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CHAPTER VIII

THE NINETEENTH YEAR AND AFTER

When I was eighteen years old, I enrolled as a freshman in the McPherson (Kansas) College. My father and mother, my sister, and I removed to the town of McPherson to live. McPherson was a county seat, a quiet town of five thousand inhabitants, with a prospect in each direction across many miles of level land. A few facts will serve roughly as a setting for the two years that followed. My three brothers had gone to a southern city to enter the business world; my father retained possession of his land, and my older sister and her husband took charge of it. I remained on the farm and in the Roxbury community during the summer of my eighteenth year; and I returned to the farm to work for a few weeks during the summer of my twentieth year.

The move to town -- retirement from the farm -- had been taken after ten years of indecision. It is difficult for aged farmers to change their lives. But mother had become so ill that expediency advised the move to town; upon arriving in her new home,

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she was immediately put to bed -- and she remained there for a year.

Coming into my new environment and entering college, I was aware of advance, or at least movement, in a particular direction. I needed a good education to despite my speech handicap. Nobody disputed that. I felt, then, that I was setting out to acquire a practical advantage -- in a sense, and to a degree, I was setting out to reduce Utopia to reality.

My first year in college may be set aside in a few remarks. My stuttering did not seem much affected by the change. There was some intensifying of my awareness of stuttering as a fact of my life; but there were also distractions from this trend of thought. I came to frequent the billiard parlor. I was made feature editor of the college paper. I made a few friends. Generally, I enjoyed living in town and going to college.

Then came my nineteenth year. When the historian looks back. through the centuries, he puts his finger on the period of the Renaissance and declares it an epoch of great consequence; coming to the French Revolution, he again pauses and pronounces it of great moment. The marks of those events have persisted. It is a fact that there are times when the trend of human events comes to a head, and the

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undercurrents roar into the lap of the flood. What happens to humanity happens to the individual. There are moments when a man lives for destiny, moments come suddenly, it seems, gone soon perhaps, after which he is different from what he was before. And, as in the history of a nation, so in the history of an individual; if we understand what has preceded, we are in a position to understand the particular occurrence of moment.

If, then, the reader has perused the foregoing pages, he is ready to follow when I say that in my nineteenth year, as I was entering my second year in college, the revolt, which I had been nursing deeply, began to break out in thought and conduct.

There were a few rather definite reasons for this. The general trend of my attitude and personality can be better understood in its relation to my stuttering if the four or five main points of reference be made to stand out and bear the brunt of greater importance. In the first place, my literary ambitions persisted and grew stronger. They rode steadily over whatever opposition faced them. My father hoped that I would take to farming, or, if not that, that I would study law or medicine. My brothers tried to influence me to go into business with them. Insofar as mere indifference to those opportunities did not prove a sufficient defense against them, ac-

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tive opposition and some belligerence were necessary.

At all events, I hated the farm. It tended to stifle my imagination and to deaden my aesthetic sense. (A tired farmer watching a beautiful sunset is to me a picture of genuine irony!) The farm was the epitome of solitude -- so much territory and so little human companionship, especially since I stuttered anyway. Any one with a desire to talk about the subtler qualities of literature and with a love of true scholarship might as well be deaf and dumb in the Roxbury valley (and I say that with a real respect for the villagers). It is simply unreasonable to expect to find those things there; but it is not unreasonable to want them, wherever they may be had. I was lonely there, on the farm, and loneliness pained me; I had known so much of it. Also, the farm offered no promise of glory, as I understood the term, no means of self-assertion or gratifying self-expression. Without those things, I should have been only a stutterer, an inferior person. The thought of that was always detestable.

Business, law, and medicine, as well, were essentially like that. In each of those fields my stuttering would have severely handicapped me; I wanted to shun them. Business, with its well-known aversion to artistic values, repulsed me anyway. I could see

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no advantage for me in either law or medicine. I wanted to write; I had to.

In the second place, I had gone to a distant city in the summer of 1923, to be treated for my speech defect. There was a stuttering school there which advertised itself alluringly, and held out a promise of free speech which appealed to me tremendously. In over twenty years it has drawn to it hundreds and hundreds of stutterers; I hope, but I doubt, that the others fared better than I. The slowness with which bona tide speech clinics have developed, and the desperation and relative ignorance of the stutterers account largely for the prosperity of such "stuttering schools" -- if I may be allowed to express my own opinion.

At the "institute" I was taught to talk very, very slowly, to keep the voice flowing, to hit consonants lightly, and to glide over words. I was taught to keep calm and to flaunt the attitude of the-public-be-damned, in order to counteract self-consciousness. For two hours each day I was supposed to read aloud in a drawling manner, slurring over hard sounds, and never allowing the voice to stop except for the inspiration of air. Each day there were physical exercises, much swinging of the arms, bending and weaving of the body, kicking of the legs, and deep breathing. The vowels (a, e, i, o, u), syllables,

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and slogans were repeated in a loud voice, to the time of swinging Indian clubs or dumb-bells. These exercises were done by all of the stutterers, assembled in a large drill room. While the swinging of the Indian clubs was in order, each stutterer was called upon to give a slogan, such as "Little drops of water will wear away a rock," or "Have more back-bone and less wishbone." Each slogan so given was repeated by the whole group in chorus, as they rhythmically swung their clubs.

Exercises finished, all of the stutterers seated themselves near the front of the room. On certain days, the director would then mount a platform in front of the group and deliver an exhortation. "You can if you think you can!" he would thunder. "Use your will power. Don't give up. Be the master of your fate and the captain of your soul!" He would cry out in such a fashion for perhaps ten minutes. Two of the stutterers, who were "advanced students," would then take charge of the class. Each stutterer, as a rule, would be called upon to go up on the platform and deliver a short speech. The speech would be delivered in a drawling monotone, and frequently the audience would find it impossible to make head or tail of it. On some days there would be "practice" in talking over the telephone, transacting business, or paying social calls. Two students, for example, would engage in conversation over dummy telephones. Two

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others would go through the act. of making a real estate exchange.

That, and similar details, constituted "Nature’s Method" of correcting faulty speech. If the stutterer could talk at all, he could talk under such conditions. It was almost as good as singing in a choir. Everything was prepared for fluency. There was rhythm, even to the extreme of swinging Indian clubs. There were exercises to insure good physical health. There was an atmosphere of calm and confidence. I did not stutter very much under those circumstances, especially whenever I diligently employed the drawling monotone in speaking. Almost everything that would disturb the even functioning of my nervous system was eliminated from my environment. My fear of stuttering decreased -- because I didn't stutter! It did not work the other way around. My higher neural centers were given every opportunity to carry on their work without being blocked out by emotional stresses and strains, and given opportunity they performed fairly well. That was to be expected.

Whenever I left the "institute" and went down into the city, I stuttered! I stuttered because, so it seems to me, the higher neural centers were constantly being disturbed in the world outside the

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"institute," for the conditions there were radically different. After spending three months in the diligent use of "Nature's Method" I returned home -- stuttering just as much as ever. The world at large is never like the institute, and that is why environmental therapy, such as was used there, is generally impractical. Of course, the stutterer can talk if he is given that much of a chance, but the world never gives him that much of a chance or anything like that much. Unless the stutterer wants to remain in an institution all of his life, he had better face the facts of the world he has to live in.

After spending three months at the institute, I left one morning in a moment of thorough disgust. I had gone to the institute with high hopes, and I had found to my great delight that I could talk if I drawled my words slowly enough and calmly enough. I had been overjoyed. But the truth was bound to come to me sooner or later, and when it came it was a catastrophe. I said good-by to nobody; I went to the station, stuttered to the ticket agent and to the conductor, and sat down wearily in a red plush seat. As the train crept out of the city, I closed my eyes in despair. I have hated that city ever since.

As I approached the end of my journey homeward, my anticipations became utter confusion. There

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was a joy in my flight from the city I had come to hate; there was a heavy dread in returning with the same old stumbling tongue to Roxbury. My family were to meet me at Canton, the nearest railroad station, ten miles south of Roxbury, and as the train screamed into the little town and scrunched to a halt, I was dazed out of all composure. I alighted from the coach with an uncontrolled grin and glanced about blearily. My mother and an older brother met me, and I was terribly glad to see them -- and terribly ashamed that I was still a stutterer. As we walked toward the car I did not know which direction I was going. I slumped into the back seat alongside my mother, and said nothing. Then the car swung around, crept over the tracks, and nosed out along an old familiar road. Slowly I came to myself; I took a deep breath, several of them, and began to talk. I stuttered, but I talked, eagerly -- almost desperately.

That disappointment was a shock from which I have never completely recovered. Stuttering as a fact of life became more mysterious, more ominous, certainly more formidable, and the escape into Utopia became less easy and more deliberate. The revolt that was Utopia became belligerent. But what is of greatest importance, I set about as never before to seek relief from this horrible thing, to fight it

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with a vengeance. I hated stuttering. I was sick of it and all that it involved. I wrote letters to every one I heard of who might be able to cure me, but everywhere I turned I encountered a society which did not understand stuttering, had never cared enough about its millions of stutterers to study them with anything like thoroughness. What else could this call for but revolt? I realized keenly that I did not belong, that I was a lone wolf. I sought solace in a loneliness almost morbid, and a communion with the elements of nature that betrayed the sensitiveness of a wound.

There were summer nights on the farm when, hushed by a stumbling tongue, I stole away from the people I could not talk with and went alone to the fields to lie in the starlight there and talk with myself. Those were wild nights, my memory tells me now, with the gentle charm of things wild. I knew that the stars were lonely, if only I were lonely, and I knew that the moon was the replica of my own soul -- always and uncritically. I talked with myself about trivial things, that mattered much to me then, little things upon which a great deal seemed to depend; and the stars listened in genuine comradeship, and the earth nudged me like a friend. Those were real spirits -- the stars, the earth, the moon, and the night wind nosing the fields. They had meaning and

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gave meaning to my journey through the days, and I felt they were near like caresses, or more near still like the air in my throat. They were more near by far than the people around me, who listened, often impatiently, while I struggled with the words that served imperfectly to translate myself into their understanding. I got more comfort and friendship from the very grass itself, on summer nights, than I got from the men with whom I lived. That is why I loved those elemental realities, knowing their values were genuine, knowing they lay behind the blind of human artifice and deceit.

My Utopia had proved false to a large degree. I was forced out of it and into a world which, however real, lacked substantial human companionship. I loved those summer nights; but of the world of men around me I despaired. Out of this largely, then, grew the revolt of my nineteenth year. All this I am telling, because I want to explain that as a stutterer I reacted to society and to my speech defect; because it might prove helpful, because men wiser than I say it is important, I want to tell about it.

In the summer on my nineteenth year, my mother died. After all, she was my staunchest friend. I was more lonely than ever. No home now -- only the large, almost empty house, a grim unlovely alcove, a sad place filled with pathetic memories. A year be-

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fore, she had moved to town and had literally been carried into her new home, and put to bed. She had lain there for a year; she got her hard-earned rest!

I think it unnecessary that I elaborate on this theme; the reader understands it now. By one way or another, we learn, each in his own manner, that life is such and such, has this to offer, takes that in payment. We learn to call it by a name, fix adjectives to it, weave ludicrous philosophies around the thought of it. It etches a kind of smile on our face, or strikes our forehead with a frown; it draws taut our lips, or half parts them in a grimace of amazement. If, in the death of my mother, I sensed reality to be less than justice; if I did not weep, but stood silent with dismay and some resentment, it is not necessary that I defend myself in that. If my speech difficulty had furrowed my sensitiveness -- to make me silent, not really with pride nor yet with a docility in the face of tremendous inevitability -- or if the spectacle of death, courteous but unrelenting, prepared me for a youthful bitterness, a premature cynicism, at all events I am obliged to make no defense. I am only pointing out the fact as nearly as I can approximate it. Whatever interpretation, if any at all, the reader wishes to supply, the fact follows that I did become bitter and sarcastic; my geniality lost its genuine tone and degenerated to

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the level of conscious tactfulness -- not always employed, moreover.

About six weeks after that event, something else imposed itself into the scheme of things. While operating a printing press, I had my left hand partially crushed. Athletics became, in a sudden instant, a fond recollection! No more was I to hear the crazy yelling of a crowd gone wild over something I had done. No more the tense ecstacy of a game's crucial moment, the wild joy of scoring the winning basket, the melodious ring of ball against bat, the whole body thrilling with the genuine symphony of joy! I realized more keenly than ever what athletics had meant to me, and now I turned from them to find myself significantly and unmistakably a stutterer. The smiles that gained my lips were somewhat twisted.

Moreover, life provided me with companionship along the way. I was happy. I envied nobody. I took my new bitterness and sarcasm to be a deeper wisdom, a new treasure won by a revolution in thought. With my new companions I gladly became unconventional in the prairie sense, unorthodox, with mockery for our neighbors' sacred sentiments.

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We spoke of ourselves as the Anti-Christian Band -- which "band" was after all nothing more than a state of mind -- and the other students at the little college came to brand us as the atheists. How that amused us! How glad we were to be thought of as different. Not only that we enjoyed shocking other people, but that we utterly enjoyed feeling that we were superior to them in understanding of the world. We spoke of life as though it were a thing stripped of all but scant mystery. We thought of ourselves as critics; I was made associate editor of the college paper and I thrilled in my ability to arouse the president and the dean to indignation. Our religious unorthodoxy all but divided the faculty in a controversy, and we felt greatly important. Indeed, I shall always recall with pleasure my career as a college radical; it was the most exciting period of my young life.

We were critics. A critic, of course, must be supremely conceited, whatever else he may be. That is why he is a critic. He probably does a great deal of good, he may even have a worthy ideal, but above all he senses the thrill of mastery because he imposes his opinions on the public. I hardly think he has a sincere passion for the truth. Man being what he is, there is nothing quite so fickle as the truth and nothing quite so futile as a love of it. It is not the truth

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the critic loves -- if he is worth any consideration -- but it is the liberty to express his opinions and the liberty to consider them sound. To rise above the appearance of things, to be a judge, superior, absolutely superior to the general impenetrability of nature -- that is the critic's passion. Well, that was my passion as a college radical.

Athletics gone, Utopia damaged, geniality proved rather futile under the circumstances, loneliness increased, and all in all forced to think of myself more than ever as a stutterer, I turned to a new compensation. By the show of revolt, by accusation, through mockery and sarcasm of my environment, and by the flaunting of superior understanding as a critic, I attempted to rise above the level of a mere stutterer. That is my explanation -- that as a stutterer I made that adjustment to a particular situation.


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