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Words are the way a person communicates with the world. But what if words aren’t available? What if the language isn’t there, or what if the words are floating just out of reach?
In his poignant memoir, “Life On Delay,” John Hendrickson invites the reader to understand his own relationship with words — the ones he says and the ones he doesn’t. A lifelong stutterer, Hendrickson uses “Life On Delay” to communicate the immense impact of spoken word.
Hendrickson harnesses words every day as a staff writer at The Atlantic. After publishing a 2019 article discussing Joe Biden’s stutter, he was offered the chance to speak on MSNBC. He took it.
“You’d like to think that when these moments arise you stride toward them – chin up, chest out, triumphant horns blaring somewhere in the background,” Henderson writes of the experience. “Right now I’m just scared.”
He had spent his whole life avoiding public speaking and was suddenly thrust into the limelight. Yet, he chose to be interviewed not just this once, but multiple times on national television. While his story may initially draw readers due to its Biden connection, Hendrickson’s tale is strong enough to stand on its own.
In addition to the professional opportunities provided by the article’s success, Hendrickson’s article also sparked an outpouring of letters from fellow people who stutter. Hendrickson writes that for the first time in his life, he felt like a part of a community. As a result of the story’s popularity, Hendrickson embarked on a voyage through his own past, slowly piecing together his own relationship with stuttering from his diagnosis as a kindergartner up to the present day. In his memoir, Hendrickson talks to old teachers, girlfriends, college buddies, and bosses – those who had seen his stuttering first hand. Most importantly, he dives into his relationships with his parents and older brother; his tumultuous relationship with his family threads throughout the novel, haunting him long after both he and his brother leave the confines of their home.
As Hendrickson interviews those from his past, he weaves his personal experiences with current research on stuttering as well as the experiences of both private and public figures who struggle with stuttering. At times the patchwork of lives throughout the work felt random, cutting from one story to the next. But in other moments, the stories bled into each other, reminding the reader of the commonality of the human experience and encouraging greater compassion for all. His journalistic tendencies shine through as he reports on what others have learned.
This memoir revolves around others' and society’s responses to those that have a stutter. Hendrickson describes the painful, physical reactions that others have – pulling their head back, looking away, wincing — when watching him stutter:
“It’s primal, this reaction: another body literally retreating from you, the problem,” he writes.
But this is not just a book about stuttering. Even though the novel focuses on stuttering, the book highlights the common challenge of struggling to communicate with those around you. Whether it’s struggling to communicate in a new language or suffering from a disease that impedes speech, readers of many communities can relate to Hendrickson’s experiences. And at the end of the day, Hendrickson can find peace with his past and his stutter, providing inspiration for readers to find peace with their own challenges, too.
—Staff writer Sophia N. Downs can be reached at email@example.com.
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