Stuttering Through It

How a 13-year-old boy delivered the best speech of the Democratic National Convention

Biden Campaign / Facebook

You could hear the stutter in Brayden’s lungs, all those heavy inhalations, his search for sounds that wouldn’t come. The 13-year-old stared into a stationary camera and told the world about his problem, the affliction he shares with 3 million Americans, one of whom is now the Democratic nominee for president.

“Without Joe Biden, I wouldn’t be talking with you today,” Brayden began. A big smile revealed braces. “About a few … months ago I met him in New Hampshire. He told me that we were members of the same club: Wuh-w-we … sssssss … sssssstutter.”

That last word—the S-word—took the air out of American living rooms tonight.

It’s one thing to wake up every morning with a neurological disability and face your classmates. It’s another to address a national audience when you know what’s going to happen—that a particular letter or sound is coming down the line, that it’ll all fall apart.

You probably first noticed Brayden’s disfluency on the w and s sounds. Purse your lips and say we as you read this sentence. Do you feel that tension around your mouth? That contraction of your jaw? Now say the word stutter, but hold the s for a few seconds before getting to the t. Do you feel that pressure? That twinge in your chest? Odds are you’re lucky, and you could finish those words on demand. Now imagine you can’t. Imagine it’s not just w and s, but j and l and m and at least a dozen more. The h sound is notoriously difficult, as in here—the thing you’re required to say each morning at the start of school. Many stutterers have trouble with b, as in Biden. Or Brayden.

Consider the emotional maturity it takes at Brayden’s age to talk about his personal struggle—especially when that personal struggle is talking, when it’s hard to talk at all, when it hurts to speak.

Like Biden’s, Brayden’s eyes drifted from the camera when he began to stutter. As kids, most stutterers develop a habit of looking down at the floor during a segment of severe disfluency. This is partly a manifestation of shame that comes over time; after a while, you don’t want to meet the eyes of the person giving you the look, that subtle recoil. You don’t want their pity. But Brayden never hung his head. His stutters and blocks were mild on the broad spectrum of stuttering. But that’s not the point. Brayden’s fluency, or disfluency, is not what you or I or any viewer tonight should judge him on.

He stood up and delivered his speech, and stuttered through it, and said all the words he wanted to say. He told a powerful story in just over two minutes, which is more than some other DNC speakers can claim.

Biden stuttered tonight too, but that’s not the point either. Countless pundits swooped across cable-news airwaves and Twitter, instantly declaring this the best speech of Biden’s campaign, if not his career. He mostly said the same things he’s been saying all along: that America is lost and he believes it can be found. His message was more hopeful and unifying than the one Barack Obama delivered the night before. Biden wasn’t speaking to an arena of thousands, as he’d long dreamed of doing, but he still captured what Richard Ben Cramer dubbed “the connect.” Like Brayden, he faced the pain of the moment and told Americans the truth.

I interviewed Biden almost exactly a year ago. I stuttered like hell through every question, sweating through my suit, dropping my head, jerking my neck, looking far less composed than Brayden looked this evening. As I left Biden’s office that afternoon, I don’t know if I ever thought he’d be up there tonight. As I’m writing this, I don’t know if I believe he’ll win the election. I just can’t stop thinking about Brayden’s triumph.