Why Are Female Stutterers Such a Rarity in Literature?
Sophia Stewart on Merry Levov and American Pastoral
Despite my inclination for critical detachment, I admit there are some books I can’t help but take personally. As a person who stutters, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is one of those books. I first read the Pulitzer-winning novel my senior year of college, during which I wrote a thesis about characters who stutter. I’d compiled a list of about 40 fictional stutterers across American film and literature when I realized American Pastoral’s Merry Levov was the only woman among them.
I was pleased by how many stuttering characters I’d found (in Billy Budd, All the King’s Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, It, etc.), but I was surprised that Merry, in both her 1997 novelistic and 2016 cinematic iterations, was anomalous for her gender. This gender disparity is not entirely delusive: a significant majority of people who stutter are in fact men. And women who stutter do exist in some literature (notably children’s lit titles like Gabriela and Jackie Ha-Ha, and the Australian novel Sorry). Still Merry remains peerless as a female stutterer in American literary fiction; she is my sole representative, my only reflection. When I looked at her—a young woman who shares my neurologically-based, genetically-determined disability—would I recognize any of myself?
Fiction doesn’t always need to act as a mirror, neither do I always want it to be one. But Merry’s rareness raises the stakes of her depiction, as her singular character can be easily generalized to an entire population. As trans actor Jen Richards eloquently puts it in the 2020 documentary Disclosure, referring to the trans community, “We just need more [media representation]. That way, the occasional clumsy representation wouldn’t matter as much, because it wouldn’t be all that there is.” For people of underrepresented identities, a literary landscape more saturated with our lived experiences allows for more room for error.
Historically, for people who stutter, there has been a lot of error. Most male characters who stutter do so as a sign of arrested development; they are weak, infantile, dull, debilitatingly nervous or shy, and this is the cause of their disfluency. They usually overcome their stuttering through a masculinity-affirming feat or a radical perspective shift. Roth’s portrayal of Merry Levov diverges sharply from this traditional, male-dominated disfluency narrative, though not for the better.
American Pastoral centers on Seymour Levov, once a star high school athlete, who spends the postwar years clinching the American Dream. He marries a former beauty queen, Dawn, who gives birth to their daughter, Merry; he runs a profitable business and buys a home in a bucolic hamlet. Merry is the ideal child, “a girl blessed with golden hair and a logical mind and a high IQ and . . . slender limbs and a wealthy family.” But she has one grave deficiency: she stutters. Merry’s disfluency marks her as imperfect and foreshadows the imminent end of the Levovs’ otherwise perfect lives. Seymour and Dawn—and the reader—desperately wonder why Merry stutters. Literature teaches that stuttering results from trauma, deprivation, personal shortcoming, but Merry enjoys “security, health, love, every imaginable advantage—missing only was the ability to order a hamburger without humiliating herself.” (Is Merry humiliated? Or is Seymour, who makes this observation, humiliated for—or by—her?)
Seymour and Dawn—and, I think, Roth—invest disproportionate significance into Merry’s stutter. They understand it not as a neutral characteristic but as a “blight” that impedes their daughter’s intelligence, an “indelible imperfection” that has “wounded” her spirit. As something she battles against rather than lives with. Of course, there is a clear-cut answer to why Merry stutters—to why I stutter: because of faulty signal transduction in the brain. A genetic glitch, usually inherited and untethered to psychology. Stuttering is not a choice or strategy, and it’s not, as the novel eventually suggests, because I want to fuck my dad. But that isn’t as satisfying; we want a metaphor.
Here it becomes tempting to fall into the trap of what Sontag calls “metaphoric thinking,” which she condemns in her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor. “Illness,” and in that same vein, disability, “is not a metaphor,” Sontag writes, but we like to frame it as one in order to make it more comprehensible, more narratively cogent. Still, Seymour erroneously applies stuttering as a metaphor for his own life:
There was no fluency anywhere. It was all stuttering. In bed at night, he pictured the whole of his life as a stuttering mouth and a grimacing face—the whole of his life without cause or sense and completely bungled. He no longer had any conception of order. There was no order. None. He envisioned his life as a stutterer’s thought, wildly out of his control.
In their pursuit of meaning, the Levovs send Merry to a psychiatrist who saddles her stuttering with psychoanalytical implications. Seymour insists he only wants to know the disfluency’s “physiological basis,” which the psychiatrist deems a fool’s errand. “I can give you organic theories if you want them,” the psychiatrist replies. “But that isn’t the way I have found I can be most effective.” He assesses that Merry stutters as a strategic decision, made in response to the pressures of having such good-looking, successful parents. He senses something Oedipal is afoot as well: “to withdraw from the competition with her mother” and “win the father away from the beautiful mother,” Merry chooses “to stigmatize herself with a severe stutter, thereby manipulating everyone from a point of seeming weakness.” In their sessions, the psychiatrist asks Merry questions like “How do you think your father would feel about you if you didn’t stutter?” and “Is there anything good that stuttering brings you?” Stuttering, he concludes, is “an extremely useful, if not even a vindictive type of behavior” that Merry deploys to reap certain benefits, among them the grievance of her mother (it “kills” Dawn to listen to it, Seymour admits), the attention of her father, and a cover to distract from her “real secrets.” Yikes!
Seymour is infuriated by this etiological explanation, but Roth suggests he doth protest too much: earlier scenes confer truth on it. In one, Seymour and an 11-year-old Merry are summering together at a seaside cottage. There is to the trip an unmistakable sexual charge: young Merry repeatedly catches her father bathing, can’t “stay out of his lap or stop calling him by cute pet names,” can’t “resist” gently tracing the shape of his ear. During a drive back from the beach, Merry—a drooping shoulder strap revealing “the hard red bee bite that was her nipple”—turns to Seymour and says, “Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother.” Seymour responds by mocking her stutter: “N-n-no.” He quickly apologizes, but Merry, fighting tears, concedes that she deserves his mockery because she gets carried away. Roth transcribes her repetition of “away”—“awuh-awuh-awuh-awuh”—as spanning 18 syllables, a moment of disfluency that lasts longer than Seymour “could possibly bear.” (This line still stings to read; hard to think the way I talk is unbearable for a listener.) He surrenders, and “kiss[es] her stuttering mouth.”
Seymour looks back on this moment as a potential explanation for why Merry later commits a fatal act of political terrorism. Her violence and her disfluency could be linked. Seymour’s brother, for one, insists that Merry’s terrorist attack was a way “to pay everybody back for her stuttering.” Dawn concurs. “It’s all from the stuttering, isn’t it?” Dawn says of Merry’s rebelliousness. “She’s angry because she stutters.” Roth is too nuanced a thinker to suggest that Merry is violent solely because she stutters, but he doesn’t rule out that she is, in Dawn’s words, angry because she stutters. This is a gendered characterization of stuttering mostly applies to women: in a 2012 paper entitled “Angry Because She Stutters,” scholar Chris Eagle suggests that while for male characters fluency is “equated with masculine self-assertiveness” (and thus male stutterers are depicted as stunted and immature), for female characters disfluency is a way to buck against social expectations of feminine perfection.
When Merry continues to stutter into adolescence, it’s no longer endearing. Teenaged Merry sheds all traditional femininity and becomes “chaos itself”—fat and pimply and dirty, acrimonious and intensely political, wielding her disfluency like a “machete with which to mow all the bastard liars down.” She berates, among other politicians, a televised Hubert Humphrey: “Sh-sh-shut your lying m-m-mouth, you c-c-coward, you f-f-f-f-filthy fucking collaborator!” Seymour and Dawn start to live “in dread of Merry’s stuttering tongue.” Before they know it, their daughter plants a bomb at a local post office, killing a civilian. She goes into hiding. When Seymour finally discovers her, five years and three bombings later, Merry is a destitute and devout Jain, committed to nonviolence and completely fluent. Seymour seems to mourn her disfluent speech: “What was missing from her unstuttering words,” he thinks, “. . . was the sound of life.”
As most all fictional stutterers must, Merry ultimately “cures” her stuttering (though, in reality, those who stutter past puberty will likely stutter for life) with a little attitude adjustment. “Everything she could not achieve with a speech therapist and a psychiatrist and a stuttering diary she had beautifully realized by going mad,” Seymour thinks. “She had attained control, mental and physical, over every sound she uttered.” This newfound fluency, Seymour says, was his greatest dream, “that his wonderful, gifted child would one day stop stuttering.” I want to reach through the page and tell him that some of the most wonderful, gifted people I know are those who stutter.
There are some aspects of American Pastoral that authentically reflect the experience of disfluency. When Merry sees a speech therapist, she’s made to keep a “stuttering diary,” where she records “how the stuttering fluctuated throughout the day, in what context it was least likely to occur, when it was most likely to occur and with whom,” an appreciated acknowledgement of disfluency’s fluid nature. “Even when I’m doing fine,” she writes in the diary, “I can’t stop thinking, ‘How soon is it going to be before he knows I’m a stutterer? How soon is it going to be before I start stuttering and screw this up?’” (I’ve had these same thoughts.) Merry is authentic in other ways: she resents being praised for being fluent (a commonly held feeling) and doesn’t stutter when she sings (this is also a thing). Like many stutterers, Merry diligently practices techniques prescribed by her speech therapist to work through moments of disfluency.
Seymour ensures Merry feels in his presence that she can “stutter freely,” phrase now popular in the stuttering community. Still, at times he wants to “cry out in exasperation, ‘If you dare the gods and are fluent, what terrible thing do you think will happen?’” In his distress after the bombing, he resorts to calling her a “stuttering, sputtering little bitch.” He recalls how “everything was wonderful and remained wonderful and went on being wonderful until the stuttering.” Ouch. In fairness, he seems to eventually figure out the false correlation between disfluency and terrorism: “How did all this happen to this wonderful kid?” he asks himself. “She stuttered. So what? What was the big deal? . . . Thousands upon thousands of young people stuttered—they didn’t all grow up to set off bombs! What went wrong with Merry?” (In fact, over three million adults stutter, but he’s got the right idea.)
Reading American Pastoral requires a certain level of compartmentalization, in which I can admire the novel’s masterful prose and also acknowledge the pain it provokes. I can appreciate that fiction does not have to be representative and also believe that it should be respectful. In Merry Levov I saw flashes of own life and also felt horror at the symbolism and diagnosis allegedly behind her stutter. Merry is smart and principled and passionate and she navigates disfluency with relatable determination and poise; she is also volatile, demented, and murderous.
Merry is in many ways the novel’s antagonist. Her homicidal impulses and decline into destitution are meant to caution us: Don’t be like Merry. But in a very real sense, I do want to be like Merry. Despite what she stands for—the social disintegration of a nation, the waywardness of a generation, the thwarting of Seymour’s American dream—she is at times a worthy example for women who stutter (though I doubt this was Roth’s intention). About midway through American Pastoral—prior to Merry’s descent into madness and subsequent achievement of fluency—is one of the only descriptions I’ve ever encountered of a truly empowered stutterer. It’s a passage from which I derive tremendous clarity and to which I often return:
She had conquered the anguishing stutter all right, but not as her parents and her therapist had hoped. No, Merry concluded that what was deforming her life wasn’t the stuttering but the futile effort to overturn it. The crazy effort. The ridiculous significance she had given to that stutter to meet the . . . expectations of the very parents and teachers and friends who had caused her to so overestimate something as secondary as the way she talked. Not what she said but how she said it was all that bothered them. And all she really had to do to be free of it was to not give a shit about how it made them so miserable when she had to pronounce the letter b. Yes, she cut herself away from caring about the abyss that opened up under everybody’s feet when she started stuttering; her stuttering was no longer going to be the center of her existence—and she’d make damn sure that it wasn’t going to be the center of theirs.