Emma Alpern On How the Stuttering Self-Help Community Transforms Darkness Into Power
“We are definitely willing to go to the dark places, even if there’s this push toward stuttering positivity…but being around other people who stutter kind of transforms that darkness into a power.”
When I first touch base with Emma Alpern about the possibility of an interview, she responds by saying, “I have been feeling a bit out of the stuttering loop lately…but maybe we can talk about stuttering apathy.” With such a strong, supportive voice for stuttering positivity, her use of the word “apathy” catches me off guard. I am immediately intrigued.
Alpern has been a leading voice in the stuttering community for the past decade. A copy editor and writer by trade, she has written about stuttering for the The Atlantic, Broadly, and Did I Stutter. She has also been featured on the StutterTalk podcast, previously served as the Brooklyn chapter co-lead for the National Stuttering Association (NSA), has participated as a speaker for the FRIENDS stuttering organization, and is regularly quoted by other authors in their writings about stuttering.
Looking back at some of her past work, including her articles “Stutter More, with Feeling” (Broadly, 2015) and “Learning to Love to Stutter” (The Atlantic, 2015), it’s easy to see why Alpern’s point of view resonates with others. She puts forward an empowering message that calls on stutterers to work together as advocates. She suggests that people who stutter can and should take the helm at the self-help table and be the driving force in altering society’s misguided perceptions about stuttering.
I was excited to speak with Alpern and hear the story of how she became involved with the wider stuttering community – not just because of her reputation, but also because she is the first woman I have had the opportunity to interview for this stuttering blog. Statistically, the ratio of men in comparison to women who stutter is in the ballpark of 4:1, and my blog has certainly been a reflection of this disparity. Time for a change.
The evening we connect over Zoom, Alpern is busy working from home under a deadline. She has a new position with New York Magazine and clearly has a lot on her plate, but I get the sense that she is used to multi-tasking. Despite a few interruptions (including a cameo by her cat) during our call, she remains a thoughtful and compelling interview subject throughout our conversation together.
Sharing her story from the beginning, she starts with her childhood in Pennsylvania. Alpern remembers that she began stuttering around the first grade. Feeling an increased sense of worry and embarrassment about her speech, her previously outgoing personality began to change. She became less talkative, and less willing to speak up in class.
At such a young age, she didn’t yet have the cognitive resources to understand her reactions to stuttering. She knew she wanted stuttering to go away, but the more she tried to stop it, the more tension she inadvertently introduced to her speech. Alpern began using avoidance behaviors, most typically substituting words that were hard to say with ones she could say fluently, or using filler words and phrases such as “um,” “so,” and “you know.”
Speech therapy Alpern received at school did little to address the neurophysiology that underlies stuttering. At that time, as perhaps was prevalent during the 90s, speech therapy was focused on a “correctable approach.” Her therapist primarily encouraged her to use speech strategies in order to sound more fluent, but this did not help to make speaking any easier outside of the therapy room, nor did it help her to feel more comfortable with stuttering in general.
She does, however, recall one special stuttering memory. Alpern thinks she was 11 years old at the time. Another student, also a stutterer, had just finished speaking in front of the class. It hadn’t gone well and Alpern felt an outpouring of empathy. She approached this student and offered, “I know how you feel. That’s really hard.” The two shared a profound moment of solidarity. She comments that such a connecting experience did not happen again until her twenties.
While stuttering marked her childhood, it was also beginning to shape her life’s course. Alpern credits stuttering with igniting her passion for writing and literature from an early age. Reading was an escape from talking. Writing was a way for her to prove her eloquence and intelligence on the page. As she tells it, “Stuttering kind of clinched my career path in a lot of ways.”
She entered college as an English major. Meanwhile, her struggles with stuttering intensified. Alpern expresses that as an undergrad she generally had a difficult time pushing herself to break free of her comfort zone. Much of her energy was preoccupied just trying to survive.
She was waiting for fluency to magically appear and had been avoiding the little things: ordering her own food, meeting new people, and having everyday conversations.
Eventually she grew tired of these self-imposed limitations. “I was just at a point where something needed to change.”
She sought the guidance of a speech therapist, Kim Sabourin, a board-certified stuttering specialist at Temple University in Philadelphia. Sabourin took a cognitive approach to speech therapy that helped Alpern to be more accepting of stuttering. Alpern further describes this therapy approach: “There was a ton of reframing, putting words to feelings, and figuring out exactly what I was worried about and how to live with stuttering rather than make it go away.”
Realizing that she would live with stuttering for the rest of her life, Alpern decided she might as well stop trying to fight it. In turn, this led to her stuttering with greater comfort and ease. Within six months of therapy, she also found the courage to attend her first stuttering support group, a life-altering experience of which she observes, “It gives me chills to talk about it right now.”
After years of hiding her stuttering, Alpern found herself talking in front of a group of people without worrying about her speech. Everyone in the room understood her feelings and past experiences. She was no longer alone, and now that her introduction to the stuttering support community had taken place, she was determined to keep going.
Alpern moved to Virginia to attend graduate school and, as luck would have it, soon met undergraduate student Courtney Luckman (now a practicing speech-language pathologist), who had just started a local NSA support group. It had a small initial membership, allowing Alpern to take on a more significant role within the group.
Meanwhile, she also continued to pursue therapy, working with speech-pathology graduate students at the university. By then, she knew exactly what she hoped to gain from speech therapy and helped guide the students to understand her goals: “I wanted to be able to talk about stuttering, to not hold back, to not be restricted by trying not to stutter, to say what I wanted to say.” Her own ideas about stuttering and stuttering therapy were taking shape, and the momentum didn’t stop there.
Alpern started a stuttering blog. She also began reaching out to other individuals who were making waves within the stuttering community. One such individual was Peter Reitzes, a host and founder of the StutterTalk podcast. He ended up inviting her on the program. That was an unfathomable experience, as just years earlier she was avoiding speaking publicly, and here she was just a short time later, talking about stuttering (and also stuttering) on the air! All of these wins were transformative experiences.
Upon completing graduate school, Alpern moved to New York. She started attending the Brooklyn NSA chapter meetings, and through that group established many new friendships. The group enjoyed stimulating discussions about stuttering and life. It also helped her form close personal connections in a new city. A year later she became a co-leader for the chapter.
It has been approximately a decade since Alpern first found her way into the larger stuttering community. Since then, she has learned so much about stuttering and its advantages. For example, the way stuttering connects people and leads to lifelong friendships. She has also seen a growing shift toward stuttering acceptance, and not just from fellow stutterers. Alpern expresses to me that many speech therapists (although not all) seem to have come a long way since those “correctable therapy” days of the 90s, allowing neurodiversity and the self-help space to thrive. Could this be because more people who stutter are becoming speech therapists, influencing professional perspectives from the inside out? Regardless of the cause, Alpern views this trend toward stuttering advocacy and acceptance as a much-needed change.
With such a remarkable journey behind her, I wonder where that initial e-mail exchange and “stuttering apathy” reference came from? She explains that it stems from her current high level of fluency, describing that she is at “a low point of stuttering.” Stuttering is cyclical by nature; it has peaks and valleys over time. She conveys that it feels strange to attend stuttering support group meetings and sound particularly devoid of stuttering. “It could reinforce the idea that you’re supposed to sound fluent. Who are you lifting up in this community if that’s the case?”
I am struck by her sentiment. It’s not that fluency isn’t welcome in stuttering support groups. It’s that openly stuttering, and hearing others stutter, is such an empowering part of the group experience.
She also notes that it takes a lot of work to organize meetings, read the latest research, and write about stuttering. It isn’t feasible to always be full-steam ahead on stuttering activism when life is calling you to fulfill so many other career and personal obligations. Speaking of which, Alpern interjects to let me know her time is running low; she needs to return to work.
Before we end the call, I ask what advice she has to impart to others who are perhaps just starting on their journey of connecting with the stuttering community. She replies, “I wish people knew that stuttering is not something that all of us are attempting to fix. Stuttering can be an identity for a lot of us. It’s what binds us together as a community. We are definitely willing to go to the dark places…even if there’s this push toward stuttering positivity…but being around other people who stutter kind of transforms that darkness into a power.”
"We can’t deny that stuttering is uncomfortable, annoying and painful for a lot of people. Stuttering is not necessarily a wholesale positive thing, but at the end of the day, it’s our voices. I just hope that stuttering continues to have a thriving enough community to keep serving as a source of pride and empowerment. It’s on us. I would encourage people to seek out support spaces and to create them if they’re inspired. I would love to see the stuttering community grow, and grow, and grow.”
Alpern suggests that for people who stutter, just being together – whether socially or as an organized entity – is what will continue the forward momentum.
And hopefully, I might add, Alpern’s contributions to the community will also be around for a long time to come.