A History of Dysfluency

It’s a strange word: dysfluency. A single word to describe all the repeated sounds and taut silences that come from the mouths of people like me who, for one reason or another, just can't quite say the words they want to say, the way they want to say them. It’s a clinical euphemism that feels as though it were designed to slide cleanly off tortured tongues. Perhaps it was: the circular flick my tongue makes as it enunciates the four soft syllables in succession feels so natural that I often think it must have been crafted with that feeling in mind. It’s certainly easier than its colloquial counterpart, stutter, a little machine gun which, after a couple decades spent mustering the sounds to explain yourself, feels like the vestige of a sort of linguistic imperialism: an exonym, imposed by those who need no word themselves. No one needs to describe themselves as a “non-stutterer”. But if those of us who stutter are dysfluent, everyone else must be fluent. Then, at least, we can impose a word on them, too.

It's unclear exactly when I first had trouble speaking, but it must have been after I said my first word, rice, and before I finished my first year in school. My mother has fashioned a comfortable story for herself about my dysfluency. As she tells it now, my little head just had too many ideas flying around in it, and without the command of my tongue muscle needed to articulate them quickly enough, I found myself spitting out my thoughts in a slurry of soggy consonants.

It’s a self-indulgent story. All I remember was that my first year at the Susquehanna School was defined by a verbal urgency, a sense that I had to shoulder my way into a muscular rhetorical arena where huge lips flapped noisily against each other as they argued over paint and construction paper. I started grade school at three, in a class of people double my size who looked at and shouted about me as if I were just really terrible at being a five-year-old. How was I meant to present myself in that wet mess of words, smaller by half? Maybe it should be no wonder I had difficulty speaking: in some way or other I was acting out the physicality of dysfluency all the time. Nathan and Ian, broad-shouldered five-year-olds, would throw my brown baseball cap across the asphalt playground, proudly watching it lilt into the other’s hands. I would stand stubbornly between the two of them, knees cocked. Seeing a wrist flick, I would jump to intercept the throw only to miss by an instant, and Ian would grin, and then they would do it again.

I began speech therapy in the fifth grade, recommended for the umpteenth time by my pediatrician. Once a week, I would find myself among the leopard-print beanbag stress balls and waxy aloe plants that covered every surface of Karen Denker’s1 home. The house was, without fail, about four degrees too warm, and the air was thick with cat hair. I would itch my eyes and sink deep into my chair, watching her meticulously aged head bob like a baseball figurine as she coaxed me into describing the things that interested her: my day at school, the novel I was reading, the shape of the inside of my mouth.

Despite four years in therapy, I was still stuttering regularly when our insurer refused to continue subsidizing the sessions. The heart of the treatment was a number of exercises that Karen devised in order to ingrain a certain ease into my speech. I was meant to count the number of times my speech was impeded in a day, noting in a journal whether each interruption was due to a block — when my lips seal shut, stopping any sound from being released — or a repeated hard attack — an obtrusive plosive consonant that often comes in a series. Charts were to be drawn up, each incident listed with description. The physical awareness such tabulation requires could have given me a firmer and more direct control over my oral musculature, but the process itself was always aversive. Sometimes my mother was meant to clap at me when I was dysfluent, to hold me accountable. She didn’t, and I never did my part either.

Karen articulated the workings of my speech with a straightforward confidence — this was, perhaps, the way in which she was most helpful. The mechanism of my dysfluency is a “scanner,” she explained to me, a part of my consciousness that “scans” sentences as I construct them, pinpointing words or syllables that will prompt a dysfluent stumble. It is not always the same kinds of syllables or sounds — the content of any individual trigger is somewhat arbitrary, on the face of it. It was a phenomenon I had been aware of, visible in brief flashes, but without outside verification it had seemed that it was either mindlessly regular or so strange that it must be ignored, so that it would go away. Her term made me imagine a ship’s radar dial with a long green arm rotating methodically around its face, prepared to detect. As I approach a word that I expect to have trouble with, I see a bright green flash in my mind.

When the scanner warns me of an upcoming problem, I have three options. The first is to actively employ the practical skills of fluent speech: “feather-light touches”, “slower pacing”, “more mouth movement”, or any of the other neatly condensed aphorisms that Karen offered. Unfortunately, the stress of the upcoming dysfluency makes it impossible for me to control my mouth. In that instant of recognition, when the stutter congeals, there is only fight or flight. To fight is to throw yourself at the word, hoping to crack open its hull, release its interior softness. This seldom works: more often than not I get stuck biting down on a word that will neither concede to my jaw, nor pop out of my lips. But I can evade the stutter. When I am nearly fluent, I am constantly substituting words as they are marked by green blips, spitting out newly crafted sentences and phrases. “What are you up to this weekend?” becomes “Do you have plans for Friday? Or Saturday?”; “Do you want to go to the grimy beach in Revere and get a chicken parm and watch the stars?” becomes “We can hang out if you want”; “I love you” becomes “see ya!” and a little twitch in my shoulder.

The scanner holds me hostage to a red-faced embarrassment; the memory of an endless block, jaw locked closed around an r or d, the creeping purple of my eyelids which I had shut so that I was no longer confronting the confused gaze of a cashier as it burned my cheeks. This is the series of images that rolls through my mind whenever I wonder if I would indeed stutter, were I to stop rephrasing and just say the word I mean to say. I have no real proof that I will stutter if I don’t react in some way, because I have only ever instinctively adopted the scanner’s predictions as fact. All I have is that memory and a dull, drooping shame that emanates downward and out from my gut whenever I think of it. That’s all it takes to keep me from questioning the legitimacy of my expectations, enough to force me to constantly recreate my sentences, continually reposition myself.

The shameful memory is self-replicating: that terrible moment was prompted by another memory, which was prompted by another. But where did it come from in the first place? I understand the conditions that made a dysfluency possible, and the cycles that perpetuated it, but Karen never talked about that primordial stutter that first shook my body.

My parents developed a careful silence about the whole process. When I stuttered more than usual, my dad would comment that I seemed stressed. You know, it doesn’t bother me, when you have those sorts of moments, but you might want to think about getting to bed earlier. My mother had a self-conscious way of swaying her jaw when I stuttered frequently, but when I returned to coherency her lips would curl into a half-smile which she would carefully direct away from me. It seemed like they were performing an appropriate discomfort about my moments, an affectation that I always saw through. They knew exactly how they were meant to react, the correct sum of concern to show. I think I’ve always known that they liked my stutter: for them, my fear of presenting myself to others just denoted that I cared about people, or at least respected them. Sometimes I hated their investment in the various spectacles of my speech. But when you can't quite speak to people, it's hard to be anyone. I developed an embarrassed pride in the fact that, at least to someone, I was interesting.

It’d be nice to tell people who I am. When I’m nervous, particularly around new people, the scanner finds more scary words to flash green, fulfilling my fears through dysfluency. It also reacts faster to the new sentences I weave, finding fault almost as soon as they are synthesized, so I’m perpetually rewording, each time losing my grip on the moment a little bit more. The fluency of my speech, and therefore the organization of my thoughts, becomes simply a manifestation of the emotions that I feel towards my audience.

But somewhere between then and now, something changed. Instead of becoming the new speaker that Karen had tried to train, one who’s mastered their body, and can control their words through an ingrained physical delicacy, somehow I’ve become something else: an authorial feeler. That is to say, I conjure feelings with an active objective, not unlike the way an author conjures sentences. The site of my authority is emotional, not physical. I cannot feel nervous as I begin to speak in class and then try to shake it off, or expel the feeling with deep breaths. By then it's too late. A cycle has begun: I will stutter.

Instead, I am simply not nervous. At some point, I decided that my emotions could belong to me, because they had to. Nervousness isn't something that I must work to combat: in some sense it is always an active choice, a naming of my relation to somebody else through the lens of my affective state — the purely physical experience of intensity that provides the visceral prompt, but not the specific naming concept, for what we might call an emotion. A physical sensation can be called any number of things: fear and excitement, for example, are different names for a group of indistinguishable affects, names that are produced by context but also, in my experiences, by instrumental urgency. There are names I know I cannot choose, “nervousness” among them. This shift in approach, to perceiving my emotions as conceptual extensions — and definitions — of myself over which (unlike my purely sensory affective state) I have immediate control in enunciating is one I don’t think I can turn back. This means that, all the time, I have to be choosing my emotions not in the passive, reactive way that so often seems to dominate understandings of feeling, but with some measure of care and direction. I need to know how to feel, and for how long. I cannot check into my emotive enunciations only when it matters, when I am about to speak: because that machinery of choice has been made manifest to me, I cannot ever ignore it fully. I need to know which feelings allow me to vocalize without the barriers of self-doubt, and then induce their sublimation out of my affective state by stating that this interlocutor is one I love, or hate, or wish to help, and thus I say to myself that towards them I feel safe, or removed, or sufficiently ingratiated, and speak fluently on that basis.

But this possibility, in turn, fundamentally changes the grounding of my relation to people around me. With access to this instrumental form of feeling, there comes an ethical urge not only to create feelings that allow me to speak when I need to, but to author feelings that accommodate everyone around me at all times. There is a tiny liquidation each time I look at someone new, and decide that the increase in affective activity I feel amounts to the excitement of seeing someone I care about. It cheapens my care, removes the responsibility that it relies upon, and forces me to be for others, not for myself. But at least I get to be there, with other people, and talk to them.

I cannot explain how I got here, to authorial feeling. I don’t know if it was one switch, or a slow movement towards the way of being that made it easiest to do what I wanted most: speak. As far as I am concerned, it is the only way to tame the naked posture of dysfluency. I cannot afford to be nervous, so I am not. This authority works well enough: I find myself able to speak to halls full of people, and to my roommate. Sometimes, though, it’s not quite so simple to know how to create emotions for new stresses. If I haven't experienced it before, I can’t calibrate an appropriate reaction, the one that makes others comfortable in its normalcy. This scares me. Someday I’ll call my dad and he won’t pick up, because he’ll have died. If, in my monumental confusion about how to feel, I sigh or laugh or simply fail to feel the right sort of sad, what will that mean? Good people are the people who feel the right things at the right time.

In these circumstances, feeling begins to degenerate into a technical act. A goal is set by my desire for communicative intimacy and, like any piece of technology in the broadest sense, my emotions configure themselves so that I can achieve my goal most efficiently. One would think that you could not put a value on an emotion; in this regime, not only does each feeling have value, but its value is precisely calculable — how well does this feeling accommodate the interests of the people around me? A precinct of my life is carefully, even lovingly, folded into the soulless estate of technique.

If I remember correctly, I used to spend half of my energy knowing, and the other half feeling. The energy I spent feeling would generally create and name emotions for me. Now, those feelings are just a function of more knowing. Knowing is just about all I do. I spin around, pointing my finger at the people that surround me as I identify them, and name their relationship to me in terms that soothe.

I am still, occasionally, dysfluent. In the last few years, though, since I moved away from home, I’ve realized that there is another way to respond when I expect to stutter. Instead of expending my attention producing useful emotions, which might provide just enough space for me to construct ever newer and ever more circumspect verbal structures for my thinking, I could refrain from speaking altogether. Maybe the word as such is already an imposition, inhumanely privileging the concept over other, more delicate couriers of meaning. In silence, new dispositions become possible, along with new modes of experiencing them together. We can communicate in the quasi-languages of images and sounds, through the postures of our body and the tempo of the faint wheezes that drift in and out of our lungs. We can also communicate through facts; that fact of our physical proximity, the fact of our recurring eye contact, the fact that we have made no plans to leave.

  1. Names have been changed to protect anonymity.