The death of pilot, astronaut, and senator John Glenn should move us to think of his wife of seventy-three years, Annie, and of the great love between the two of them. Many Americans did not know until they saw the 1983 movie The Right Stuff that Annie Glenn was a stutterer, so embarrassed by her speech impediment that she refused to receive Vice President Johnson at her home with TV cameras in tow. Far away, about to board the capsule in which he will be the first man to orbit the earth, John Glenn gets on the phone with Annie to assure her that she doesn’t have to let the vice president in. And when John Glenn put his foot down, that was it. It’s a wonderful scene.
I said just now that “Annie Glenn was a stutterer,” because years later she achieved a therapeutic breakthrough and was able to become a confident public speaker. This is just one of the things I learned from a delightfully informative new book by longtime First Things contributor Gerald R. McDermott, titled Famous Stutterers, a collection of brief portraits of twelve people in history who struggled with stuttering and overcame it. Annie Glenn gets her own chapter, as do Moses, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Joshua Chamberlain, England’s King George VI, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, John Updike, historian Peter Brown, and broadcasters John Stossel and Byron Pitts. Some of these are surprises, but McDermott makes a compelling circumstantial case for his more ancient examples, and actually attributes to Demosthenes a different kind of speech impediment altogether. In the cases of Brown, Stossel, Pitts, and Annie Glenn, he was able to interview his subjects, who speak candidly of their struggles.
Gerry McDermott was moved to write Famous Stutterers because he suffers from this affliction himself—though thanks to therapy he has so mastered his speech that despite many hours spent in his company, including the teaching of an intensive seminar together, I would never have known of his stutter if he hadn’t told me. And Gerry would be the first to say that no one with a stutter ever puts it completely behind him—so “Annie Glenn is a stutterer” would be more correct.
We all stammer sometimes, but a chronic stutter is more a physical problem, of breathing and muscle control, than a mental one—though exhaustion or anxiety can exacerbate it. Different ways of coping worked for different stutterers: Marilyn Monroe’s breathy on-screen voice, Churchill’s privately singing his speeches to practice them, and King George’s therapy sessions with Lionel Logue (the story told in the 2010 film The King’s Speech). McDermott concludes this brief book with “Twelve lessons for stutterers (and the rest of us),” drawing on all his subjects for the counsel he offers.
If you are particularly close to a stutterer who struggles to get past roadblocks in his or her speech, this book would be a kind and generous gift. It’s an inspiring bunch of stories, and a gift of hard-earned wisdom from its author.
Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center for Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.