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CHAPTER IX

THE NINETEENTH YEAR AND AFTER (Continued)

The ways one might have gone through this world are without number, and the reasons why escape us. Foresight is chiefly guesswork and history is mostly a fiction, while to-day holds all the fascination of mysteriously tumbling dice. The little destinies of humankind surprise us, spring up where and when we least expect them and in such peculiar forms that it is often years before we marvel that we have seen them at all. Of what the moving finger has written we have translated but a fragment, and yet our faces assume the bland assuredness of learning, and we frown on one another and harangue. It must be supremely amusing!

But we can only point to something or other and say, "Because of this . . ." and if we do not insult logic we cannot be condemned. At any rate, in that exciting sophomore year at McPherson, I came under the influence of a teacher who did much to change the course of my life. She directed me to Dr. Lee Edward Travis and the State University of Iowa,

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and so we turn to a new scene and what occurred there.

In 1926, I entered my third year of college, and I began corrective work on my speech defect under the direction of Dr. Travis. On arriving at his office my first move was to take from my pocket a letter which he had written to me. I handed this letter to him in order to avoid the necessity of introducing myself, for my stuttering was severe. After a few informal interviews, the doctor proceeded to put me through a series of laboratory tests. Since then I have served as a laboratory subject about twenty times, at least, and I hope some day to write about my experiences as a white rat. It is sufficient here to say that the instrumental findings indicated that I should have been left-handed. That means in simple terms that my native neural dominance lay in the right hemisphere of my brain. In spite of this fact, I had always been right-handed. No one recalls that I was ever shifted from the use of the left hand to the use of the right; it is apparent that I learned to use the right because the large family with which I was surrounded was made up of right-handed individuals.

On the basis of my own case, then, it can be seen that stutterers who present "right-handedness" may or may not be natively right-handed. It often proves

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nothing whatever that the stutterer presents no left-handedness in his early life history; he may have had a native left-handedness which he never developed. For certainly the world is not made for left-handed people; most machines, most door knobs, table service, and an endless number of other things are designed on the assumption that everybody is right-handed. Unless the young child, then, has a decided left-handed dominance, he will he influenced by almost everything which he encounters to develop a major dexterity in the right hand.

In the introduction to this book, Dr. Travis has sketched his explanation of stuttering on the neurological basis. From what he has said, it can readily be concluded that any tampering with native handedness (that is, native cerebral dominance) may possibly disrupt the functioning of the central nervous system. This will not always happen, but the odds are too high to warrant the risk. And there is really no more reason why everybody should be right-handed than there is reason why everybody should be Scandinavian, so far as the logic of social adaptation is concerned. There is nothing rude about eating with the left hand. While, therefore, a dire consequence may not result from shifting a normally left-handed child to the use of the right hand, yet the advantage to be gained is so slight and the risk

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is so great that the shifting is utterly foolish. The organs with which we speak, since they were primarily designed by nature for biting, chewing, swallowing, and breathing, are already placed under so great a burden that to meddle with them is to invite disaster. And to invite disaster in such a vital matter is to be downright stupid.

Having discovered a neurological basis for my speech difficulty, we then proceeded to a thorough psychoanalytic investigation of my life in order to discover every factor which might have been in any way responsible for the stuttering. This investigation showed quite conclusively that there were no psychopathic or "mental" or "nervous" causes underlying the defect. It did show, however, that as a stuttering individual I had reacted to a glib society rather vehemently, that because of my stuttering I had developed a few more or less morbid attitudes of the anxiety and paranoid orders. The psychoanalytic study tended to clear these up -- but the stuttering continued!

This is important. Why did the psychoanalytic study clear up my morbid reactions to my defect and to society? For this reason, that a worry reaction, a bewilderment, was replaced by an objective interest in the defect. I became interested in stuttering, my own stuttering, in quite the same manner

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that I am interested in stones, trees, electrons, or anything else to which I may react with curiosity but with no fear. There was no magic whatever in this changing of attitudes. By studying myself and my stuttering objectively I acquired an objective interest in them. An analogy might be drawn in this fashion: while men did not know what lightning was, they regarded it with terror and with a sickening mystical awe; as soon, however, as they discovered that lightning consisted of an electrical discharge, they became scientifically interested in it, and they began to speculate on the possibility of using that electrical power for their own benefit. I found out, then, that my stuttering was probably a neurological disturbance, and that my emotional morbities were simply reactions to that stuttering and to a fluent society. It remained for me only to study the defect from every angle, and to attack it with a new fearlessness. It was so simple that there was nothing else to do.

I have been trying to become left-handed. Handedness is, of course, only a symptom of the cerebral dominance. By becoming left-handed, then, I have hoped to reestablish my native dominance in its original intensity, and by so doing to harmonize the functioning of my speech organs. The severity of my stuttering has decreased markedly, although I

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have not yet become entirely left-handed. At this stage of the game, however, I am quite willing to conclude that as soon as I have succeeded in shifting completely to left-handedness, I shall talk without stuttering. That is merely carrying the logic, based on my actual experience, to its ultimate conclusion.

When I came to Iowa, a severe stutterer, I reacted as a stutterer to a new set of circumstances. I have described that reaction in some of its phases in the above paragraphs. It is also important in certain of its other phases, which relate more pertinently to my social situation.

In the preceding chapter it was explained that I had become an avowed rebel. At Iowa, I fell in with a few other radical students with whom my sympathies were joined, and beyond our little group lay the great world and the mob which my friends and I hated and ridiculed. I loved that little band of friends; they not only tolerated my stuttering, but they understood my attitude. Whatever the world may think of them, I know they were supremely human; as comrades they were staunch and sincere. However far from them in opinion I may stray, I can never help admiring their ideals and their humanity, and respecting their opinions. They were followers of Shaw and Mencken, they read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Omar Khayyam, and they

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had that fault of insisting on ideals which the human race is not yet ready to embrace.

But I found friends, too, outside that small group. There were two or three professors who believed in me, who encouraged me, and by their own manner of living they prodded me on. They gave me tangible opportunities, financial and social; they invited me to their homes and refused to laugh when I blubbered out my meager share of the conversations. I craved to work for those men; they expected me to make the most of what I had, and I couldn't bear to disappoint them. They made it possible for me to make my scholarship a means of livelihood, and by sheer kindness they forced on me a place in the social life of the campus. They made my Utopia increasingly unnecessary, and largely because of them, I was able to retrieve something of my former geniality.

If this is to be a genuine human document, I must thank these people, in the only way, so inadequate, that is possible to me. I can only say here that I am grateful.

The inescapable solitude of the human soul, mankind's most deepset agony, was immeasurably alleviated for me by one who played so great a part, and whom the reader can understand so well by inference, that elaborate discussion is not necessary.

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Let me say only that she destroyed largely my cause for revolt, took the edge off my rebellion, reduced a great share of Utopia to reality, and caused the bitterness and sarcasm to fade increasingly from my personality. I may be spared, I think, from saying more here. It is unnecessary to do so.

My geniality has returned as a result of whatever wisdom I have. Incidentally, it may be still a compensation for my stumbling tongue. I have a play life, not as an athlete, but as a dubbing golfer; and a few times each week I go to the gymnasium and throw a basketball around. The swish of the basket is still fascinating to me. My Utopia has been deprived of much of its sheer fantasy; it has become more a plan, the expression of certain ambitions. Not that I have become "practical" -- heaven forbid! I find a tremendous joy in imagination, but not just because I stutter. I want to go on studying and writing, not because I cannot talk well, but because I have come to love those things; long indulgence has made them a part of me. And, above all perhaps, I have become reconciled to my social environment. It is no longer so necessary that I become boisterous and that I clown and laugh. I laugh, of course, and I enjoy humor, but not because I stutter. That "mob" which I once hated and ridiculed, I now regard as made up of human beings, essentially

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like myself, who have suffered perhaps as I have. The only way to understand them is first to sympathize with them, to appreciate the undeniable fact that they have their own very good reason -- however unknown to them -- for doing whatever it is they do. It has been true of myself, and I lack the conceit to suppose that I am an exception.

Indeed, because I have stuttered I think I realize more keenly than most the significance of each man's little misery. Life is precious, and it makes all the difference in the world whether a man be born black or white, Jew or Gentile, deformed or beautiful. Those are the things which shape our lives far more than we commonly suppose. We have all read the story of the man without a country, and we have all felt a profound sympathy for that man, in spite of our patriotism. We knew that he was despairingly lonely and that life for him was very largely a futile and ridiculous gesture. We have failed, however, to grasp the startling truth that the same story might be told in behalf of the one-legged man, the one-armed man, the blind, the deaf, and the ugly; the woman with too much hair on her face and the woman with pigeon toes. All such people are exiles. More than that, pampered children or abused children are driven by ignorant parents to lead lives which society does not greatly understand.

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And there are the hoboes, Jim Tally's "beggars of life," who wander the earth alone in life and go unsung to death. These things are of tremendous importance, for life is precious. It is by suffering, moreover, that one comes to realize that truth; it is by realizing what it means to stutter, or to limp, or to go blind, that one gains the greatest insight into the mystery of one's own self and the greatest sympathy for mankind.

To the casual observer perhaps I am quite the same individual that I have been for years, except that I stutter less than I did formerly. The important fact is that my attitude toward my stuttering has changed tremendously. Not as a man, but as a stutterer, I am not the same. For always I have been a stutterer, since I first realized that my tongue was awkward. But the man, the human being, which was evident before that time, has never ceased to exist and has followed more or less the story outlined for it in the very dawn of my life. Like a vine among the branches of a growing tree, stuttering has been entangled in my life. Always I have directed my energies against it, and here and there my course has swerved because of it; now and then it has held me in check for a time. It has taught me to write, however imperfectly, and in other ways it has left its mark indelibly upon me.

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But as the shackles of stuttering drop from me little by little, it is the human being, as distinct from the stutterer, that emerges!

All through this book, the stress of significance has been on my reaction toward my stuttering and toward society. The important thing has been my attitude -- the kind of importance I chose to attach to these things. That I stuttered at all, and even that I played, wrote, laughed, studied, and dreamed -- all this, in and of itself, was of secondary importance.

Since coming to Iowa I have done something that is of absolute significance. I have stripped from my speech defect its ominous mystery. Mystery is always a breeder of fright and terror and despair; it is the worst tyrant of the unenlightened stutterer. The study of psychology, of anatomy and neurology, even to the slender extent to which I have studied them, has all but destroyed the dread grip that stuttering had on me. It is almost futile, of course, to speak of the debt of gratitude I owe to Dr. Travis. I can only hope that my acknowledgment of it may indicate that he has lifted a heavy burden from my life. He knows, perhaps, and I can surmise, the good he has done for me.

I want most to say that the terror of stuttering and the least unpleasantness of it lie not in a stum-

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bling tongue, but rather in the stutterer's inability to understand himself and his situation as a speech defective. I have succeeded for all practical purposes, under the guidance of Dr. Travis, in gaining that understanding of myself, and in that my happiness lies. In all truth, I am happy, for an unsentimental reason, and my joy will last my time. Perhaps it will outlive me -- as a hope and a courage in those millions of exiled stutterers who suffer in our midst.


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