In 2019, a reporter interviewed a notable presidential candidate on a well-kept secret. The reporter? John Hendrickson, just a few months into his new job at The Atlantic. The candidate? Former vice president of the United States, Joe Biden. And the secret: his stutter.
At that point, we didn’t know much about Biden’s speech disorder — he’d become an expert at hiding it, working around his stutter with word substitutions, and maneuvering strategically out of difficult moments. But Hendrickson saw through the maneuvers, noticed the thoughtful pauses that were really the “blocks” characteristic of stuttering. He identified the coping mechanisms because he’d used similar ones his entire life. In January 2023, four years after writing an acclaimed, vibrantly human story on the potential president-elect’s lingering stutter, Hendrickson published a book detailing his own experience with the disorder.
“Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter” is a slim, modest-looking book, a soothing shade of green, its cover more blank space than words. It happened to be facing out on a shelf I was walking by. I was startled by a quote on the first page, sourced from Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” Even then, before any doctor had named the thing that was keeping my voice from functioning normally, I felt like this book was speaking to me:
Days after reaching the last page, I would be diagnosed with my own speech disorder — a different one, but similarly strange, and resistant to treatment. With a condition like that, one that does not pass, it is necessary to believe this: what stands in the way becomes the way. What you have been made to feel is “wrong” with you is, plainly, a part of you, and you must honor it as your reality; forgive yourself for it (I’ve finally begun that process, thanks to some good doctors, my friends, and a little green book).
Hendrickson begins his book with the Biden story. We are introduced to our narrator as the self-actualized stutterer, someone who sidesteps his problem deftly enough to have reached undeniable, professional success. But Hendrickson shatters any assumption of an easy path, taking us into a fraught adolescence shaped by his struggles with speech. He describes the dreadful visits to therapists hired by his parents to cure him, the terror of being asked to introduce himself on the first day of school (stutterers have the hardest time saying their own names, he says), and the abuse inflicted by a rageful older brother who thought a stutter was something you could bully out of someone.
He describes the Look: pity, bewilderment, impatience, panic (sometimes, anger). The raised brows, narrowed eyes. A sudden tension, or cringing in the listener’s face (a teacher, a coworker, the waiter taking your order, a customer who just asked you a question), when they register the strangeness of your speech, the unpredictability of the impending interaction, the friction.
My own voice can prompt a certain look. Spasmodic dysphonia causes random breaks in the voice, like a radio that can’t quite find its signal, cutting in and out. To the average listener, spasmodic dysphonia can sound like extreme anxiety, or a bad cold (It’s no wonder why my speech often invites a well-meaning question about my health or a sympathetic look in the eyes). Thankfully, there are other modes of communication.
Hendrickson got his first writing job at The Denver Post after an editor read some samples and decided he liked Hendrickson’s voice — his writing voice, which had become clear and discerning after four years in the English program and student newsroom at Penn State University. As a new music reporter at the Post, he stuttered through the phone calls and interviews, surviving on his love for stories and songs. Hendrickson generously takes us through his formative reporting experiences, creating a compelling narrative about his life in journalism. Indeed, his journalistic sensibilities shine in his writing of “Life on Delay” as he builds the story with fascinating, emotionally rich interviews, the sources ranging from experts on stuttering, to ex-girlfriends, to the sitting president of the United States, to the older brother that made his childhood an unrelenting hell.
There is one interview that left me stunned: a conversation between Hendrickson and an artist who goes by JJJJJerome Ellis (the spelling a tribute to his stutter, and an accurate transcription of how it sounds when he says his own name). Ellis’ stutter involves long, painful blocks, during which his chest tightens and breath falters. While these periods of disfluency can make speaking an embarrassing, excruciating process, Ellis has developed a kind of spiritual relationship with those moments:
“‘I kind of leave my body, and then I only come back once the block is over,’ he said. ‘It’s as if my mouth is the front door, and I leave through the back somewhere… in the space of the block, there is, for me, an exceptionally profound freedom that arises.'”
When I open my mouth to speak, I’m never quite sure what will come out. The moment between the breath and the phrase is like peering over the edge of a cliff — there is a feeling of danger, and the urge to retreat to safety. But what if that empty space is trying to tell me something? What if what stands in the way, is the way? Hendrickson asks us to consider the freedom in friction; the transformative power of the block; the meaning and musicality created by a life on delay.