Ben Jealous, the Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, said recently that he has struggled with a stutter his whole life. His stutter is the reason he sometimes pauses between words. But he added, “My parents raised me to never let it hold me back.”
His words hit a nerve. My 11-year-old daughter, Freya, has a stutter. My husband and I, like Jealous's parents, are trying to raise her to never let it hold her back.
Freya’s stutter was triggered about three years ago, soon after we moved to the United States from South Africa. I do not know why she suddenly struggled to speak, but it was probably the combination of the stresses of the move, fellow students teasing about her South African accent and genetics. My daughter’s stutter gut-punched me because my dad also stuttered. One of my earliest memories is of hearing him answer the phone and struggle to say his name. From then on, I would rush to the phone whenever it rang, trying to get there first so I could answer and save Dad from the ordeal of having to say “Hello.” We children were told not to interrupt my father when he stuttered, so I remember just standing there, looking up at him, patiently waiting for him to stammer out the words.
Dad died nearly 10 years ago. Luckily, Freya has had help that he never had. Not showing our heartache, or frustration, when Freya is laboring through a sentence or story is difficult. But telling a child while she is mid-stutter to “slow down” or “take a breath” is the worst thing someone can do. After a few false starts with speech therapists who had no idea how to deal with a newly stuttering 7-year-old girl, we discovered Tim Mackesey, a speech pathologist in Atlanta, where we live. Mackesey, himself a stutterer, guided Freya through the rough spots and trained her to recognize when she got “stuck.”
Stuttering can be a speech block in your throat, on your tongue or on your lips. Stuttering is also cyclical. Sometimes, my husband and I would notice Freya speaking more fluidly and rejoice. Within days she would be battling her words again. Mackesey taught her exercises and tricks for “phrasing” her sentences. Phrasing has become a euphemism in our house for speaking clearly and smoothly. Also, she has learned to help herself. Unlike my dad, whom I remember endlessly pushing through his stutters, trying hard to finish a word, Freya has learned how to stop herself and recognize where she’s stuck. Throat? Lips? Or tongue? She’ll then try to repeat the word or sentence cleanly. When that happens we say, “Hey, good pickup.”
Popular culture has plenty of stammering, from Porky Pig to “The King’s Speech,” but Freya was highly unimpressed with J.K. Rowling for making a weak, duplicitous character in her Harry Potter books a stutterer. Professor Quirrell meets Harry, and this is the introductory conversation:
“P-P-Potter,” stammered Professor Quirrell, grasping Harry’s hand, “c-can’t t-tell you how p-pleased I am to meet you.”
“What sort of magic do you teach, Professor Quirrell?”
“D-Defence Against the D-D-Dark Arts,” muttered Professor Quirrell, as though he’d rather not think about it. “N-not that you need it, eh, P-P-Potter?” He laughed nervously.
Despite Professor Quirrell’s unhelpful example, Freya took a different example from the Harry Potter stories, one that gave her a great way of considering what it means to stutter. In the first book, Harry, Hermione and Ron are trapped in the Devil’s Snare, which is a weedlike plant with deathly tentacles that wrap around them after they fall through a trapdoor. The harder they fight the plant, the tighter it traps them. Mackesey explained to Freya that this is a lot like stuttering — the harder you try to get the words out, the more they become strained. Your throat closes up, your tongue locks down, or your lips refuse to release a syllable or letter. The lesson? Release from a stammer is not just about relaxing. It is a learned reaction that involves an emotional and neurological response.
That’s easier said than done, as countless stutterers have found. People can stutter in any language and in any culture. More men stutter than women, Often, the earlier a stutter starts, the more likely the child is to grow out of it. For older stutterers, it’s about managing their own Devil’s Snare. Our Freya spoke flawlessly in front of her school assembly last spring, beautifully reading the school’s character pledge in front of hundreds of fellow students, teachers and, as if the pressure weren’t enough, former president Jimmy Carter, a special guest of the school. My husband and I cried from our seats on the bleachers at the back of the school gym.
I have watched in wonder as Freya and, to some extent, my dad (who became less handicapped by his stutter as he aged) dealt with their sentences going rogue. Their resilience is repeated in private and public by so many other stammerers. Former vice president Joe Biden apparently had a stutter. So does the singer Ed Sheeran. When former General Electric CEO Jack Welch was a child, he once wrote, his mother told him that he stuttered because he was so smart — that his tongue could not keep up with his brain. We told Freya something similar before we found her help. Words are powerful. Getting them out, for some, is empowering.