Obsessions With Language, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Stutter
|About the presenter: Jesse Loesberg earned his Master of Fine Arts in Writing at Goddard College in 1999. His poems and essays have appeared in The Santa Barbara Review, The Cafe Review, Words and Images, and The Casco Bay Weekly. His radio commentaries run regularly on KQED-FM. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he teaches creative writing and is currently at work on his first full-length novel.
Obsessions with Language, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Stutter
by Jesse Loesberg
from California, USA
I hate talking on the phone. My stutter, which is fairly moderate most of the time, becomes severe the moment I pick up the receiver. The last person I called on her cell phone interrupted me with, " Um, hang on a second. I think my signal is breaking up."
I don't even like calling my friends. They already know that I stutter, and they don't mind taking the extra time to hear what I have to say, but it's still a workout for me. The sight of my girlfriend (a fluent speaker) lounging on the couch and cheerfully chatting away with a long-distance friend completely baffles me. I'd just as soon get my teeth drilled.
You'd be surprised, then, to hear that I recently made a phone call in which every stuck consonant, every tongue-locking silence, filled me with immense pleasure. This is because the person on the other end was my landlord's lawyer, and my stutter was about to cost his client about three thousand dollars.
Long story short: my landlord had invoked the Ellis Act, a nasty little law that allows the owner of a building in San Francisco to evict all of his tenants as long as that building doesn't go back on the rental market in under five years. I won't bore you with the details, but after a little bit of research I found out that disabled tenants were entitled to financial compensation. And guess what qualifies as a disability under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act?
Now, this essay is not about how relieving my affluent and irresponsible landlords of a nice chunk of money brought me deep and lasting satisfaction (although it did). The score at the end of this paper won't be Stuttering Tenant 1, Fluent Landlord 0 (although it was). During those phone calls with the above-mentioned lawyer, I realized that I was actually enjoying myself. I gave myself permission to abandon all my speaking tactics"word substitutions, soft onsets, long breaths"all the things I do to avoid stuttering. Far from being the soul-destroying embarrassment that raged through my childhood, my stutter was a source of confidence.
The idea that stuttering has a positive effect on my life isn't new, but it's been a long, ugly road. The words " smoothly, please" make frequent appearances in my childhood memories as the phrase that my father used to interrupt me in mid-stutter. A committed Freudian, he also floated a number of theories about how my speech problems were a form of displaced anger, the result of a need to appear helpless, or a combination of both. The message I took from this was that the content of my words held less importance than how they came out of my mouth, and that keeping it shut would save me a lot of grief.
My parents also sent me to speech therapy, which I attended from third grade until sometime during fifth. In my memory, speech therapy is a shifting landcape of small, airless rooms, hard plastic chairs, frosted glass windows, and gently repeated questions about whatever toy, book, or household object happened to appear on the table that week. The therapists themselves shared this fluidity; rarely was I seen by the same therapist for two consecutive visits, and I didn't figure out for many years that the women who saw me were graduate students fulfilling their clinical obligations. I don't remember whether they suggested any techniques or methods for dealing with my stutter, but if the goal of that therapy was fluency, well . . . it didn't work.
Being at school was much easier. I had the fortune of spending my entire childhood and adolescence in the same town, so I went through elementary, junior high, and high school with all the same kids. By the time I was in second grade, no one was surprised to hear my stutter. I was never forced to stand in front of a classroom full of unfamiliar faces and introduce myself as the new kid. As a result, almost no one in my classes made fun of me for not being able to speak like everyone else, and I never had any shortage of friends.
This did nothing, though, to alleviate the terror of speaking my name. Like many stutterers, I will do almost anything to avoid saying it. And the curse that befell my first name has infected the rest of the alphabet as well: any word beginning with the letter J is an open invitation to every facial tic I own. I entered my teenage years with a small arsenal of tactics for dealing with this problem. Opening with " My name is . . ." often loosened my stutter's grip, even if those words didn't make any sense in the particular conversation. Saying my last name first was another trick, even though it made me sound like James Bond. These tactics were employed only after the failure of my usual approach: not saying my name at all, and hoping that no one would notice. This almost never worked. My stutter, which makes me want to disappear, is at odds with the rest of my personality, which makes me want to be the center of attention.
So how do we get from a tortured, stuttering adolescent to the man who makes property lawyers give him money?
(Disclaimer: no one should conclude from this essay that poetry actually makes money. The amount of money I got from my landlord is almost exactly the same as the advance given Louise Glueck following the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris, and I didn't work nearly as hard as she did).
As a stutterer, I feel its shape of a word before I hear its sound. I anticipate the route it will take through my mouth. I know whether it will require the use of my teeth, putting my lips together, or pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth. For me, the act of speaking requires a level of attention that most people reserve for defusing nuclear bombs.
The spontaneous flow of speech that most people take for granted is replaced by a constant, exhausting vigilance. Just as the person on crutches regards a staircase as an obstacle course, I look over the map of a spoken sentence and see a minefield. And all of these explosive metaphors are appearing for a reason: stuttering is a full-body experience. I feel my blocks in my stomach, in my chest, inside my skull and behind my eyes. The worst ones actually leave me breathless, since my diaphragm freezes in place and I pretty much stop breathing.
What this means, though, is that I've developed a relationship with language that fluent speakers have to work a lot harder to achieve. I experience words as tactile objects. I know the sounds of letters for their individual personalities. Language becomes a slithering, breathing creature that moves inside me. It's impossible to know if I would have become a writer if I didn't stutter, but I can say, with reasonable assurance, that I wouldn't be writing poetry were it not for my speech pathology. Poems demand all the sensitivity and awareness of language that my stutter brings. It's not enough to put just words down on a page - the life of a poem comes from the noise of the words themselves, their shape, the experience evoked by their sound. And, as every stutterer knows, every word is loaded package.
I wrote my first short stories when I was in third grade, and my first poems in fourth. It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I figured out that my life didn't make a whole lot of sense if I wasn't constantly immersing myself in the flow of language. At the same time, I realized that thinking of my stutter as somehow separate and apart from that life was a ridiculous thing to do.
This is a controversial point, to say the least. Much has been made of whether we should think of ourselves as stutterers or as people who stutter. I don't lose a whole lot of sleep over this distinction. One of the problems with the English language is that it requires us to identify ourselves with nouns - I am a writer, a teacher, an administrative assistant, a knitter. It denies us the complexity of our identities. But does calling myself a stutterer really lock me inside some box? Is the Jesse Loesberg that stutters actually different than the one who writes? Is this a productive way to think about myself?
No, no, and no. Stuttering has caused no small amount of pain in my life, but isolating it from the rest of my personality is as impossible as trying not to breathe. The parts of myself that I value the most--the part that writes, the part that feels compassion, the part that loves my girlfriend, to name a few--are all influenced by my speech. One way or another, I can feel the influence of stuttering in everything I do.
When I was younger (and not much younger) I used to think of this as a curse. I'd imagine what my life would have been like (and would be like) if the urge to speak wasn't accompanied by all those mental and emotional gymnastics. I do still wish that I could make phone calls without completely exhausting myself, and there's no shortage of embarrassment in my gut when my eyes roll back into my head during a particularly bad block. But making the connection between my writing and my stutter has taken me off the hook, and shows me where my real strength lies. The pieces of writing that accompany this paper come from that place, from letting all those feelings about my stutter speak for themselves. Stuttering caused my obsession with language. Every day, that obsession turns into writing.
Two of Jesse Loesberg's poems are included below with permission. He reads the first himself. JAK
My Father Makes Me Practice My Name
Nothing comes out of my mouth
with my tongue pinned to my palate
and my eyes rolled back into my head.
My father hasn't moved his hands to his hips
yet, to announce the new rule: every moment
like this will cost ten cents of my allowance.
My tongue is pushing open a door
inside my skull. I'm reaching through the crack
into the stalled machinery of my speech
to where my father's wrench (the one he says
went missing on my first birthday) is jammed
between the gears, twisted and bent from years
of forcing the letters of my name
through the wheels and cogs. One more minute
and I could wriggle it free, send it clanging
to my father's feet, but his arms are unfolding;
the door slams shut. We'll stand here
again tomorrow and I won't see
another dime for weeks.
Jesse Loesberg's second poem requires two readers, if you wish to get the full effect. JAK)
The Space Inside My Name
on my tongue
of two sweet
the edgy bounce
promising a leap
into a luscious
tugging on my teeth
pushing my tongue
when I tried to speak;
fleeing to his
cats with their
Only my father sat still
in his chair
if the knife
he used to slice
There were people
to trick me
you're talking in
tell me a story
I'd open my mouth
the kitchen table
half eaten dinner
we're going to talk
sheen of sweat shining
on his scalp
like you so
my mother quiet
lips tight and turning
you know what
of dark joy
you sound like when
in my stomach
when I saw I could
slide the knife
you talk that way
out of my mouth
in broad daylight
and drive it
in the consuming
between the first
and the rest of my name
all of this
like her hands
the warm clothes
taking off her shoes
rubbing the soles of her feet
all the silence
keeping the question
They don't know
legs that run
until you open
over thirty miles
I changed my name
July 15, 2004