Author Katherine Preston speaks to Steven Halliday about her life-changing decision to move to America to face her demons and how writing a book about stammering led her on a journey of acceptance.
The first part of Katherine’s book Out With It takes the reader through her formative years living with a stammer, explaining how she developed a strategy of denial which seemed to be working: "If I didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t be true." One fateful event, however, forced her to face what she had been repressing...
Please describe that incident and explain why it was so pivotal.
It was an everyday moment that was devastating. I was working in asset management and one day I had to make a call to a client in our open-plan office and when he answered I couldn’t say a single word. I felt my colleagues’ eyes boring into me and my body tensed in the sudden silence. On the other end the client asked me to repeat myself and then said cockily, “Did you forget your name?” Clogged with emotion, my composure cracked and I panicked. I saved myself the only way I could think of; I surreptitiously pulled out the telephone cord but pretended to carry on the conversation for a few moments before wrapping up my performance, hung up and then power walked to the bathroom, where I broke down. Having long denied that my stammer had any impact on my life, I felt like a liar and a fraud. I was ashamed, scared and exhausted and I felt trapped in a life I didn’t want. It was the first time I realised that I wasn’t going to magically grow out of it. I had to let go of the seductive illusion that I had held on to for so long. I decided that I needed to face my speech. I knew that I couldn’t be someone else, but I wanted to be a better version of myself.
You decided to enrol on a Starfish Project course, and found one element of it, disclosure, particularly helpful.
Opening up about my stammer to co-workers and hearing their reactions had a huge impact on me. I remember feeling this enormous sense of liberation, this feeling that I wasn’t alone; that we were all in this messy, complicated life together and that nobody was perfect. They in turn opened up to me about their struggles and I felt a deep sense of respect and compassion for them. I saw how powerful and attractive vulnerability could be.
You then decided to quit your job and move to America to write a book about stammering, for which you would research into it, interview people who stammer and compile their stories. How did this idea come about?
From childhood, I would tell everyone that I was going to grow up to be a writer. I was obsessed with the complexity of language. I wanted to recreate the eloquent voice that often eluded me in speech. I trained as a journalist but my biggest aspiration was always to write a book. Stammering was the one subject that I knew, or hoped, that I could write about.
I chose America because it seemed to be at the forefront of research. Beyond that, and more importantly, I wanted to leave behind all the pre-conceived ideas I had about my stammer, and my life in England. America offered a blank slate.
Did you find any commonality between the people you interviewed?
I interviewed 100 people (including a few celebrities) and heard many experiences of anger and frustration, but I also saw how stammering had the potential to make us more empathetic, humble, resilient and more driven to succeed. Many of the people I interviewed were courageous by necessity and felt comfortable playing by their own rules. Yet I’m wary of generalising; stammerers are not some neat, unified whole. We are as varied as the rest of the world.
What did you learn about attitudes towards people who stammer?
I discovered how often people were drawn to stammerers. At first I worried that this was born out of pity. However, the more people I spoke to, the more I realised it was the opposite - they were often drawn to the stammerer’s courage and lack of artifice. The King’s Speech was the first time many people saw a stammerer in the role of hero and the first time that Hollywood produced a thoughtful, nuanced portrayal of stammering - it was certainly the start of shifting attitudes in the right direction.
You then met your fiancé Jeremy on a McGuire Programme course. What has having a partner who also stammers meant to you?
In the early days I thought about the way that people would react to us and the way that being with him collapsed the walls that I had built up around my stammer. I remember feeling very exposed, thinking that I couldn’t hide anything from him. I also remember taking on his stammer and making it my own. Today I deeply appreciate the way our shared experience connects us, but I don’t think of our speech as apart from the many other aspects of our relationship. I chose to be with a compassionate and thoughtful man who makes my life a joy, and who also happens to stammer.
Of all the therapy approaches you researched, which appealed to you the most?
The idea of ‘voluntary stammering’ became petrifying and magnetic. I learnt that it had the potential to combat any shame I felt towards my stammer, to instil a sense of confidence and to turn conversations into a game rather than a war. Today I find the concept deeply appealing and a constant challenge. But it takes practice to transform years of trying to hide my stammer.
Along the way you decided to make the book more of a memoir. In it you mention your reticence to talk about stammering growing up; how easy was it to open up and write something so personal?
Out With It was not the type of book I ever thought I would write, and there were times when I longed for the quiet safety of my previous reserve. But in order to write the best book I could, I had to unearth all the pieces of my life that I had long ignored. I had to dredge up dusty memories and stare at them for long enough that they came into focus. On the day the book was published I remember feeling a huge sense of vulnerability. Writing a book about my stammer is one thing. Standing up to speak about it whilst stammering and bearing witness to all the reactions it provokes, is quite another. Learning how to crack myself open has been my greatest struggle, and my proudest accomplishment.
Who is the book aimed at and what feedback have you had?
When I wrote it I wasn’t specifically imagining the audience, I was just trying to write the best book I could. I hope that stammerers, their families and therapists will read it and I also hope that it can make its way into the hands of anyone who has ever struggled to feel comfortable in their own skin. It has been wonderful to hear from stammerers and non-stammerers that they have felt connected to so much of the book. As a writer there is no better feeling than getting emails from readers telling me that I’ve done justice to their experiences, offered them greater understanding or given them a sense of hope. Someone told me that they were so immersed in it that they missed their bus stop!
It’s fantastic to see someone who openly stammers talking publicly. Do you think we need to see more like you?
Unfortunately, stammering is a condition that, quite literally, finds it difficult to make itself heard and we rarely see stammering public speakers. I hope that will change. It is well and good having role models who seem to have eased into a more fluent way of speaking, celebrities and politicians who readily attach their names to stammering but rarely, if ever, stumble on their words. But we need to really hear stammering if we are going to change the conversation. We need to watch outspoken, unapologetic stammerers talking eloquently if we are ever going to rewrite the 'fix' narrative of our lives.
You have become quite a celebrity yourself. Have the media interviews been challenging?
If I’m a celebrity, I’d be on the z-list! It has been a surreal time since the book’s release. Talking on the telly or the radio is not something I find particularly relaxing (I did have a few heart palpitations before my interview for The Today Show), but I feel immensely grateful and lucky that I have the chance to speak up about stammering and voice all my hard-crafted words.
You were invited to speak at the World Congress for People who Stutter. How did it go?
The congress was incredible. When I stood at the podium to give my keynote speech, I remember feeling like I would quite like not to stammer too much (old habits die hard). When I came to speak my stammer emerged, as profound as ever. Yet all eyes stayed fixed on me, faces broke into smiles at my lame jokes and fierce applause broke out when I finished. At the end I felt euphoric and exposed. I realised that stammering may take away the control that we want, but we can choose to harness its dynamism and power. Having grown up worried that my speech would alienate me from the world, the congress proved how wrong I had been. It showed me how profoundly my stammer connected me to people.
What do you want people to take from your book?
Someone wrote to me saying that Out With It teaches us how to love each other better. I can think of no better conclusion. I want people to see the power of human compassion and hope. I want stammerers to know that their voice is worth hearing. I want us all to realise that difference unites us, that being ‘normal’ would be both a rare and lonely state. Life may not always be easy but we can bind ourselves to the one we have been given, and we can make something remarkable out of it.
What are you working on next?
A novel that is currently an endless, looming blank page on my laptop. I’m also giving speeches around the country about the book and I’m preparing for its paperback release at the beginning of 2014.
Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice by Katherine Preston (Simon & Schuster) is available to buy at www.katherinepreston.com.
From Speaking Out Winter 2013, p8-9