dis/fluent Me, My Grandmother, and Our Stutter
I tell her I’m surprised that no one else had ever brought up her stutter to her before. She’s surprised that I’m surprised.
My grandmother lives in a small town in Florida, about five miles from the Gulf Coast. Her house sits on a quiet, lush plot of land dotted with drooping willows. Everything inside the house is either white or glass and always pristine. Hardly any of the interior has changed since my grandfather—her husband of fifty-nine years—died in 2003. I’ve decided to visit my grandmother for two reasons. First, for respite from a brutal New York winter. And second, because she’s just turned eighty-eight and I have a question for her, the answer to which might soon be lost forever.
When I pull into her driveway, a sense of languor washes over me. Everything is slower, quieter. I glide to her front door and, when she opens it, throw my arms around her. I’ve just stepped inside when she starts asking me about food—if I’ve had any, if I want any, when I will want any. I tell her I’ll just swing by Publix later tonight, pick up some snacks for the week. She throws up her hands, dissatisfied with my answer.
Here, my default state is repose, but I also want to help out however I can around the house; my grandmother had a fall earlier this year and I’m eager to make her life easier. Before she goes to sleep, she asks me if I can sweep some of the leaves from her porch in the morning. She says it’s hard for her to bend. I tell her I’d be happy to help. The next morning I wake up to find her already sweeping the leaves. I said I was going to do that , I protest, trying to wrench the broom from her hands. She waves me away: “I’m not an invalid!”
We spend the next couple days catching up. She tells me about petty dramas playing out among her octogenarian friends; I tell her about work. I don’t know how much she understands the nature of my job, or my career aspirations generally, but she lights up when I say things like “ The New York Times ” and “Gay Talese.”
I wait until the third day of my visit to ask her my question. I ask her to sit with me at the kitchen table and say I want us to discuss the way she and I talk—that is, with a stutter. I say it just like that. She nods politely and folds her hands in her lap, then grows pensive. When conversations get weighty, she’s quick to pivot, in her words, to “something happier,” so I’m not sure what to expect. Then she says for the first time what she will say many more times during our conversation: “It is what it is.”
Growing up, she says, no one—not teachers, not friends, not even classroom bullies—ever called attention to her speech. Nor did she ever talk about it with her brother—my great-uncle—who also stutters. I’m surprised by this. But you talk about everything , I say. She looks at the ceiling, tries to recall an instance that might prove her wrong. She shrugs. Nothing. She never talked about it with her parents either, though that came as no surprise. “I never really spoke with my parents much,” she says. “We’d never sit down—like this—and have a conversation.”
My grandmother was born in 1934, situating her at the heart of the Silent Generation, a cohort that I never felt suited someone so affable. It wasn’t until this moment that I’d realized her propensity for chitchat concealed how much of her life she felt to be unspeakable. Silence has been a buffer between her and the potential pain of self-reflection. What else had she never spoken up about?
It wasn’t until this moment that I’d realized her propensity for chitchat concealed how much of her life she felt to be unspeakable.
When she met my grandfather, she was in high school, he in his early twenties. Dating, I tell her, can be tricky with a stutter. There’s always a point when I face the same questions— When do I tell him? Do I tell him? If I tell him, will he leave? Usually I elide the topic altogether; rarely is it worth getting into, and I can usually get away with passing as fluent enough for however many months we see each other that it never comes up anyway. Of the handful of men I’ve broached the subject with, only one—the man I love, with whom I had, at the time, seen an infallible future—has ever responded the way I wanted.
I ask her what kinds of conversations she and my grandfather had about her speech. “We never talked about it,” she says. Not once? “Not once in fifty-nine years of marriage.” As she says this aloud, she looks amused, like she’s being told for the first time. I’m shocked. But you must have talked about everything? The man I love—we talk about everything.
“He accepted me,” she says of my grandfather. Of course he did! So does the man I love , I say. We still talk about it . She doesn’t follow, doesn’t understand what there is to talk about. “Talking about it isn’t gonna change anything,” she says, “so why discuss it?” Because sometimes it’s nice to talk about things, even if no material change comes of it. Maybe another kind of change will—in perspective, in understanding. Or maybe no change will come at all and you’ll just feel better for having named something out loud.
“I had fantastic jobs and I was always important and I have a big mouth and I say what I want to say,” she says assuredly. I do too . I remember once telling the man I love about how painful it can be to lose a listener’s attention, especially when it can be so difficult to get words out in the first place. “You’ve never struck me as someone who has trouble saying what you think,” he said. He didn’t mean that he’d never noticed my stutter (which people often say as a compliment), surely he had, but he saw that it had never kept me from voicing my opinions.
“It hasn’t held me back in any aspect of anything,” she says. “And it hasn’t held you back.” She says this to me—that my stutter hasn’t held me back—three more times over the course of our conversation. I want to tell her that I’ve never feared for a second that my stutter would hold me back, but that I always fear that my stutter will hold other people back from seeing me, my value, my potential. What I don’t want to tell her is that I’m sure that it has held other people back in this way—has tanked my candidacy after I gave a disfluent job interview, warded off potential new friends after I introduced myself disfluently. So I just nod.
“What causes it?” she asks me. I tell her no one quite knows. What we do know is that it happens in the brain and that it’s inherited. So I got it from you , I say. Just like I got my blue eyes from you . “But none of my children got it? That’s weird.” Well, they got other things , I say. Your two sons got vitiligo from their father; one of them also got his diabetes . I ask her if she’d ever thought about passing down her stutter when she had children. “Never.”
The first time I ever thought about passing down my disfluency was when I saw Michael Turner’s 2015 documentary The Way We Talk . In high school, I attended a screening of the movie with my local chapter of the National Stuttering Association (NSA). Michael did a Q and A after the movie and chatted with attendees after. I remember I brought my mother with me; I must have felt it was important for her to see this movie. Later, I’d lend a DVD of The Way We Talk to my high school boyfriend and his mother, like a primer.
Early in The Way We Talk , Michael, who disfluently narrates the movie, reveals that stuttering is a family affair: He stutters, his brother stutters, his father stutters, his mother stutters, her father stuttered, and her father’s brother stuttered. “But none of us ever talked about it,” he says. He goes to a laboratory where scientists are studying—or, more accurately, searching for—the gene that causes stuttering. A researcher tells Michael that the genetic mutation for stuttering is twelve thousand years old—“about 750 generations.” And as it is passed down through these generations, stuttering has a heritability of 80 percent. Michael says that probability—80 percent—gives him a “sinking feeling.” “It’s hard to pass down the parts of ourselves we don’t want to talk about, but it’s who we are.” Michael hopes to be a father someday. “I can’t help but imagine hearing my own kids start to stutter,” he says. “How would I feel at that moment? What would I say to them?”
Once, at an NSA meeting I attended while in high school, I remember an older attendee describing feeling panicked when he noticed his youngest daughter begin to stutter. He immediately took her to a speech therapist—he said he raced her there—to nip it in the bud.
I didn’t know how to feel about his panic. I knew it stemmed from a place of empathy: He did not want his daughter to feel the same pain that he had felt, the pain that is an inevitable part of being a person who stutters. But in trying so hard to protect her, I wonder if he might not have also been projecting his own insecurities—perhaps even his own self-hatred—onto her.
I’ve never felt anxious about passing down my stutter because I’ve never wanted to have children. But I’ve often felt a profound ambivalence thinking about my own parents and how they must see me, their only child, as I stutter my way through the world. As it happens, I have always stuttered most severely with them, more than with anyone else. There’s a line I think about often from Mike Mills’s 2016 movie 20th Century Women : “You get to see him out in the world, as a person,” Annette Bening laments to a close companion of her son. “I never will.”
My parents know that my stutter has not kept me from anything—not from the college I wanted to go to or the city I wanted to live in or the job I wanted to have. They see the evidence of my full life on my résumé, in the photos I send them of my solo adventures or nights out with friends. But they’ll only ever know the version of me—the most disfluent version of me—that appears in front of them. Does it pain them, during my disfluencies, to see my mouth contort, my face redden, my breath slowly leave me? To watch me struggling to speak? Do they mourn for the fluent child they probably thought they would have?
In The Way We Talk , Michael remembers his maternal grandmother asked him to give speech therapy another try after he graduated college. She even offered to pay for it. She wanted to hear him speak fluently before she died. “That never happened.” He wonders if the urgency she felt came from seeing her husband stutter for so many years.
I, like most people who stutter, did speech therapy for many years, and I, like most people who stutter, have little to show for it. It is not, as Michael’s grandmother had probably hoped, a cure. In elementary school, my grandmother attended special education classes that provided speech therapy. “They would make you read out loud.” She doesn’t think it made a difference.
She reiterates that she cannot remember anyone—not friends or strangers—remarking on her stutter. “People probably talked about it behind my back with each other,” she speculates, “not to me face-to-face.” Then she remembers something. When her best friend’s husband died, the couple’s son called my grandmother to share the news. After that call, the best friend told my grandmother, “My son mentioned that you don’t stutter the way you used to anymore.”
That’s the thing about people who stutter—we are masters of diversions, adept with smoke screens.
I tell her I’m surprised that no one else had ever brought up her stutter to her before. She’s surprised that I’m surprised. I explain how often I come up against strangers who like to point out my moments of disfluency without discernible aim. I tell her about a show I attended recently with a friend and two women my age, whom I’d never met. Conversation was flowing just fine between myself and the two women, and then one of them asked me what I had studied in college. Sp-Sp-Spanish , I replied. They looked at me for a moment in silence. Then one of them said, with a look somewhere between confusion and amusement, “You stuttered.” There was no malice to her comment, though there must have been forethought: My speech had hit her ear abnormally, and she needed the three of us to take note. A conversational nonstarter, of course, and one that I’m very used to. I wasn’t hurt by it—but I also didn’t feel like talking anymore.
Just because no one has ever pointed her stutter out to my grandmother doesn’t mean she doesn’t think about it. During her tenure as vice president of the Singles Club, she says, she often felt speech-related anxiety. “I resented the fact that I was elected vice president,” she says, “because I had that fear that if the president didn’t show up, then I would have to be the one to read the minutes and be onstage and speak.” I totally get it . There’s a beat. “Even though it doesn’t show,” she says slowly, “I don’t have that much confidence in myself.” An addendum: “But I do come across as a very confident person.”
As far as my grandmother is capable of such reflexivity, this felt like a breakthrough. I had never sensed in her a lack of confidence—she enthralls everyone she ever meets, men and women alike, becomes the center of every room she enters. She taught me the importance of swagger, of personal style, of pushing your breasts together in photos to create cleavage. “Go to hell with yourself” is a favorite refrain of hers. I’d never considered for a moment that she had ever doubted herself, had ever felt incapable or unworthy of anything. But that’s the thing about people who stutter—we are masters of diversions, adept with smoke screens.
She’s getting tired of all this introspection. Too much abstraction, too much feeling. I start to wind the conversation down. “So what did we accomplish?” she asks me. I see she wants to have achieved something tangible. My grandmother, the doer. We accomplished an enlightening conversation , I say, and a greater understanding of our shared experience . She sits with that for a moment, nods her head, and makes a thoughtful hum. I haven’t satisfied her. “Anyway,” she says, “what did you eat for breakfast?”