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BECAUSE I STUTTER

CHAPTER I

MYSELF, A STUTTERER

I am a stutterer. I am not like other people. I must think differently, act differently, live differently -- because I stutter. Like other stutterers, like other exiles, I have known all my life a great sorrow and a great hope together, and they have made of me the kind of person that I am. An awkward tongue has molded my life -- and I have only one life to live. I share, moreover, the grand assumption that we encounter among those men who are not contemplating suicide, the assumption that life comes first, life is significant, life is precious.

There has been built up by articulate man an intricate system of language, which has a peculiar capacity for fine shadings and blendings of meaning, for subtle symbolizations. This system of language is used by man for the purpose of translating muscle and nerve into business agreements and theatrical elegance, into last wills and sonnets. It is the material out of which men make laws,

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Note: Horizontal lines indicate page breaks in the original, at which point bold indicates headers and footers. - NJ



BECAUSE I STUTTER

deify the blue above, and win their mistresses. It is the greatest man-made power under the heavens, and without a mastery of it, one proceeds at the risk of all good things, at the risk of the grand assumption that life is precious.

The importance of stuttering in a glib world is thereby asserted. It is to be multiplied by seven digits, for in America alone there are over a million stutterers. As one of them, I observe with some dismay that no one from their number has ever spoken for them "to the Spartans," has ever told their story of lonely humor and unsuspected pathos. It is a story of twisted meanings, unsurmised by the world at large, for no one has ever candidly admitted what it means to stutter.

I shall try, then, to tell what it means to stutter, speaking always from my own point of view. Beyond that I cannot go with certainty, and I shall not risk adding to the reams of nonsense that have been written about stuttering. At the age of five I began to stutter, for no apparent reason, and I have persisted in the defect up to the present time. Viewing that period, I shall try to describe the influence that stuttering has had on the development of my personality, my ambitions, my fundamental attitudes towards life. The period with which I shall deal is, by the way, essentially a unit, for

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it has approximately culminated, in recent months, in an emancipation from the misery of a stumbling tongue. I stutter less than formerly, and the malady has all but lost its terror for me. I trust that the reasons for this will become apparent in the pages that follow.

I am not, however, going to write a treatise primarily on the cause and cure of stuttering. My purpose is to make an admission, a confession, a bald statement of subjective fact, for what it might be worth. It will be worth, I trust, added exertion in the realms of science and human understanding.

In describing my own case, I shall aim always at relevancy. It will be necessary in the chapters which follow to divulge data of a very personal nature; assuredly it will not be intended as an act of deliberate egotism, nor even of conscious self-defense. The doing of it will depend upon a certain amount of scientific sincerity, which will not, I hope, be mistaken for personal indiscretion.

An investigation of my family history reveals a record of rather ordinary persons and events. No significant cases of mental or nervous disease are evident; so far as general physical health is concerned, both the paternal and maternal lines have been characteristically sound. There have been no cases of markedly low intelligence, and, aside

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from a maternal grandfather who wrote poetry and a paternal grand-cousin who was a Swedish baron, there appears to be nothing exceptional to a general well-being and mediocre achievement. Among my forebears there were apparently no stutterers; in fact, there was an occasional singer or public speaker of local reputation.

At birth, I was a normally healthful and sound twelve-pound baby, the sixth child of the family and six years the junior of my nearest sister. The age of my mother at that time was forty years, of my father forty-five years. Besides the sister aged six, I had another sister, aged twelve, and three brothers of the ages eight, ten, and fourteen respectively. Physically and mentally, there was nothing unusual about any of them, except a general level of intelligence which I may describe, without bias, as being rather above average. Being well nourished and well treated generally, I developed without arousing the least alarm.

I have cited enough, I believe, to indicate what is pertinent: that my heredity and birth were in no way spectacular and prove little so far as my speech defect is concerned, save that I entered the world normally healthful and sound.

Likewise, my home life was not extraordinary in any striking sense. My father was, and still is, a

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successful farmer and cattleman and provided well for his family; we had no material wants and not a few of those things which, in rural sections, are considered luxuries.

In my father's home, I found the pioneer mind, with its pragmatic obsession, its preoccupation with immediate things, its industrial practicality. But if my father's home was not urbane, it at least had in it that which suggested the breadth and variety of the world's things to the extent that the surrounding skyline proved not insurmountable to my imagination. The heritage of the Old World had filtered into my father's library, and there, in the large volumes on the history of the world and in the biographies of great men, I found fascination. Having had leisure thrust upon him by a serious injury, my father resorted to the reading of those books, and assigned himself the pleasant task of adding to their number by the collection of volumes, chiefly concerned with biography and history. He read, of course, from the point of view of one who had long engaged in the American struggle, and he enjoyed most those books which lent support to his long-established opinions. If he was drawn, at times, into alcoves where nothing but beauty and the intangible essence of life were to be enjoyed, he returned always to that more imposing world which

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surrounded him and of which he was a part. He lived in that world, according to principles designed for it, regardless of the books he read.

But I was young. I had no fear of the poorhouse; my father's integrity had served to cast me up high and dry on the white beach of plenty. I read and I observed generally from the point of view of a boy becoming aware that the world is made up of various thing, none of them to be cast aside with too hasty disdain. During my first four years, nothing had occurred in my life that was significant enough to be recorded, or even preserved in the family gossip, which leaves me with the conclusion that I developed during those highly important formative years in a normal way -- that is, in the conventional way. I was about four years old when my father took me with him into the library. So far as my young mind could comprehend what I encountered there, I acquired a pure knowledge more or less, and I have never forgotten that it fascinated me as such. In a rough way, I pieced together the history of the Western World, a superb story for a child to learn and one to set him dreaming. I could look to the horizon around my father's farm, and know that beyond that and far beyond that, there were people like the people I knew, and others perhaps not like the people I knew; and there were "great men"

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welding empires, as my father's oft-repeated ringing phrase would have it.

It was important. For, if, a few years later, my energies were directed more and more away from the library, and I was brought more into contact with prevalent practicality, always I retained the thought that perhaps somewhere things were different -- and maybe better. My imagination and curiosity had been aroused once and for all. I was to be haunted by the suspicion that there was to be always another side to any question; and that suspicion was to give rise to a kind of idealism, an opposition to that utilitarianism rampant which involves the pragmatic acceptance of situations as they are found at any given moment.

To the extent that household tradition can be respected, it can be said that up to the age of five, my speech was relatively clear and fluent. At its first appearance, the stuttering was slight enough to be regarded with the rather hopeful indifference of my parents. Apparently nothing was done about it, save that the family physician was casually consulted with the result that he recommended I be not made an object of laughter and abuse. The recommendation was whole-heartedly respected by my family, and I was not made to feel that my stuttering was of any significance.

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I recall nothing whatever concerning my early experiences as a stutterer. What memories of the period I retain are concerned with other matters. So far as my recollection goes, therefore, an inquiry into the first cause of my stuttering brings no fruit. Apparently it could be attributed to no physical illness or weakness, nor to any emotional shock. In fact, about two years ago I underwent a searching psychological analysis for the express purpose of unearthing any emotional disturbances, any repressed complexes, which might have been at the root of my difficulty. Nothing of the sort was found. It must be understood that this analysis was thorough; it was carried on lot about a year, and was terminated only when it had been shown to be, by every psychoanalytic standard, ineffectual.

My father has offered the explanation that when I began to stutter I was "thinking ahead of my speech." His supposition amounted to this, that my ability to think words had developed faster than my ability to say words. It does seem to be true that certain cases of stuttering might be explained on some such basis; and stutterers who are of such a type often "grow out of it." They grow out of it, because the ability to speak ultimately catches up with the ability to think. In my case, however, such an explanation proved to be wrong. I did not grow

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out of it; I got worse. Certainly I developed a considerable vocabulary at quite an early age; I had the verbal material with which to express myself. Moreover, they are not big or long words that cause me most difficulty, for I stutter on all words, simple and complex.

My mother explained my stuttering by saying that it was a "kind of nervousness." That, of course, means very little. It is an explanation commonly found among parents of stuttering children. The grimaces in the face and the movements of the jaws and tongue in stuttering, however, are not to be confused with the fidgety movements in cases of nervous instability. If there is nervous instability in the stutterer, it will no doubt tend to increase the stuttering to the extent that it tends to increase the lack of muscular control. That certainly does not mean that stuttering is "nervousness."

I was told, also, that I stuttered because I was afraid I would stutter. I shall have more to say about that theory in the next chapter. An older brother was fond of the notion that I stuttered because I really wanted to. It just simply isn't true. Pavlov, in working with the salivary reflexes in dogs, has shown that desire has very little to do with the reflex activity. A large flow of saliva can be brought about where there is no desire for food, and a small

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flow can be brought about where there is a strong desire for food. The analogy can be almost directly applied to the matter of stuttering. Everyday observation of stutterers brings one to the conclusion tint stuttering occurs whether the stutterer wants to have difficulty, does not want to, or does not care one way or the other. One of the most severe cases of stuttering I ever knew was that of a boy who simply did not care whether he stuttered or not. As a rule, stutterers do not want to stutter. Their desires, however, have very little to do with it -- if my own experience is typical.

I am much interested in pointing out the fact that no satisfactory explanation was offered regarding the onset of my difficulty. I am interested, because I have found it true that parents, including my own, generally have quite definite explanations of such matters. Much damage is done by such dogmatism on the part of parents, or on the part of teachers. I have heard of one teacher who concluded that by roundly scolding a certain student every time he stuttered, much benefit would be gained. Of course, the poor student stuttered more and more. But the self-satisfied teacher persisted in his ridiculous belief with the result that he probably caused serious damage in the young person's life. It would have been no more absurd for him to have taken a knife and

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cut a slit in the student's tongue (a practice which was quite common not so many decades ago!). It is far better to admit ignorance where ignorance exists than to insist on knowledge where there is no knowledge. The least that can happen when parents insist that they know what is the matter with their stuttering children is that they delay in giving the matter over to expert examination by others or by themselves.

My memory of the period at which stuttering began touches almost exclusively on the fact that I spent a share of my time learning the fundamentals of the three Rís, and that I enjoyed the time spent in that manner. Beyond that I must accept the family statement that I was an active youngster with an agreeable disposition; the latter is no doubt more or less true, for I cannot recall ever having been punished by my parents. That I was active is implied in the fact that, at the age of five, I was physically robust and had no record of illness. It is quite certain that a large part of the time I had played alone, my youngest sister being six years older than myself. A neighbor boy of my own age lived about a half mile away, so that it was seldom that we played together. By virtue of this semi-solitary play life, not only were certain social habits held in abeyance perhaps, but certain unsocial ones

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were begun. Having at a very early age acquired the truth that I could play enjoyably by myself, both outdoors and in the library, I was prepared to acquire a degree of personal independence, though not disdain of fellowship necessarily. I was simply made unmistakably aware of myself as an individual, something distinctly apart from other people although similar to them. It might have been true that my speech defect tended to increase this individualism.

At the age of six years, I was entered in the first grade of the public school in the little town of Roxbury, two miles from my home. Roxbury was a village of one hundred rurally-minded inhabitants. So far as I know, it has had a population of about a hundred ever since a few years after its founding in 1872; it still has a population of about a hundred. They are more or less the same one hundred, either actually or by heredity. The town is still ten miles from the nearest railroad and the nearest highway. Situated at a crossroads in a little basin, with the encircling skyline quite like the rim of a saucer, it has enjoyed a long record of peace and quiet. At one time some of the less ethical cowboys rode crazily down the wind and pulled a trigger here and there, and occasionally a prairie fire would make the night hideous and the day hell. There were Indians once

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in the basin. But all that was long ago and might be almost forgotten to-day, were it not for the fact that the oldest settlers tell certain stories over and over through their beards.

I enjoyed going to school. I studied and played eagerly. For about a year I had been stuttering slightly, but in school, as at home, nobody apparently paid much attention to my speech defect. While I was still in the first grade, my teacher intended, I was told, to advance me at once to the second grade; she later decided not to do that because of my stuttering. This occasioned my first significant realization of stuttering as a part of myself. I was given to understand that it was a handicap, an understanding, by the way, which circumstances were never to repudiate. I can recall one or two vague moments when, after that incident, I was childishly and bewilderingly sad because I could not talk like other boys and girls; I went to my mother once or twice and cried about it, and she did more for me than she ever suspected, simply by being kindly. For the most part, however, I must not have been moved by the matter to anything like philosophical seriousness. I studied hard and played zestfully with the other boys and girls, and was happy. My playmates never ridiculed me when I stuttered, and frequently, when I blocked on a

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word, some one of them would say it for me, and so I chatted with them almost on even terms. My teacher treated me with uncanny understanding and was chiefly responsible for the attitude of the pupils toward my defect. I shall always be grateful to her.

During the early years of my school life my good health and contentment continued. It might well have been true that my health and my capacity for achieving a degree of superiority both on the play-ground and in the classroom went a long way toward rendering me insensitive to my defect; for, while stuttering itself must have been painful, life on the whole was pleasant. Having grown somewhat older, I was allowed, during the summer months, more liberty to play with the neighbor boy. He was a good playmate and perfectly tolerant of my stuttering, although he is connected with my earliest memories of embarrassment from my faulty speech. No doubt it tended to make me feel inferior to him -- and inferior for no other reason than that I stuttered. Perhaps by the time I was eight years old, this general attitude on my part had became involved in the run of my associations with other children. As a result of experience, I gradually came to regard my stuttering as something to be concealed or somehow shorn of its odious importance. I was becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that whatever

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favor I enjoyed among my friends, I gained chiefly from my performances on the playground, a rather consistent geniality, and my position at or near the bead of my class. Consequently, I came to deliberately cultivate my abilities in athletic and scholarly lines, and I heeded the teaching received at home and at school and in everyday association with my young fellows to the effect that the ultimate line of least resistance is that of good-natured behavior. Life did not teach me to believe that it was desirable to make enemies.

Because my stuttering forced me -- and what I found in my father's library encouraged me -- to think the world might have been different, I began early to dream after a certain fashion. Of most importance perhaps, I dreamed of what I might become, and I laid the foundations of that Utopia which was to become increasingly magnificent, in which I should not stutter and in which I should be happy in the things I could do -- better than others could do them.

One of the significant things I would do in Utopia would be to write. At that early age, I realized that I could express more adequately in writing that which I could express only haltingly by word of mouth. So long as the stuttering would persist, I would defeat its damaging purpose. My designs

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bear shades of Demosthenes, that ancient hero of all stutterers, who fought against his defective speech until he had become the greatest orator in Athens! The restraint placed on my capacity for expression only served to concentrate and intensify the desire for expression. I tried to encourage my tongue by placing pebbles under it, as did Demosthenes, but the attempt was futile; at the age of eight I knew that I wanted to be a writer, the greater the better, and all these years I have persisted in that desire -- with varying and slight degrees of literary success, but with a saving personal gratification.

These five lines of development which I have sketched -- scholarship, athletics, Utopia-building, writing, and geniality -- grew largely out of my speech defect, or were, at any rate, greatly affected by it. In fact, every ambition I have ever entertained, as well as every aversion, has sprung to a large degree from my stuttering. It must not be overlooked, of course, that any one of them might have been rather more than implicitly involved in my pre-stuttering development; but only to the extent that non-stuttering conditions would have accounted for them are they in a limited sense irrelevant to this study.

Moreover, quite regardless of how these various tendencies mid ambitions came into being, it is the

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attitude toward them which stuttering has taught me to assume that is of fundamental importance. For example, although I might have become a basketball player even had I been as glib as a train-caller, certain it is that I regarded basketball ability in a different light than did my teammates in high school. Although I had not stuttered, I might have emerged from my father's library with scholarly and literary inclinations, but I should not have regarded them as in any degree compensatory for a defect in speech. The imperative fact is that I have considered my abilities in these lines as compensations for my inability to express myself adequately in speech. Not only, then, as a human being, but also as a student, a writer, an athlete, a dreamer, a social creature, I have received the impress of stuttering; and I think I am justified in saying that largely because I have stuttered I am a particular kind of person.

If I did not think this fact were important to anybody but myself, I should immediately destroy these pages and write no more. But I know there are millions of stutterers. They have parents and teachers, sisters and brothers and friends who try from a rather hopelessly external point of view to understand them, no doubt. And there are stutterers who are bewildered by their own predicament. Even the speech pathologists are not certain what a speech

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defect means to the individual suffering from it, and if they knew their work could be significantly expanded. If only one stutterer will be rather shamelessly frank and explain what stuttering seems to constitute as a fact of life, I believe it inevitable that considerable benefit will be gained. And that is why I am doing a task that is to me at once unpleasant and gratifying.


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