Would You Take a Magic Pill to Cure Your Stutter? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader can relate to Jillian’s story, but only to a point:

I’ve stuttered since age five. I cannot think of one moment over the past 20 years when I would have refused a magic pill for stuttering.

I would have taken the pill in the second grade, when it felt like I was choking in front of the entire class while trying to read out loud.  I would have taken the pill when I interviewed for a promising job and failed to get out more than three coherent sentences. I would have taken the pill when struggling to say “my name is John” on the thousands of occasions I’ve been unable to identify myself.

I can understand non-stutterers wanting to imagine that stutterers would reject the pill.

With occasional exceptions, people like to be inspired when I’m telling them about my stutter.  In these instances I become some noble example of triumph over adversity, of perseverance in the face of stacked odds, of authentic insight miraculously shining through an inarticulate surface, etc.

But in contrast to other stutterers, I cannot see that my stutter has added anything of value to my personality.  It may have made me more inclined to read as a child. It certainly has pushed me toward introversion. Yet it’s as fair to say that it’s made me more anxious, violent, impatient, depressed, self-absorbed, and generally hard to live with than I otherwise might have been.  Speech therapy has curbed the worst of my stuttering, but it is expensive and exhausting.  So yes, I’ll take that imaginary pill.

Thanks for talking about this.  You don’t see it come up to often, especially from stutterers themselves. And I’m not sure if you use names for this in Notes, but if you do, mine is John Herrick.  

We post reader emails anonymously by default, just to be safe, but if you would like us to include your name, we’re happy to do so. The address to use is hello@theatlantic.com. Another reader to use his name is Hanan Hurwitz:

Regarding the remark about “cognitive dissonance” by Chris Constantino and similar statements: I don’t see any dissonance between accepting stuttering on the one hand, and looking for a cure on the other hand. So many children, youth, and adults who stutter also suffer terribly. Most have never heard about the National Stuttering Association and won’t have the opportunity to join this wonderfully supportive community. A cure can save people from years of misery, so why not.

I am not looking for a cure for myself, but I don’t deny the awful misery I went through because of stuttering, and certainly I want to save others from the same experiences. So there is no contradiction. And Erin Schick is wrong; most, if not all speech language pathologists whom I have met at the NSA do NOT think that it would be better if we did not stutter at all. I would be happy to make the introductions myself.

Here’s a popular video of Schick doing a poetry reading:

Dramatic performance also helped this reader:

If there isn’t a cure, then what would one call what happened to me?

I had such a debilitating stutter that I could not answer a question in class, even though I knew the answer. (And it got even worse on those rare occasions when I dared to talk to girls.) But my literature teacher, who insisted that all plays and poems be read aloud in class, noticed that I was able to read aloud clearly and affectingly, while my non-stuttering classmates (for reasons that still baffle me) became horribly, amusingly, and/or boringly disfluent.

So she suggested I join the drama club. I thought this was insane, but I did it … and it turned out that, so long as I knew my lines, I never stuttered.

I then trained myself to think before speaking and to visualize the words I wanted to say before I spoke them, so speaking became simply another form of reading aloud. When I explain this, some people think it very strange and difficult, but it’s really no different from writing.

Update from another reader:

Hi, my name is Joshua St. Pierre, a co-founder of the Did I Stutter project with Erin Schick (and Zach Richter). Would I take the pill? A few years ago I decided the answer was no. In fact, saying “no” to this hypothetical pill was really important for me becoming empowered by a disability rights perspective. But I have come to find this whole discussion of whether stuttering is a gift or a wound (or both) bizarre.

In the first place, there is no pill. Secondly, people talk about cures as if they are a choice rather than imposed non-consensually at an early age. Third, we have already seen in some of the other communities mentioned in Jillian Kumagai’s note that the question of hypothetical “cures” is used to distract and turn disabled communities against each other and police people’s relationship to their own disability. Lines are drawn in the sand about a “cure” that doesn’t even exist. Fourth, why don’t we talk instead about our compulsive need to ask this question—about the fact that society assumes and pressures us to say yes to the pill, and why that is, and why we aren’t doing more to change it?

And lastly, people talk about the magic pill as though learning to say no to it and accept your stutter as a gift is the endgame, instead of a catalyst for making structural/social change, fighting ableist discrimination, and creating a better world for all stutterers.