No sooner had Chicago’s public school teachers gone out on strike than video surfaced of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, an alleged former standup comic, making fun of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s lisp.
Lewis, who boasts an impressive chin scrotum, thus placed herself in the position of Truman Capote, who one night on the Dick Cavett show made a cutting remark about pop novelist Jacqueline Susann, whom he had previously described as looking like “a truck driver in drag.” “Watch it,” Susann snarled, “you’re vulnerable.”
“Is that your chin, or did the Goodyear Blimp park on your sternum?”
The crack by Lewis recalled remarks by Sheila Johnson, billionaire media mogul, about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds’ stutter in 2009. Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, was campaigning for Republican candidate Bob McDonnell when she said at a public event ”Bob McDonnell can communicate. The other people that I talk to, and especially his op-op-op-op-op-op-opponent di-di-did this all through my interview with him.”
Making fun of speech impediments–finally, something Democrats and Republicans can agree on!
The subject is of more than passing interest to me because, like Vice President Biden, basketball announcer Bill Walton and other notable public figures, I stuttered from childhood until early adulthood.
“Stuttering” is the short-hand term used to describe verbal non-fluency in a variety of forms, including involuntary repetitions of sounds, blockages and abnormal hesitations before speaking. The disability has both physical and psychological aspects. The stuttering speaker is unable to reproduce a sound in one context, even though he (and stutterers are overwhelmingly male) can in others, through singing, adopting an accent, taking on the voice of a character, or speaking to a pet. The inability to speak leads to low-self esteem, self-imposed isolation and anxiety, which makes it more likely that the stutterer will face new speech situations with heightened tension, leading to even more stuttering.
The world of speech impediments has been comprehensively covered by Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes cartoons, where no character is singled out for obloquy. Porky Pig stutters, Daffy Duck has a tongue thrust, Elmer Fudd has rhotacism. In the world of Looney Tunes, you’re weird if you don’t have a speech impediment.
Each form of speech impediment has psychological or cultural overtones, which are usually wrong. Lispers are supposed to be effeminate, but Duncan played pro basketball in Australia–I’m pretty sure he can post me up. Stuttering is associated with neurosis and other forms of psychological anxiety, but there’s no mellower dude in the world than Bill Walton.
Speech impediments are handicaps that get you nothing. You don’t get to park in the convenient spaces near the mall entrance.
You don’t get to take your pets into restaurants, even though as a stutterer this would help your fluency. I know–just last week I tried to take my two cats, Rocco and Okie, into a fancy French restaurant, leading to the following exchange:
MAITRE D’: Good evening–welcome to L’Endive. How many in your party?
ME: Three–me and my two cats.
MAITRE D’: I’m sorry sir, but we do not allow patrons to bring their pets into zee restaurant.
OKIE: What about that guy with the white cane? You let him bring his dog in.
MAITRE D’: He is blind, thees ees a seeing-eye dog.
OKIE: Well, we’re speaking-mouth cats.
ROCCO: Yeah–that’s discrimination!
OKIE: Let’s blow this pop stand!
Stuttering generally manifests itself in early childhood, and usually in children of above-average intelligence (I make no claims for myself here). There is probably a link between these two factors; all children pass through a period of non-fluency (significantly, perhaps, during the toilet training years) and a child who speaks earlier than usual will typically encounter more problems than one whose power of speech manifests itself on a normal schedule.
Add to this situation a concerned parent, who is at first excited that his or her child is precocious, then anxious when non-fluency is heard. Parental anxiety is communicated to the child through both express means–intervention by doctors and speech therapists–and non-verbal cues; the concerned look on the mother’s face that a child sees whenever he or she tries to speak. In cultures that do not demonstrate a high level of concern for early mastery of speech, stuttering is rare; for example, a number of Native American tribes have no word to describe stuttering in their language, and no stuttering among them.
Stuttering is, as Ms. Johnson’s crack makes clear, the one disability that can be mocked with impunity. There’s the movie A Fish Called Wanda; there’s Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which suggests that the problem of stuttering can be cured if the victim gets laid (if only!). For those of you keeping score at home, the last sympathetic depiction of a stutterer in a work of art is probably Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, written in 1886 (and subsequently the basis of an opera by Benjamin Britten). That’s right–it’s been all downhill for the last 126 years.
The list of stutterers who overcome or simply ignore their impediment and become successful is long and distinguished. Politicians from the mundane (Biden comes to mind) to the heroic–Winston Churchill. Athletes such as basketball player Ron Harper to the San Diego Chargers’ Darren Sproles. Three of my favorite artists–musician Bill Withers, poet Philip Larkin, and master storyteller Jorge Luis Borges–all are or were stutterers.
In one of the more baroque ironies of this curious phenomenon, Floyd Abrams, the greatest First Amendment litigator of our time, stutters (according to a former partner of his whom I know); that’s right, the nation’s leading advocate for free speech can’t speak freely himself–outside the courtroom. Once he’s before a judge, however, he becomes totally fluent, or at least as fluent as anyone can be when they’re being grilled by somebody in a black robe.
As much as one may want to be sympathetic to a stuttering friend or acquaintance, at some point impatience and even exasperation can set in. A friend of mine who lived in the same town on the North Shore of Boston as novelist John Updike, a lifelong stutterer, said that while he admired the man’s writing, he hated to get stuck in line behind him at the dry cleaners.
I consider myself cured of stuttering since the age of 25 through a self-developed program of relaxation, yoga, self-hypnosis and general health maintenance. At the end of a long week of business travel I can find myself regressing into abnormal levels of non-fluency, and have to remind myself that rest, relaxation and meditation are called for, but for the most part the situations that caused me so much difficulty growing up–talking on the phone, speaking in public–are no longer occasions for angst.
All former stutterers have our moments of anxiety, however. Mine usually comes in a noisy and busy public place as I approach the counter after standing in line, thinking about my order and the words I’ll have to say to place it. A morning coffee purchase, for example, amid the cacophony of chatter around me, facing the prospect of an indifferent, even hostile barista once I reach the cash register.
In these situations, I do a mental inventory of the crutches stutterers use, trying to find a way to get through what for most people in line is a non-event. I can’t use a substitute word–stutterers are known for their large vocabularies, an essential tool since you may block on a word and need a synonym–or I won’t get what I want. I can’t sing my order to her without embarrassment, and I don’t have my cats with me. The only option left is for me to assume the voice of a character, so it isn’t me who’s speaking, it’s Tony “The Icepick” Gravano, Mafia hit man. My turn comes, I’m asked what I want, and I reply in a steely voice designed to strike fear in the heart of the young woman with the tattoos and the tongue stud.
“You gonna give me a freakin’ grande, no-whip mocha,” I say in a menacing voice, “or am I gonna have to blow you a new bodily orifice?”