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06.07.09

How I Found My Voice

In a personal essay, the acclaimed singer recalls the origins of her childhood stutter, the lengths she went to overcome it, and the boy who made it all OK.

There was a summer when I spent a lot of time in the fruit trees. The orchard near the play barn and beyond the copper beach, accommodated apples: Cortlands, a few McIntosh and a few other exotic types I never knew the names of. Then, outside the naturally irregular circle of apple trees, there were two very large cherry trees. The trunks of the cherry trees were thicker and the bark darker and greyer than the apple tree trunks. The branches took sharper turns. They were rougher on the skin and not as easy to climb. But once scaled, the prizes were more thrilling than even the tartest of the perfectly worm-forgotten Mac.

Part of the fun was to savor a deep, sweet, dark purple cherry, twist off the top, ignore it to its fate and then aim the pit, with glee, at a target below, often a sibling. Then, with barely a breath in between, sample another one, less than ripe, bitter in fact, and after a displeasing bite, hurl it disdainfully, in all its sour disappointment at the ground (or a sibling) in the process of learning selectivity and marksmanship.

There is nothing more humiliating for a stutterer than to have their word or sentence finished for them. I didn’t have names for these fears.

This was the summer of Helen Gaspard. She was my brother’s governess and our in-house playwright and director. We learned the lines often sitting in these trees, shouting down cues to each other and filling ourselves with the fruits of the orchards. Some days we would bring milk bottles re-filled with orange juice. But we lived in those trees. Lucy and Joey, my sisters, and Jeanie and Mary Seligman, my cousins. My brother was a very small boy and the only boy of the tribe. He ran around in light blue corduroy pants below, baby yelling us to drop him a cherry or he’d just sing and babble the way little boys whose sisters are dangling from tree limbs will. Drunk with the juices, we laughed and knew nothing of the world that seems far too close and shattering to me now.

We were the children of the orchard: the future theater actors of the Connecticut night. Being the two younger ones, Jeanie, my black-eyed, rosy-cheeked cousin and I had the lesser parts in the plays. We were just young enough to believe Joey (the eldest) when she told us that even though we only had a line or two, they were pivotal lines and without them, there would be no plot. In the play The Monkey’s Paw, I merely had to knock at the door. Joey bossed me around a lot and one of the ways of doing that was to get her way through flattering me. I, who knew nothing about plays and what was important or unimportant.

Even from "offstage" I was led to believe I was the star of the show. During the curtain calls, the audience who were obviously in the little joke, applauded as if I were Sarah Bernhardt. One could surely grow up with a distorted view of fame.

Jeanie and I—because we were not even minor players, hardly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—found that though we thought ourselves stars, we, in fact, had a lot of time on our hands. But as we were under seven, it was a magical time. It was a group of many when just Jeanie and I played in the grassy circle beneath the apple trees. It was a magical time as we had made believe conversations with casts of characters. Bypres Fongton, Mr. Meany and Mr. Hicks were my own particular inventions. Bypres and Mr. Hicks lived on top of the weather vane at the pool house and Meany traveled between, stirring up arguments and sometimes he would even make terrible trouble for Ha Ha Ginzberg, Jeanie’s imaginary friend who got to be so famous for her perfect funny name, that someone wrote her into a story in the New Yorker. But for the most part, they as a team, and with us as their team players, fought off moths, found forbidden gardens, fended off bees, and insinuated themselves into the darkness of the drawers filled with secrets belonging to just about any member of the extended family. They also judged contests of singing, dancing and somersaults and in general ruled over all the apple trees and the hundreds of acres that extended beyond the orchards and the grassy circle and all the way to the copper beech and the sycamores, the maples and the elms. They would ring the air with little bells of mischief as they choreographed their flight between the trees to the stars and back again through our night-time windows. Nobody’s dreams went unanswered those nights as our little chaps carried out even our most imaginative demands.

Then one morning, word was sent that we were wanted in the cast of Helen’s production of Little Women. Of course. We were the perfect girls and the perfect ages to make up the cast. Our stage was the whole front of the play barn and we had three big white sheets that made a billowy curtain. The audience was “out there” and we were “in here.” Jeanie, who was to play the part of Hannah, the maid, would have to say only one line: “will you have hash or fish balls, gurrels?” But I would play Amy and have by far my largest speaking part in any family play: twenty-five lines. The kind of recognition I had dreamed of.

Rehearsals commenced, costumes were conceived and a stage constructed in our big red barn. This production would not be like our last one, The King’s Breakfast which was more or less like a glorified reading. No, this was “theater” pronounced with sunglasses and insouciance. Memorizing our lines, slinging them like the fruit in the trees, was effortless and crazy fun. Then after some lingering days, Helen Gaspard called us to the stage without our scripts.

We gathered in our wet bathing suits and no shoes. Suntanned and slightly nervous (for her) Joey, playing her namesake Jo, said with haughty control: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” Lucy, my middle sister, playing Beth, delivered with shy charm and a very freckled nose: “It’s so dreadful to be poor.” And then my line, as Amy: “I don’t think it’s fair that some children have so much while others have nothing at all.” As I tried to speak this line, a snake that had been hibernating near my oesophagus, grabbed at and strangled the beginning of each word. As the word “fair” struggled to live, the serpent constricted its passage and as if deprived of air, I balked two or three times at the ‘F’ before the word emerged ravaged and in need of oxygen.

This was the unhappy and astonishing birth of my stammer or at least my first gripping self-conscious awareness of it. My sisters and cousins, if they noticed this—and I can’t imagine they didn’t—must have been puzzled by the strange new guttural utterances. They likely imagined they were temporary and didn’t even consider to do or say anything about it. This would fade and disappear—like scratches, bruises, and babysitters.

As rehearsals progressed and my stutter interrupted the flow, the girls’ reaction was somewhat less than sympathetic: “stop stuttering” they requested as if it was as simple as taking off my shoes. Helen decided not to notice it. She had most likely talked to my mother, and my mother had probably already talked to a leading psychiatrist or speech therapist to ask if this was “normal.” How should she handle a stuttering little girl?

I was not dropped nor replaced in the show, even though the timing of certain all-important lines was at stake. How could tension be built, if tension was what I was all about? The problem was only slightly less when I was off stage going about my business: playing with dolls with Jeanie and Lolly Yardley and learning to make braids in my hair with my sisters. I could talk to my dolls as long as I was alone in my room, but as soon as another flesh and blood child or grown-up came into the picture, the problem would reappear. I knew the words but there was no transportation available to them. Like a nightmare where you have to run, but have huge invisible weights attached to your ankles. I remember before the opening night curtain, hearing rumblings: ‘What if she stutters? Should we just cut her line? Finish her line for her?’ There is nothing more humiliating for a stutterer than to have their word or sentence finished for them. I didn’t have names for these fears. I just had the symptom. It was so new, and why?

Now, these apprehensions on the part of my fellow actors were confided out of my presence but not totally out of earshot, therefore I concluded that I must have an unspeakable aberration and I began a massive cover-up.

I don’t remember how the play went. Oh for the cherry tree days! Cherry trees! About a week before the first and I believe the only performance of Little Women where there was a small audience of our extended family—and for some reason, James Thurber—I remember climbing past my safe crook in my favorite cherry tree. I climbed higher than I was allowed. I climbed to a weak, brittle branch after which no branches grew. I hoped I’d fall and break my leg or my whole body and be laid up in a cast, unable to play Amy. I would have a palpably visible, unashamed handicap. I couldn’t admit that I couldn’t admit. I was six and locked up in the throat.

I ran back to my room after the performance of Little Women and cried and cried until my mother came and didn’t know what to say, but cradled me and soothed me.

This was the first awareness that life was going to be tougher than I had thought. I didn’t know that over and over again I would have to face the inability to speak with any fluidity for at least the next 10 or 12 years, through my grammar and high-school years, and then to a slightly lessening extent from then on.

For at least the grammar school and high-school years, there was merciless teasing, graduating by about eighth grade to a less beastly imitation and “behind the back of me” fun. In the early years, I was beaten into states of self-hatred and begging to go “home.” Home plate. Please let me go home. To my mother. I was assaulted, bruised, battered, and broken. I knew the answers in class and couldn’t raise my hand. I had to learn that the first devastating lesson was to learn to have the courage to face life.

My mother and I had the closest of times a child and mother can have. I would sit on her lap and we would practise the words. Any word. She would rock me and relax me. Sometimes a word would roll off my tongue, perfectly, passing the throat guards undetected and my mother would say: “See darling, you can do it!” Still there were the facial contortions accompanying the stammer that I couldn’t hide. The gods played tricks and sometimes I could say a word that started with a vowel and other times I could say words beginning with an “S” and not a “T” and other days it was just the opposite. I couldn’t say “hello” if the phone rang. I devised a technique of expelling all my breath on the other side of the room where the phone was ringing and as I was heavily exhaling, I’d move further and further to the phone and as I picked it up, I would, completely out of breath, get out an “….ello.” It was complicated. There were days I felt I held a really strong “S” in my hands and I would answer the phone assuredly and deliver a perfect: “Simon’s residence”. This of course, was absurd to the caller, but gave me a sense of job well done and I could go up and do 5 times 12 with a sense of dignity.

I didn’t know about other kids’ relative struggles and annihilations and batterings. I became Me and only Me and terrified Me. I kept a diary: “Please I pray that when I have to read aloud in class I won’t ‘ famul.’ This naturally would confuse everybody who might wriggle to the depths of my mattress with intentions of discovering my deepest and darkest secret fear. But I also had an index in the back of my diary that explained that famul meant stutter of stammer. Later on in my diary there were lots of code words about sexual matters. Little did I imagine that people were intelligent and would deduce that there might be an index in a book or a diary. Also, I can’t believe I was so self-centered as to imagine anyone would be interested. Hiding was my game. Discovery, my shame.

Those embarrassed years later, my boyfriend, Nick, who loved me, told me one night by a lake in Larchmont, New York, that he loved my stammer (which through a series of trials and errors had been reduced a little). We were young loves. He was a freshman at Harvard and I, sophomore at Riverdale Country School for Girls. After putting it off for six months at least, I accepted an invitation to eat at his parents’ house in the suburbs and very near to Riverdale, where I lived. Meeting someone’s parents when you are of tender stuttering years is definitely going into the den. My mother didn’t even think to coach, prepare, or warn me. How could she? She didn’t know that Mrs. Delbanco, a fiercely intelligent, dark-haired German woman who had raised three brilliant little boys, Tom, Nick, and Andy, would be inspecting me from the line of my stockings to the line of the grammar of my sentences. She was unflinchingly concentrated on me and still had concentration to spare for everything else including her perfect roses which grew tall all over the backyard. Peripheral vision and incisive criticism all in one low to the ground, rosy-cheeked, smart as you please Barbara Delbanco. Nick was her Buddha baby. All three Delbanco boys have not let Barbara nor Kurt, their father, down. They all became eminent. But that would be later. That evening in the peachy glow of back porch terror, she sat me next to her and inspected me like the head of the medical staff. I utilized all of the tricks I had taught myself regarding speech: word exchanges, looking away during a facial contortion, deferring to Nick to answer the question addressed to me and occasionally spewing out the worst of what I had to offer: the hooded eyes going up in the head, the stiff lips, the frozen jaw. There were one or two of those moments, but naturally they didn’t pass the observant eye of Barbara Delbanco. Had they passed by Nick?

After dinner, I said I had to go home and write a paper and therefore truncated the introduction with an excuse that made me look responsible. “Of course of course, Carly. We loved meeting you.” Andy asked if I could go up into his room and see a game called “Go” that he had just acquired and then Nick and I made our entrance out of the front door into the clear and benevolent twilight of the Larchmont evening. I sat rigidly next to him and he caught my tension. He took a turn to the pond and stopped, got out of the car and put the hood down. When he got back in beside me, I was already slumped in the seat.

“What is it?”

“Nothing, maybe just tired. What an experience.”

“You know my mother, on our way out when you were in Andy’s room, she said she thought she detected a stammer in your speech pattern. I said, yes, I had gotten used to it in you.”

Tears were so ready and came first into my closed eyes and then spilled vividly on my upturned—by him—cheeks.

I said: “I know, I do stammer. I’m so embarrassed. I’m so sorry…”

Nick told me that not only was it something he didn’t love me in spite of, but, matter of fact, because of.

Long pause, I straightened up. Composure? Almost. Still crying, he reached for me and held me. He told me he thought it was “charming.”

Charming?????? That was completely alien a thought to me. But acceptance was the key. I had spent 10 years trying urgently to hide it. Now, it was sexy. How do you like that? He loved away my stutter. Most of it anyway, the part that was most awful. All of a sudden, I was exotic, different in a positive way. I was eccentric, artistic.

As an adult, I have heard people affecting a stammer or a stutter. The Brits consider it a “class thing.” I guess if you wait long enough your handicap might come into vogue.

Now, when I’m tired, or certainly when I’m nervous, or sometime for no apparent reason, “it” resumes its old force. I forget then the time when it was so “charming.”

I still can’t read aloud. Having to read something verbatim, such as lines in a script, would still likely jeopardize the scene and cause me to flush. But mostly my stutter can be worked around. I made up stories for my children in the dark. They loved them. They were made of words I could say at that particular time. In my own time and the words I could make a decision about substituting or not. My reading was still, and as I said, is still halting and unconvincing. Also, I learned that singing was a big, big, big relief. So, after many years, it was becoming more and more clear:

I would be a singer.

The American Institute for Stuttering gala will be held on Monday, June 8. For more information, visit their website.

Carly Simon is a Grammy- and Academy Award-winning singer-songwriter, whose most recently CD is This Kind of Love. She will be featured on the CD Listen: Songs Written by Children Who Stutter to be released on June 23.