Nursing Book Club

Life on Delay by John Hendrickson

Making peace with a stutter

Cover of book Life on Delay next to a photo of the author John Hendrickson.

In his memoir Life on Delay, John Hendrickson examines his stuttering through an unusual lens: other people’s perspectives. He uncovers just how much stuttering has been both a personal and professional obstacle.

A High Profile Interview

Hendrickson is a journalist. He’s currently a staff writer for The Atlantic, but he has written for The Denver Post, Esquire, and Rolling Stone. He is also a stutterer who had the unique opportunity to interview Joe Biden about his own stutter in 2019.

That interview, published in the January/February 2020 issue of The Atlantic, received widespread positive attention in the media, and prompted someone from Hendrickson’s childhood to reach out to him.

This encounter with someone from his past inspired Hendrickson to further reflect about the impact of stuttering on his life. As writers are often advised to write what they know, he decided to take a deep dive into the subject. He contacted more people from his past to see what they remembered about him and his very obvious problem.

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Over the subsequent two years, Hendrickson went on to conduct — and later share in this book — dozens of interviews, talking to former teachers, college friends, relatives, and ex-girlfriends.

Facts About Disfluency

Intertwined with his personal experiences, Hendrickson includes some of the science about stuttering, now described by the term disfluency.

Stuttering affects 3 million Americans and has been noted as partially hereditary. It often appears between the ages of 2 and 5. Five to 10 percent of all children exhibit symptoms at some point, but 75 percent of those will have no symptoms as adults.

There are three types of stuttering: rapid-fire repetition of one consonant, prolongation of a syllable, and a complete block or inability to say a word.

Stuttering is just as difficult to treat as many other neurological diseases and can be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. This helps explain why many stutterers develop strange tics, rituals, or muscle movements to help them speak.

Yet, it’s interesting to note that many actors and singers have been stutterers — Julia Roberts, Emily Blunt, Ed Sheeran, and Kendrick Lamar, to name just a few. Hendrickson explains that different neural pathways are involved with conversation than with repetition or singing, so stuttering in speech does not prevent other talents from taking center stage. In fact, taking on a role or another persona often seems to help.

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Overcoming Obstacles

As you might expect, Hendrickson’s teachers, friends, and family feel conflicted about how the author’s speech problems were handled. He was regularly bullied in school and developed a tough shell, but his problems continued through high school and college. The book at times becomes a heartbreaking read as the author shares the way he has been treated all his life, even by those who meant well.

Despite his many struggles, Hendrickson displays deep perseverance, even choosing a career in journalism, a profession that relies on his being able to obtain information from strangers through conversation.

As nurses, we probably interact with patients with neurological conditions more often than we realize. Life on Delay immerses the reader in the complex lived experience of one such person.

Life On Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson (Alfred A Knopf, 2023)

CHRISTINE CONTILLO, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

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