How the U.S. president helped this writer make peace with his stutter
Interviewing Joe Biden started John Hendrickson on a journey of self-acceptance
It took interviewing a future president of the United States, and writing a book, for John Hendrickson to come to terms with his stutter.
"I think making peace is an active, daily process," Hendrickson told Sunday Magazine guest host David Common. "It's not a light switch. You don't just do it one day and then everything's good."
Hendrickson is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly magazine, and the author of a new book called Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter.
Like most people with a stutter, Hendrickson's has been with him since early childhood. Despite going to speech therapy, he still contends with it today.
"Being a person who stutters inherently means that you deal with a lot of pain and shame around it. You live in a culture that prioritizes quick sound-bites and fast talkers, and when you stutter, you break a lot of expectations," said Hendrickson.
His journey of self-reflection started in 2019, when he was assigned to interview then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden about his stutter for The Atlantic. Biden has been open about his struggles with stuttering as a boy, but the writer wanted to ask Biden about how it was affecting him now.
"Being an adult who stutters myself, it was clear to me that Biden was managing this challenge as an adult," said Hendrickson.
During the interview, Biden wouldn't say it was something he was still dealing with, emphasizing that it had only been a challenge in childhood.
As a journalist, Hendrickson felt defeated at first — he hadn't gotten the big scoop he had hoped for. But in discussing the story with an editor, he realized it just needed to go in a different direction.
The eventual article, which was published in November 2019, was called "What Joe Biden can't bring himself to say."
"What I tried to explore in that article was this question of, why doesn't he want to talk about this particular part of himself?"
Hendrickson figured that Biden likely dealt with some shame around his condition, and because of that, the journalist says it often doesn't get talked about.
Biden has since acknowledged that as someone who has to speak in public frequently — as he did for the State of the Union address this week — he uses methods to keep himself on track.
Since the piece was published, Hendrickson has received emails and letters from complete strangers all around the world who also stutter. He said people poured their hearts out and shared their own stories.
"It blew me away and it continues to blow me away," said Hendrickson.
He decided to dive deeper, eventually writing a book about it. He studied the science behind stuttering, and talked to celebrities who have dealt with their own stuttering challenges, such as Emily Blunt.
"Only since around the turn of the millennium have scientists understood stuttering to be a neurological disorder with a complex genetic component. This is not a simple manifestation of anxiety or fear. It's brain chemistry," said Hendrickson.
"I didn't learn that until I was 31 years old. I could only imagine how my life might have been different if I had learned that as a kid."
The Canadian Stuttering Association says about one per cent of Canadians live with a stutter. Stuttering usually begins at childhood, between the ages of two and five.
But Catherine Moroney, who sits on the CSA's board of directors, says those numbers are likely much higher, as many people who stutter do so covertly.
"Stuttering, like so many things, is a spectrum. I'm on the very severe end, so I can't possibly pass as a fluent person," said Moroney, who loves in Pasadena, Calif. "But many covert stutterers with mild disfluencies put all their time and energy into not being found out."
'It's not a failing'
Moroney grew up with a severe stutter, which she says was a very isolating experience. But once she became part of the stuttering community and learned how to speak about it openly, her life changed for the better.
No one else in her family stutters, but hearing that other people share her experience made her feel less alone. It was a case of "finally meeting people who just get it ... people that you don't need to explain the unexplainable [to]."
Moroney hopes Hendrickson's story will help others work through similar challenges in their own lives.
"Realize that your voice is just as valuable as anybody else's. It's not a failing," said Moroney.
It's still an ongoing challenge for Hendrickson. Daily interactions, like being mocked by a barista or getting an odd look from a stranger, can bring reality crashing back. But Hendrickson says he soldiers on.
"I think part of the whole making-peace process is just learning to live with these problems and to not keep them from living your life," he said.
"Making peace with it is different than curing it, fixing it, solving it. Making peace with it is acknowledging its existence and acknowledging its role in your life and continuing to move forward, knowing that it's there."
Interview with John Hendrickson produced by Tracy Fuller.