The Campaign Volunteer Who Stuttered

How canvassing helped me embrace my political voice — and my actual one

Story by
Illustrated by Gérard DuBois

It’s the Saturday before the midterm elections and I’m at an apartment complex in South Salt Lake, Utah, about to knock on a stranger’s door. I’m canvassing for Ben McAdams, the Democratic candidate for Congress in Utah’s 4th District. It’s part of a last-minute effort to get out the vote, and the stakes are high: If McAdams unseats the Republican incumbent, he could help the Democrats take the House.

I’m a regular voter, but it’s my first time canvassing. Randomly showing up at a someone’s door to talk politics would place anyone outside their comfort zone, but for me, there’s an added hitch: I can’t say “Ben.” The “B” sound at the beginning is what speech-language pathologists call a “stop,” because it’s produced by obstructing and then releasing the airflow in the vocal tract. This buildup makes it a fraught word for someone who stutters, as I do. Trying to say a “B” word is like trying to blow a chewing-gum bubble without enough gum.

I pace outside the first address, rehearsing what to say, before I knock on the door. A man greets me. As I suspected I might, I freeze when it’s time to introduce myself. Silence fills the air like a cold chill, and he stares back at me, expectant. A few doors down, I make it through “Adam” but stutter on my last name. The woman at the door repeats after me, incredulous: Gi-Gi-Giannelli. It feels like she’s mocking me, but maybe she thinks I have a very long Italian name.

Anyone who stutters will tell you that their own name is one of the hardest things to say, especially to strangers. If I haven’t yet met you, you won’t expect me to stutter, so I’ll grow self-conscious, which increases the likelihood that I will stutter. Growing up, I was terrified of introducing myself to the class on the first day of school, and I’d invariably stutter, often getting stuck on “Adam.” Certain words, like one’s name, take on histories, as though they are made of scar tissue.

I check the app on my phone for the next address. Earlier that morning, after arriving at the McAdams campaign headquarters, I’d downloaded a preapproved script and a list of voters’ addresses onto my phone. The script contained some likely stutters: my name, the B in “Ben,” several hard “K” sounds (“campaign” and “Congress”). A “K,” like “B,” is a stop — an easy sound to get stuck on, its burst occurring in the back of the throat. Thankfully, the staffer who led the canvassing orientation told us not to follow the script exactly. “I don’t recommend standing in front of someone and reading off your phone,” he’d said.

This was a relief. Scripts are succinct and helpful to canvassers, who might not know where to start otherwise. But they exacerbate my stutter. I hated reading aloud in class as a kid, since fidelity to the text made it impossible to substitute difficult-to-pronounce words with easier ones — a trick I often used to hide my stutter. Reading aloud also created anticipation anxiety. I’d look ahead, noting the problematic words, and fret over them. This is a fear shared by many stutterers. In a 2016 speech at a gala for the American Institute for Stuttering, then-Vice President Joe Biden traced his talent for public speaking back to his childhood stutter, alluding to a joke President Barack Obama made years earlier during a speech: “He stood up and he said, ‘Well, folks … I’m learning to speak without a teleprompter, and Joe Biden is learning to speak with one.’ He had no idea how true that was, because what do stutterers hate? Reading the written word. … It’s taught me to be a fairly good extemporaneous speaker.”

I’d never canvassed until President Trump’s election. Fueled by outrage and anger, I started calling politicians, first to protest Steve Bannon’s appointment as the White House chief strategist, then Betsy DeVos’s appointment as the secretary of education. I also called about the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I wasn’t particularly preoccupied with my voice, but when I started to stutter significantly, I realized that the calls brought together several stresses: saying my name, reading from a script, speaking on the phone, confronting an authority figure. My enthusiasm waned; it was hard to keep up the same intensity, and I was wary of my stutter. I didn’t call for several months.

Then, last July, Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court. Like many others, I was disturbed by the sexual assault allegation against him, but his nomination also felt personal, given his legal record on disabled people. In Doe Tarlow v. District of Columbia, he argued that people with intellectual disabilities don’t have the right to make decisions about their own surgical procedures, and in several cases, he’s ruled against the Affordable Care Act, which benefits disabled people, especially through its inclusion of preexisting conditions.

So one afternoon I wrote down the numbers for my Ohio senators, Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R), and found a script online to help manage the call. (I’m currently based in Utah, where I’m a graduate student, but I’m registered in Ohio, my home state.) I knew I’d have to say “Kavanaugh” and “confirmation.” When Portman’s office voice mail picked up, I hung up. It occurred to me that I hadn’t gone outside all day, and I went for a walk.

I realized that I wasn’t calling in spite of my stutter — simply because these are momentous political times and civic engagement is vital. I was calling because of my stutter.

I’ve dreaded the phone my entire life. It accentuates my voice, like training a magnifying glass on a pimple. When I was younger and wanted to ask someone on a date, I would sit quietly for minutes beside the phone in my room, or dial the first few digits, then disconnect. During speech therapy in high school, the therapist worked with a process called desensitization, which she also called “anti-avoidant therapy,” in which I’d stutter on purpose, with the goal of growing comfortable with my own voice. She had me make five phone calls a day and voluntarily stutter. I’d call my local Blockbuster video store and ask if they had a copy of “Ghostbusters,” stuttering on the B. Or I’d call a restaurant and make a reservation, then cancel it the next day.

Almost 50 years ago the psychologist Joseph Sheehan compared stuttering to an iceberg: The physical stutter makes up the tip of the iceberg, while the person’s emotions surrounding their stutter — often, anxiety and shame — compose the base. Desensitization therapy attempts to alleviate these anxieties, and voluntary stuttering can play an important part. (Desensitization does not allege the root cause of stuttering is emotional distress, a common misunderstanding — only that fear and anxiety can intensify stuttering. The cause of stuttering remains a mystery, but researchers believe it is a neurodevelopment disorder arising from several factors, including genetics.) At the time of the therapy, as a teenager, I wanted to fit in. Stuttering on purpose seemed counterproductive, and I resisted my homework.

As I walked around my block, I realized that, years later, I was still actively trying not to stutter. There was a time in my 20s when I fled from salespeople as though they were out of “The Walking Dead”; even in a store as large as Walmart, I would search the aisles, trying to find shower curtains without asking the blue-vested employees for help. The distance around my block is three-quarters of a mile, and the average Walmart is as big as three football fields. These were the measures of my shame. My iceberg was the size of a superstore.

I’d like to hope that, as an adult, my stuttering does not impinge upon my life. I use the phone regularly. I’m a teacher, and I disclose my stutter on the first day, then openly stutter in front of my students. Yet, with the calls to protest Kavanaugh, I felt anxiety and trepidation, as though I were back in high school. I returned to my apartment, knowing I was still not entirely at peace with my own voice, and I picked up the phone.

Why not just send an email? I didn’t want to hide behind a computer, for one thing. After Kavanaugh’s nomination, I realized that I wasn’t calling in spite of my stutter — simply because these are momentous political times and civic engagement is vital. I was calling because of my stutter. It was a therapeutic exercise, providing a venue to both express and confront myself. I have a political voice, but I have another voice: the sound in my mouth. Sometimes it’s smooth. Sometimes it wavers. I wanted these voices to ring together.

Just before the midterms, I volunteered to make calls for the Ohio Democratic Party. I sat at my kitchen table in front of my computer while a software program automatically dialed voters. The program instantly contacted a new voter after the previous call was done, so there was no opportunity to hesitate. Eliminating the anticipation helped — like riding a roller coaster without the long, clanking climb to the summit.

I thought these calls would be similar to contacting my legislators. But legislators listen to their constituents. Most voters hung up before I completed the first sentence. It increased the pressure to get information across quickly, and the urgency only caused me to stutter more. “You can’t just call people,” someone exclaimed to me, exasperated, before hanging up.

Suddenly, one woman knocked me off-script. “I recently moved,” she said. “Can you ask them to send me another ballot?”

“I’m calling on behalf of the party, not the government,” I said. She could vote in person, I reminded her, and gave her the name and address of her polling center.

“Can you hold on?” she asked. After what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, she asked me to repeat the information. “It takes me a while to write things down,” she said. “I’m disabled.”

I repeated the address. “I can’t do this,” I heard her mutter to herself. It felt like I’d made it through all those disconnections to reach this one woman. I’m often forced to rely on others’ patience; people interrupt or fill in words for me, trying to eliminate the awkward moment, when I’d prefer they give me time to speak. Now, I was the one growing impatient. Slowly, she waited as I repeated it again, and slowly I waited as she wrote it down, and in the silences it was unclear who was helping whom.

I have a political voice, but I have another voice: the sound in my mouth. Sometimes it’s smooth. Sometimes it wavers. I wanted to try to let these voices ring together.

I wanted more opportunities to express my voices. That’s when I decided to canvass: I knew face-to-face encounters with strangers would force me into difficult situations where I’d confront my stutter more frequently than in everyday life. I was echoing the anti-avoidant therapy I received as a teenager, but my goal wasn’t to stutter more in hopes that one day I would stutter less. It was my way of claiming my stutter — my form of embrace. Unlike “anti-avoidance,” “embrace” is not a double negative. It derives from the Latin “imbracchiare” (“to clasp in the arms”). It is not simply the absence of something. It implies a reaching out, a gathering.

Over three days before the midterms, I knock on 175 doors. On the canvassing map on my phone, dots for each voter constellate around me. At every dot lies not only a potential vote, but a potential stutter. I stutter on “K” sounds: I’m in favor of McAdams because, as Salt Lake County mayor, he has been a unifier and expanded access to health care. But I don’t want to censor myself, so I keep repeating the words. I stutter on my name; I stutter on Ben’s name.

A list of dos and don’ts from the McAdams campaign reminds me that at each door I am the face of the campaign, but, since I speak on behalf of Ben, I’m also the voice. As the days go by, I grow more comfortable and more fluent. But I still stutter. It’s a myth that stuttering can be cured, and it’s damaging to people who stutter; it creates an unrealistic narrative, implying there’s something wrong with them and blaming them for their speech. (While many young children outgrow their stutter as they learn to speak, research shows that children who continue to stutter for over five years will typically stutter to some extent for the rest of their lives.)

During election season we are confronted with political maps, blotted red and blue. Slowly, as I try to colonize the map with blue, I expand the realms of my stutter, making a big stutter-y blot. I try to spread my stutter as thickly as possible, so that I, and the people I meet, will become more accustomed to it. It seems fitting that I stutter when I say “Adam.” Since stuttering is a part of me, it is also a part of my name.

Adam Giannelli is a poet, translator and teacher, and the author of “Tremulous Hinge,” winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize.

Credits: Story by Adam Giannelli. Designed by Christian Font. Illustrated by Gérard DuBois.