He Got Biden to Open Up About His Stutter, Then Wrote About His Own

LIFE ON DELAY: Making Peace With a Stutter, by John Hendrickson

“‘R’s’ are hard,” John Hendrickson writes in his new memoir, “Life on Delay: Making Peace With a Stutter,” committing to paper a string of words that would have caused him trouble had he tried to say them out loud.

In November 2019, Hendrickson, an editor at The Atlantic, published an article about then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, who talked frequently about “beating” his childhood stutter — a bit of hyperbole that the article finally laid to rest. Biden insisted on his redemptive narrative, even though Hendrickson, who has stuttered since he was 4, could tell when Biden repeated (“I-I-I-I-I”) or blocked (“…”) on certain sounds.

The article went viral, putting Hendrickson in the position of being invited to go on television — a “nightmare,” he said on MSNBC at the time, though it did lead to a flood of letters from fellow stutterers, a number of whom he interviewed for this book. “Life on Delay” traces an arc from frustration and isolation to acceptance and community, recounting a lifetime of bullying and well-meaning but ineffectual interventions and what Hendrickson calls “hundreds of awful first impressions.” When he depicts scenes from his childhood it’s often in a real-time present tense, putting us in the room with the boy he was, more than two decades before.

Hendrickson also interviews people: experts, therapists, stutterers, his own parents. He calls up his kindergarten teacher, his childhood best friend and the actress Emily Blunt. He reaches out to others who have published personal accounts of stuttering, including The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller and Katharine Preston, the author of a memoir titled “Out With It.” We learn that it’s only been since the turn of the millennium or so that stuttering has been understood as a neurological disorder; that for 75 percent of children who stutter, “the issue won’t follow them to adulthood”; that there’s still disagreement over whether “disfluency” is a matter of language or motor control, because “the research is still a bit of a mess.”

Credit…Matthew Bernucca

All of this is seamlessly recounted, threading together science and emotion, ideas and experience. Recalling the sweet relief offered by lunchtime dance parties in his second-grade classroom leads Hendrickson into a discussion of how stutterers find that moving another body part can help get a word out. (These are secondary behaviors, and he calls them “exhausting.”) A fifth-grade memory of wanting to become a baseball player, a sportswriter or an actor (in that order) segues into a few paragraphs about how stutterers have often found fluency in dramatic performance, because recitation and spontaneous conversation use different parts of the brain.

Even if Hendrickson doesn’t explicitly say so, getting these narrative transitions right is evidently crucial to him; connecting his thoughts is a way of connecting with us, drawing us in, capturing our attention and keeping it there. In his non-writing life, he is used to the opposite, to people’s escalating impatience. He movingly describes not only his own experience of trying to speak to others but also his constant awareness of their experience of him, often unwittingly revealed as they “subtly wince” or offer “polite but loaded” lines like “Take your time.”

Time is both a preoccupation and a theme, which the title of the book makes clear. As the poet and performer JJJJJerome Ellis tells him, “The way I speak often leads to an antagonistic relationship with time.” For parents of children who stutter, time looms menacingly large, too; the brain loses its plasticity with each passing year, making fluency increasingly ever harder to attain.

And then there is the time it takes to convert a thought into sounds and subsequently voice them — a matter of tens of milliseconds, making the extra seconds of a stutter feel, to both speaker and listener, excruciatingly long. (“In my weakest moments,” Hendrickson confesses, “I want someone else’s block to be over, just like I want mine to be over.”) Hendrickson, who cycled through various media companies and layoffs before landing at The Atlantic, knew that a job interview was going to be a non-starter when the harried editor greeted him by saying, “Well, I don’t have much time …”

Not coincidentally, Hendrickson has cultivated an undeniable gift for concise metaphors, distilling potentially long-winded explanations into memorable images, briskly delivered. Blocking, he writes, “is like trying to push two positively charged magnets together.” Describing how his jaw locks when he tries to say the “j” in “John” while introducing himself, he half-jokingly wonders why his parents didn’t name him Michael: “The second syllable plops out, like a raindrop on a creek.”

As for those parents, they were loving and had the best of intentions, but Hendrickson believes they protected him too much in some ways — ordering for him at restaurants; driving him to school instead of letting him ride the bus — while also doing too little to protect him from his older brother, who teased and bullied him relentlessly. As Catholics, he explains, the family was inculcated in “traditions of guilt, shame and secrecy.”

Toward the end of the book, he eventually has a frank conversation with his parents; his brother moves from defensiveness to contrition, too. The redemptive arc to his family’s story is so neatly drawn that it called to mind the old silver-bullet approach to stuttering, one that viewed disfluency “as something to be fixed, solved, cured.”

But part of what Hendrickson writes about so beautifully is the movement to destigmatize the condition; instead of trying to run away from it, some stutterers accept it as a part of who they are. He recounts how one of his correspondents, a 32-year-old man named Hunter Martinez, was dying of late-stage colon cancer when he resolved not to “hold back as much.” Martinez said he could “wallow in self-pity” and isolation, “or I can have a fulfilled life, where you just have to struggle with it sometimes.”

LIFE ON DELAY: Making Peace With a Stutter | By John Hendrickson | 255 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $29

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