The talk that was the turning point

Jonathan Ives: close-up in black and white

University lecturer Jonathan Ives talks about realising that what he says is more important than how he says it, and argues that fluency shouldn’t be our main goal.

I started to stammer at Primary School. I remember very little about it, but the few clear memories I have are my parent’s indignation at seeing Michael Palin’s stuttering character in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’; attending speech therapy where I would learn techniques that I would never use because they made me sound like a breathy, monotone robot; and that everyone insisted on calling it a ‘stammer’ and never a ‘stutter’. This always confused me  not because I cared about the terminology, but because people’s insistence on giving it a ‘proper’ name seemed to give it a life of its own.

The stammer became an ‘it’ – a thing in its own right, which had a name and an independence external to me. It never felt external to begin with. I only knew that I often couldn’t get the words out. I knew that people would look at me oddly; they would finish sentences for me because they thought I didn’t have the words. I knew I dreaded the school register, where my name would be called and I had to speak out loud on demand. But it was never something outside of me that needed a name  it was just part of who I was.  

In truth, I never lacked confidence. I was never lacking words  my head was full of them. I just couldn’t rely on being able to get them out.

But at some point I internalised that sense of the stammer as ‘other’. I became a child of few words, developing a visceral hatred of the sound of my own voice because I heard the stammer in it, and it was all I could hear. Speaking took a lot of effort so I tended to avoid situations where I had to speak spontaneously. I was perceived, I think, as a quiet, shy child who lacked confidence in social situations. In truth, I never lacked confidence. I was never lacking words – my head was full of them. I just couldn’t rely on being able to get them out. I was pointed towards role models to help me, famous people who stammered. But I never heard them stammer. They were successful because they were able to get past it, hide it and find fluency when it mattered – and that was the measure of success. The only public stammerers were figures of fun – and the stammer was the point of interest and source of humour. 

The turning point

The first academic talk I ever gave was in the first few months of my Masters degree (I’d managed to avoid it all through my undergraduate degree) and I had prepared for weeks. I had rehearsed and rehearsed, and knew where I would pause and where I would breath. I changed words from ones I found hard to say to words I found easier to say. And it was a disaster. I got nervous, lost concentration, lost fluency and stumbled through it in twice the time it should have taken. I thought I had failed.

I had always assumed that nobody could or would look past the stammer.

Afterwards I was torn to shreds – but I left beaming. My argument was flawed, I had made wrong assumptions and mischaracterised this thinker. But nobody mentioned my lack of fluency. They were so focused on how right (or in this case, wrong) my ideas were, that my speech didn’t register as important.

It seems trite to say that this was a turning point for me. It was the first time I realised that I could speak in public and my stammer wasn’t the most interesting thing about me. I had always assumed that nobody could or would look past the stammer, because I grew up believing it was something that existed outside of me, that acted on me and which obscured me from the world. With that realisation I was able to relax a little more and care a little bit less.

Support networks and visible stammering

Academia has, since then, always seemed like a safe space to stammer. It is by no means idyllic, but it is supportive in the most important way to me. Some of the most rewarding moments of my professional life have been when I have been able to help students who stammer – either by advocating for them or offering them support when they need it. What I am surprised about, given the number of people who do stammer, is how few of them are visible. This is why I’m supportive of the Staff Who Stammer network at the University of Bristol. I don’t like it for me, though. I don’t feel I need it. I rarely talk about it, and I don’t want to. But I do recognise that I need to. This kind of network exists to try to normalise stammering so that it ceases to be quite so ‘othering’. But that is not the whole story.  

We, as people who stammer, also need to make it visible by talking – and stammering. Finding fluency when it matters may be a marker of success for some, but it needn’t be for all. I realised this late on, and it was a student who forced me to confront it when they told me they found it inspiring that I stood up and delivered a lecture with a stammer. I had left that lecture feeling awful – but I was wrong.

Jonathan is Reader in Empirical Bioethics and Deputy Director of the Centre for Ethics in Medicine at Bristol Medical School.

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