In Life on Delay, Hendrickson offers new insight into a disorder that has for decades been mocked, mischaracterized, and misunderstood. Through a layered and unguarded narrative, he takes the reader inside the intricate family dynamics surrounding his stutter, and he explores the history of stuttering treatment, the current search for a “cure,” and the nature of self-acceptance. He pulls the curtain back on how people who stutter manage their jobs, dating, and family life, and he shows how some resort to substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide. When facing an issue that is often isolating and lonely, the author asks, how do you persevere? And what does it take to let go of years of instilled shame?
Nothing in Your Hands
“You know you don’t have to do this,” Jeff says. His voice has a fatherly tone. “You and I could get out of here. We could go get breakfast.” He’s kidding, but not really. If I say Yes, Jeff will say Okay, and we’ll ride the elevator down to the lobby and not speak of it again. It will just be one of those days, another morning when I vanish rather than talk.
He leans against the makeup counter with his back to the mirror. My face is caked in concealer, but I can still see my acne scars, the dark circles under my eyes, my imperfect shave. I look scared, like a little boy getting his haircut who shrinks into the swivel chair as the clippers buzz toward his ears. Jeff is my boss; I can tell he’s concerned. I want to take him up on his offer. I want to stand and leave and forget about all of this.
Eventually he says goodbye and good luck and pats my shoulder on his way out the door. I walk over to the little room where I’m supposed to wait. When I was young, my life was defined by little rooms. There was the speech-therapist’s office with the mysterious wall-length mirror.
There was the windowless room in the basement of my elementary school. Everyone in class knew I went to the little room but nobody wanted to bring it up. I never brought it up either, because maybe if I ignored the problem hard enough, it would disappear. That’s what we were all hoping for—me, my mom, my dad, my brother. We’ve spent decades waiting for this strange thing to exit my body and drift away. For dozens of reasons, it has stuck around.
I’ve avoided almost anything resembling public speaking my entire life. But now I’m here, sweating through my shirt as the minutes tick by before they call me onto the set. My knee is bouncing uncontrollably. I’m staring at the floor, sipping a lukewarm black coffee that I struggled to order at Dunkin’ Donuts earlier this morning. The cashier flashed me a familiar pity smile.
I stayed late at my office last night, sitting across the table from Helen, the communications director at my company. We entered a little room on the sixth floor and she turned on a fake newscaster voice to lead me in a mock interview. I couldn’t get through one answer.
Let’s run through it again, she said.
Okay, try again.
I couldn’t start sentences. I’d break eye contact. I’d fiddle with a pen as a distraction to help me get to the next word. I wanted to leave, but she stayed, so I stayed. We began again and I reached for the pen. Helen, with sweetness and sadness and grace, said, “Let’s try one with nothing in your hands.”
The reason I’m in this little room today, MSNBC’s midtown Manhattan green room, is because twenty-four hours ago my life changed. I had spent nearly thirty years hiding from one word—the “s” word—you’ve already figured out the word. I’ve spent paragraphs avoiding the act of typing it. When you’re young, you internalize that stutter is an ugly word. Everything about stutter is weird: those three t’s, that “uh” in the middle that makes you think of “dumb.” Stutter lands with a thud, like gimp or retard. Your instinct is to run from stutter, to move the conversation away from stutter. Stutter is painful and awkward and something nobody wants to talk about.
Today is Friday, November 22, 2019. I’m here because yesterday I published an article in The Atlantic about the man who has become the most famous living stutterer, and I’m about to do something I’ve never considered doing: talk on TV. Just under twelve months from now, Joe Biden will be elected President of the United States. He somehow made it this far without tens of millions of people realizing that he not only stuttered as a young boy, but that he still stutters as an old man. There are dozens of writers at my publication who are more talented than me, more deserving than me, more qualified than me to interview the next president. I landed the assignment for the sole reason that I stutter, too.
You’d like to think that when these moments arise you stride toward them—chin up, chest out, triumphant horns blaring somewhere in the background. Right now I’m just scared. In ninety seconds I’ll walk onto the set in a blue blazer with a transparent earpiece and a battery clipped to the back of my belt. I’ll try to play the part of a person who’s supposed to be there. But the moment I begin to speak, I know I’ll make people uncomfortable. I have no idea how difficult these next fifteen minutes will be. And I have no idea what’s waiting for me after that.
Copyright © 2023 by John Hendrickson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
JOHN HENDRICKSON is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He previously wrote and edited for Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The Denver Post. His Atlantic feature, “What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say,” was named one of the best stories of 2019 by Longform. He lives in New York City.