‘Updike,’ the Jerusalem Post of 10 November 1978, told its readers, ‘has the slight slurp of a speech impediment, the sort of thing once affected by cavalry subalterns.’ I liked to imagine, all evidence to the contrary, that my stutter was unnoticeable, that only I was conscious of it. Conscious, that is, of a kind of window pane suddenly inserted in front of my face while I was talking, or of a barrier thrust into my throat. My first memory of the sensation is associated with our Shillington neighbour Eddie Pritchard, a somewhat larger boy than I whom I was trying, on the sidewalk in front of our houses, to scream into submission. I think he was calling me ‘Ostrich’, a nickname I did not think I deserved, and a fear of being mistook or misunderstood accompanies the impediment ever since. There seems so much about me to explain – all of it subsumable under the heading of, ‘I am not an ostrich’ – that when freshly encountering, say, a bored and hurried electrician over the telephone, I tend to seize up. If the electrician has already been to the house, the seizing up is less dramatic, and if I encounter not his voice but that of his maternal and amused sounding secretary, I become quite vocal, indeed something of a minor virtuoso of the spoken language. For there is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; it’s just that at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam and I can’t get them out.
It tends to happen when I feel myself in a false position. My worst recent public collapse that I can bear to remember came at a May meeting of the august American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, when I tried to read a number of award citations – cagey and intricate, as award citations tend to be – that I had not written. I could scarcely get through the words. Similarly, many years before, one spring evening, on the stage of the Shillington High School auditorium, I – I, who played the father in our class plays, who was on the debating team, who gave droll chalk talks with aplomb even in other county high schools – could scarcely get out a few formal words of announcement, in my capacity as class president. I did not, at heart, feel I deserved to be class president (whereas I did somehow deserve to give the chalk talks), and in acknowledgement of my false position my throat jammed. In most people there is a settled place they speak from; in me it remains unsettled, unfinished. Viewing myself on taped television, I see the repulsive symptoms of an approaching stammer take possession of my face – an electronically rapid flutter of the eyelashes, a distortion of the mouth as of a stiff leather purse being cinched, a terrified hardening of the upper lip, a fatal tensing and lifting of the voice. And through it all a detestable coyness and craven willingness to please, to assure my talk-show host and his millions of viewers that I am not, appearances to the contrary, an ostrich.
Stuttering is popularly associated with fear and its hyper-excitement, and of course I was afraid of Eddie Pritchard, afraid of being miscast by him into a role, perhaps for life, that I did not wish to play. I am afraid of the audiences I discomfit and embarrass, to my own embarrassment and discomfiture. And yet some audiences can be as comforting, with their giant collective sighs and embracing laughter, as an ideal mother – southern college audiences, particularly. Unlike audiences recruited from the tough old American Northeast, they hold nary a wise guy or doubting Thomas or mocking cackle in a thousand, just hosts of attentive and comely faces, lightly sweating and drawing forth from my chest my best and true music, the effortless cello throb of eloquence. One could babble on forever, there at the lectern with its little warm light, and the pitcher of assuaging water, and the microphone cowled in black sponge and alertly uptilted like the screened face of a miniature fencer. Reading words I have written, giving my own answers, I have no fear of any basic misapprehension; the audience has voluntarily assembled to view and audit an image within which I am comfortable. The larger the audience, the better; the larger it becomes, the simpler its range of responses, the more teddy bear-like and unthreatening it grows. But an electrician answering the phone, or a uniformed guard at the entrance to a building, or a stranger at a cocktail party, do not know who I am, and I apparently doubt that my body and manner and voice will explain it to them. Who I am seems impossibly complicated, unobvious and difficult. Some falsity of impersonation, some burden of disguise or deceit seems to be part of my personality, an untrustworthy part that can collapse at odd or uncomfortable moments into a stutter. This burden was present even in Shillington, perhaps as my strong desire, even as I strove to blend in and recognized each day spent there as a kind of Paradise, eventually to get out.