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


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’? 


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.

An Introduction

The thing I hate about my name is the fear attached to it.

It’s not a hate or a dislike but a consuming terror.

Terror, because my name trails behind me like a parasite.

Like a leech it clings to me and drains me, but it’s not my blood it wants.

At every introduction it sucks, with each and every stutter, a bit of my confidence.

And it leaves behind shame like a mosquito leaves behind venom,

A reminder that it was there,

Like a gnat in a spiders web, my name is perpetually trapped, tangled in my throat.


Hello, I am-

I struggle against my stutter to push out the word.

It’s the first word I learned to write,

And the assortment of letters given to me as identity,

But still I find myself, hating it, struggling to say it more than any other word.


My voice is trapped behind its two harsh syllables,

and all that escapes from my introduction is a declaration:

I am.


But what is it that I am?

I am not the silence that follows

In the seconds my name takes to escape,

Full of pity or confusion or awkwardness and eyes uncomfortably avoiding mine,

And I am not the hate I feel for myself, aware each burning moment is one too long.

I am not illiterate or incompetent,

But like that silence, I am fighting to be heard.


-I am Mary Elizabeth McLoughlin.

Because my voice has escaped and it’s free,

Free to show you who I am beyond my uncertainty and imperfection.

An identity that is not confined to four letters.


Mary in Hebrew means sea of bitterness,

And on bad days I struggle against its waves.

I thrash as the water rises, but I don’t let it drown me.

I can’t let it drown me.

Because the biblical meaning of Mary is rebellion and that’s what I choose.

My names rebels against my stutter and a world who doesn’t care to listen.


The thing I love about my name is it cannot be silenced.

Like it has danced from the lips of countless Marys before me,

It weaves its way out through my throat though it constricts around it

Compelled by a voice that demands to be heard.

It escapes to show you the kindness and strength in me from Mary Elizabeth my godmother

And the faith and unconditional love from Mary Elizabeth my grandmother.

Because my voice is a warrior and it wields their name.


I am not the four letters of my name

And the ugly breath that tries to free it from my throat,

but the people whose lives they’ve followed

And that Mary flies from my spirit with no hesitation.


Because that voice belongs to Mary Elizabeth McLoughlin, and it will echo.

My College Essay

“Are you choking?” asked my history teacher.

It felt like three years passed before I could answer. In fact, I might as well have been choking because that was exactly what it felt like. I physically could not speak; it was like someone was holding back my tongue and preventing me from uttering a word, and the silence felt endless. The humiliation that I felt when I stuttered during my eleventh grade American history class made my fear all the more recognizable. I used to let it bother me until I realized that having a stutter isn’t something that should be hidden, but rather embraced. I used to identify myself as a stutterer, but as I’m coming to terms with it, I’m realizing it is more of a distinctive quality, rather than a “disability.”

It’s difficult to describe what stuttering is like to a fluent speaker. The most common stutter is the repetitive st-st-stutter, like Porky Pig’s. However, mine is not so much the repetitive kind, but more of a silent block that comes out of nowhere, the way a freak accident occurs randomly and without caveat. It has been happening for as long as I can remember. Everyday the same thought floods my mind: what will today’s stutter be like? The simple act of talking is accompanied by the fear of stuttering: speaking in class, ordering at a restaurant, talking to a stranger, or even telling someone my own name. Yet, day after day, I raise my hand to participate, I introduce myself to new people, I order my favorite butter pecan fro-yo with strawberries drizzled with caramel. I have learned to go forward in the face of fear, even if it makes me uncomfortable.

There is something to be said about this change—how in one moment I can feel so vulnerable, and in the next I can feel so free. I thought about this vulnerability when I approached the podium for my senior speech this past fall; I felt anxious, hesitant and scared all because I was afraid to stutter, like it was something looked down upon or that the world would come to an end because of it. The thought of stuttering in front of so many people made me quiver. But, despite these thoughts, I did it anyway. I went forward in the face of fear and, after it was over, even though I stuttered in the beginning, I felt invincible.

I’ve been told that there is no magic cure for stuttering, or if there is one, it’s more your internal strength—that courageous thing you do, despite that giant pit in your stomach telling you every excuse not to. I’m quite familiar with this anxiety, but I still challenge myself to speak up in various situations, which has helped my stutter to improve progressively. I sometimes wonder why I haven’t been able to come to terms sooner. Maybe it is because of the way I have perceived stuttering, or the reactions I have gotten. I can’t control how others react to it, but I can control how I react to them. I’ve often been hurt by awkward laughter and confused stares; however, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by people’s patience and admiration of my strength.

I’ve been told that my ability to finish a recitation, to charge forward in my senior speech, and to approach new people with confidence has inspired others to step out of their own comfort zones.

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.

Eye contact

I am writing this because I have just read Katherine’s book and although what I am about to describe is not to do with my speech, it is still to do with communication and the massive disability that it can cause in one’s life…in this case, mine.

In 1998 I noticed for the first time in my life (I was 19) that I was beginning to struggle with eye contact. Actually it was more like one minute I was fine, then the next minute it had become a problem for me. As I look back at this time I can see the possible driver for it. I was just starting the second year of university in North Wales and my friend, who was supposed to be living in the room next to me, dropped out of uni without any warning. I thus found myself living on a corridor full of rugby/football playing lads all doing a teaching degree, all mates…and there was me, apparently friend-less, doing a completely different degree and struggling to fit in. I know now that I felt incredibly lonely and just the perception that I had ‘no friends’ was incredibly painful.

Eye contact is an incredibly intimate thing, or at least it is when you become conscious of it. That’s what happened to me. I became incredibly conscious and self-conscious. I wasn’t really aware of what was happening and fought against it and did everything I could to hide it. It’s not that I couldn’t meet peoples’ eyes, but it was painful for me to do so. I would force myself to do it, but I could see the confusion or perplexity in their reaction as they unconsciously knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was definitely fear in my eyes.

One of the most painful things of all was that at school, I remember eye contact being one of my strongest attributes. I was a fairly quiet lad, but I was popular and was confident about my identity. This all changed come 1998.

Bringing it up to the present day (the bit in between is a book in itself!) I am now a self-employed Personal Counsellor, working one-to-one with people and their emotional difficulties. I have been on a very long journey with myself to get here and you may suppose that my eye contact problems are now over. How else could I work face-to-face, one-to-one, in the very intimate setting of a counselling relationship? The reality is that I face it every day, sometimes fight with it, regularly grapple with it, but each day and each person I speak with, the fear of eye contact looms large for me.

I continue to work hard at dealing with it and working with it, but overall I am a lot wiser and stronger for it. Yes, it still has the power to knock me to the floor on occasions, but now I am not so hard on myself. I figured that in order to get ‘better’ I had to become my own best friend, in a way. No one else could give me as much support as I needed whenever I needed it, so I learnt to be there for myself. This is opposed to more distant days when I would drown my sorrows by eating too much cake or biscuits (my alcohol at the time) and then feeling physically crap afterwards to boot.

Like many people who stutter, the road to recovery can be long, arduous and down right unfair (or so it feels). But, the journey itself is rich with self-knowledge and self-understanding, the likes of which I would have never discovered if my eye contact had been ‘perfect’. It is great to know that I can turn to myself and be there for myself. Hopefully one day I can do for eye contact sufferers what Katherine has done for people with speech disfluency. Thanks for reading.

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





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.