Howard Stern’s impact on my Identity as a Woman who Stutters

I am a Howard Stern fan.  The name on my Safeway card is Nina Bababooey so that when I check out, the cashier is forced to say thank you Ms. Bababooey.  I went to a taping of America’s Got Talent just to see Howard Stern.  I sat with complete strangers where we immediately bonded and shouted as loud as we could, “F Jackie” and “four inches is fine.”  Stern made me a Lady Gaga fan and periodically makes me cry on my way to work when he and Robin talk about her struggles with cancer and the genuine affection they have for one another.  How did someone who identifies as a militant Disabled feminist become such a stern fan?  You mean the answer isn’t obvious?  Let me explain.

It all started in the late 1980s.  I was in high school.  I was a weird girl.  It wasn’t because I had a Learning Disability and stuttered?  It was because I was into unusual things that not even my unusual peers were into.  I loved comedy.  The men I were in love with were all stand up comedians with my biggest crush being Barry Sobel, a stand up comedian who got his start in San Francisco and appeared on the Tonight Show.  Not surprisingly, I was the only girl at school writing I ❤ Barry Sobel on my binders.  My high school years were spent taping comedy from HBO half hour comedy specials, watching SNL and listening to the Alex Bennett show where local comedians from the San Francisco Bay Area appeared, many who I am happy to say I have been able to work with.  My role models for women were Laverne DeFazio, not Madonna or Debbie Gibson.  The one piece missing for me was someone to look up to who had a disability similar to mine.

When I was nine years old I saw my first person, other than me, who stuttered.  It was Raider’s cornerback Lester Hayes.  He had an amazing game where he did something amazing and then he was interviewed, and that was the amazing part for me.  My dad shouted at me, “look at the TV!”  Lester Hayes was being interviewed and stuttered!  Instead of pride, I thought to myself, “tomorrow at school everyone is going to make fun of him.”  I found out the next day that no one cared.  Your accolades overshadow your disabilities.  As cool as it was to see someone stutter on TV, I didn’t relate much to him.  I didn’t care much for sports, as much as the Raiders were thrusted upon me (my brother saw my dad cry at an exhibition game when the then LA Raiders returned for one night to play the 49ers at the Oakland Coliseum).  A male football player didn’t really do it for me.  There was also country singer Mel Tillis who I love now because of his songwriting and music, but as many times as I saw Cannonball Run as a young girl, I just couldn’t relate to him.  I spent the remainder of my childhood identifying most with Porky Pig and the occasional badly acted stutterers on shows like Small Wonder where someone who stutters appeared for one very special episode.

One night when I was about 15 years old I saw him.  I was watching a show from a New York station on my local cable channel.  It was Howard Stern’s Channel 9 show.  The show was funny, but what stuck out to me was a guy on who stuttered.  He interviewed people, asking them horrible things.  They both reacted to his speech as well as the awful things he asked.  The reactions were reactions that I knew way too well and had never seen this level of my experience reflected on TV.  The person doing the interviews was Stuttering John [Melendez].  There was a very, very, very small window of time when Stuttering John was cute and he entered my life at exactly that time.  He was no Barry Sobel, but he was cute and he stuttered.  Stern, Fred (writer on the show) and others made fun of John, but it didn’t feel horrible.  It wasn’t like he was a victim in being made fun of instead it felt like inclusion.  It would have been weird for them to give him a pass and not make fun of his speech.  If Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’abate was made fun of because of his teeth and looking like Oates (from Hall and Oates), then John’s stuttering was fair game.  That’s right, the first time I saw someone on TV who stuttered who I could relate to was being made fun of on the Howard Stern show.  Since he was a recurring character, unlike the numerous other one time characters with a disability, I was able to watch every week, looking forward to someone who talked like me on TV.

Seeing Stuttering John helped me to own my stuttering.  It was the first time that I saw someone be dysfluent and it was ok–in fact even celebrated (ok, made fun of but he was part of the joke).  He purged people’s attitudes about stuttering.  I remember the day I started hating Chevy Chase.  It was when he was on the Tonight Show and he commented on Raquel Welch punching Stuttering John.  He asked if the punch cured his stuttering.  Thanks Chevy, we really want to connect violence toward stutterers with fluency.  I don’t care if National Lampoon’s Vacation is a great movie and that you were one of the first cast of Not Ready for Prime Time Players.  You are on my shit list Chevy Chase!  You can thank Stuttering John for that.

The relationship with the Howard Stern show began then.  I have been listening ever since.  About ten years after I found the channel 9 show, Stern had another stuttering first for me.  He had on a young woman who sold hot dogs out of a cart in a bikini.  She also stuttered and her name was Nina (that’s my name in case you didn’t know).  It was actually the first time on TV I saw a woman who stuttered (I was about 23 years old).  More men than women stutter (1:4 ratio in adults), so the representation of women who stutter is small, plus I don’t think the media represents us.  I sometimes think that if you have more than one identity TV executives think people’s heads will explode so representations of stuttering are usually white men.  We almost had an Asian American female who stuttered on Glee but she was faking it on the show (Glee, you are also on my shit list).  So seeing Nina the hot hot dog girl was a big deal for me.  There was misinformation in the interview like Stern saying that stuttering is a psychological problem.  He is wrong, it is neurological.  But I was able to see a woman on TV who talked like me and even stuttered on “Nina”.

Many see Howard Stern through a sexist ableist (that is the term for abled bodied bias) lens.  They hear snippets of the show that then color their entire perception of the show and Stern.  He makes fun of people with disabilities, but they are also on the show and represent holistic experiences of life.  They have sex, they can be assholes, they experience more than just being inspirational images to abled bodied people (the predominant image in our media).  On the topic of sexism and Stern I have mixed feelings.  It seems like much of the sexism now is represented in the cast of players like Ronnie the Limo Driver who objectifies women but is criticized for it.  This is different from Stern’s more shock jock persona of the 1980s.  I have seen Stern and the people on his show change.  They acknowledge the language of the disability community (and sometimes integrate it into their speech).  I have also seen the impact that this level of visibility has had.  Many times I will be asked, after I get off stage from doing stand up, “can I ask you a personal question.”  Most other situations this is bound to be something awful about curing my stuttering, but when it comes from a Stern fan, they respectfully ask, “have you ever considered contacting the Howard Stern Show.”  We immediately bond.  They have already met someone who stutters because of the Stern show, so they already know how to react (and often how not to react) to my speech.  I am thankful to Stern for including people like me.  Of course, I don’t speak for all people who stutter.  Some might be extremely offended in Fred mocking Stuttering John’s speech, but for me, when there is genuine love for one another some making fun is ok because it can express affection (perhaps it is an Italian thing).  It is why my good friends in comedy can mock me all they want but if you are not friends with me and we don’t have love then you too will be on my shit list with Chevy Chase and the producers of Glee.  Finding people who can fulfill your need to identify when you are a person with a disability can be difficult.  Sure, I would love to have had other options to find my identity as a woman who stutters, but they were not available.  As I always like to emphasize, when a Disabled feminist says the only place she saw herself reflected was on the Howard Stern show, you know there is great room for the media to improve.

In case you can relate to a Football player who stutters, here you go:  http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-films-americas-game/09000d5d8008cd0c/America-s-Game-1980-Raiders

Picture with Nina doing stand up, captioned: I didn’t see a real woman who stuttered on TV until I was 23 and it was on the Howard Stern show.  When a woman with a Disability who considers herself a feminist says the only place she saw herself reflected was on the Howard Stern show, you know the media could be doing a better job representing disability

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Don’t be THAT person (when talking to a Person who Stutter)

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For as long as I have stuttered I have had strange, odd, and rude things told to me by well-intentioned and not-so-well intentioned fluent types (that’s what I call people who don’t stutter).  I have assembled a few of my top comments to help raise awareness of what not to say to a person who stutters.  There are the less fun things you should know, like not to interrupt us, complete our sentences and not to look strange at us when we are talking.  Those aren’t as amusing as the ones I would like to talk about here.  So as you read, please take note and don’t be THAT person when talking to a person who stutters.

“You are such an inspiration.  If I talked like you, I wouldn’t talk at all!”

Someone actually said this to me after I did a presentation on a topic not related to stutter at a community library.  Perhaps I should superglue my mouth, lady?  Way to make me feel self-conscious about my speech while also reducing the courage that it takes to sometimes speak in front of others to a Lifetime movie of the week.  There were probably 100+ insightful things I said during the presentation and for her to focus on my speech reduced my thoughts to my speech.  Granted, when I see someone stutter, I am mesmerized because it feels like home and I feel myself reflected in their voice.  I am inspired but it is from a very different place.  Calling someone an inspiration is hack!  It’s been done!  Let’s focus on what the person is saying instead of how they are saying it.

“You should try singing for your stuttering, because singing is good for the soul.”

A massage therapist told me this in a hippy spa in Calistoga, California.  I just wanted her to massage my over developed stutterer’s jaw (it is really quite impressive), but had to hear her cure for my speech.  First of all, I have a horrible signing voice.  Second, that is ridiculous.  Third, and hopefully this is a given, there is nothing wrong with the soul that is being manifested through my stuttering.  Religious types who want to pray for my speech, make sure you get this one!  I figure that if God didn’t cure Moses stutter (instead God recommended an accommodation of having Aaron speak for Moses), then he is probably not going to worry about mine.

“Why can’t you stop stuttering like the guy in the King’s Speech?” (Previously, “I was watching Oprah and I saw thing that makes you not stutter”)

For years, when a stranger said the words “I was watching the Oprah show and…” I always knew what was coming next!  Some cure about how to reduce my speech.  It didn’t matter that they were changing the oil in my car or giving me a colonoscopy (both metaphorically similar I suppose)—they still felt the need to educate me about my own stuttering.  As if their one hour of watching Oprah, or the King’s Speech, suddenly makes them a PhD in stuttering.  I usually try to educate people that my focus is not on fluency (not talking with a stutter) and instead communicating effectively—which I am pretty good at and singing everything to achieve fluency isn’t really how I want to communicate!  Plus, King George (that dude in the King’s Speech) was going up against Hitler and World War II, I am just trying to order a pastrami sandwich.  Plus, and I must say this on behalf of people who stutter around the world, King George wasn’t cured.  He said one speech KIND OF fluently.

“Have you considered a brain invasive surgery to stop stuttering?”

When you say this to someone (more specifically me), what I hear is “your speech is so outside the norm of what I am use to that you should consider brain surgery.”  A frontal lobe lobotomy for my stuttering isn’t something I am really interested in!   Similar to the Oprah example, keep your recommendations to yourself, unless we are paying you to hear them.  People who stutter seek out the information when they want it, your advice on the street when you over hear us stuttering while breaking up with our girlfriend/boyfriend, probably isn’t the time and place.  Also, anything that invasive is just creepy—especially since nothing like this exists in good stuttering circles.

“You stutter because you haven’t had the right kind of orgasm.”

This might be interchangeable with “I could bang the stutter out of you.”  Last I checked the research on stuttering, believe it or not, stuttering can’t be cured by your genitals.  If you want to flirt with a stutter, try something a little more subtle.

Stories from the brainreels guests Caitlin Wood, Kathy Coleman and Lavaun Heaster

Good stuff from good people!

Who Am I To Stop It

Listen to this post: 

We’re kicking off the new year with a lot of new arts buzz!

I decided to have some chats with three of the women with disabilities on the Portland arts scene who’ve been most influential in my development as an artist and with my identity as a person with a disability. I wanted them to come on the show to promote their work and reach out to some new audiences.

One big theme that came up with each of them is the idea of community and that people with all types of impairments or disabilities may have a lot more in common than differences. Sure, someone with only a physical impairment in their legs might not have the same difficulties with memory, attention, organization, and communication as someone with a brain injury like me.

At the same time, we do have some common experiences around feeling…

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Podcast Interview on Women who Stutter

Podcast Interview on Women who Stutter

Flashback Thursday from my interview with Pamela Mertz who hosts a podcast where women who stutter share their stories.  Here Pam and I talk about experiences being the world’s only female stuttering stand up comedian.  I heard recently that I lost this title because there is a new comedian coming out of England who has de-throned my status.  Check out Pam’s always insightful show!

Picture from a workshop Pam and I facilitated at the National Stuttering Association for women who stutter.

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What counting cards in math class taught me about learned helplessness

My relationship with math was pretty complicated in my public high school.  They placed me in the most basic math class because of my test scores, even though I had pre-algebra two years prior in seventh grade (I don’t test well and test even less well when I don’t receive accommodations).  I was kind of scared of the kids in my Math Skills 1 class, some of whom would come to school with their juvenile hall sweatshirt that they acquired the weekend before.  This was a change from my Catholic school the year previously.  Juvinelle hall shirts would only be allowed on free dress days, and only if worn with a collared shirt.  Needless to say I felt out of place although I did feed the Middle Eastern kid I sat next to, Italian swear words to ask the teacher who had an Italian surname and bushy eyebrows so I wasn’t completely alone.

Somehow I managed to get out of the track of classes I was in and in junior year found myself in geometry.  When I asked my school counselor if I could skip Math Skills 2 to advance math classes she explained, “yes you can because there is a law called the ‘right to fail’ law.  It says that you can take a class if you want to because you have the right to fail it.”  Subsequently, she added to Geometry.  Luckily, I had seven and a half years of Catholic school education where most of the teachers reflected the same attitude so I knew she was full of shit.

With my counselor’s vote of nonconfidence, I entered the class.  On the first day the teacher had us sit in alphabetical order which meant that my desk was in the last row.  I knew that because of my language based Learning Disability I needed to sit in the front of the class.  One of the many features of my LD is auditory processing problems.  Sometimes my language processing is much like Charlie Brown’s when his teacher talks to him ( I hear “wa-wa-wawawa”).  It helps to be in the front so that I can focus on the person’s speech, their intonation, body gestures, what they are writing on the board and screen out the cute boy three rows away or the horrible outfit that the girl in the front row is wearing.  It is common for students with auditory processing issues to request that they sit in the front row as an accommodation.  Knowing that this has been recommended by my educational specialists and special ed teachers for as long as I had been diagnosed, I requested a seat change from my teacher, Mr. Cooper.  He explained that my last name began with G and therefore I belonged in the back row of the class.  I protested and tried to advocate with no avail and remained in the last row.

Knowing that I would have a difficult time because of my seat placement and topic, I pursued other interests in class.  Geometry was right before lunch which meant I had the lunch money that my mom gave to buy my corn dog, Duritos and Diet Coke.  With $5 in hand, I engaged in a card game that we had most days in class.  The guys in the back row would sneak a card game of Blackjack and we would bet money.  Always a jinx, I lost my lunch money most of the days and would have to bum food off my friends.  That term I received a D on my report card but was introduced to counting cards.

The next school term students added and dropped the class, changing the seating arrangements.  I ended up sitting in the first row-exactly where I had previously advocated for.  I consciously made an effort that term.  I attentively listened, took notes and would go to my resource teacher to get extra help.  For those who don’t know, the resource room is where many students who have LD or other kinds of disabilities receive services as part of their Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  I actually worked pretty hard that term and my resource teacher, Ms. Rumsey knew I was putting in the effort.

In the weeks to come, Mr. Cooper was passing back our tests.  He would obnoxiously announce whoever got a B+ or higher–”Ethan got an A—Heather got an A-.”  Teachers, if you want to add a layer of stratification and intellectual snobbery in your class, be sure to do this technique!  This practice resulted in me was calling the A students nerds under my breath and manipulating it in my head that they were less cool.  That was all until one day.  Mr. Cooper was handing back tests and for the first time he announced “and Nina got an A-.” I was in disbelief!  And this wasn’t the kind of literary disbelief that read about in Jane Austen books.  It was not internally based–it was a very outward kind of disbelief.  I verbally protested, “are you sure it was my test?  What do you think of that Mr. Cooper?”  He seemed to quickly move onto the next A test.

I was so excited that I ran to the resource room as soon as class let out.  I found Ms. Ramsey and showed her the A-.  I explained, “I got an A- on the test!  I am pretty sure that it is because I prayed to God and he answered my prayers.”  Hey! I was coming out of Catholic school–what did you expect?!  This was when Ms. Ramsey went off on me.  She yelled at me.  It was probably the first time and only time a special education teacher ever yelled at me, “Listen! You worked really hard for this grade.  You have been coming to my classroom a lot and I know you know this material.  It wasn’t God, it was your hard work.”  I replied somewhat disappointed, “ya, I know.”

I could not think of a more better response from Ms. Ramsey (ya, I know that this is bad grammar, even for me, but this feels like the best way to say it).  I did something successfully and she rubbed my nose in it.  You have to understand something about having a Learning Disability.  Part of your experience having a LD is that there are so many times in your school life that you try and then fail.  This happens again and again that you eventually stop trying.  That is what I did when I was losing my lunch money in the back of class.  I gave up on trying to do well because it felt like there were too many factors against me.  Then when I did attempt and I succeeded, I attributed the success not to my own abilities but to something outside myself.  This is Special Ed Psychology 101 kind of shit.  What happened was I suffered from learned helplessness (trying and failing, so eventually stopped trying).  When I did succeed it was attributed to an external locus of control.  It was something outside of me–God (because my Geometry test is right up there on God’s to-do-list).  It might also be attributed to luck or “that test is easy” kind of thinking.  What Ms. Ramsey did was make sure that I knew that the test was attributed to my underdeveloped internal locus of control (I did it because I had the skills and knowledge).

When working with kids and even adults with Learning and Attentional Disabilities it is good to keep learned helplessness in mind.  When training teachers I will often ask them, “if you worked at a job where most of the day capitalized on things that were challenging for you, would you stay in that job?  Then what do you think the experience is for your students with Learning Disabilities?”  Structuring classrooms or other learning environments so that success can be felt in very real ways is important.  I am not advocating to just give the kid an A because they showed up.  They will know you are full of shit and this adds to no ones self-esteem.  Instead work with individuals with LD to figure out the best ways to reach them and accommodate them.  It is also important that students feel that they have something they are invested in.  Taking a kid out or sports or drama because their GPA slips under a 2.0 can often be classified as bullshit.  If the kid is trying, making improvements, and attempting to the address the issue, then why take away the one thing that they enjoy and feel invested in.  Parents and teachers might consider advocating for a waiver as part of a 504 plan or IEP.  Having something you are invested in that you do well will help to break down the learned helplessness and hopefully be generalized to other aspects of the students life.

Picture from Once Upon an Accommodation: A Book about Learning Disabilities (I wrote it!).  Here the character Matt reflects on all the things he is good at.
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The Real Reason Women Aren’t Funny

The question of whether or not women are funny has plagued the comedy community for as long as there have been female comedians.  In recent years Jerry Lewis, Adam Carolla, and David Letterman’s stand up comedian booker, Eddie Brill, have all commented that women aren’t funny.  The most recent spokesman for comedic sexism came from Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson who implied it is difficult to find a funny Black woman.  As a female comedian these arguments naturally feel invalidating to the difficult chore of comedy. I have often wondered what is behind such comments.  Just blaming it on good old fashion misogyny or men who have mommy issues isn’t satisfactory.  There must be a deeper meaning to why it is perceived that women aren’t funny and why some men feel that it is ok to express this perspective.

I propose that the comment “women aren’t funny” is really a euphemism for “women aren’t smart.”  There are few contexts in today’s world where it is acceptable for anyone to make the over generalization that a particular group is not smart, but criticisms of a group’s sense of humor seems to be more acceptable.  What is the basic, core element to being funny—intelligence.  If women, on the whole, are not funny then it must reflect that we don’t have the core characteristic to make us funny.

All comedians must possess some level of intelligence in order to convey the irony and absurdity of the situations from which humor stems or to make digestible the discrimination one feels (a la Wanda Sykes).  Even female comedians whose shtick is one of being less intelligent or incompetent like Gracie Allen or Lucille Ball,  show a cloak of intelligence is needed to pull off her comedic perspective.  Perhaps our society is better able to digest comedy from a woman if she is “raunchy,” “dumb,” or “childlike.”  Even going back to the Vaudeville days, Fannie Brice played Baby Snooks, an infantilized adult child.  Marilyn Monroe who was considered intelligent in her personal life played the “dumb blonde” in her comedic portrayals.  It is acceptable to say that women aren’t funny instead of women are not smart enough to contribute to the social fabric of American entertainment as comedians.

There seems to be a lack of female comedians who are political.  It seems as if this is a frontier that many women have not flourished in.  Sure, we have Whoopi Goldberg, Janeane Garofalo and Wanda Sykes but few have been marketed as “political comedians” in the same way Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert have (where are their solo-led news shows?).  I was talking to a friend about the lack of female political comedians.  He reflected back, “women just got the ability to vote and now you think they will be allowed into the comedic political realm?”  He’s right!  The job of politicians is to maintain the socio-political status quo while making incremental changes, which is why political change seems to happen at such a snail’s pace.  The job of a good comedian as I see it, is to challenge the status quo and hold a mirror up for society.  It is difficult for women, as well as other disempowered groups, to enter the realm of a political comedian because these positions of calling out the status quo are not traditionally etched out for us.

 

In our politically correct world we are often restricted from saying what we want to say in a direct way.  Perhaps for a mysoginistic culture, we know that saying “women aren’t smart and should remain in a powerless role” is unacceptable, but to say that they are “not funny” is allowed.  I don’t think that people who say this necessarily hate women but instead have been socialized to perceive women as less intelligent and/or are intimidated by women who are funny, smart, powerful, etc..  It is the same place I have been socialized so I know it well.  It is the same message that middle school girls get when they go from straight As to Bs and Cs because it is not considered cool or attractive to be smart.  Women and girls are funny, thus, women and girls are smart, and sometimes even create societal change from their art form.

 

About the author: Nina G is America’s only female stuttering stand up comedian (or at least until she finds another). She is also a disability activist, storyteller, children’s book author and educator.  Her book, Once Upon An Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities, helps children to better understand their disability and how to advocate for access.  She brings her humor to help people confront and understand social justice issues such as disability and equity.

 Picture of Janeane Garofalo, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.

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Insights from a stuttering comedian with dyslexia. These are my unedited thoughts. Grammar and spelling doesn't count on blogging, especially since it did I would never post!