It was 6 months into my year-long trip when I knew that I had been wrong, about a lot of things.
I was bumping along a dark New Mexican ridge with little idea where I was going, trying to remember my host’s quickly delivered instructions. The night had engulfed our Subaru station wagon and, with no reception on my phone, the blinking ‘check engine’ light looked more menacing than it had before.
I was on my way back to the ranch we were staying in for the night, leaving my 70th interview. I was reluctantly driving away from a man who had warily invited me into his home to ask him questions about his life, about what it meant to him to be a stutterer. Our interview had started awkwardly, both of us sitting politely on either side of his sofa with my recorder lying conspicuously between us.
He was different from any of the other 69 interviews stored on my recorder. He was the first man I had met who had never seen another stutterer before, the first person who had barely spoken about his stutter to anyone. He and I edged around the loaded word for a while. He mentioned ‘that thing I do when I talk’ and I nodded. He smiled when he ‘did it again’, I asked him to carry on.
As the hours slipped by and the sun sank into the earth, he told me how he had questioned his faith, spending many years thinking he must be possessed by the devil. He remembered reading that people had cut the ligament underneath their tongue to ‘cure’ their stutter and he held the scissors there more times than he was proud to admit. In his thick Mexican accent, he told me how he had become a teacher despite all the people who had told him that he couldn’t, or shouldn’t. He told me how honored and scared he was that his church had asked him to travel with them as an interpreter when they went to work with prison inmates in Colombia.
Gradually he started to lean towards me, he began to sound proud of all he had achieved, and he asked if his wife could join us. He started to laugh and smile and, as I sat back on the sofa, he told her things that he had never dared mention before. His daughter bounded in and he explained who I was, explained that he was talking to me about his stutter. It was the first time he had mentioned the word to her, the first time he had ‘come out’ as a stutterer. She told him that was cool and started showing me her toys, unfazed by the relief that was painted across his face.
When he walked me out to my car, his rough, weather-beaten features were backlit by the light streaming out of their kitchen door and I could barely see his face. But I heard the crack in his voice as he reached out his hand to hold mine and say thank you. I said it back and hoped he could see how grateful I was.
As I flicked on my headlights and started to drive away, I realized that I was thanking him, thanking all of the people who had allowed themselves to be interviewed, for something much more personal than I had realized. I was thanking them for finding the courage to tell me their stories, but also for holding up a mirror and showing me far more of myself than I had ever expected.
Six months ago I had left my home in England to explore stuttering. I had wanted to find out who it happened to, the ways they handled their speech and why we all stuttered. I thought that once I knew the ‘why’, I was one step closer to a fix. Although I left England keen to immerse myself in stuttering, I was looking for answers. I was looking to make my stuttering neat and tidy. I wanted to sanitize it and put it in a box so I could push it away and move on with the rest of my life.
Sitting in my car I knew that I had been wrong. As I planned the next day of driving in my head, I was excited by the thought of each interview yet to come and I was humbled by the generosity of each interview behind me. I saw that stuttering had become a password and an equalizer. It had invited me into the homes of everyone from farmers to celebrities, and it had led an intensity and an honesty to each of my conversations. It had brought me more adventure, and had made me more fearless than I had ever imagined.
I heard stories of courage, determination, heartache and painfully funny stories of miscommunication, and I realized that I was not interested in distancing myself from these people, or this condition, any more. I didn’t want my life to be polished and sanitized. I didn’t want to hide my speech. I realized that I was proud of the imperfections I had, proud of the tribe I had been born into.
I wrote this piece for the International Stuttering Awareness Day conference. Check out their website for a host of brilliant articles and stories.