At the end of third grade, my class gathered to meet our fourth-grade teacher. We were supposed to go around the room and say our names in introduction. When it was my turn, instead of saying my name, I spelled it out: “J-I-L-L-I-A-N.” Someone else picked up after me and said it: “Jillian.” Following that ordeal, I strategically took bathroom breaks in order to miss my turn when we went around the room to read aloud.
My stutter continued to follow me around my entire life. My favorite restaurant dish growing up was fish and chips, but I rarely ordered it myself because I couldn’t say it. My college-admissions essay was about stuttering. The college I went to begins with “B” and I loved it, but I don’t like to say its name. Nor do I like to say “boyfriend,” nor mine’s last name, which starts with “G.” My bad letters remain: B and G, along with D. When J became easier, I was grateful, but sometimes my heart still pounds when I have to introduce myself in a group.
Emma Alpern, a writer and stutterer herself, reported for us last week on the National Stuttering Association’s annual conference. When she interviewed the association’s chairman of the board, Kenny Koroll, he said, “There’s always that question. If you had a magic pill [that could cure a stutter], would you take it? And for me, the answer is no.”
Stutterers share a debate that splinters other communities whose members are disabled in some way.
The deaf, dwarves, and those diagnosed with Down Syndrome or autism have grappled with real-life magic pills, curative to varying degrees. These include, respectively, cochlear implants, limb-lengthening surgery, amniocentesis (a prenatal diagnosis for Down’s), and applied behavior analysis.
Answering the Magic Pill question involves engaging with two sides of the same experience: the one that disables and the one that enriches. (For more on this question as it relates to the above conditions, read Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree.) I have asked myself this question numerous times, although I don’t seriously consider its repercussions, as there is no cure for stuttering. When the answer has been “yes,” I was younger—at 14, I would’ve taken such a pill in a second—or besieged by memories of the rhythm, or lack of one, that defines my stutter: the pregnant pauses, the coping swallows, the speech therapy visits, the words I can’t say, the silence of my peers as I imagined what they thought of me. The shame.
When I tell people now that I stutter, or used to, they are surprised. They say they’ve never heard me do it. Like many stutterers, I grew out of the severity of my stutter, which is why I am comfortable today with the sense that I probably wouldn’t take a magic pill, because I don’t know who I’d be today if I had. For one, my stutter fueled a love for reading and writing, as Nathan Heller has written about. I am, despite the past, attached to myself now, and I’m inseparable from my stutter.
Scott Stossel, the editor of this magazine, wrote in a cover story last year about anxiety that, “some of the things for which I am most thankful … not only coexist with my condition but are in some meaningful way the product of it.” Some wounds and gifts are indistinguishable.