The Threshold and the Jolt of Pain

“In our glib age the stutterer has been considered a kind of contemporary hero, a supposed Honest Man who is unable to gab with the media people.”


Personal Testament

Like most boys in their teens, I wondered once in a while how I would take torture. Badly, I thought. Later I thought not so badly, as I saw myself under the pressures of danger or emergency, once when a lion cub grabbed my hand in its mouth and I wrestled its lips for half a minute with my free hand. Another summer when I fought forest fires in a crew of Indians in the West, we stood up under intense heat and thirst, watching the fires crackle toward us irresistibly while we waited to see whether the fire lines that we had cut were going to bold. I climbed over the lip of a high waterfall; I scratched inside a hippo­potamus’s capacious jaws; I faced a pistol one day in Wyoming with some degree of fortitude. However, I knew all this elan would vanish if my sexual glands were approached. The initiation to join the Boy Scouts in our town was to have one’s balls squeezed, so I never joined. Even to have my knuckle joints ground together in a handshake contest reduced me to quick surrender something about bone on bone. I steered clear of the BB-gun fights in my neighborhood, and I could be caught in a chase and tied up easily by someone slower who yelled as if he were gaining ground, so I made friends with most of the toughies as a defensive measure.

I was much given to keeping pets and showering care on them, but I had a sadistic streak as well. In boarding school, my roommate got asthma attacks when he was jumped on, and I always backed away laughing when his tormentors poured into the room. There was another, rather nice boy, whom I seldom picked on myself. With sincere horror I watched a game grip the Florentine fancy of our corridor, wherein we, the inmates, divided in teams, pushed him back and forth as a human football from goal to goal. Since his name was Bingham, the game was either called that or else “Pushes.” The crush at the center, where he was placed, was tremendous and, though no one remembered, I’d thought it up!

My first love affair was with a Philadelphian, a girl 27. That is, she was the girl whom I slept with first. She was a love in the sense she loved me. I was close and grateful to her but didn’t love her (I’d loved one girl earlier whom I hadn’t slept with). She lived in one of those winsome houses that they hav·e down there, with a tiled backyard, three floors, and three rooms. We wandered along the waterfront and spent Saturdays at the street market, which is the largest and visually richest street market in the United States. I really was not an ogre to her, but I did by stages develop the habit of beating her briefly with my belt or hairbrush before we made love, a practice which I have foregone ever since. This experience gives me a contempt for pornography of that arch, gruesome genre, quite in vogue nowa­days as psychological “exploration,” where whipping occurs but the flesh recovers its sheen overnight and the whippee doesn’t hang her (him) self one fine strapping dawn, propelling the whipper into the nervous breakdown which he is heading for.

I saw eventual disaster ahead and I didn’t go deeply into this vein of sensation, just as I was shrewd enough as a boy not to be picked on often or to suffer more than a few accidents. Once I ran my hand through an apple-crusher and once I imitated a child’s stutter at summer camp, thereby (or so I imagined) picking the malady up at age six. Almost my only pangs, then, were this stutter, which still remains in my mouth after twenty-nine years. It may strike other people as more than a spasm of pain of a kind which I haven’t time for or time to regard as anything else. It’s like someone who has a lesion or twist in his small intestine which hurts him abruptly and of which he is hardly aware anymore. The well-grooved wince that I make seems to keep my face pliant and reasonably young.

Somerset Maugham described his bitter discovery when he was a boy that prayer was no help: He woke up next morning still clamped to his adamant stutter. I was more of a pantheist, so I kept trusting to the efficacy of sleep itself, or the lilting lift that caused birds to fly. Also I went to a bunch of speech therapists. At the Ethical Culture School in New York, for example, a woman taught me to stick my right hand in my pocket and write the first letter of the word I was stuttering on again and again. This was supposed to distract me from stuttering, and it did for a week or two. The trouble was that watching me play pocket pool that way was more unsettling to other people than the original ailment it was meant to cure. At a camp in northern Michigan I was trained by a team from the university to speak so slowly that in effect I wasn’t speaking at all, I spoke with the same gradualism as a flower grows. Of course I didn’t stutter, but it was so absurdly tardy a process my mind unhinged itself from what was going on. Then, in Cambridge, Mas­sachusetts, a young fellow fresh out of the University of Iowa — and oh how he stuttered! — took the most direct approach. He got me to imitate myself deliberately, which was hard on me since I was already terribly tired of stuttering, and to stare, as well, at the people whom I was talking to in order to find out what their reactions were. I found out, for one thing, that some of my friends and about one fourth or one fifth of the strangers I met smiled when the difficulty occurred, though they generally turned their heads to the side or wiped their mouths with one hand to avoid the smile. Life seemed simpler from that time on if I avoided looking at anybody when I was stuttering badly, whoever he was, and I wasn’t so edgily on the alert to see if I’d spit inadvertently. Not that I lacked understanding for the smilers, though, because for many years I too had had the strange impulse, hardly controllable, to smile if somebody bumped his head on a low door-lintel or received sad news. The phenomenologists say this is a form of defense. It goes with childhood especially, and I stopped indulging in it one night in Boston when I was in a police patrol wagon. A friend and I had been out for a walk, he was hit by a car, and, as he woke from unconsciousness during the ride and asked what had happened, I found myself grinning down at him while I answered. A week or two later I was walking past an apartment building just as a rescue squad carried a would-be suicide out to the street. He was alive, on a stretcher. When our eyes touched, he smiled impenetrably, but I didn’t.

I learned not to write notes. You put yourself at someone’s mercy more when you write him a note than if you just stand there like a rhinoceros and snort. He will assume that your trouble is mental rather than physical and may even be pleased, but he usually has assumed the same thing about himself.

I could write a Stutterer’s Guide to Europe, too: the titters in old Vienna, the knowing English remembering their King, the raw scorching baitings I met with in Greece, surrounded sometimes like a muzzled bear. The fourth means of effecting a cure which I heard about was based on the fact that stutterers are able to sing without stuttering. The victim should swing his arm like a big pendulum and talk in time to this — which was obviously a worse fate than his impediment. Though I didn’t try it, I was sent to a lady voice teacher who laid my hand on her conspicuous chest so that I could “feel her breathe.” For the moment the lessons worked wonderfully. If I wasn’t speechless, I spoke in a rush.

Stammering (a less obtrusive word I used to prefer) apparently is not unattractive to women. It’s a masculine encumbrance; five times as many men as women do it. I was told once or twice by girls by way of a pick-me-up that they’d loved someone “for” his stutter, and when I went into my spasms at parties, if a woman didn’t step back she stepped forward whereas the men did neither. The female instinct does not apply nearly so favorably to other afflictions — I was seldom alone while I was in Europe. In our glib age the stutterer has even been considered a kind of contemporary hero, a supposed Honest Man who is unable to gab with the media people. Beyond the particular appeal of this image, it does seem to suit a writer. Publishers are fastidious types, and some whom I’ve met have sidled away in distress from my flabbering face as soon as they could, but they probably remembered my name if they caught it. The purity image or Billy Budd stuff didn’t intrigue them, just the hint of compulsion and complexity. Though I don’t greatly go for either picture, in social terms I’ve thought of my stutter as sort of miasma behind the Ivy League-looking exterior. People at parties take me for William Buckley until I begin, so I keep my mouth shut and smile prepossessingly just as long as I can.

Being in these handcuffs vocally made me a desperate, devoted writer at twenty. I worked like a dog, choosing each word. I wrote two full-length novels — eight years’ work — in iambic meter and a firehose style. We sent out 300 review copies of the second of these and received, I think, only three reviews. This was new pain, a man’s career pain, with its attendant stomach trouble and neck and back cramps. A couple of years after that I got divorced, and bawled like a half-­butchered bull for maybe an hour, rolled up on the floor of my apartment, while the two homosexuals next door listened in silence close to the wall, wondering whom they ought to contact. It was a purge, but the pain I remember of that experience was an earlier scene. I’d announced to my wife, whom I loved and still love, my belief that we needed to separate. The next time we talked, she crossed the room, came to my chair and knelt beside my knees, and asked what was going to become of each of us. That is the most painful splinter in my life, the most painful piece of the past. With variations the ache was prolonged through many, many fugitive suppers. In fact, we still meet, holding hands, laughing at each other’s jokes until we feel tears.

Who knows which qualities are godly? Pain probably makes us a bit godly, though, as tender love does. It makes us rue and summarize, it makes us bend and yield up ourselves. Pain is a watchdog medically, telling us when to consult a doctor, and then it’s the true-blue dog at the bedside who rivals the relatives for fidelity. Last summer my father died of cancer. We had made peace, pretty much, a few years before. Though he had opposed my desire to be a writer, he ended up trying to write a book, too, and he turned over to me at the last an old family history which he’d been hiding ever since I’d become literate, partly because it mentioned a lot of muteness among my ancestors and partly in order to prevent my exploiting the stories. My voice and my liberal opinions grew a little more clarion in the household during the months he was dying. From my standpoint, I suppose, I was almost ready for him to die, but I was very earnestly sorry for every stage of rough handling involved in the process and for his own overriding regret that his life was cut off. Having lost our frank fear of death along with our faith in an afterlife, we all have taken our fear of pain as a feeble alternative. Our regret, too, is magnified. When he was in discomfort, I stuttered a very great deal, but when he was not, when he was simply reminiscing or watching TV and talking to me, I stuttered scarcely a bit. Then, as he was actually dying, during our last interview, he turned on the bed and asked me something. My answer was blocked in my mouth and his face went rigid with more pain than mine — that my infirmity was still there unhealed. He was startled because in the exigencies of dying he had forgotten. He straightened, shutting his eyes, not wanting to end his life seeing it.

Nevertheless, he’d often told me that it was my problems he loved me for rather than my successes and sleekness. He loved my sister for being waiflike and my mother for being on occasion afraid she was mentally ill. We were quite hardy while the months passed. Mother and he lay side by side on the bed clasping hands. Until nearly the end, because of the pills, he was not suffering pain of the magnitude he had dreaded. The last couple days it was a tossing and pitching, horrific pain, but the body more than the mind was responding — the body attempting to swallow its tongue. What I remember, therefore, of death’s salutation to him was that death came as a tickler, making his withered body twitch, touching him here, touching him there, wasting his tissues away like a white wax, while his head on the headrest above looked down and watched, or he’d shoot an acute glance at me from out of the hunching amalgam of pricks, jactitation, and drug-induced torpor. Death tickled him in a gradual crescendo, taking its time, and with his ironic attorney’s mind, he was amused. His two satisfactions were that he was privy to its most intimate preparations, everything just-so and fussy, and that at last the long spiky battling within the family was over and done. The new summer blossomed. In mid-June I saw what is meant by “a widow’s tears.” They flow in a flood of tremulous vulnerability, so that one thinks they will never stop.

Most severe on the physiologists’ scale of pain is that of childbirth. It’s also the worst that I’ve seen. A year had gone by since I’d left the army and quit visiting my Philadelphia friend. She came to New York, looked me up, discovered me vomiting, thin as a rail because of girl trouble, and moved in with me on the Upper West Side, spooning in food and mothering me. Then about the time I had perked up, she was able to confirm that she had got pregnant by a chap back in Philadelphia.

We drew out our savings and started for San Francisco, that vainglorious, clam-colored city. In her yellow convertible, with my English setter and her cocker spaniel, we drove through the South and through Texas, taking Highway 80 because it was the cold part of autumn. In Mississippi I remember whenever I shouted at one of the dogs, if he was slow peeing, any Negro who happened to be close about would turn to see what I wanted, quite naturally, as if I had called. It was a grueling trip. I’d begun vomiting again after she’d told me that she was pregnant, and she was suffering mysterious pains in that region between her legs, which no druggist would touch with a telephone pole. But we reached Russian Hill and established ourselves in one of the local apartment hotels. For a while during the seven-month wait the arrangement didn’t work out and she moved to a Florence Crittenton home and I went to the beach, but we ended the period together. At six one morning I drove her up to a whelk-pink hospital on a breezy hill and sat in the labor room for eight hours, watching the blue grid of stretch marks on her anguished stomach — medieval pain. She jolted and heaved and screamed, squeezing my hand, sucking gas from a cup and falling asleep between the throes. I needed three days to stop shaking, though it was a normal delivery throughout and she, by the mental safety catch which women have, had blocked off most of the memory by the time she was wheeled to her room, asleep. I’m ashamed to say that I’d spanked her a little the night before, and I never spanked her again.

The contract she’d signed obliged my friend to relinquish the baby girl to the Home for three weeks, after which she could appropriate her completely as her own. I was privileged to keep her breasts flowing during those weeks, a luxury that would have been fitting for Zeus, and to the astonishment of the Home, as soon as the interval expired we showed up for the child. They wondered whether we were kidnappers, this was so rare. Then we drove East. The baby acquired a father before she was out of her infancy, and is now about ten.

So pain is a packet of chiseling tools. Women in labor make no bones about protesting its severity. Neither does a dying man once he has stopped lingering with the living — thinking of the memories of his behavior which he is leaving for his children, for instance. It’s when we have no imperative purpose in front of our sufferings that we think about “bearing up”; “bearing up” is converted to serve as a purpose. Pain, love, boredom and glee and anticipation or anxiety — these are the pilings we build our lives from. In love we beget more love and in pain we beget more pain. Since we must like it or lump it, we like it. And why not, indeed? ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 24, 2020