September 18, 2012 Features

Walled Off

Stuttering in the Family

Gary Dunham in 1978

Gary Dunham in 1978

Summoned near the end, I drove far, those many miles inconsequential to the real distance that always remains. Cradling photos, catalogs, and whatnot—evidence of a life lived and family loved beyond his horizon and heart—I approach the bed, speaking softly.

Dying eyes, still flaring white fury and aching hurt. Eyes that had once loomed large as spittle flew and the world went red, now turn away. Ignoring my questions, the old man looks at my younger brother, muttering only to him. And, once again, I stand on all-too-familiar, lonely ground between as conversations and stories flow back and forth among others, artfully circling, and always just out of easy reach.

For my father and me, there is nothing left to say. There hasn't been since a stuttering boy chased fireflies across a twilight mountain meadow long ago, and waited until his stuttering father went to bed before creeping back inside. For one last, sad time, the old man and I take refuge together in jagged-edged silence, hollowed out and littered with the broken, halted, and intended. A fitting finale for a father and son so different, so far apart, but who, in delicious irony, shared disfluency for a lifetime.

At the end, as in the beginning, words bound and buried my father and me.

It's 1956. My parents, married for a little over a year, are coping with their first winter at the family farm in western Maine. It's so cold that they sleep in the kitchen, huddling on the floor next to the wood stove. One particularly freezing night, my mother recalls, my father sat up, looked at her searchingly, and said, quietly, "I hope none of my kids have a problem speaking."

He didn't get his wish. Like him, my older brother and I, the middle boy, stuttered. If the stories are true, his father was also disfluent.

And we never spoke about it.

I happened upon my father when he was in his 30s, pacing restlessly and sometimes ferociously behind a decades-old, lonely bulwark of broken sentences, verbal workarounds, aborted conversations, and deeply buried war experiences. As the family tales tell, his stutter was severe as a boy. In rural, mountainous Maine during the '30s and '40s, when many scattered towns and hamlets often shared one doctor, treatment for a speech disorder was rarely, if ever, an option. When sent on errands by my grandmother, my father would trudge up and down the long, dusty main street of Locke Mills village, silently handing local merchants lists of needed items. After high school—where he had experienced some taunting because of his disfluency but also found social acceptance by excelling at sports—my father enlisted and was ordered into the Korean conflict as a front-line infantryman. Returning emotionally distant and unwilling to talk about that horrific year, it's not surprising that the bitter veteran eventually found refuge on an isolated mountain farm behind crisscrossing, century-old stone walls delimiting acres of forest, pasture, and, yes, jumbled, tumbled granite rocks. Everywhere. Stone, broken stone, cold and gray, fractured, separated, and drilled by immense glaciers into the soil long ago—a fitting place for my so-proud, disfluent family to make our stand and circle the wagons around something equally fragmented and stuck.

Unfortunately for my father and me, it wasn't long before our very different sensibilities and interests were apparent. I was the saucy, weirdly imaginative son, hungry for the world and always distracted by a book when stern directives were handed down while haying or logging. My disinterest in farm life stoked my father's already growing frustration. Overwhelmed, trying to keep a mountain farm running and a family fed while working full time in a wood mill, my father labored all the time and, as I remember, rarely laughed. The loveable curmudgeon, cherished by his second wife and her family later in life, was not the man I knew then. His exhaustion and frustration at times would explode in rages and barrages of invectives that could last hours, sometimes days, yielding some truly legendary punishments. One of my youngest brother's earliest memories, like mine, is of a booming voice that had trouble enunciating words. My father's simmering anger and decades-old verbal survival tactics of workarounds and avoidance deeply affected how we connected with each other on that boulder-strewn farm, an emotional vacuum that only worsened after my parents divorced.

Another silent, hurried meal, and we're outside, helping as our father tinkers on the old Massey Harris tractor. Leaning deep into the engine block, he fires back orders for a part or tool, the words rough-hewn and point-blank, the heavily calloused, oil-stained left hand held behind, expectant. An hour drags by. Not knowing why we've been out here for so long, the bored 8-year-old boy finally asks what is broken on the tractor. My father continues working, not replying. When I call his name a third time, he bellows, "I already told you!" The phone rings; I overhear him arranging for a pickup of trees we just cut and hauled out. Caught on a few words, he slogs on through the conversation, his face growing red with frustration because he can't say all that he really wants to say. Later that night, while watching "Star Trek," I ask my father about a confusing part of the plot. He shakes his head, turns back to the television, and mutters, "Just watch."

The tapestry of my childhood was stitched loosely with the shreds and patches of communication shorthands, blackouts, and safe havens. That old farmhouse rarely echoed with the soothing cadence of bedtime storytelling, or a crescendo of voices eagerly sharing what we learned at school or had just read in books or in the newspaper. Suppers were about eating fast and getting on to chores, not for inquiring about one's day. Not encouraged to linger in casual talk, we learned early on to stand ready at the exit points in conversations.

Only a handful of times do I remember my father speaking at length to my mother or even calling her by her first name—that's because he had trouble with the letters s and r and some hard consonants, and would switch to an easier-to-pronounce nickname, such as, in my mother's case, "Hoochie." That distancing practice of substitution applied to all of us children—when he addressed us at home, it tended to be by our nicknames, which were as much functional as affectionate. The telephone was women's province, as my mother did most of the speaking on it, and it grew quite silent after she left. Verbal exchanges were usually to the point and more directly informative than relaxed, nuanced, and elaborative. When instructing a chore or directing a task, my father demonstrated with his hands, accompanied by a choppy string of clipped words or sentence fragments. And, believe me, he hated to repeat himself.

It's first or second grade, so long ago. My teacher asks the class to share stories we are excited about; a voracious reader even then, I volunteer first. My eager telling of a Thornton Burgess tale unexpectedly turns into a stuttering stumble through a field mined with hard consonant words, particularly those shoring up the beginnings of sentences. A few titters behind, but the teacher is kind and patient. Not so me. Bright red, terribly shamed at my poor performance, I end abruptly and sit down hard in the wooden chair; fingernails splintering desk-edge, brimming eyes locked ahead, desperately hoping the class will just move on.

My older brother and I soon realized that we were fighting the same lonely, lifetime war as our father between what we want to say and can say. At the age of 6 or so, I was confused and somewhat frightened that the golden, thrilling stories inside were tumbling and randomly breaking as they passed my lips. That long afternoon at school set me on the road to two essential truths: that I would always talk like and shoulder the burden of my father and brother, and that I could shatter magic in my telling.

At home that night, surrounded by a family who brought their struggles with communication to every dinner table but never mentioned it, I was too embarrassed to talk about what had happened.

Despite our obvious challenges with speaking, my older brother and I were never formally tested or recommended for speech-language treatment. There is no fault to assign. As I understand it now, looking back, such services then were simply not available in rural schools in Maine, which, from my personal experience, focused their ongoing assessment efforts on students' vision, hearing, and hygiene. And it would have been highly improbable that a speech-language pathologist outside the school system would have been practicing locally. Other than one family doctor and a single veterinarian serving a half-dozen or so poor townships widely scattered across the hills and mountains, medical specialists seemed as scarce in western Maine in the '60s as they were in my father's time.

Our disfluency also prompted no discussion or action at home. Of course, my family's poverty would have curtailed consideration of treatment options. Perhaps a more important reason—quite telling when grasping one possible damning social consequence of the genetics of disfluency—is that my family had less incentive to seek treatment because, with the three eldest males disfluent and untreated, the speech disorder became accepted within and without as a family trait—effectively a brand—that helped naturalize, normalize, and bury our problem. We never talked about it because what could be said that we didn't already know and live? And what could be done to change something so irrevocable and reinforced every time any of the three of us spoke?

Others saw us in the same way. The phrases "Dunham family stutter" or "the family stutter" surfaced more than once within earshot when I was growing up, spoken by neighbors and townspeople more as descriptors than insults. Stuttering was who we were, our lot in life to be shouldered without questioning or seeking help. Such sentiments carried well beyond our family. Personhood in rural Maine, then, was built on dual platforms of fatalistic acceptance and stubborn self-sufficiency. You took what you were given—pasturage continually threatened by forest, gardens under siege from glacial boulders incessantly creeping back in the spring, machines that kept breaking down, fewer and fewer dollars to stash under the mattress, or a speech impediment that just won't go away—and made the most of it. On your own. In a world where those receiving local public financial assistance were identified by name each year in the widely distributed municipal report as the "Town Poor," we grew up surrounded by hosts of peer-impelled disincentives against seeking help. As a proud, Maine man, my father was not in the habit of asking for or receiving assistance for anything.

Picture a lifetime sentence, seemingly so intractable, so unchangeable. Now imagine leveling that verdict against a child bursting to share what he is reading and learning, a boy famished for more knowledge and other worlds, and, later on, a teenager eager and desperate to peer over the next granite-faced mountain. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before I ferreted out the rules and little secrets of my disfluency, learned as best as I could how to trick the system, and eventually came to despise it and that part of myself absolutely.

I make no claim here to speak for the perceptions and experiences of others who have walked this path; we cope, we conquer, we struggle in our own ways. For an untreated stutterer in rural Maine, anticipation and wariness coiled tightly and rarely loosened. When menus become minefields and deadfalls lie waiting within even casual conversations, it is impossible not to be constantly vigilant. When the die can tumble unexpectedly and your own mouth betrays, you have no choice but to plan ahead as much as possible every day for each encounter so as to enter and exit social and classroom situations with the most effect and dignity. Many school nights during those years, what concerned me most was not the difficulty of the homework or completing assignments—I loved learning and excelled in the classroom—but whether the next day I would be able to present, share, or answer questions in class without—in my mind—sounding like a fool.

Oft times late into the night I would work on all sorts of performative, slippery workarounds to glide over the sticking places: presentations and readings practiced over and over, many times the words and phrases painted mentally with bright, congruous colors and welded into incandescent narrative arcs emblazoned and soaring in my sharp-as-a-tack memory rather than faltering out of my fallible mouth. By necessity a keen wordsmith who dog-eared the student scholastic dictionary, I became familiar with hosts of verbal substitutions ready to rush in at a moment's notice. Assignments were studied obsessively, often a week ahead of time, anticipating questions and practicing answers aloud while pacing my bedroom as the dark settled uncomfortably over that old farmhouse. The coping strategies blazing trails through school were not unlike those I instinctively used to survive in our emotionally explosive household: Anticipate the problem areas, avoid the hotspot situations, and deftly elude and dance so as to blend in for as long as possible before someone, inevitably, finds me out.

I wasn't the only one to cope. In the '60s and '70s, we all managed to deal with our shared communication problem, each in varying ways stealing around himself to get across what he meant to say and get done what needed doing. An essential, perhaps primal, workaround, as I discovered, was to seek out and immerse oneself in what I call the currents of nonverbal fluency around us on the farm, those inexorable movements, repetitive motions, and grand rhythms of machine, task, nature, music, and whatnot that helped sweep us along and beyond the stuck places. Rage was one such current, albeit a scorching, damning torrent: My father was always precisely in command of his words when cresting white-knuckled fury. Rhythmically pounding cedar fence posts in a long line for hours was another: Holding the sweet-smelling, newly stripped posts with some trepidation while he swung a massive steel mallet above, I remember thinking how oddly relaxed my father seemed, how much he was speaking, as we moved progressively in clean intervals up and down the pasture edge. My father also was comfortable talking while milking the cows, large hands steadily squeezing and moving up and down the udders, his story punctuated by the rhythmic pinging of warm milk splashing and steaming against the cool metal of the pail.

Early on, I found my own workarounds through speaking very, very fast and surrounding myself with song: My teachers were constantly telling me to stop humming in class and to slow down (listening to reel-to-reel recordings from that time, my goodness, I don't blame them). The siren call of grand rhythms also drew me to the old refuse piles dumped decades ago behind stone walls across our farm. Many an afternoon I would practice school presentations while digging the heaps in regularly shoveled, measured intervals, uncovering layer after layer of glass shards and rusted cans, all carefully brushed off and laid on the ground for reassembly. Then, the boy of broken words would sit down comfortably among piles of broken things and put them together so that the past could be fluent, so my ancestors could tell their stories once more.

Perhaps the most compelling workaround for all of us, the one that has stayed with me throughout these years, sang through stone. A century and more ago, my ancestors extricated scattered granite boulders, broken and stuck as stubbornly in the soil as words that will not come forth, and knit them together into intricate walls reaching far across our farm and valley. Stone walls forged tangible connections and rhythmic flow between broken things across the boulder-studded landscape of my youth. No wonder, then, that we, the disfluent, despite our differences, were drawn to them. I recall during elementary school practicing stories, speeches, and presentations while walking the broader stone walls, my body movement forward reinforcing connections as each old gray stone, each young step or leap, helped carry forth words and sentences. Growing older, I would pace alongside them while rehearsing for school, my cadence matching the rhythm of interlocking stone placement, which in turn helped impel the flow of words. My father also loved to walk beside the larger walls—walking the lines, as he would call it—and would often be his most chatty and sharing while striking up a soldier's march. Over time, stone walls became a potent mental image. More and more, when crashing through a verbal deadfall, I would picture walking stone walls to ease me beyond.

I am 17 years old, at the top of my class, but am frightened and so cold. Once again practicing a French lesson by flashlight under the blankets, but the rehearsed words are not flowing easily tonight. I stumble and then slap myself, hard—not the first time. Do better, damn it. And again. Do better. And again. Just too distracted by the cold and snow blowing into my bedroom. I accidentally broke the window two months ago and, as punishment, won't get a replacement or plastic covering until the spring. Bent, propped-up cardboard doesn't hold back the storm, this night. I don't want to stay here. I just can't be smaller than the horizon. I practice late. The flashlight grows dim and fades; the snow continues to drift onto the bed and floor.

As high school wound down, when the world became much sadder and my fast talking and humming stopped, I became very skilled and exhausted at orchestrating conversations and presentations to best hide my disfluency. I also began hating, really hating, the part of me that, as I saw it, was flawed, weak, and stood in the way of escape. I detested my name because those two, very special hard consonants were always a struggle during the inevitable introductions; I became acutely self-conscious of my potential to pollute conversations and the burden my disfluency placed on others—what do we do when he stutters? Do we complete the sentences? Look him in the eyes? Should we pretend to understand and then gently switch topics? Is he ill? Is he nervous for some reason? Dishonest?

When stuck, although deeply appalled, I was always my father's son—pride held in full view, never looking embarrassed, never apologizing, and certainly not offering explanations. Instead, I would look away and withdraw for a moment, staring at the ceiling or floor while concentrating on workarounds. Particularly traumatic were the First Times—introductions in a new class, first presentation, meeting someone new—due to the mentally grueling countdown to the shattering of the illusion, when a teacher or new acquaintance would uncover (in my way of thinking, then) my awful secret and flaw. All I could do was practice and prepare, make the best of it, and never show that it bothered me. But I grew to loathe the DNA that connected me to that home, and screamed at and punished myself physically when my verbal performance didn't measure up to increasingly demanding self-standards. Yet, I kept at it.

It's a stormy graduation night, and I am dripping with sweat in the school gymnasium while delivering the valedictory speech, one I have practiced for weeks. My father sitting front and center in the audience; my mother, who has driven far, watching from the wings. I begin, trying to ignore the aching in the back of my head from being slammed against a bathroom wall three hours before. My hands begin moving in the rhythm of the old, familiar pasture walk. As stone walls fill the hall, I soar and speak.

Life continued. The little boy surrounded by broken things first went on to become a professional archaeologist. The young seeker of encompassing rhythms of fluency then could not help but become a book editor, riding the waves of grand narratives for decades. Perspective, increasingly flecked in wise gray, continues to wing the long way at his side.

Tonight, as I write this, I glance again at an oft-carried, crumpled paper scrawled with the names of a handful of local SLPs. Perhaps choices and change, even now, are still possible for people like me. Because no matter what I have done in my life, no matter how many footprints fade behind, no matter the vast physical and mental distances I have put between myself and that sad, small time, and that proud, hollow, mountain home, memory and DNA always pull me back. Every stutter reminds.

Gary Dunham, PhD, ASHA publications director and editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at gdunham@asha.org.

cite as: Dunham, G. (2012, September 18). Walled Off : Stuttering in the Family. The ASHA Leader.

  

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