23rd November 2020
Alan Johnston gives us his thoughts on Joe Biden, a person who stammers (PWS), becoming US President Elect, and looks at how he achieved it.
A person who stammers will soon become President of the USA. Surely that isn't a big deal? Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister and indefatigable war leader, stammered as did Demosthenes, the great ancient Greek statesman and orator.
Being a person who stammers doesn't exclude anyone from any profession, including the bear pit of American politics. People who stammer have throughout history achieved the highest accolades in their professions encompassing politics, literature, film, science and sport.
But Joe Biden becoming President of the USA is a big deal because he is a man of our times: we can relate to him in the here and now. His modest family background, his openness about his stammer, his resilience in the face of adversity and family tragedy, and his willingness to run for the most powerful office of state in the world in a time of great uncertainty and discord, only adds to interest and respect, especially from people who stammer.
How did he get here?
The fact that Joe Biden will soon be President is remarkable but it is not the main point of interest in my opinion. What is more interesting is how and why he has achieved leadership of the USA. What motivated him? How did he cope with setbacks and family tragedy? No one becomes leader of a great country without ambition. What fuelled that ambition? What role did his stammer play in his successful political career? Did he succeed in spite of his stammer, or because of it?
To gain an insight into these questions one has to consider his childhood and family background. What comes across is the support he had from his family. Biden credits his Irish-American mother with not letting his stammer define him. She would tell him, "Joey, don’t let this define you. Joey, remember who you are. Joey, you can do it" (The Stuttering Foundation).
Biden is living proof that the experience of stammering can give people valuable strengths such as resilience, creativity, a rich vocabulary and an ability to empathise.
Like many young people who stammer, Biden had a tough time at school. "But even in my small, boy's prep school," he has said, "I got nailed in Latin class with the nickname Joe Impedimenta. You get so desperate, you're so embarrassed." Biden has recounted that when one of the nuns at his Catholic school mocked his stammer, his mother, a devout Catholic who always told her son that his stammer wouldn't hold him back in life, marched up to the school and told the nun, "If you ever speak to my son like that again, I’ll come back and rip that bonnet off your head." Biden had a champion, someone who supported and believed in him, and imbued him with the confidence that he could achieve.
How did Biden 'overcome', as he has claimed, or at least mitigate his stammer? He has said that he never had professional therapy, "but a couple of nuns taught me to put cadence to my speaking and that's why I spent so much time reading poetry too — Emerson and Yeats." At a 25th anniversary gala for the Lab School of Washington, Biden told the audience, "God's gift to me was my stuttering." But he also warned, "Don't let your learning disability define you." Like Demosthenes, Biden worked on relieving his stammering by reciting poetry in front of a mirror while monitoring his facial reactions. He noted that overcoming his disability — again, as he has put it — and the outcast status it gave him, made him that much stronger and more empathic in life.
His philosophy in life came from the great ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Biden has opined, "The measure of a man isn’t how often he is knocked down but how quickly he gets up." Biden is living proof that the experience of stammering can give people valuable strengths such as resilience, creativity, a rich vocabulary and an ability to empathise, as Stamma has stated in their article 'Joe Biden: A President With A Stammer'. I would add that it can also give them the motivation to 'succeed' and prove themselves.
I relate strongly to Biden. We have both Irish connections and we both had pronounced stammers as children. I also had a strong mother who confronted a teacher who slapped me around the head for stammering. I became interested in poetry, recitation and public speaking and was motivated to succeed although obviously not on a scale and direction comparable to Joe Biden.
I also follow the mantra that it's not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters. I like to think that I'm empathic but I suspect not everyone would agree; however, one important difference is that Biden has been open about this stammer, whereas for most of my life I've been covert, even though it was obvious that I was a person who stammered.
Read more about Alan and his story of growing up with a stammer, in his article 'What helped me'.
Watch Joe Biden discuss stammering with Emily Blunt in this video.