‘uh’ in the middle that makes you think of ‘dumb.’  Stutter is painful and awkward and nobody wants to talk about it.”  He adds “What is it about stuttering that makes you bear the burden yourself?  There seems to be something that we experience that is so shameful.”  And you can’t talk about it, even though it is obvious.”

Hendrickson’s writing style has a vibrant immediacy to it that keeps you glued to the page.  We accompany him on his journey to recover from his childhood woundedness.  When he meets a girl with her own problems who embraces him wholeheartedly, we rejoice.  When he visits old teachers to find out what he was like in school, we listen attentively to the stories they tell him about being baffled as to how to treat him.  Should they call on him in class, or leave him alone so that nothing embarrassing might happen?

He recalls thinking frequently when he was eager to say something: “Is it better for me to speak and potentially embarrass myself or shut down and say nothing at all?”  But the Hendrickson who is interviewing them is not longer the little boy they once knew. He has become a grown man who realizes he must embrace a new philosophy about stuttering that is his birthright. He writes defiantly: “I understand that my stutter may make you cringe, laugh, recoil.  I know my stutter can feel like a waste of time—of yours, of mine—and that it has the power to embarrass both of us.  And I’ve begun to realize that the only way to understand it’s power is to talk about it.”

But when he returns to his childhood home things don’t go as smoothly.  His mother keeps repeating how she tried her best to help him.  His father explains he was afraid to speak to him about it because he sensed Hendrickson would reject him. And his brother can’t quite apologize for his horrific actions and seems at times to be going through the motions.  Hendrickson is forgiving of their shortcomings. He knows that his repressed Catholic family has many secrets that it swept under the rug and never confronted head-on, and he’s hesitant to be too assertive with them. It’s clear he loves them and doesn’t want to hurt them and recognizes he must come to terms with their limitations.  Every family has to find a way to survive and the Hendrickson family did so by ignoring what was right in front of them.

He continues on his own path to healing. His love of journalism leads him to score jobs, first with the Denver Post, and then with Rolling Stone, and eventually with The Atlantic where he feels at home even with his difficulties. His editors are exceedingly understanding and appreciate the talent and perspective he brings to them. He has difficulty with many aspects of his job such as using the telephone to interview people for pieces he is writing. His overall fluency has improved, and there are good days now that were never present earlier in his life. But there are difficult ones too. He loves writing and his eloquence on the page is always evident in his magazine pieces as it is in this first book.

We leave Hendrickson feeling he has shared with us some of his deepest intimacies. His life journey is a stellar example of what one can do if they refuse to give up.  We are envious of his drive and savvy, and his willingness to take risks, and most importantly, his dedication to speaking his personal truth.

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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