John Hendrickson Tells the Truth

January 17, 2023 | 1 book mentioned 7 min read

Two stutterers walk into a bar. 

No, really. John Hendrickson and I arrive at The Library in the East Village on a Sunday afternoon. We wave hello to the bartender and claim a shadowy booth in a tucked-away corner, underneath a projection of the 1958 remake of Dracula. This is the last stop on our tour of John’s old haunts from his salad days in New York City. Earlier we walked through Tompkins Square Park, where he used to spend Saturdays on a bench with a stack of magazines, and grabbed a bite at B&H Dairy, where he used to sit at the counter and flip through the Village Voice. (He likes to read.) And now we’re here, at The Library, the dive bar where he celebrated his 25th birthday. All the while, we’ve been talking, and by talking I mean stuttering. 

John and I are both stutterers. We stutter differently, of course, as no two stutterers stutter the same, but we both share a tendency to block—that is, we get stuck on sounds, rather than, say, repeating or prolonging them. When we first meet up I tell him that I’d been feeling the same pre-interview jitters I always get—I was anxious that I would stutter. “Isn’t that so dumb!” I say. If there was ever an interview where I could feel I had full permission to be disfluent, this would be it. He smiles. 

Like many people, I was introduced to John by way of his 2019 profile of Joe Biden, in which both author and subject speak candidly about their experience with stuttering. The story went immediately viral upon its publication in The Atlantic, where John works as a senior politics editor, catapulting him into the public eye. In the days that followed, he was flooded with messages from fellow stutterers. I was one of them. On November 29, 2019, I wrote John an email: “My name is Sophia,” it began. “I’m an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and a regular reader of The Atlantic. I’m also a person who stutters.” I proceeded to pour my heart out and thank him for writing the story, and for the televised interview he gave shortly after. He responded with characteristic humility, gratitude, and generosity.

It turns out, John responded to every single one of the roughly 1,000 messages (emails as well as DMs on Twitter, Instagram, and even Linkedin) that he received from stutterers after the Biden piece was published. For months, he received a steady stream missives, many of them beginning with the words “I’ve never told anyone this, but…” He was deeply moved by these strangers’ trust in him and now corresponds regularly with many of them. The response from stutterers left him “completely overwhelmed,” he says, but it also made him realize “that there was something here to be explored, that there was an appetite for more writing about the topic of stuttering.” 

So he set to work on an outline that became a proposal that became a book, Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter, out today. Writing intimately about himself for public consumption was challenging. (Of course, he says, “that’s writing a memoir—that’s literally the assignment.”) He often writes about his own life like a reporter, using interviews and other primary sources like old journal entries, AIM chats, homework assignments to piece together his childhood and adolescence. He talks with his family, his friends, and people from his past whom he hadn’t spoken to in 30 years. To his astonishment, most of them, including his kindergarten teacher and his sixth-grade girlfriend, were happy to talk; even more amazing to John was the vividness of their memories. “The things they remembered—that blew my mind,” he says. “It’s one thing to conjure your own memories from your own eyes. It’s another thing to get a different camera angle on the same situation.” 

Throughout the book, he also has several meaningful conversations with his family who, like most families with a child who stutters, did their best to support him and sometimes struggled to figure out what that support should look like. John’s parents faced all the same questions my parents did when I was growing up: Do you take her to speech therapy? Do you order for her at restaurants? Do you bring up the stutter at all? There’s no manual for this stuff. Sometimes mistakes get made. Misapprehensions can linger. Writing the book, he says, “was the perfect excuse to carve out time to have what in many cases were life-changing conversations,” with his own family as well as an array of perfect strangers.

He knew from the beginning that he wanted the book’s scope to extend beyond himself. Life on Delay isn’t just about John’s stutter but the experience of stuttering, which isn’t monolithic. One percent of the population stutters: in the U.S. alone, that comes out to more than three million people, all of whom have their own unique relationship to disfluency. He conducted more than 100 interviews for Life on Delay, talking with other people who stutter, the loved ones of people who stutter, speech therapists, activists, doctors, and researchers. As the book progresses, you see and feel John learning in real time. 

John is still fairly new to the stuttering community. The 2019 Biden profile was the first time he had ever written publicly about stuttering; he attended his first National Stuttering Association meeting in 2020. Though he’s spent the past few years in the spotlight speaking about disfluency, he demurs when it’s suggested that he’s any kind of spokesman. “I’ve only been writing about this topic—and I don’t just mean stuttering, but the larger topic of disability—for three or four years,” he says. “I’m very much learning as I go, and I’m very much learning from people and writers who are far more entrenched and experts than I am.” It wasn’t until he began talking with other stutterers and learning more about disfluency that he even began to situate himself within a larger community. “I never conceived of myself as a disabled person,” he says. “I never allowed myself to think that. I never identified that way. And only when I learned that, yeah, this is a neurological disorder and that people do consider it a disability—that reoriented my sense of self.” 

Photo: Matthew Bernucca

Writing, on the other hand, has always been integral to his sense of self. In school, he found that writing allowed him to “glimpse that clarity and control that eluded me when talking,” he says, “and to know that I could just write and express myself the way it sounded in my head.” The way he sees it, we all have “three voices”: the voice in our head, the voice we speak with, and the voice we write with. “When you’re a person who stutters, two of those voices are at war with each other,” he says. “So writing was like the secret linchpin.” 

The “linchpin” possibilities of writing have drawn many stutterers to the form, myself included. Such authors as Elizabeth Bowen, Lewis Carroll, John Gregory Dunne, Margaret Drabble, Edward Hoagland, Philip Larkin, Somerset Maugham, and John Updike all had well-documented stutters. Some of them even made explicit connections between the frustrations of disfluency and the allure of the page. In a 1985 essay, Hoagland wrote, “Being in these vocal handcuffs made me a desperate, devoted writer.” And Drabble, in a 2001 address to the British Stammering Association, wondered how many writers who stutter “take to text because of their difficulties with parole?” 

The question of whether disfluency affects how you write—or can even make you a better writer—is up for debate. For John, there’s no question that stuttering has shaped his writing style, and for the better. When he writes, he tries to construct sentences and convey ideas as efficiently as possible, which is, incidentally, also how approaches speaking. “When you’re a person who stutters, you’re so conscious of time—taking up other people’s time, trying not to lose someone’s attention, trying to keep them from walking away” he says. “And all of those end up being great writing skills.”

Life on Delay benefits tremendously from John’s clean, clear, and often reportorial style of prose. “The last thing I want this book to do is to feel like a Hallmark movie,” he says. The book isn’t engineered to tug on able-bodied heartstrings, nor is it a rallying cry to change able-bodied hearts and minds. He’s not trying to convince you of anything. He’s simply trying to find out, in the words of Joan Didion (whom he cites as an influence), what he’s thinking and what it means. It’s not always very uplifting.

The book tries to capture as fully as possible the reality of stuttering, and that reality often sucks. “I think I’m constantly calibrating the extent to which I want to depress people,” he says. “Because I don’t want pity. No disabled person does.” He knows that describing hardship might prompt pity from readers no matter how he presents it. But he hopes this isn’t their primary takeaway. “I just want to give people the realest impression, and if it’s sad, it’s sad,” he says. “But I hope that people understand the totality of it, which is that there’s a lot of beauty and a lot of upsides as well. It’s not all sad and it’s not all happy. It’s a round, messy thing.” 

The book’s subtitle, “Making Peace with a Stutter,” subverts the traditional “overcoming”-oriented framework for disability narratives. Stuttering can’t be cured, so it can’t be overcome; facing the anxieties, frustrations, and feelings of inferiority that come with stuttering, on the other hand, is a continuous and nonlinear process of overcoming. John is mired in this process throughout the book, just as all of us stutterers are mired in it our whole lives.

Though Life on Delay smartly replaces the language of victory with the language of acceptance, I still expect many reviewers will describe it as “inspiring,” a word which John and I agree has a fraught connotation when applied to disability. He doesn’t fault anyone for using the word; he knows it’s well-intentioned. At the same time, being a source of inspiration has never been a part of his project. “A lot of times if anybody writes about any sort of adversity, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘inspiring,’” he says. “I did not sit down and say, ‘I want to write an inspiring book.’ I wanted to write a real book that is true and authentic and honest to my experience, and in the case of all the people I interviewed, my goal is that it’s authentic to their experience.”

Life on Delay is certainly authentic to my experience. There is an entire chapter, for instance, titled “The Look.” The moment I saw that phrase in the table of contents I knew what it meant: a listener’s look of pity, confusion, impatience, and/or discomfort during a moment of disfluency. In other words, it’s the face you see when you stutter. It’s a visage that’s become a permanent part of my brain, both for how much I’ve seen it and how much it hurts to see. At one point in the chapter, John notes that anyone who stutters already knows all this: “Someone gave you The Look earlier this morning. Someone else will give you The Look before you go to bed tonight.”    

After John and I wrap up at The Library and part ways for the day, I take a short walk around the Village to reflect on our conversation. I realize that when John listens to you talk, he gives you the opposite of The Look. He looks at you warm and open, with interest, appreciation, regard. Reminds you that what you are saying matters more than how you’re saying it, and that how you’re saying it doesn’t detract from what you’re saying. Gives you a look that, even in the middle of a protracted, spasming block, grants you dignity. Because you do have dignity; are entitled to it, in fact. Disfluency and dignity can—and do—coexist. John taught me that, and without saying a word.

is the editor of The Millions.