Voicing the Real Self

Such a joy to write for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, exploring the complex relationship between our voices and identities. Here’s an excerpt from the piece. To read the full article jump on over to the ASHA Leader website:

“If you sat across from a blindfolded stranger and started to speak, what might they infer from your voice? They might guess your age, your gender and your background. If they listened a little harder, they might try to determine how you’re feeling, what your sexual orientation might be, what kind of education you’ve had or what kind of person you are.

They would draw upon their own intimate knowledge of speaking and tie that with the popular stereotypes of their culture. You might feel the urge to mold their opinions, to project a particular image. In doing so, you might highlight pieces of your speech to convey a certain emotional state or tie yourself to a particular group identity. Within certain boundaries, you could try to mold what they hear.

It is clear that our voices, often understood to be fundamental markers of our identity, are also objects of design, actively crafted to achieve various social meanings. The unique qualities of our voices are determined by our individual bodies, yet our voices also have to be actively produced, unlike other attributes such as our skin color or facial features, writes Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communication at Oxford University’s Worcester College, in her 2003 article “Designer Voices”.

Our voice “signifies both embodiment and subjectivity, and in that sense can be seen as the most personal attribute of a human being,” says Cameron. “We want to believe the voice is the willed and authentic expression of an individual’s ‘true’ identity.”
If our voice is a constant articulation of our identity, what happens if we don’t like the performance we give or the reactions we elicit?”

Voicing the Real Self

Stuttering and the Power of Suggestion

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Let’s play a word association game. What is the first word you think of when you hear the word ‘stutter’?

If you are a journalist, in all likelihood you will lean toward the word ‘debilitating’. In fact, the phrase ‘debilitating stutter’ is so ingrained into the habits of writers that it has been used to describe men and women as varied as Joe Biden, Emily Blunt, Tim Gunn and Ed Sheeran.

In publications as wide ranging as People magazine, The Daily Beast, NPR and the LA Times, it is near impossible to find a ‘successful’ stutterer who has not been described as having a childhood marred by a ‘debilitating stutter’.

This badge is affixed to them by the outside world. They rarely, if ever, describe themselves in such terms. Why would they? Their stories are not pitiable, they are not figures of weakness. In fact, their stories are full of grit and fortitude. These are people who have faced difficulties and prevailed. Debilitated they are not.

If we agree with George Herbert Mead’s idea of the ‘looking-glass self’, the idea that our own self-image derives in large part from how we are viewed by others, then the language we use to describe stuttering becomes centrally important.

Stereotypes are insidious things. If someone reads an article describing a ‘debilitating stutter’, they would be forgiven for seeing someone who stutters through that reductionist lens. Perhaps a young person who stutters reads the word ‘debilitating’ and feels less competent, less able to aspire to something greater, less a part of the world around them.

The stereotype hangs in the air and, whether you believe in the stereotype or not, you become worried that your behavior may end up proving the stereotype true. Your anxiety spikes, acting like lighter fuel to your speech. You stutter more, panic more, fight against it more. You become more like the stereotype you so deplore.

This paradoxical problem, known as the ‘stereotype threat’, is certainly not only felt by stutterers. Everyone is a member of a group that has some stereotype affixed to it.

We can, of course, hope that the world around us will stop measuring us in ever-narrowing stereotypes. We can hope that we will be seen as the jagged mass of individuals that we are.

In the meantime, I believe that it is worth finding ways to reduce the impact of the threats that surround us.

Writing in his book Whistling Vivaldi, Claude M. Steele introduces the ideas of critical mass and refusing to see people through the lens of their identity stereotype. The more people we see succeeding and stuttering openly, the more the stereotype of debilitation erodes. The more we tell children who stutter that they are capable of great things, the more we expect from them, the greater their ability to thrive becomes.

Take, for example, men like Joe Biden and Jack Welch (another stutterer ‘debilitated’). Each man has described their mothers telling them that were too smart, that they thought too quickly and their stuttered voices were just trying to catch up. How differently they must have felt about themselves as children when the ‘problem’ was framed in that light.

So, let’s go back to that word association game. What happens if you connect the word ‘stutter’ with words like ‘strength’ and ‘capability’? How does that change the narrative of someone’s life?

Chasing the Fluency Gods

In this fantastic piece for the Pacific Standard, Kate Newman explores the question: what if we didn’t tell people who stutter to ‘overcome it’? 

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If I could sum up my feelings towards my stutter in one paragraph, this may well be it: “Preston has often asked herself whether she’d take a pill to eliminate her stutter. For years the answer was a definite yes, but now she’s not so certain. “It would take something away from who I am,” she says. “I don’t think my world would be a more happy or fulfilled place without my speech. In fact, I think it could be much less interesting.” 

I am enormously grateful to Kate for all the time and research she put into this article, and I am honored that my story is a part of it.

Welcome Back to All That

New YorkJoan Didion’s break up letter to New York has been inspiring writers for decades. Years after she first wrote Goodbye To All That, her thoughts have recurred in the words of younger women, slightly younger men and a whole host of both.

But it is only half the story. The other half, the half that is ignored or forgotten, is that Joan came back. There were no pithy love letters written as she left her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles, and moved back to Manhattan. She didn’t skulk back either. She moved into a Central Park West apartment that she couldn’t have afforded when she first left and became a near permanent fixture on the city’s social scene.

While Jeremy and I haven’t moved back to an Upper West Side home with a view of the park, we have moved back. To a place in Brooklyn with a view of the sunset, and a flat that feels palatial, at least to us.

But we didn’t move back for the apartment. There are far better places to go for interior space. We came back because we didn’t want to fall asleep.

New York, for all its indignities, is a place of life. It is teeming with it. As Mr. Sullivan complained in his Sunday Times of London column, “The human beings are stacked on top of one another in vast towers that create dark, narrow caverns in between. Gridlocked traffic competes with every conceivable noise and every imaginable variation on the theme of human rage and impatience.”

Sullivan didn’t mean that as a compliment. I’m not blind. But it is, in a way, because all that rubbing up against one another means that the city is bursting with possibilities for connection. There are no ivory towers here, no sanitized bubbles. There is humanity. People from every walk of life riding the subway together and walking the pavement together and kvetching together about the once scenic mounds of snow that have turned into stiff black mountains of trash.

Jeremy has a theory that the greatest cities in America are the ones teeming with immigrants, the ones with stories to tell, the ones who still believe in the promise of the American dream.

When we landed at JFK we were picked up by a Brooklyn taxi driver. We didn’t fist pump as he helped us haul our luggage into the boot. He didn’t talk to us about the state of competition in the latest ride sharing app. Instead he turned up the heat to beat the cold seeping in from the windows and told us about his childhood in Brooklyn. He told us about the movie theaters he had spent summers in, the community of Haitian refugees that he had lived amongst, his university bound son who came back to the city every holiday. He pointed out his favorite restaurants along the way.

That night we ate pizza with friends, we drank to celebrate our arrival and we talked. Because that is what you do in New York. You talk. It is a city of verbal acuity. A city where stories are told, opinions are debated and loud laughter is the best sort of compliment.

It is a city to love, and perhaps to hate. A place where stories begin and end. Perhaps most importantly, a place where they are made possible.

Out With It in Japanese

Thanks to the incredible translation work of Eri Tsuji and the publishing efforts of Tokyo Shoseki, Out With It is now available in Japan! It is available in shops and libraries across the country and this weekend is will be featured at the Japan Stuttering Genyukai Association’s annual conference.

Japanese Out With ItOut With It has now traveled further across the world than I have. I have no idea what the characters all mean but I think the book is utterly wonderful. I’m particularly smitten by the cover.

Huge thanks to everyone who made this possible. I am thrilled by the idea of Out With It reaching people halfway across the world.

Back From The Brink

When the ASHA Leader approached me to write an article about suicide amongst stutterers I was honored to be asked and petrified that I wouldn’t be able to do the subject justice. To say that I am thankful for the people who spoke to me for this article, is a huge understatement. It was their honesty, their strength and their willingness to relive to some of the darkest hours of their life, that shaped every word of the piece. Hopefully their stories will offer some hope to others out there, and guidance to those who want to help.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

As a kid, Tim found it hard to swallow a single pill. His mother had to crush them up to get him to take them. And yet here he was, at the age of 26, throwing back handfuls. Almost 20 Zoloft, followed by a fistful of Celexa. Then he started on the second bottle of vodka. Always the perfectionist, he was determined to do it right.

He’d been researching for months. The Celexa had been prescribed by his psychiatrist to help with depression and he’d ordered the Zoloft illegally from Canada. Planning had given him a release when things got really bad. It had been that way since he was 16, since he’d first stood on a bridge and thought about jumping. Since he’d first imagined an escape from stuttering.

It was hours before dawn, the bars were long closed. No one was walking past the street corner he’d chosen and no one knew he was there. His mind became lucid—too late, he realized the enormity of what he had set in motion. He thought about his mother, he thought about the life that he was leaving behind. It stopped, he went numb. Then nothing.

Listening to the unspoken
Roughly 1 million people kill themselves every year worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased by 60 percent over the past 45 years and someone in the United States takes his or her own life approximately every 14 minutes. It is estimated that more people die by suicide than by car accidents.

We do not know how many in those statistics are people who stutter, but we know that they are among those numbers. We know that stuttering can breed its own fatalities. And yet, we do not talk about it. Just as stuttering itself has long remained taboo, the convergence of stuttering and suicide remains largely unreported and shrouded in guilt.

We are not alone in that silence. As David Satcher, the U.S. surgeon general, puts it, “As a society we do not like to talk about suicide.” Perhaps we want to maintain the illusion that suicide is rare, that it is a rash act done only by the cowardly, the selfish and the permanently unstable. Perhaps the survivors want to look ahead and leave their experiences unearthed in the past. Whatever our reasons, the result is an epidemic that remains misunderstood.

We need to debunk those myths and open up the conversation. In truth, it is hard to take your own life. It takes a sort of overwhelming desperation that most of us are lucky not to have known. And yet, no one is exempt from pain and suffering. All of us have known darkness at some point in our lives. So what combined state of mind drives someone to believe that life is too painful to go on living, and what saves people from the brink?

To read the full article go to the ASHA Leader website.

30 Years

They met in the Yemen. Of all places. My mum was on holiday and my dad was working out there. I’ve heard the tale enough times that it took on an Arabian Nights quality long ago. There were years of long distance love letters to follow, a year in Greece and a life to start again. Then, on March 22nd 1984, they got married in London’s Chelsea Town Hall. They celebrated over lunch with all the friends and family that could make it and drove back to their new home that night. 3 weeks later I arrived.

I’ve always thought of us as the three musketeers, the three of us taking on the world. But today is all about the two of them. I wish I was celebrating with them but instead I’ve raided my photo albums as a toast to my two favourite people…

With parents age 5

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IMG_0250Folk music always makes me think of my dad, of the toddler version of myself watching him strum his guitar strings, and there’s a Simon and Garfunkel song playing in the background this morning, “Still crazy after all these years”. Perfect timing, as always.

Dreams and Patience

Here’s the thing: making your dreams come true isn’t a speedy process. Or a painless one.

There are teary nights talking to people who are far too many miles away.

There are obstacles you would have never expected.

There are days when paying rent seems nigh on impossible.

There are moments when you want to give up. To retreat to some safer, quieter place.

There are people who will disappoint you. There are times when you disappoint yourself.

And then there are bouts of shocking good fortune that arrive out of nowhere.

There are people who make you laugh so hard that your troubles seem impossibly far away and insignificant.

There are kind strangers who give you more than you could possibly deserve.

There are moments of triumph that you hold onto and burn into your memory, amulets against some future struggle.

Truthfully, making your dreams come true takes more grit than I ever imagined. And I’m far from there yet.

Patience is both a desirable, and a necessary, quality to have. And it isn’t the easiest for me.

I want to fix things, I want answers, I want certainty in this very uncertain life that I have created for myself.

So I do the best with the rubbish patience I have. I learn from people far ahead of me: I try to show up, to rise up, to lean in.

I hang tight and believe that this being comfortable with being uncomfortable malarky will grow with time. I remind myself that I have created a big, complicated life for myself because I was afraid of the alternative. And I celebrate the wonderful moments when it all seems so brilliantly clear:

OUT WITH IT - paperback

The paperbacks of OUT WITH IT have arrived just in time for the launch party we’re having  tonight at Booksmith in San Francisco. I can think of nothing better than celebrating with all of you. We’d love you to join us!

Owning Your Own Story

What happens when we own everything we are?

By ‘owning’, I mean speaking up about the pieces of ourselves that make us unique, without any expectation of praise or pity.

There is no harm in speaking about the pieces of ourselves that we are proud of, and yet doing so does little more than inflate our own egos. The more powerful part of ‘owning’ our story, is speaking about the those pieces that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed. Bringing our greatest weaknesses out of the closet and into the spotlight.

If we are lucky, there is a certain catharsis in doing so, the sense of a burden being lifted. But, perhaps more importantly, there is the potential to form a connection with our listener, or our reader. To show them how fallibly human we are, to crack ourselves open for a moment and make all of us feel a little less alone.

Owning your own storyIt is an idea that I have been thinking about for years, and yet it was thrown into sharp relief this past week, through the lens of anxiety.

First there was Scott Stossel’s article in the Atlantic’s January magazine entitled, “Surviving Anxiety.” A harrowing, hilarious and deeply thoughtful piece about the life he has spent living in the shadow of near-overwhelming fear. Stossel explores his own complicated relationship with therapy and medication, and he invites us to witness some of the most painfully mortifying moments of his life. As Stossel writes, “My anxiety can be intolerable. But it is also, maybe a gift…as often as anxiety has held me back…it has also unquestionably spurred me forward.”

And then, on January 6th, we saw a visceral example of the anxiety that Stossel had described, with film director Michael Bay’s panicked exit from a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The CES audience, followed by over a million Youtube viewers, watched as Michael froze and then almost ran off the stage saying, “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Twitter duly trended, and not always in the nicest way. One commenter wrote, “I’ve often wanted to walk out of a Michael Bay [movie]…Can’t blame him for seizing the opportunity.” A few, more charitable souls expressed sympathy at that too familiar sensation of panicked stagefright.

Later that day Bay wrote on his blog:

“Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing. But I’m doing a special curved screen experience with Samsung and Transformers 4 footage that will be traveling around the world.”

I wonder if the public’s reaction to Bay would have been different if he had written more genuinely about his fear, and rather less about advertising a product? It is hard to know but it is clear that the reaction to Stossel’s article was overwhelming empathetic, with the Atlantic inviting readers to submit their own stories of anxiety and running a longform piece detailing many of their stories.

Much like the Atlantic, I am excited to launch a place on my site for people to share their stories about difference, stuttering, vulnerability and identity. I invite you all to share your stories here.

By far the best part of publishing Out With It has been the hundreds of messages I have received from people telling me how my story made them feel less alone. And yet I believe that is just the beginning of the conversation. I believe that together we can create a compendium of what it means to live with ourselves, we can reach out and connect with one another.

As Stossel writes so profoundly in his conclusion, “in weakness and shamefulness is also the potential for transcendence, heroism or redemption.”

I invite you all to start owning your stories today at http://www.outwithitbook.com/communityvoices

American Hustle and the art of reinvention

American HustleWith our New Year’s resolutions freshly spoken and champagne still trickling through our bodies, we capped off our New Year’s Day by going to see American Hustle. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you stop reading and go watch it immediately. Because, beyond the fact that it is so good and so uniquely itself, I can think of no more fitting movie to start off a new year, no movie that better embodies the reinvention that all our new year’s resolutions seem to evoke.

I’m not going to give away any of the plot but, as the main character Irv would say, it is a movie directed and acted ‘from the feet up’. A movie that starts with Irv’s grand, bloated belly emerging from his unbuttoned shirt and a meticulous ritual that creates his elaborate comb-over. A comb-over that fools nobody and an appearance so incongruous with the intelligent, deceptive con-man that we are to meet. From the start we know that these are not simple people, these are not even good people, but they are very much raw, alive and fully-realised.

The characters in American Hustle are operatic, almost Shakespearean, and yet they are also immediate and instinctive. They make up stories and con each other as a survival mechanism, and it is their gritty, determined reinvention that makes the film so addictively watchable.

In the words of the film’s director David O Russell, “The currency of humanity is the belief in dreams or narratives.” And it is that idea that makes American Hustle so fitting for the start of the new year. Because whenever we think of all the things that lie ahead of us in 2014 (be it a new job, a new baby, a new project) we have to present them to ourselves in a way that sells them. We have to buy into the narratives that we create for our lives, in order to realise them.

Irv’s motto in the film is that people believe what they want to believe. It is that understanding that makes him the successful hustler he is. And yet, his motto is also relevant when we direct it at our own lives. We believe what we want to believe about ourselves, about our commitments and about our lives. So why not choose to believe that all our hopes and dreams and goals for 2014 are possible and probable?

With that in mind, what narratives are you looking to manifest this year?

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