The Commons

Readers respond to our January/February 2020 cover story and more.

Why Won’t He Just Say It?

In the January/February issue, John Hendrickson wrote about Joe Biden’s stutter—and his own.

As a fellow stutterer, I was moved by reading your personal story alongside Joe Biden’s, and seeing how you have each approached your stutters differently. You handled the subject matter with complexity and sensitivity, and it brought tears to my eyes.

Maura Lammers
Spokane, Wash.

I stutter, and my 4-year-old son stutters, too. I recently told my husband that I couldn’t stand Mr. Biden’s narrative that I stuttered, I worked so hard, and now I don’t. As Hendrickson writes, it’s a message to kids and adults who stutter that they must distance themselves from a piece of their identity to succeed.

Alexis W.
Arlington, Mass.

I know I have been uncomfortable when others stutter, or have anxiously laughed or tried to “help.” I want to apologize to those I have demeaned with my lack of understanding.

I now see Biden in an entirely new light and will be cheering him on from the sidelines. As a candidate, he’s not as progressive as I’d like—but I’ll listen more closely for content and less for form when I hear him now.

Anne Alftine
Medford, Ore.

John Hendrickson replies:

I had no idea what to expect when we published this article. To date, I’ve received more than 500 emails about it, and new messages arrive daily. These letter writers—of all ages, races, and genders—have opened up about their various trials and tribulations, and how they’ve tried to make peace with the shame that often accompanies the neurological disorder of stuttering. I don’t know what the answer is, other than to keep talking about it. During a CNN town hall in February, Biden received an audience question about stuttering and spoke about his journey in ways he had previously avoided on national TV. The response was profound. I’m not sure what the future holds for the former vice president, but I’m glad his stutter is no longer the elephant in the room.

The Miseducation of the American Boy

Peggy Orenstein wrote about why boys crack up at rape jokes, think having a girlfriend is “gay,” and still can’t cry—and why we need to give them new and better models of masculinity (January/February).

To the extent that “toxic masculinity” is real, most men—clearly not all men—age out of it as they mature. Also, the kind of masculinity Peggy Orenstein describes is much less evident in other groups of teenage boys. Ms. Orenstein’s sample skewed almost entirely to young, white athletes. But had she spoken with members of the debate team, for instance, or the drama club, or the school band, she might have opened a window to a very different landscape.

Harold G. Knutson
Chicago, Ill.

While Orenstein brings up some good points, the fact that her sense of humor, life experiences, and perspective differ so much from those of a teenage boy means that she is often seeing male culture from a female cultural perspective. As a teacher of teenage boys, I don’t think that teenagers making offensive jokes, testing boundaries, or joking around with one another is necessarily as ominous as she says.

Mary Vansuch
St. Louis, Mo.

I am an English teacher at an all-boys private school outside Baltimore. Peggy Orenstein’s incisive, observational piece struck me so much that I assigned it to my 60 senior students. The discussion that followed was one of the most rewarding and interesting of my teaching career.

Many of my students held a belief that when adults talked about boys’ lack of vulnerability, they were actually suggesting a lack of emotional complexity. Of course, we adults understand that external vulnerability and internal complexity are different, but it seems urgent that this nuance be properly expressed to boys so as to enable more productive conversation.

Students largely agreed with the observation that they do not speak out against peers engaging in demeaning speech. “No one changes when someone just tells them they’re wrong,” one student said. Perhaps adults need to show that minds can be changed, and that such changes are something to celebrate.

Finally, young men are in desperate need of role models. “I know there are bad forms of masculinity,” one of my brightest students said, “but I’m kind of at a loss for what a good version looks like.”

I do not want to make the frankly ridiculous conservative claim that “young men are the victims,” but I did walk away from these conversations feeling deeply sorry for these boys. We’re leaving them dangerously immature and unprepared for adult life. Boys understand themselves—good, bad, and ugly—a little more than we give them credit for, and that knowledge concerns them. It should not only concern us—the adults around them—it should impel an immediate change in our actions and attitudes.

Daniel Maloney
Baltimore, Md.

Peggy Orenstein replies:

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Harold G. Knutson is correct that many guys will “age out of” the behaviors I describe (although given the scope of sexual misconduct exposed by the #MeToo movement, and the higher rates of substance abuse, loneliness, and suicide among adult men as compared with adult women, it’s clear that far too many will not). I would still ask: At what cost, and to whom? The harm that those boys who grow out of it inflict along their learning curve can traumatize girls (and other boys) for decades, sometimes for life. So I reject that “boys will be boys” perspective. As to my sample, in the first paragraphs of the article I wrote that the reporting for the book from which it was adapted encompassed young men of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and interests. Most were not athletes.

As Daniel Maloney indicates, young men are generally not victims. They are, however, individuals being raised in a gendered system that can undermine well-being and skew relationships. All-male environments can reinforce stereotypes and disconnection, or they can be crucibles of change; that choice rests with community leaders.

Q & A

The December 1976 issue of The Atlantic included the first published short story by a young writer named Tobias Wolff. It was called “Smokers,” and took place at a boarding school where “the one category in the yearbook to which everyone aspired was ‘Most Sarcastic.’” Recently, a reader wrote to us with a question about the story.

Q: I loved the story “Smokers.” But it seems there is an error in the sentence “You get sarced out all the time”; I couldn’t find a definition of sarced anywhere. Could you please help me understand what the author wanted to say? It might just be that I don’t know the word, as I am not a native English speaker. — Lilia Festa-Zaripova, Prague, Czech Republic

A: Sarced out—pronounced “sarked”—was an expression used in my school for our competitive habit of putting one another down with sarcasm, especially if one of us said something innocent or unguardedly emotional or openhearted. I wish I hadn’t included it in the story, as it’s caused more confusion than just about any other line I’ve ever written. — Tobias Wolff

Behind the Cover

Art directors at The Atlantic are asked, with some regularity these days, to perform symbolic violence upon an emblem of the United States. This is not because of any dislike on the magazine’s part for the country or its institutions. Rather, the destruction of national symbols has proved a useful metaphor for these parlous times. As we learn in George Packer’s startling cover story about President Donald Trump’s attack on the civil service, the future of American institutions hangs by a thread. So it seemed apt to depict a classical column—the kind seen on countless government buildings—as a taut rope reaching its breaking point.

Paul Spella, Art Director