Monday, April 15, 2013

Out with It by Katherine Preston

Out with ItOut with It by Katherine Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Description: A fresh, engaging account of a young woman’s journey, first to find a cure for a lifelong struggle with stuttering, and ultimately to embrace the voice that has defined her character.

Imagine this: you’re a beautiful, blonde, stylish, highly intelligent, gregarious young woman—curious about the world with a lot to say about it. But every time you open your mouth, a stutter comes out. In order to do something as simple as say your name, you must physically force the word. Which doesn’t always look so pretty.

At the age of seven, Katherine Preston learned that she was a stutterer. From that point on she battled the fear of communicating with the world by denying that her speech was an issue. Finally, a humiliating experience inspired her to take an unusual action. In Out With It she tells the hilariously heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting story of her year spent traveling around the United States to interview more than 100 stutterers, speech therapists, and researchers. What begins as a search for a cure becomes a journey that debunks the misconceptions that shroud the condition and a love story that changes her perspective on normality.

Out With It offers a fresh perspective on our obsession with physical perfection and an exploration of what our voice, and our vulnerabilities, means to each of us. It sheds light on an ancient condition that afflicts approximately 4 million in the U.S. and 60 million people worldwide. In addition to experts, Katherine interviewed writers, actresses, musicians, social workers, psychologists, farmers, and financiers—men and women of all walks of life who were working to overcome their speech problems. Combining memoir and investigative journalism, Out With It is an incredibly compelling, informative and heartwarming memoir about understanding and embracing one’s self and the voice within.

My thoughts: First of all, I hated this book. Second of all, I loved this book. I am also simultaneously relieved yet furious that Katherine didn't track me down. It's not like I'm anonymous by any means.

What Katherine provides is an eloquent yet painful reminder of my deepest, darkest fears and insecurities. As a female stutterer, I quickly discovered that my very existence was a huge anomaly. I did not meet another female stutterer until well into adulthood. Like Katherine, I suffered alone and learned to quickly read faces and responses to my stuttering. I have avoided giving my name, given a wrong name, and looked at the telephone with loathing and longing. I spent hours on my knees praying and crying that God would take away the horrible blemish of my existence. Like Katherine, I knew that if I could only be cured, nothing could stop me from becoming this amazing human being.

Now imagine sitting in a high school class and watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Fully aware of the sideways glances from classmates as the character in the movie that stuttered, blocked, stammered, and ticked his way through his lines. I knew that I was being equated to an insecure, intellectually and sanity challenged young man who eventually committed suicide. Yay.

Like Katherine, I have wonderful and supportive parents who wanted to help me find a cure. Problematic in that scenario is that it indicates that I am sick and/or broken. At great expense and sacrifice, I was driven to speech therapy for years, flown to Houston to have neurological tests conducted along with assessments of my intellectual abilities yet my gratitude was the same as Katherine's. I seethed without having an appropriate object to despise.

By the way, thank you, Mom and Dad!

Katherine did forget to mention a contraption from her very island, the Edinburgh Masker which the stutterer fastens onto her neck (scarves were not popular) while the vibration set off a mechanical signal to the earpiece inside the ear canal and "masked" the stutterer's voice. This stunned this adolescent stuttering girl into fluency I couldn't hear yet quickly understood I was speaking in monotone. Picture a pretty blonde teenager across the room. She is attractive and has an open expression in her eyes, big smile and no braces. Now add a weird choker on her neck with wires going downward into a box contraption and wires reaching up (mostly hidden under her shirt, and yet) still visible under her hair and attaching to pseudo-hearing aides. That would be me. Foxy, indeed.

Honestly, although the author and I are two decades apart in age, lived on different continents, she described my childhood (sans my brutal siblings) and therapy in perfect and painful detail. I had a visceral reaction to the words "Delayed Auditory Feedback." I think I threw up just a little bit inside my mouth both when I read the phrase and just now as I typed it. I could write a memoir about my life as a stutterer and the irony is not lost on me. My gift as a lay writer is a direct result of being verbally tongue tied. This is where the author and I diverge then converge.

Katherine is 27 years old as she writes this book. She ran right up to her stutter, teased it, and embraced it. She looked under it, over it, and even into it. Okay, that last part, I did, too, spending all of one year at a university studying communication disorders in an effort to make a career in speech pathology. I decided I didn't love it enough to make it a career. At the age of 27, I was still running from identifying myself with my stuttering. I was trying to prove I was worthwhile in spite of it. Katherine wisely embraced her insecurities and speech imperfection and discovered how it defined her as the exceptional woman she is today. I would love to talk to her and have her explain to me how she found the courage to not only absolve herself of her old life in a different country but to spend a year looking closely at herself and others who stutter. She interviewed hundreds of stutters, researchers, therapists, and significant others. She identified herself with others who stutter. Only a stutterer in denial (like myself) can truly appreciate the enormity and beauty of this endeavor.

Katherine and I converge again at the end, although her realizations and self understanding come much earlier than my own. We are a minority in a minority. We are women who did not outgrow stuttering. We traded our psychological baggage for accomplishments to pin at the end of our names. Aside from The King's Speech, stuttering has been historically and unfairly linked to being emotionally disturbed and stupid. What we both desire is for greater understanding that stuttering is a neurological and physiological issue. Telling us to slow down, calm down, or asking us if we forgot our name does not help. At all.

Non sequitur tangent: Why do people ask that? Again, when Katherine brought that one up in the book, I felt my own ire, particularly after realizing someone asked me the very day I read this book. Although Katherine is more forgiving and understanding of this phrase and listeners' behavior, I will admit my own frailties. I have been known to bluntly state to a habitual sentence-finisher that I REALLY hate being interrupted. Please stop. Now.

But then I started thinking how I don't understand WHY anybody would ask the question, "Did you forget your name?" As a social experiment, I am going to respond to the next person that says this with a shocked look and, "Oh my gosh! I did!" Then I'll just stare at the interrupter in silence, with wide, surprised eyes.


What Katherine eloquently phrases is that she, like a large percentage of stutters, is driven to succeed. I believed my success in academia and then in psychology was to spite my stutter. It was years later that I realized that because of my stuttering, I became more focused on helping people. I became more empathetic and naturally gravitated toward educational psychology. I listen more carefully. My words are weightier because they cost me more. Because I stutter, I love words more than if I didn't stutter. I love to read words, write words, think words. I love to hear myself say words. I don't love to hear myself stutter the words but that is the way I am hardwired.

As Katherine discovered and I can whole heartedly echo, fluency is possible but it comes at a price. We can trade our stutters for a new strange and unnatural way of speaking (she describes it and I ached and laughed since I'd never had the opportunity to talk to another person who stutters and employed the techniques), but the biggest cost of fluency is giving up our hard-earned determination and accomplishments. We would have to give up the essence of who we are.

Highly recommend this book. Love, love, loved it.


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