When asked what draws me to writing, I’m tempted to respond: because I don’t like speaking. While this might seem trite and evasive, it points to one of the greatest struggles of my life. While not obvious to some, I have been a stammerer — albeit a covert one — from a very young age and continue to be today*.

One of my most painful memories of stammering occurred in my first year at university. Of my four subjects, politics was the one with which I felt least comfortable. The subject matter was alien and the prescribed reading challenged me. When I had to deliver a tutorial paper, I knew it was not up to par, which added to my growing sense of anxiety. 

A few sentences into reading, I experienced a rising fear that words and sounds that had caused me trouble in the past were going to do so again. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, they did. I could barely get through sentences, let alone paragraphs. All eyes were on me. I wanted to be anywhere but there at that moment.

When a young woman offered to read my essay, I gratefully agreed but could barely look her in the eye. I don’t remember anything about the rest of the tutorial, but I took a bus straight home and cried much of the way. I couldn’t conceive how I would face my fellow tutorial members again, let alone complete my university degree.

Interestingly, I never had a problem reading papers in two of my other subjects — history and anthropology. Both were much more to my liking and very engaging. At the completion of my bachelor’s degree (with first-class honors), professors in both subjects asked if I would like to pursue postgraduate studies with them. I politely declined, but I’ve always been puzzled why I stammered in one situation and not others.

My short answer is that I’m a ‘situational stammerer’. In a sense all stammerers are, given that most of us do not stammer when alone but only in the presence of others. Although I’ve had a propensity to stammer all my life, it has only been a serious issue in situations in which I felt out of my depth, was confronted by authority figures, wasn’t familiar with or on top of a subject, or simply lacked confidence. 

The question that has consumed me is, ‘What is it about such situations that triggers my stammering?’ Or more to the point, ‘What is it about my relationship to those situations that causes me to switch from speaking fluently to stammering?’

In the reading I’ve done on stammering, I don’t find either question addressed. So much research is focused on remedies to alleviate stammering or ways to embrace it, but ignores the question of what causes a person to stammer in the first place. To ask this question is like revisiting a taboo or irrelevant subject, and it challenges those who assert that stammering doesn’t have emotional or psychological roots. I’m convinced it does. It is deeply connected to my self-story or self-image, leading me to be fluent some times and not others. It is the ‘others’ that linger.

One of the earliest of these occurred when I was eight years old and the headmaster wrote on my report, ‘stammers and inaccurate’. I didn’t know what that meant then, but having to read in front of a headmaster at that age was enough to send my fragile self-confidence into an emotional tailspin. Three years later, a YMCA camp leader demanded that I say my name after I had won a swimming race. When I couldn’t, and resorted to an avoidance tactic, he screamed at me, “Don’t spell it lad, just say it!” One moment I was a successful swimmer, the next a psychological mess.

I’ve always been puzzled why I stammered in one situation and not others.

At 74, I seldom have trouble speaking in the presence of others, but every now and then I’m reminded that I stammer — in phone conversations, Zoom sessions, interviews, and more. Embedded deep in my psyche is the memory of a struggle with a certain sound or word. Without warning, that memory can reappear in an instant.

But mostly stammering is no longer an issue for me. I live with it and talk openly about it. I was intrigued to read in an interview with the actor Sam Neill — himself a stammerer — that he came to terms with his stammering over time as his self-confidence grew by exposing himself to new challenges and new situations. It has been much the same for me.

A key part of this was the six years I spent in India in my early 30s — and my coming out as a gay man there — both of which had a major impact on my self-esteem. My stammer almost disappeared during that time and has remained a minor concern since. The relationship between stammering and self-image is one I’m keen to explore, and possibly write — or, maybe, even speak — about in the future. 

*Covert or interiorized stammering is when the speaker uses an array of techniques to conceal his/her stammer, so that it is not obvious to the casual listener.