Speaking Is My Challenge -- and I'm Facing up To It

About the presenter: Marty Jezer is a writer and political activist. In addition to his recent book Stuttering: A Life Bound Up in Words he is the author of biographies of Rachel Carson and Abbie Hoffman (which is being made into a movie) and a history, The Dark Ages: Life in the USA, 1945-1960, as well as numerous magazine articles and a newspaper column. He was one of the founding editor of WIN, an influential Vietnam era anti-war magazine, and a founder of a Vermont commune, which he wrote about in the book Home Comfort: Life on Total Loss Farm. Jezer was also co-founder of The Working Group on Electoral Democracy, a grassroots organization that conceived and promoted legislation for full public financing of elections. He helped draft model legislation that is now law in Maine and Vermont and which serves as the basis for the Clean Money Campaign Reform now promoted by the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, Public Campaign. Marty lives in Brattleboro, Vermont in a blended family that includes his partner Arlene, his teenage daughter and Arlene's four children.

Speaking Is My Challenge -- And I'm Facing Up To It

by Marty Jezer
Vermont, USA

At age 57 I still stutter severely. Only by using an electronic aid, an Edinburgh Masker or a portable delayed auditory feedback (DAF) device (The Pocket Fluency System manufactured by Casa Futura Technologies), can I achieve the degree of fluency to communicate effectively.

And that's what my speaking goal is: not total fluency, but to be able to speak when I want to and engage my listeners so they'll listen to and understand all that I have to say.

The way I understand my life is as a battle against silence. I tried as a youth to play the role of the strong silent type: A John Wayne, a mumbling Marlon Brando. Back then I was ashamed of my stuttering. I would do anything -- even keep silent -- in order to hide it. Everything I did revolved around speech, whether I should talk and risk the embarrassment of stuttering or whether I should just let the desire or the opportunity to speak pass and protect myself by keeping silent. Every time I opened my mouth, I put my identity on the line. I looked cool and seemed intelligent when I wasn't speaking. But as soon as I started stuttering I felt stupid and incompetent.

Speech for me has always been a means of connecting, a way of making contact with another person. Speech, even stuttered speech, affirms my existence. The silent kid in a noisy conversation, I often feared that I would disappear into nothingness unless I asserted myself by speaking. So I was compelled to speak, even if only to grunt an affirmation or to make some other "look I'm here" kind of noise.

As I matured I found that I wasn't the shy, quiet guy that I thought I was or had to be. On the contrary, I love to talk, hate being silent. Over time it's dawned on me that the fear-induced silence by which I coped with my stuttering was a greater handicap than the actual spasms of my disfluent speech.

What happens when I start speaking?

Speaking has always provoked chaos in my brain -- and this chaos destroys my speech coordination. If I try to visualize what's going on in my brain when I'm speaking, I picture myself as a short-order cook making breakfast in a greasy-spoon diner: The griddle is overheating, my thought processes are becoming scrambled, the toast is burning, the egg yolks are breaking, and the bacon is spewing hot grease into the fire. The cook, that's me, is in a panic, trying to deal with every thing that is going wrong and, in a frenzy of frantic motion, dealing with nothing.

I didn't start therapy until I was nine or ten. Had I had therapy when the neurology of speech is still malleable, I might have had a better outcome -- but that's water over the dam. As a teen and adult, I've had all kinds of therapy: airflow, precision fluency, and Van Riper-inspired stuttering modification. I worked hard in some of these therapies. But I was always one of the few people who did not achieve a satisfactory level of fluency even inside the clinic, where fluency should come easy. I know for a fact that speech therapy helps a lot of people. Though it didn't do much for my fluency, it did give me an understanding of the way speech works. Anything one learns about speaking is useful knowledge, no matter how difficult it is to apply it.

In one way or another, in and out of therapy, I work on my speech.

As a teenager I worried about the way I looked as a stutterer. I watched how other people spoke and tried to copy the speakers I admired. I worked to move my hands and arms so that at least I would look like a fluent speaker. I learned to look people in the eye when speaking and to not mask my quivering lips behind the back of my raised hand.

Working on identity issues has been especially important. As a youth I often thought of my stutter as my defining characteristic. Over time, I learned to distinguish between being "a stutterer" and "a person who stutters." I have many positive characteristics. Stuttering is only one thing I do. While I think the term "person who stutters" is awkward to say (and prefer to use the word "stutterer" to describe myself), I understand that I'm more than my speech -- my stuttering is not the primary attribute of my identity.

To get to this point, I had to deal with my proclivity for denial. While I couldn't hide my stuttering, I always denied that it had any affect on me. There is a positive aspect to this kind of denial. My stubborn refusal to recognize my stuttering as the the disaster it was, enabled me to have a fairly normal childhood -- I simply wouldn't accept -- despite the overwhelming evidence -- that I had a disability. As much as possible I concentrated on activities that I excelled at, which you didn't involve my speaking. When my speech prevented me from doing something I wanted to do, I turned off my emotions and convinced myself that I didn't want to do it anyway. You can't go through life denying your problems, however. Grief, shame, pain, and humiliation get inside you, even if you deny their existence. Slowly they wore my defenses down. In my early thirties I finally had to confront the harm that denial was doing to me.

A wonderful gestalt therapist helped me confront my denial, so that I could acknowledge my stuttering and, from the point of openness and awareness, learn to deal with it. I have no use for psychotherapists (the Freudians, e.g.) who claim stuttering is a psychological disorder, a symptom of neuroses! But stuttering can warp are personalities, the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Many of us who stutter can gain self- understanding from a good psychotherapist.

The self-help movement -- the National Stuttering Project, Speak Easy in New Jersey, and the Canadian Association of People Who Stutter -- further encouraged me to accept my stuttering. Better still, the people in these groups encouraged me to take steps to become the talkative person I've always wanted to me.

There is something magical about self-help groups. You're constantly being confronted with your fears and self-perceived limitations -- and in self-help you're constantly meeting people who have overcome similar fears and limitations. So you begin to wonder: if they can speak in situations that terrify me into silence, then maybe I can speak in those situations too. And so you do it, you speak -- and maybe even stutter. But the world doesn't come crashing down. So you do it again ... and again -- each time with more confidence and success. And the fears and limitations that once governed your life gradually disappear.

Because of the example of people who I've met in the various self-help groups, I speak out at meetings, give public readings of my writings, and have come to enjoy public speaking (which absolutely amazes me!) I've even joined Toastmasters, a support group for public speakers. I still stutter when I speak in public. But I know I can hold an audience, be informative and entertaining-- and even make people laugh when I want to.

Here's the magic of the self-help movement: other people see you doing the things you thought you could never do and they start thinking to themselves, hey, if he can do it even though he stutters ...or if she can do it even with her blocking and repetitions, then maybe I can do it. And they do it. All of a sudden, you've become a role model for others -- a wonderful, empowering feeling.... And the process continues.

I don't want to sound as if I've solved all my stuttering problems. Using an electronic aide can be bothersome. But it does help my fluency, especially when I am using the techniques (slow speech and voluntary stuttering) that I've learned in therapy.

What a difference the Masker and the DAF device have made for my speaking. When my daughter was young, she chose me to read to her most every night. In conversations I rarely even think of myself as a stutterer. Objectively, I'm still disfluent. But, for the most part, my stuttering doesn't bother me; nor does it seem to bother my listeners. If it does, I explain about my stuttering. That usually puts them at ease. Being open about my stuttering puts me at ease as well.

Meetings can still be tough. But I no longer go to the bathroom when people are introducing themselves. There are still situations in which I'm wary of speech. Large audiences of strangers still intimidate me, especially when I have to present an argument that people are not familiar with and the subject has emotional content. But I recognize such situations as presenting new challenges. And I'm getting up my courage.

I still don't like my stuttering. I like myself, but not my stuttering. It's not that I'm ashamed of my stuttering. I just don't like to have to focus on how I'm speaking so much of the time. But I am proud of the way I handle my stuttering, proud of how far I've come in life even with my stuttering, and proud of myself for breaking through my fear of silence. Yes! I'd love to be more fluent -- and perhaps someday will. Not that it would make me a better person, but it would make speaking less of a challenge.

Speaking is my challenge and I'm facing up to it.

September 23, 1998