Finding My Voice

Word bubble jumbled with letters

I sit in front of the microphone, looking through a window at my producer in the control booth. I’m about to begin one of the scariest jobs of my life. I don’t know why I agreed to narrate an hour-long radio documentary about Hurricane Katrina. “What was I thinking?” I ask myself. “This can only go wrong.”

An engineer flips the switch. The producer, Rachel McCarthy, signals me to begin. I open my mouth, and for a few seconds nothing comes out. That silence is followed by a cacophony of clicking and choking, random guttural syllables and the occasional complete word. It sounds nothing like language at all, nothing like the beautiful phrases inside my head. I want to surrender and quit, just call off this entire project.

Rachel assures me there’s plenty of time, that she remains confident in my ability to pull off what, to me, seems impossible. As a journalist who stutters, I have good days and bad ones, days when the words glide out of my mouth, and others when my vocal cords feel as knotted as pretzels. Today is a bad day.

It’s the type of day that makes me think it would be easier to be an accountant. Lock myself in an office and never talk to anyone. But journalism is the only career I’ve ever wanted to pursue. When I was growing up, adults questioned my wisdom; even I doubted my own chance at success. A professor who gave me an A in her class warned me that I’d never make it as a reporter unless I overcame the stutter.

Yet in the three decades since graduation, I’ve built a career I feel proud of. I write for national magazines, trying to put human faces on complex issues. I make the occasional radio documentary. I turn away almost as many assignments as I accept. These days, I think my success is not in spite of my stutter, but rather because of it. Still, it’s never easy.

Research has not come up with a single cause of stuttering: Like many conditions, it’s the product of both genetic and neurophysiological factors. Scientists have found structural and functional differences in the brains of people who stutter. Various stresses, including the reactions of impatient listeners, can aggravate the symptoms.

Given the complexities of the syndrome, the wisest modern speech therapists don’t aim to “cure” stuttering in adults. Instead they help patients stutter easily and openly, without the breathless struggle that marks my own worst bouts, and feel more comfortable living with the remaining dysfluencies. Confident and effective communication, rather than vocal perfection, becomes the goal.

It’s a worthy aim that I embrace intellectually and actually believe on my better days. But stuttering has a way of deflating even the most self-confident speaker. For one, it’s exhausting: The very process of speaking means doing battle with a larynx that feels tied up in knots. Stuttering also involves “secondary symptoms” such as head jerks and facial tics.

None of this, though, is as dispiriting as the reactions I get from certain listeners: the recommendations that I sing my words or think before I speak; the laughter and mockery; the assumption that I must be “crazy” or “retarded.” Servers in restaurants turn to my dining companions, silently pleading with them to order for me. Years ago, an editor told me outright that he wouldn’t hire a stutterer, even though I was the best-qualified candidate.

This ostracism is one reason why I think stuttering makes me a better journalist. Aside from the speech impediment, I haven’t encountered a lot of struggle in my life. But my stutter has taught me about bias and marginalization. It has taught me how easy it is to overlook someone’s talent because of a trait irrelevant to job performance: disability, race, family status, religion, physical appearance.

It has helped me empathize with the struggles of African-Americans, single mothers, evangelicals, immigrants, teenagers, people in wheelchairs, transgender people, the poor. I find myself seeking common ground with — or at least seeking to understand–people whose political views are out of the mainstream, even if I disagree with them. I’ve learned to make the extra effort to understand individuals whose lives are unlike mine, because I know how blithely other journalists might unwittingly dismiss them. I know it because of how many people have unwittingly dismissed me.

It’s easy to talk with people who are able bodied, affluent, and college educated. They speak in quotable, syntactically correct sentences, with speech that’s easy to understand. They make my job easier by providing coherent analyses. Indeed, my research must include interviews with these folks. But when we journalists limit ourselves to them, we strip our craft of its texture. My stutter is a daily reminder–an alarm that goes off every time I talk–to interview people who might be harder to communicate with.

The other lesson my stutter has offered me is simple: Shut up and listen. I don’t particularly like the physical effort of speaking. So I’m content to ask others to tell me their stories, then sit back, take notes, and make eye contact. I don’t feel compelled to fill the silences; I know someone will fill them, and I prefer it be the interviewee. By listening intently, then following up with gentle questions about missing details, I often wind up with richer, more nuanced stories.

These days, I can tell some of those stories aloud, literally. As our Hurricane Katrina recording session proceeded into the third hour, and then the fourth, my vocal cords gradually relaxed. In the final 30 minutes, Rachel asked me to read the narration script one last time.

Mysteriously, the stutter temporarily disappeared in that final reading, and the words tumbled out fluently. In the control booth, Rachel’s eyes grew wide.

When I finished the last page, she let out a whoop. So did I, realizing that–even though it took a lot of stuttering to get there–I was one step closer to finding my voice.

Essay adapted from “Journalist, Interrupted,” published in The Journal of Michigan Fellows.