I came into this life stuttering. My mother had three false alarms on three consecutive days. On the fourth trip to the hospital, my father said he wasn’t going back home again. Once admitted to the maternity ward, she was in labor for 36 hours. My starts and stops exhausted her. My mother was 40 years old. By the time I came out, she barely acknowledged me. Sleep took her over.
I was taken to the nursery and placed in the front row of the viewing area with the other newborns. My parents relished retelling how the nurses teased about my shocks of black hair that stuck up at odd angles and my round red cheeks. They nicknamed me Papoose. Not a compliment in 1949 in Jersey City, New Jersey, where Native Americans were thought of as still wielding tomahawks.
I have an inner sense that my stuttering began right then with the ridicule. To this day, even my written language is often accomplished only with the stammering pauses and restarts reminiscent of my birth.
I envision what I want to say in Technicolor with clarity and intention, but then trying to pluck the perfect words from my vocabulary to mimic the video frames in my head does not come easily. I am the nervous child again, trying to use poems and stories to express emotions that I cannot articulate in speech.
Art—for the author of the word, written or spoken, is linked to our origins. And for me—the artist and stutterer—my speech impediment seemed contained in the voiceless, nonverbal language that happens when we are still in the womb.
The kicking fetus has a hundred ways of communicating with the mother who houses and feeds it. And the indissoluble emotional force of that maternal connection lingered long after babyhood, rising to the surface when I attempted my first words.
For a girl, I was late talking, or so I am told. The only comparison my parents had was from their experience with my older sister. But she had an IQ of 154 and spoke at 11 months.
Even now I want to yell, Who cares! How could you make me feel less than? People, I was only two years old!
I spoke soon after my second birthday, with a stutter.
Language offers us an avenue from which we vocalize our selves. For a stutterer, however, the self becomes invisible, lost in the absence of speech. I write regardless of my hesitations. Writing softens the hard edges of life, and I once heard that children who have been victims of abuse commonly have speech impediments. I know this to be true. My words butted against the inside lining of my brain at the hands of my father. Their faltering refusal to give voice gave me authorship instead.
I have learned to love the stuttering child that was me. And even now, many years later, I might stammer over a word. I don’t care. For me, the stutter is a permanent facet of my vocabulary, part of who I am as a writer and a person. And when I return to the stammering speech, I am the fetus in the womb again, feeling the staccato contractions of my mother wanting me to come out, but at the same time wishing me to remain where it is warm and safe.