Breaking the Sound Barrier

Stutterers don’t have to resign themselves to the silent life—there are ways to tame the tongue’s madness.

When my father took me to the opening of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, I wasn’t about to let anything, least of all my shyness, get in the way of meeting the original astronauts. I was determined to collect the signatures of all seven spacemen and my taciturn offering of pad and pen was working fine until Alan Shepard asked my name. My reply, “V-V-V-Vance,” embarrassed my famous listener as much as it did me. All I could think of on the way home was that a person must not stutter while talking to Mission Control. I had blown my chance of becoming an astronaut.

I have stuttered for as long as I have talked, never catastrophically, with the “blocks” that cause facial contortions, but with enough clutter and hesitation that I learned early to curtail or sidestep conversations. As is the case with many young stutterers, my speech began to flow more smoothly at about age fifteen, and people I have met in the ensuing fifteen years are often surprised to learn that I ever stuttered at all.

The speech therapy I got in grade school, usually conducted weekly at a corner table in the library, was not particularly inspired. Semester after semester, bewildered therapists made me listen to goofy recordings, had me recite to a metronome ticking so slowly that I would run out of breath in the middle of words, and tried to guess whether I was hyperactive, which I was not. One woman played “Ronnie the Fire Engine” and “Sammy the Snake” records for me, but r and s sounds were not my problem. None of this was totally useless, but it undoubtedly made me aware that my speech was different, which only compounded my growing fear of speaking. And returning to class probably nullified any benefit I was getting from therapy. The whole time I was in elementary school, teachers banished speech-impaired students to the lower-rung reading group, no matter how superior our non-oral language skills may have been. When I asked my fifth-grade teacher why I always made a C in reading, she replied, “Well, Vance, you do stutter.”

By the time I entered junior high school, I was resigned to a nonverbal life and was beginning to realize that certain options would not be open to me. I knew I could never be a disc jockey, an auctioneer, the President, or even a used-car salesman, and I had just stuttered my way out of the space program. Not that my parents had any of these occupations in mind for me, but they were getting worried. It is best not to call attention to a child’s stutter; however, my runaway speech, and figuring out how to tame it, became something of a family project. I am convinced that we did the right thing at home by bringing it out in the open. Besides, how long could we pretend not to notice that I would let the telephone ring rather than pick up the receiver and try to say “Hello”?

My parents summoned a private therapist to the house but promptly dismissed him after he announced what stutterers always hear: my only problem was that my mind was racing ahead of my mouth or—less flattering—vice versa. I discovered that I didn’t stutter at all when I sang, so I longed for a life to be like the musicals. We put buttons under my tongue in a futile and funny update of Demosthenes legend, but they kept me from singing and made me gag.

I continued a long and difficult relationship with the telephone, that medium in which you are only what you sound like. One of my sister’s boyfriends hung up on me after what must have been a full minute of “shhhhh” in my attempt at “She’s not here right now.” That embarrassing incident stands as my worst moment as a teenage stutterer, but another bout with the telephone finally prompted me to get serious about mending my broken speech. After overhearing a sputtering call I made to our newspaper carrier, my mother handed the phone back to me and commanded me to reenact the conversation. The directive seemed irrationally punitive at the time, but it turned out to be the proper catalyst. I realized at last that my grace period had expired. I perceived the moment as my last chance to do something about stuttering and hence was motivated to approach conversation with a new sense of caution, to remain cool during crises, and to devise a series of tricks to bypass words that wouldn’t budge.

The sudden exits I have learned to make from words—simple switches, such as “bring” to “take,” “I” to “me,” or “may” to “can”—do not enhance eloquence or build vocabulary or enforce good grammar, but the sacrifices are unimportant. What matters is getting through a sentence, even if I have to lead into a statement with a prolonged “mmm” or “uhh” to get it going. At an early age I developed a disregard for syntax that often leaves literate listeners incredulous. If I have trouble with, say, “Let’s go to a movie,” I might have to hurdle the l with a weird rearrangement such as “A movie [fake pensive pause], let’s go to a movie.” Should the l still not shake loose, I may try “How about a movie?” or the more petulant “I want to go to a movie.” Since stuttering can occur midsentence as often as it does at the beginning, there are escapes to be made at the last second: “How about a m-m-m-m [pause] going to a movie?” Or I will quickly change to “film”. Then there is my unsubtle technique of consonant-dropping—“ello” for “hello”—which probably strikes people as an odd desire to sound cockney. As an illustration of the capriciousness of stuttering, to this day I cannot say “statistics.” It is the first syllable that trips me, but I have no trouble with the abbreviated “stats.” Many stutterers constantly block on the st sound, and it is

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