At age four, I developed a stutter, without warning and seemingly overnight. I went from a soft-spoken little girl who enunciated plainly and precisely in two languages – English and cat– to a soft-spoken little girl who, despite her best efforts, just couldn’t get the words out.
I remember trying.
Sometimes, when I’m home for the holidays, we spend an evening watching old family videos - grainy films of times I remember only vaguely, as if they were out-of-body experiences: my brother and me, opening Christmas gifts; blowing out birthday candles; playing on the rusted rocking horse in the backyard.
In one, my dad is taping me as I assemble a dinner of plastic play foods for my mom, whose recent arrival home from work has me beaming with excitement. “Tell mom what you ate today,” my dad says from behind the lens.
“Ch-ch-ch-cheese puffs,” I reply.
It always makes us laugh.
Weeks ago, my friends and I saw Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of The New York Times, in conversation with Ken Auletta as part of this year’s New Yorker Festival. She was brilliant, of course. But within the first five minutes of the interview, it became clear that she had the habit of elongating the final syllables of her sentences: editorrrr, paperrrr, Syriaaaa.
When it was over, we all had our opinions of it. Some found it exasperating. I thought it was enormously endearing.
As someone who conducts interviews for a living, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to listen to my own voice more than I’d like. Without fail, every time I play back a recording of a conversation, I think: Do I really sound like that?
When I was first starting, I was stunned – and horrified – to find that I spoke so slowly that I sounded stoned; that I often validated a subject’s answer to a question with the word “totally”; that my voice seemed to rise an octave when I was nervous, which only made it acutely obvious that I was flustered.
It forced me to think about how I was coming across to others in a way that I hadn’t before. I wanted to hear my voice and think, now that’s a confident person. That’s the way an adult sounds. Instead, more often than not, I heard a little girl, trying to mask an impediment.
Shortly after my stutter appeared, my parents met with the director of my nursery school, who suspected that the change might be due to a larger emotional issue. She was right: after talking things over with me, my parents discovered I was upset about having been left out of a decision about a family trip (which, as it happens, I don’t remember). In any case, my stutter was a symptom of my frustration, and, once revealed, it disappeared almost as quickly as it surfaced.
As a writer, my voice – both written and vocalized – is as important to me as a runner’s legs or a painter’s hands. Expressing myself through speech isn’t something I’ve always done particularly well, but I have found that eccentricities – vocal or otherwise – have the power to captivate as much as they do to make us cringe.
This summer, I interviewed a stylist at his home in Brooklyn. Seated in his living room, we discussed his opinions on fashion and design over coffee and pastries, but our conversation was continuously interrupted by his large - and extremely friendly - dog, who, perhaps smelling the coconut oil I'd used as lotion that morning, felt compelled to lick my arms and legs. In the recording, my questions and his answers are interrupted with frequent scoldings on his end, and incessant giggling on mine. I remember thinking I'd hate listening to it later - I've always felt self-conscious about that childish giggle. But there was a conversation to be had. So I left the tape running.
You can find my previous POV entries, here. Thank you so much for reading!