My name is Brian Wood. There’s a decent chance that if you asked me to say that sentence to you in person, I might not be able to. I’m 42 years old and I’m a stutterer. A couple weeks ago my 3-year-old son started stuttering too.
I’m what is known as a covert stutterer. I’m sure that most of my close friends realize I stutter, but a lot of people don’t. A covert stutterer is someone who represses their disfluency through an ongoing, in-real-time stream of substitutions and evasion. Since I first became aware of my stuttering at age 5, I’m very nearly perfected the art of staying covert. I have a database in my head of words I know I can’t say, and alternates to replace them with. I can anticipate several words ahead of myself in conversation and select a substitute for something I sense I won’t be able to say. I buy time with filler words, or I’ll pronounce a partial word, often not speaking the first sound (i.e. Pacific Ocean will be “acific Ocean” and most people don’t notice). I’m successful in this most of the time, and the result most people get is a slightly halting experience speaking with me, with awkward word choices sometimes, or a phrase rearranged, maybe a pause in an unusual part of a sentence, and lots of ‘umms’ and ‘likes’. I don’t get to say what I actually want to say. This is the price I pay for speaking: eternal vigilance and compromised communication.
As a child, and a teenager, the stutter was profound, and despite my older brother and at least one cousin also stuttering, there was not a lot of support or understanding to be found in semi-rural Vermont in the 1970’s. My tactic was to put my head down, only talk when necessary, and lamely grin along when jokes were made at my expense or people mocked me, just to make it through the day. Other parents thought I was stupid, mentally delayed, and would keep their kids away from me. Put bluntly, it was humiliating and sorrowful. Add to that the fact I was painfully skinny, wore glasses, had pizza face, didn’t have a father, and my family was Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was a target in pretty much every way possible. I looked inward for happiness: reading, running, making art, being alone.
But in the end it was fine, I exited my teenage years with some solid friends, and onto into college where I made a few more. The stutter lessened a bit and I got better at staying covert and I began to learn that I could hide it from some people entirely, which changed the game. But I never spoke about it. Never, ever, ever spoke about it. If someone brought it up to me, I could redirect that conversation in about two seconds flat. I would cringe at the very thought of having to speak about it. I still do.
So in that way my career as a comic book writer was great, because I could just sit alone in a room and have the written word be my voice and could take my time to properly construct my thoughts. But when the social part of my budding career became a reality (signings, conventions, interviews, panels), it was a like middle school all over again.
I’ve mostly made my peace with it now. I know that when I sit on a panel at a convention with a microphone in my face, with twenty people in the front row recording it on their phones, when it’s live-cast to the web, I’m going to stutter a few times. Sometimes more than a few times, as has happened. If you are a blogger who has asked me for one of those station identification soundbites (“This is Brian Wood, writer of X-Men, and you’re listening to the such-and-such podcast!”) you almost certainly have me on tape stuttering. Somewhere StarWars.com has video footage of me attempting one of those station idents easily a dozen times (they eventually gave up). But before I made my peace with it, I would straight up refuse video interviews; I would shirk from panels, and was generally pretty bad at this aspect of my job. Publishers and editors were mostly supportive, with few glaring exceptions.
So, back to my 3-year-old son. Having children was, for the longest time, a big fear of mine for this exact reason, that this kid would inherit some combination of my unfortunate traits, the stutter specifically. My older daughter went through a couple weeks of it as a common language development phase, and honestly, it seems my son is growing out of it as well (but time will tell). But the agony I felt of listening to him in his worst moments struggle to even say one single word, to take 20 or 30 attempts to get past the “d” in “daddy” sort of forced me to consider my own thoughts and emotions on this subject. In other words, I had to get a grip. So at age 42, I’m going to start owning this so that if and when I need to help my son with it, I’ll be emotionally ready.
I read these periodic articles that talk about all the famous people who were stutters. Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson, James Earl Jones, Joe Biden, Emily Blunt, Tim Gunn, Shaq, and so on, and while that’s really cool to hear, they are all people who, at least from what I can tell, have corrected their stutter. I always wished for someone on that level who still openly stuttered and prevailed despite it. Because, at this point in my life, my stutter isn’t going away. I kind of don’t want it to. It’s as much of who I am as anything else. I’ve lived with it longer than anything else I have going on, so sometimes I think it’s the most defining thing about me.
I’ve only met one other person in the comics industry who stutters, that I know of – there may be others out there even more skilled at being covert than I am. There HAVE to be more, so if there are - on the professional or the fan side - I’d love to hear from you.
(northernboy at gmail dot com, or twitter: brianwood )
This week, May 12-18, is the National Stuttering Awareness Week. I’m taking this time right now to make a first step towards publicly accepting myself, and probably working on that for the next 30 years or so.
(photo by www.lifelurking.com)