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John Hendrickson on his new memoir 'Life on Delay'


I'm going to interview a writer who begins his new book with these words. Nearly every decision in my life has been shaped by my struggle to speak. John Hendrickson wrote a story for The Atlantic in 2019 about then-presidential candidate Joe Biden's life with stuttering. John Hendrickson stutters himself. His article sparked an outpouring of reaction, including from others who stutter. He has put his experience, those of others and lots of reflection, recollection and thought into "Life On Delay: Making Peace With A Stutter." John Hendrickson joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN HENDRICKSON: Thank you so much for having me, Scott. It's an honor.

SIMON: You write, and I hope you can help us understand 'cause you write so piercingly about it, the feel of a stutter. We hear halting speech, but at one point you say it feels almost like claustrophobia.

HENDRICKSON: There are many different types of stuttering, and they all feel a little different, from the repetitions to long, painful blocks in which you can't get through the first part of a word. When those blocks are happening, you often have trouble breathing, but all of that's only part of it. What you're really battling is the mental side of it, and you're trying to quiet this voice inside you telling you it's better not to talk at all. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and effort to get to a place of just being OK with participating in conversation.

SIMON: Yeah. As you and I talk to each other in 2023, do we really know why anyone - do you know why you go through life with a stutter?

HENDRICKSON: Only since around the turn of the millennium have researchers and experts understood understood this to be a neurological disorder with a large genetic component. For decades and centuries prior to that, people thought it was a simple manifestation of anxiety, nervousness. Some children are able to, quote-unquote, "rewire" those neural pathways with therapy at a young age, but a portion of the population will stutter for the rest of their lives, and the best that they can do is manage it and build up the confidence to just keep waking up every day and going about life.

SIMON: It's painful to read about you and your brother. He's always loved you. But you had some difficulties, didn't you?

HENDRICKSON: My brother is my biggest champion. He is my rock. He's my best friend. And we have an incredible relationship as adults. Like a lot of brothers, we had a tough time as kids. And a major part of this book is the story of how we got to where we are today, which - he would do anything for me and I would do anything for him.

SIMON: Did this book give you a chance to talk about things that maybe you hadn't?

HENDRICKSON: Yes, absolutely. I asked my parents and my brother a crazy question, which was, can I sit down with you and put a tape recorder between us, and can we talk about life - just the totality of life, the good, the bad and everything in between? And they said yes. And it's - it was just an incredibly selfless act on their part. And they're relinquishing a portion of their privacy not because they want to, but because they believe in me, and they believe in this project, and they know that this is a book that will hopefully help a lot of other people who stutter and their families.

SIMON: You write very openly about also struggling with depression and drinking. Drinking seemed to help your stutter, however, but I guess it wasn't good for depression, is it?

HENDRICKSON: One theory around the neurological component of stuttering is that it's partly a dopamine mediator disorder gained under the brain chemistry. And certain drugs certainly have an effect on the brain chemistry and on those neural pathways. Many people who stutter go through high school and college, and they realize that drinking a couple beers makes it easier to talk. But that can obviously be a slippery slope. And part of this book is me talking with other folks about that and me reflecting on the chapters of my life in which I may have used beer as a crutch.

SIMON: Do you feel you were depressed because you have a stutter or you were depressed because there's a lot in life to be depressed about, and you don't need a stutter to be depressed?

HENDRICKSON: Research does indicate that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and OCD are often comorbidities with issues such as stuttering. And part of this book is exploring that, but it's also exploring possible antidotes. There's a doctor out in California, Gerald Maguire, who has been working on a, quote, unquote, "magic pill" to one day potentially fix stuttering. And his primary motivation is because he's a person who stutters. And his older brother was as well. And his older brother took his own life. And Gerald Maguire doesn't want anyone else to follow that path.

SIMON: You also say in this book that if you could swallow a pill to stop stuttering, you would hesitate.

HENDRICKSON: I think my answer to that question has changed over time. I think that as a kid, as a teenager and in college, I would have taken a magic pill in a heartbeat. But as I've gotten older and I've been on this journey of making peace with my stutter, I don't view it as this major flaw anymore. I view it as a part of my life that's an embedded in my identity and as a gift in a way, 'cause it's given me a lot of empathy. It's given me a lot of life experience. And it's made me a better listener. And it just made me curious about others and their experiences.

SIMON: John Hendrickson's book, "Life On Delay: Making Peace With A Stutter." Thank you so much for being with us.

HENDRICKSON: Thank you, Scott. I really appreciate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOHANDS' "IKIGAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.