Let us please first agree to renounce the linguistic butchery that would term a stutterer “differently abled.” People with three arms or legs, or who sing Donizetti arias while eating a bag of cashew nuts, are differently abled. A stutterer, on the other hand, is a cripple whose malady, however destructive or enervating, even now is not recognized by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Merry Levov’s broken organs happen to be her brain, mouth, and ultimately the feeling heart that should be their extension. Through her stutter, she reveals herself as a dismembered assemblage of genetic code. Stuttering is the central fact of her life as it is for any stutterer who must accommodate to a world that is impatient, mocking, or grudgingly tolerant. Her disability is the key to her politics and her spirit. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically at all, Merry’s stutter disappears only after she has killed. I think of Leroi Jones’ Clay in his drama Dutchman (1964) who explodes at the woman who will kill him, “If Bessie Smith had killed a couple of white people, she wouldn’t have needed those damn songs!” In a terrible way, Merry’s ability to commit murder relieves her of her crippling disability.
The message is frightening. It is one with which I am far too familiar.
I am writing about this because I share kinship with this sad girl. I inhabit a large part of her twisted universe. When Roth described and wrote out the tortuous sounds of her stutter and her effect on the people around her, I could feel the toxic dust of 60 years kicked loose inside me. It’s my equivalent of sucking Zyklon-B–I cannot emerge alive, and in some deep way I probably did not.
In case you were out of the room and missed it, I stutter too, and have for as long as I can remember.
I am one of those authorities who nevertheless has not attended one class on the theory of speech pathology of stuttering. My authority is my own descent into the Hell where my brain was the jailer and my tongue was the prison.
Perhaps my stutter is not noticeable these days. It’s rarely in evidence except at moments of extreme stress: but it’s still there. It lays in wait for me the way a recovering drunk understands that a drink sits at arm’s length even if he’s been sober for 25 years. Neither condition–alcoholism or stuttering–ever quite goes away. And when I die, in bizarre tribute to Wilfred Bion’s concept of free-floating madness, the demonic force of stuttering will find a new host inside someone else’s head, mouth, and heart. I lived after tongue extenders and clamps, and before over-the-counter attempts at a miracle cure. I lived through my stutter and came out the other side, standing, yes, yet irreparably damaged and poisoned to the heart.
I grew up stuttering. I even write here with a form of stutter: I go back and forth and repeat myself. Call it “imitative form,” if you like. Yes, the physical stutter has largely disappeared but it is never entirely gone. Did I say that already? Then suffer in your own discomfort because I am here to afflict you as I have been afflicted. My stutter can come back at any time with its spastic twitches, spraying, and embarrassment beyond anything I know how to describe. I am now reasonably good with words. I have even learned how to speak effectively. But when it comes to the havoc wreaked on my life by stuttering, I am as inarticulate on the page as I ever was speaking aloud. Stuttering is soul-deep. It is a surgical cut.
“It Is the Cause, My Soul”
It wasn’t until I was forty years old that I found out the probable cause. By that time the overt damage to me had come and gone, leaving its residue of resentment and unpurgeable hatred that affected even my work and family relationships. And it happened that in my family one of my sons was having learning and behavior problems in school. He was only in Kindergarten but the danger signs were already there. He was unable to adapt to new tasks, he was totally rigid and terrified, his temper was ferocious, and he was a panic-ridden mess. I would come home and find my wife almost in tears. “I don’t know how to deal with him,” she’d say, “the kid may need a psychiatrist or I may have to go to one myself.”
God bless (with gratitude and without irony) the school system’s Child Study Team: they spent a year testing him to find out what was going on. My son, it turned out, was mildly learning-disabled; he had what they called a “perceptual impairment.” If caught early and treated over a few years it would help bring him to where he eventually landed, as a magna cum laude college graduate who has lived by the spoken word, first as a broadcaster, then as a teacher. But left untreated, it would make him the scion of his father’s worst self: a stuttering machine gun, a frustrated idiot savant and recluse who could not conceptualize, and a warped boy whose temper would become like mine. He could inherit the family tradition of raging property destruction, poison pen letters, and fire-starting. That was me and it surely could have been him as well.
I was not anxious for my son to follow me into the family business: stuttering psychopathology.
So there it was. My son stood to become my heir. I was him at the same age: rigid, frightened, and beginning the stutter that contorted my life. The schools in the early 1950s had no such refined classification system. Special Ed in those days probably did not exist as a discipline at least in the New York public schools. You were either a drooling idiot confined to a room with other ineducable kids drooling on yourselves. Or you were a lazy fuck-up. I was the latter: the perpetual underachiever too smart to be a moron, too inconsistent to be taken seriously as anything but the lazy misfit who was brighter than almost anyone in my grade, but who could not verbalize or conceptualize. I was the social and academic person who tied his shoes together, the kid who girls giggled at and who boys book-dumped and beat up.
I wanted to die and I wanted to kill. I cursed the day of my birth but was afraid to say so aloud. For God was surely my enemy as were my teachers and fellow students. I craved affection like some half-starved puppy but did not know how to accept it if it was offered. All I heard were helpless admonitions or mockery from kids who in front our teacher would twitch their heads and spray. Hey, lookit, it’s K-k-k-kenny!! Oh God, how I wanted to bite to the bone as well as to crave revenge!
Can you figure out that the most passionately cruel memories of my life circle to this day around stuttering and the reactions it evinced: mockery and derision from my classmates back in public and junior high school, not to mention anger and contempt from my helpless parents (“Take your time!” “Lay still and think about your new hat!”); condescension (“Gee, you didn’t stutter at all that time”); passive helplessness from teachers; insulting and useless exercises with a metal mirror from so-called speech therapists; and finally self-loathing because I was a clown, a Pagliaccio. Le Jongleur de Young Israel of Parkchester.
Oh, the metal mirror! I spoke into metal mirrors from the 4th grade until sometime in college. Very well-enunciated Ken, now say after me: “I. Want. To. Cut. Your. Heart. Out. And. Feed. It. T-t-t-t-t-o. My. D-d-d-d-d-og.” Say it a little more carefully, that was almost very good!
It never occurred to me to ask why the mirror was always metal. That’s easy. Have you ever seen a stutterer frustrated to the point of tears and rage? The mirror will take off across the room. If it’s glass, it will shatter. Or maybe the stutterer will break it and attack himself or the teacher. Glass is a lot more weapon-worthy than a chunk of semi-polished metal.
The only time I actually went over the edge was when I stalked a classmate in the 9th grade at Castle Hill Junior High School, JHS 127. The teasing and imitations at last went too far. I recall my state of mind: I was less angry than in a silent “zone” of cold-blooded and near-dispassionate rage. I walked deliberately, slowly, to this kid’s apartment building. Call it stalking. I am certain to this day that I was prepared to kill him or at least hurt him so badly he would never tease me or anyone else ever again. After all, I had almost killed a kid when I was ten: why not now as well? But the little bastard had been tipped off because I had somehow shown my hand. So he didn’t come home. He waited me out. And true to form I realized how much I scared myself with the depth of my own hatred, gave up, went home, and retreated further into misery. Besides, I was supposed to be a Nice Jewish Boy, and that’s not the right way to behave, is it?
Hatred doesn’t go away. I still have not forgiven that kid who by now is my age, 64. Every time I pick up a copy of the New York Post (he is a
bylined journalist), I think of him and my shame mixes with a hatred that is almost pure and fresh as a poisoned rose. What is the tagline for the film of Sweeney Todd? “Never forget, never forgive.”
Stutterers never recover any more than alcoholics really recover. The fear and wariness remain, the same way that recovering drunks carry the temptation inside them. The repeated syllables uttered under pressure are reminders of the horror. The gaping mouth out of Lady Day’s performance of “Strange Fruit” evokes a lynching not by a mob but by the sufferer’s body–the self-imposed death of breath and soundless helplessness that cannot find the outlet of words.
The terror of the telephone, of using one’s own name, never goes away. I developed strategies for dealing with the phone because like many stutterers, I can’t lead a sentence with my last name. I gasp and then squeeze out my last name: W-w-w-w-olman. To this day it’s a toss-up in the pain sweepstakes: circumcise yourself or answer the phone.
I learned that singers don’t stutter. I call this the Mel Tillis or Robert Merrill Effect. Tillis’ stutter puts mine to shame but he can sing like an angel
because something in the mechanics of singing removes the breakdown of stuttering. Robert Merrill had one of the most gorgeous operatic baritone voices I ever heard. It was also a standing joke among opera lovers that Merrill could not remember the words to roles he’d sung a hundred times. And I now understand why he probably had difficulties remembering the words: because they were words.
Acting also temporarily lifts the stutterer beyond his malady. See below, when some insane wish for normalcy made me try out for the comic lead in a Russian comedy called Squaring the Circle at Hunter College in the Bronx. I got the part I was after. And I discovered that when I was someone else, I did not have to be me. I did not have to hate myself. When people laughed at me it was at a character. It wasn’t personal. And I did not stutter. I was awarded three hours a night when people didn’t think that I was a slobbering asshole. Instead I got bravos. I acted for years and did not stutter. I was the male Blanche DuBois. “Who wants reality? I want magic!”
So was stuttering a sign of self-hatred? Probably. I had grown up learning how to hate myself, for damn sure. Maybe indeed I got something from it. I was the center of attention and all that even when I was being mocked. I got some enduring gifts for my pain: murderous rage and alcoholism. What gifts!
But I also got compensation: the gift of written language. A very early (1990) and pretty bad poem nevertheless explains the mental state I lived in.
HOMAGE TO PORKY PIG
I learned to write because I could not speak:
taught by the dread tattoo of my own voice,
I brought the words indoors, out of the rain
that sprayed from my mouth, a marble fountain
inflexible, forever open: and
sheltered, warmed them with the fire of my
rage, fed them on their owner’s flesh, so they
owned him: then craved the taste of blood, sinew
drawn from new hearts, replenishing, mocking
the meat of tongues, articulacy.
In kiddie matinees, I sat, darkened
Saturday afternoons, between Granger’s
Scaramouche, swordsman with a rapier tongue,
and Heston’s Moses, cured by De Mille’s craft
of our Biblical affliction: and saw
Porky spray hog’s vengeance on the world
and the God who maimed him: laughing with me,
sharing the blood, eating the farrow of
golden tongues, drinking blood of unbroken hearts:
deeding me power to words I could control.
To this day I have the power to wound and damage by the pen. I’ve written my way out of jobs, into one car repossession, but also into some things that are good: a couple of poetry awards, a quarter-century of jobs that paid well even if I hated them because they had nothing to do with me.
As long as we’re talking about the gains, let’s look more deeply even if it means rehashing old material. In other words, I’ll stutter some more for you. The psychiatrist in American Pastoral who tries to treat Merry figures out the gains at once. Merry indeed gets to be the center of attention every time she goes into her Porky Pig act. She hates it as much as I did, but she craves the attention, as I did. For one minute you are at the center of the universe. I believe I focused on acting when I was 19 years old to garner positive, unambiguous attention.
I came a few years before it became a fashion to blow up buildings, or I might have tried it. Who really knows?
When I wrote that I learned to write because I could not speak, I wasn’t kidding. I had to find an outlet for the words that lived inside me so I became a writer of sorts. Of course, like all people who experience failure at an early age, I managed to fuck that up too, so my working and creative lives have been a series of Almosts and missed trains. And I could get in more trouble with a pen than I ever could with my mouth. Witness that I was fired from a job at Educational Testing Service in November 2007 for blogging about them as maybe the worst and most fascistic place I have ever worked. I wasn’t lying. I should have lied, or better, I should have just left it alone and shut up.
I jettisoned the me I despised almost 50 years ago, the day I came barreling onstage as the mad Russian poet Emilian Tonkonogov yelling “Eh! Comrades!” But it’s not an unmixed blessing. When I speak now I do not know who is inside my body: the human being or the Character. When I speak now, I am never quite sure who’s speaking: the real stuttering me who actually evolved, or some construct, a cleverly layered self-deceiver. I have developed a golden tongue to sell myself as a well-spoken doxy to both women and businesses for so long that I cannot tell who’s the ventriloquist and who is the dummy.
You learn as a stutterer that you are a social nigger. Is that ugly enough for you? I offer it without apologies. It’s a foul word but it expresses a truth of attitude. A stutterer is a clown, a jester, fit only to say Yazzum Boss or Yassuh, Mis’sah Benny, Ah get de LaSalle! You’re not quite human and you’re not to be taken seriously. Women snigger at you and men are unnerved. You’re three-fifths of an articulate individual.
And the hatred mounts. For inside every stutterer lives Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. Believe me. Never forget, never forgive.
Why do you think my politics are far left of center? They were radical before I was 12. I have forever gravitated toward the despised, dispossessed, the put-down, the broken and dispirited. I have felt face down forever, no matter how much money I might have made at a given moment. My worst sin has been to become so self-absorbed that I forgot my fellowship with the broken, even if their breakage is economic. We want to forget we live in a social WalMart but it is incumbent on us to remember that forever. Someone who sprays saliva all over the room, even if they haven’t done so in 40 years, is part of a special hell of disenfranchisement and unending fear.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven
Blessed are the stutterers who like Porky one day will wreak hog’s vengeance on the articulate, who will cut out Aaron’s tongue and leave the prophecy to the inarticulate like Moses.
God bless and protect the Fog People whose mouths are filled by the toxicity of their genes. For it is we who will return to smite the earth with a curse.
No, I don’t stutter much anymore. But inside me lives my hidden Sugar Boy, Willie Stark’s verbally crippled driver and bodyguard from All The King’s Men. The inner Sugar Boy sprays and spits and twitches. People snap impatiently “Hey, Mushmouth, write me a letter!”
But Sugar Boy also carries a gun.