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?

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.

Coming to Terms

It started when I was in third grade, or at least that is where I think it began. I had gotten some math quizzes back that were sub par. I had this idea in my head that I had to get certain grades and anything below that was unacceptable. So, like any young kid, I got upset because I knew that it was not as good as I had done previously. Shortly after that my stutter started.

It was as if it was a bad habit, like biting nails, but for some strange reason I couldn’t stop. No matter how hard I tried it always popped up. Walking to class made me incredibly nervous because I was thinking, “Am I going to get called on?” “Are people going to laugh?” I began to sweat and started talking less in class to take the pressure off. It never helped because I was scared of meeting new people outside of class. I wanted people to accept me for me, and not for my stutter.

In fifth grade I was in a play, which seems weird because of the stutter, but it was something I loved. I was going to do it no matter what. I remember it was time for one of my lines in rehearsal and I heard some of the other girls saying my lines under their breath. That pushed me to a new place. I stopped everything and told them that I wasn’t stupid, that I knew my line and asked them please not to say it for me. From that day on they never once said anything about my speech.

Three years later in an English class we had a substitute teacher and we were reading passages from a play. It was my turn to read and, of course, I got stuck multiple times. The teacher persistently asked, “Do you know where we are?” “Do you want someone else to read for you?” I kept forging on because I wanted to prove her wrong. When it came to my friend’s turn to read, she read slower and started the sentence over because she wanted to demonstrate to the teacher that it wasn’t ok to say the sorts of things she was saying to me. I wanted to cry. It was such a beautiful moment that has stayed with me as a college sophomore.

High school was another monster. I had switched schools and I knew it was going to be difficult because I would have to explain myself to all these new people. Many of my teachers were understanding which was such a shock because I had never experienced people ignoring it and deeming it to be an unimportant quality of who I am. Freshman year, I will never forget this, I was walking across campus when my friend came up and told me that she heard a classmate of mine talk to someone else about me but called me “stutter girl”. It was devastating because I was not known for the fun and musical loving person that many people knew me to be, but rather was identified by my speech impediment. I continued to talk in class despite the fear that some people would chuckle or mock me. I had a great support group in high school that had my back no matter what. Without them I don’t know what my high school experience would have been like. However, there was one instance my senior year in a health class when we introducing ourselves to the teacher (always my least favorite part of any first day of class). The teacher, thinking that he was funny, decided to say my name the same why I had told it to him. I didn’t have enough strength to tell him about my speech impediment because it was so shocking to me that a teacher, someone who works with students all the time, could say something like that. The entire class went silent, even those who had mocked me before. Those people had seen how much I had grown from freshman year and that my stutter did not define who I was. And it was no one’s place to make me feel small.

As a college sophomore there are still moments when I have to tell people about my situation, but then they move on like it’s no big deal. I am no different in their eyes after I tell them. I am now, finally, becoming ok with having a stutter and realizing that it is a part of who I am, but it is in no way a defining trait. I am a singer and actor and that is how I have dealt with being “different”. In fact, I have become more comfortable with myself now that I have decided to go to graduate school and pursue a career in speech pathology to help others like myself. I want to let people know that they are not alone, and that finding the right people and doing what you love makes living with a stutter not a strange idea. Of course, certain days are worse than others but it has not stopped me from pursuing my singing and acting and speaking in class.