President Biden’s Stutter

President Joe Biden,
at the Oval Office desk

For some time now I’ve been thinking how easily President Biden’s occasional stuttering – his repetition of a sound within the word, his choice of a word that doesn’t quite fit, or his unexpected pausing at a word — has been misinterpreted in the media. Sometimes, it’s by folks who want to belittle, but more often it’s by folks who mean well and just don’t understand the nature of stuttering.

As a person who still identifies as a stutterer, let me enlighten.

First, let us be clear. Joe Biden stutters. Joe Biden has a stutter, however you want to say it. I heard his interview with Heather Cox Richardson a few weeks ago and cringed when he said, “I used to stutter.” I disagree, Mr. President. You stutter AND you need not be ashamed of the fact. THAT is the real crux: the shame, the wanting to hide it, the belief that somehow our stutter shows how defective we are.


Your real stutter is no more worthy of embarrassment or shame than having your leg in a cast or needing to wear glasses.

I’m of the camp that claims once a stutterer, always a stutterer; it doesn’t matter how little you stutter or how well you conceal it. It’s like alcoholism in that way. The alcoholic may well have stopped drinking; they may no longer even have cravings; if they’re smart, though, they recognize they’re still an alcoholic. They understand the consequences otherwise.

Where this analogy breaks down is around stigma and shame. The recovering alcoholics I’ve been privileged to know in my life – the ones recovering in the best sense of the word – are open about their recovery, their alcoholism, and their need to refrain from certain situations; they cherish their sobriety. For some sitcom directors and producers, I get a sense they’re proud to weave their experience into the script. For them, their identity as a recovering alcoholic (not recovered, to be clear) is core to how they see themselves.

I found this analogy helpful in the years following my coming out about my own stuttering, which happened to overlap with my years in various 12-Step programs. Even initially, after my stuttering stopped ruling my life (“driving my bus” I used to say) I believed that even though I wasn’t stuttering very often, I would again — in the next sentence or the next conversation. It wasn’t that I was afraid I’d stutter, I just didn’t want to be surprised. So I hung onto the identity of a person who stutters. And sometimes, like when I’m at one of the annual conventions of people who stutter and I’m not stuttering, I miss it.

Nearly thirty years later, I am still a person who stutters. I am also proudly out of the closet. Yes, borrowing from our friends in the LGBTQ community, we use “the stuttering closet;” it’s where we stutterers who hate the fact that we stutter and the feelings of shame that go with it, hide. By coming out of the closet, so the metaphor goes, we become true to ourselves.

My stutter ruled my life for nearly forty years. It steered some big decisions (where to go to college, which job to take) and some smaller ones (what to order in a restaurant, whether or not to answer the phone). And, in my early twenties after a particularly embarrassing episode with my fiancé, I got quite good at keeping it hidden. I’d change words, like most stutterers learn to do, but mostly I just stayed silent if I could. People thought I was a good listener.


Afraid to let it show, I was just biding my time until the words might come out without the stutter. No one knew I lived in constant fear I’d be “found out.” I came to call it chronic stage fright.

In my 42nd year, I made the decision to let my stuttering show. I had accepted the fact that stuttering was a part of me, just as my dirty blonde hair and deformed pinky finger were, that I was not defective, in fact I was damned precious (like everyone else, I will quickly add).

Then, I got curious about stuttering, mine in particular, but stuttering in general too. I began to read what experts had to say about stuttering. I began to meet other people who stuttered and I’d listen to what they had learned. Some had helpful ideas; others were a bit off the wall.

In the past, I’d go a numb when I stuttered, not wanting to really experience what was happening. So, I had to learn to become aware of what I was doing when I stuttered. For a few years, maybe as many as five, I would feel my stuttering “coming on” at the end of my right arm. I’d feel it “move” up my arm and into my throat; that’s when my listeners knew I was stuttering. And then, I’d follow it as it rolled down my left arm and away. I found I was curious about this strange part of me called stuttering. Most importantly, I no longer went numb.

Stuttering, my stuttering, was something I now accepted. And that made all the difference. And it wasn’t that I just accepting my stuttering; it was that I accepted me, as I was: stuttering, too-heavy thighs, too-frequent impatience, the whole gamut.

Something that helped me tremendously — and it’s something I wish President Biden would adopt — was that I’d disclose I had a stutter before I gave public talks. And in those intervening years, I gave a lot of talks, something I’m very grateful for. I found that if I announced my stutter, I was less likely to get sucked into thinking I could hide it. Hiding it had become so automatic in the twenty or so years since I decided I had to hide it. (That decision is a story for another time). By announcing it, it was out in the open. And, if I did stutter, I could meet it with a welcome heart, curious about what was actually happening. My announcement was insurance against an “oh no” reaction. Instead, I often met my repetition or my block with a smile and another announcement, “See? I do stutter. And you thought I didn’t.” Then I’d smile.

President Biden, I believe, has bought into the stigma. He abides the ridicule rather than owning up to the fact that, “Yes, I stutter. So what?”

Granted, there is a political reality to being president to which most stutterers are not subject. With that in mind, I’d be satisfied if he’d just proclaim clearly and proudly, “You may hear me stutter a bit today. Don’t worry though, they don’t last as long as they once did. You’ll still make your deadline.”

I would find his use of a little humor refreshing.  

For those who would like more information on stuttering I recommend a visit to The Sisskin Stuttering Center

7 Responses

  1. Tim
    | Reply

    Interesting post, Janet. I couldn’t help but analogize parts of it to being a new, relatively young hearing aid user, still coming to terms with what I perceive to be a stigma (whether real or imagined). I just told Jacki a couple of days ago, in fact, that I almost feel like telling people up front so that they know and I don’t have to imagine them looking at me and wondering. There’s a bit of a relief when it’s out there and I don’t have to think about it anymore.

  2. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    You’ve hit upon a good analogy, Tim. I’d never thought of hearing aids as having a stigma; I see them more like glasses; but if one wears them and feels it, then it must be so. Kudos to you for getting out in front of it. I just hope yours work better for you than Woody’s.
    Janet Givens recently posted…President Biden’s StutterMy Profile

  3. Carolyn
    | Reply

    I stuttered a lot when young and that was caused by teachers trying to force me to write with my right hand. (Mother put an end to that,) But even so, the damage was done and sometimes the stutters still attack. I know now which words are going to be the troublemakers and have learned to breathe before them. Stuttering is as normal as wearing glasses – I cheer for your sensible article.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Carolyn, Thanks so much for sharing a bit of your story. I love your “Stuttering is as normal as wearing glasses” statement. Here’s to getting that message out.
      Janet Givens recently posted…President Biden’s StutterMy Profile

  4. Darlene Foster
    | Reply

    A great post. My ex-husband stuttered. His mother used to finish his sentences for him and asked the teachers not to make him speak in front of the class etc. When we got married, we just carried on as normal. I never finished his sentences and he was only too happy to speak with friends and family. Soon the stuttering lessened and he never let it hold him back. His mother, bless her, was not doing him any favours.
    Darlene Foster recently posted…Thursday Doors: Cordoba, SpainMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Darlene. Thanks so much for your Comment. I couldn’t agree more that being “saved” from having to speak in class didn’t serve him very well. So much more helpful to be supported to face our fears, move into them and “do it anyway.” Your attitude reminds me of my friend in Denmark whose husband is a stutterer. She always held that that was simply the way he talked; nothing to do about it and she’d give him time. I do think the stigma here is cultural. So many absolutes in this land of the Puritans. (but I digress).
      Janet Givens recently posted…President Biden’s StutterMy Profile

  5. Pamela Wight
    | Reply

    I learned so much from this post (sorry I’m so late to it). I think you should send it to Joe Biden (or at least “his people”). He already has done much for those who stutter (taking away the myth that those who stutter aren’t smart, or can’t be successful, or a president). But he could do more. You prove that in this post.
    Pamela Wight recently posted…Scrabble ScramblerMy Profile

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