In “Life on Delay: Making Peace With a Stutter,” John Hendrickson writes of a similar experience as a student on the first day of high school 20 years ago. “I try to steady my breathing,” he recounts. “I clench my fingers into tight fists. . . . I’m struggling to calculate the number of seconds each kid takes times the number of students left to go.” Did my student have the same agonizing response to this activity? The young Hendrickson stuttered his way through his introduction another seven times that day. In a later interview, the teacher recalled his own guilt, anxiety and doubt about the way he handled the situation.
What surprised me last semester wasn’t my student’s stutter but my lack of anxiety. Early in my career, I probably would have sought out university resources to help this student, just as faculty members do when students reveal learning disabilities. Admittedly, I might have pitied him, as he stammered in front of his peers. I’d like to think that, as writers, we value each individual voice in its cadences, pauses and gestures. My student took the time he needed to say what he wanted to say, but did I — or did other students — give him what Hendrickson calls “The Look”? The Look is “the moment the listener suddenly realizes something is wrong with you, that moment they subtly wince. . . . The judgement. The pity. . . . The Look never leaves you.”
When Hendrickson joined the staff at the Atlantic, he had spent almost three decades fielding The Look. “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,” he writes. He employed avoidance, especially steering clear of talking about his stutter. Then, four months into his new job, he pitched the idea of writing about presidential candidate Joe Biden as a self-defined gaffe machine. He told the editor, “I could pick up on all the little things Biden was doing to keep his lingering stutter at bay — his blinks, his word substitutions, his head and hand movements.” Hendrickson procrastinated for two months before requesting an interview with Biden. As he continued to work on that article, he had trouble sleeping and eating. He started losing his hair. What he wrote in his notebook applied to himself as much as it did to Biden: “Biden won’t really admit he still stutters. What does that mean?” Even as Hendrickson readied himself to appear on MSNBC after the article went viral, “a large part of me wanted to keep hiding.”
“Life on Delay” is the mold-breaking story of stuttering that Hendrickson was able to tell — and grow into — once he stopped hiding. In response to that Biden article, notes poured in, and he replied to all of them. He has “had conversations with stutterers from all over the world” in order “to know how other people deal with it.” He talks about his stutter with strangers, friends and family, including Matt, the brother who bullied him. This full-hearted memoir grapples with shame, resentment and fear as Hendrickson answers with courage and compassion one of the most meaningful questions in life: “How do you accept an aspect of yourself that you’re taught at such an early age to hate?”
While 2 percent of children stutter, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, most outgrow this disfluency, often without intervention. Stuttering, which was renamed “childhood-onset fluency disorder” in the most recent “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” is more prevalent in men and those with a family history of disfluency. Hendrickson falls into these two categories, and his experiences also echo studies that indicate those who continue to stutter face anxiety, self-loathing and discrimination that affect their relationships and careers. In conversation with psychiatry professor Gerald Maguire, Hendrickson also recognizes connections between stuttering, obsessive tendencies and use of alcohol to improve fluency. While “Life on Delay” focuses on Hendrickson’s stammering life, this memoir astutely illuminates the complexity of disfluency more broadly.
One of the most thought-provoking sections draws from an interview with writer-musician JJJJJerome Ellis, who says: “A time limit assumes that all people have relatively equal access to time through their speech, which is not true. . . . I don’t actually know how long it will take me to say something until I have to say it.” It’s eye-opening for Hendrickson to see someone who “has reclaimed the power of his stutter,” right down to using multiple J’s in his first name. What might it mean to set aside notions of deficit and, instead, celebrate the range of human voices? In this context, stuttering is a disability not because of the speech impairment but because social norms haven’t adapted to it. What if we listened more patiently?
This powerful flipping of responsibility in disfluency is echoed by Austin Kleon, who is known for his guides to creativity. In describing his son Owen’s stutter to Hendrickson, Kleon chooses positive adjectives like “profound.” Hendrickson, who faced negative experiences growing up, understands that when a stutterer can acknowledge a lack of fluency and doesn’t have to hide or try to fit in, daily life improves. “Crucially,” Hendrickson writes, “Owen was taught to self-identify as a stutterer” under the care of Courtney Byrd, a professor who heads a top stuttering research center at the University of Texas at Austin. Byrd’s approach has resulted in a majority of her team’s patients reporting “a significantly lower degree of bullying, depression, and anxiety than those who learn only fluency-shaping techniques.”
By contrast, in college Hendrickson avoided oral assignments, with encouragement from his professors, which nearly cost him his degree. He even admits, “I’ve never had the courage to leave an outgoing message on my iPhone.” Tackling a stutter without shame or reticence, as Owen Kleon does, represents an appealing alternative in which communication is a shared responsibility.
Hendrickson’s difficult relationship with his brother Matt has long left them at odds. In the last chapter of “Life on Delay,” Hendrickson seems to approach a reconciliation. Matt, now the father of two sons, wants his children to have a stronger relationship. He notes that his sons are separated by the same number of years as Matt and John are. Matt acknowledges his past cruel behavior toward his brother, and he’s ashamed. He apologizes for making John’s childhood worse. “I just, that’s just — something about a child being in pain fills my eyes up as a parent now,” Matt says.
Hendrickson has had a hard time forgiving the torment Matt inflicted on him growing up. But he responds with an empathy that is his — and the book’s — trademark. He tells Matt that he himself has come a long way in understanding and accepting himself. “I have to open my mind and my heart … to believing other people are capable of change,” he says. “It would be … hypocritical of me, it would be foolish of me, ignorant of me … to think that I’m capable of change … and another person … isn’t, you know?”
“Life on Delay” recasts stuttering and, in doing so, challenges long-standing attitudes toward disability. By drawing deftly from personal experience, research, others’ stories and his wellspring of empathy, Hendrickson transforms the disorder he avoided claiming for decades into an invitation to all of us to demonstrate genuine humanity.
Anna Leahy is the author of “Tumor” and directs the MFA in creative writing program at Chapman University.
Making Peace With a Stutter
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