Words of comfort

Atlantic senior editor John Hendrickson returns to Denver to discuss new book about his stuttering journey

Credit: Matthew Bernucca

John Hendrickson lives in New York City, but the Front Range is where his life first began to take shape. Currently a senior editor at the Atlantic, the 34-year-old journalist cut his teeth as a cub music reporter at the Denver Post, spending his fresh-out-of-college days living in the vibrant Baker neighborhood, making “great friends at the paper and great friends in the music scene.”

One of Hendrickson’s first big moments at the Atlantic came in 2019, when he interviewed then-presidential-candidate Joe Biden about his experience with stuttering. The resulting article expressed some disappointment, or at least confusion, over Biden’s refusal to admit he still stutters, despite what experts say are coping mechanisms easily seen in Biden’s public appearances. “What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say,” as the powerful piece was titled, also represented a life-changing moment for Hendrickson, who discussed his own stutter in the article.

Before the Atlantic feature on Biden was published in the magazine’s January-February 2020 issue, Hendrickson’s speech impediment “was very much the elephant in the room” throughout his life. He virtually never discussed it, even with family and friends.

“After writing that article, so many people who stutter from around the world began reaching out to me and began telling me their life stories,” Hendrickson says. “That made me feel like I was tapping into something, that there was a desire for more writing about this topic, and that there were layers to explore. But it took me a long time to get there and to become comfortable pursuing it at all, and I don’t know if I ever became 100% comfortable. I think I just reached a point where I was, like, ‘Alright, I guess this is happening,’ and then you’re just sort of moving forward. I think that’s how a lot of life is.”

Courtesy: Penguin Random House

Hendrickson’s new book about his stuttering journey, Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter, was published Jan. 17 via Penguin Random House. In the wake of his article about President Biden, and the mountain of correspondence it garnered, the longtime reporter finally engaged the stuttering community.

“A lot of people were encouraging me to check out one of the local chapter meetings of the National Stuttering Association [NSA], and it took me a while to find the confidence to go,” Hendrickson says. “Maybe nine or 10 months after that, I went to my first meeting of the Brooklyn chapter. It happened over Zoom, but it was kind of crazy to be around all these other adults who stutter, and it kind of rocked my world.”

The following year, he attended the NSA annual conference in Austin, followed the next week by a smaller event hosted outside Denver by a Colorado-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit called FRIENDS: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter

“It was a great reason to go back to my old stomping grounds, and at that conference I actually met Steve Varney [Gregory Alan Isakov guitarist and person who stutters] and had a real great conversation with him, and I met some other wonderful Colorado people who stutter, and I’ve remained close with them ever since.”

Throughout his early career as a writer, Hendrickson attempted to cover up his stutter by leaning on email and in-person interviews, which he says ease his stutter. “Phoners,” as journalists often call phone interviews, presented a “time pressure that just takes you back to childhood.” Now, he’s more at ease telling subjects upfront that he stutters.

“I think I’ve only become comfortable doing that in the past two-to-four years, and I went through so many interviews trying to keep the world’s worst secret, like ‘I hope they don’t figure it out.’ It was so obvious,” he says. “Disclosing that I stutter before we get started puts the other person at ease, and makes them let their guard down a little bit in a way that they might not to a more intimidating, fast-talking journalist — and the result is I think that I’ve been able to get more interesting stories out of people sometimes.”

Now Hendrickson is embarking on a book tour, and he’s recently spoken about his stuttering journey on PBS, as well as a moving New York Times video about what it’s like to stutter.

“I’m very honored that some people want to talk to me about it, and that I’m doing some interviews,” he says. “I’m very grateful for that, and I’ll be traveling around the country talking about stuttering, talking about the book. That’s something I’ve never, ever done — something I never, ever dreamed possible. If [someone] had told 10-year-old me, ‘When you’re 34 you will be public-speaking about your problem,’ I think I would’ve laughed in that person’s face. It’s a rare opportunity and I’m grateful to talk to anybody about it, because it’s just so cool to connect with others and trade experiences.”

Stuttering “doesn’t – can’t – define who you are,” President Biden has said. But anyone who traversed childhood (and/or adulthood) trauma from stuttering — even if they grew up to be a successful writer or even president — knows well the connected feelings of shame and helplessness. 

“The cultural perception of stutterers is that they’re fearful, anxious people, or simply dumb, and that stuttering is the result,” Hendrickson wrote in his landmark piece on Biden. As he prepares to return to Denver for a Life on Delay conversation at Tattered Cover on Jan. 26, Hendrickson says he is humbled by the idea of a young person who struggles with a stutter discovering his book.

“It’s aimed at adults, but I in many ways wrote this book for my teenage self,” he says.  “This is a book [I wish] I could’ve read when I was 16 or even early college … I think it would’ve just given me comfort. I am totally overwhelmed and honored at the prospect of a teenager who stutters possibly reading this, and I hope it gives them comfort.”

ON THE SHELF: John Hendrickson in conversation with John Wenzel.  6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, Tattered Cover, 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. No purchase necessary.


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