It is rare to encounter raucous humor writing when perusing the disability studies canon; Nina G's debut memoir strives to fill the gap with wisdom and candor. Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen has much to contribute to our understanding of disability's precarious, at times radical, place within United States education, popular culture, and everyday life.

Written with a mainstream audience in mind, those familiar with the great influx of memoirs examining disability and chronic illness over the past three decades will appreciate the author's playful nod to an earlier popular example of the genre, Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted. Its irreverent tone is reminiscent of Mean Little Deaf Queer by actor and playwright Terry Galloway. This title would be at home in any undergraduate or graduate level course on disability studies, life writing, or special education.

The book's title works as a cheeky indicator of the disability memoir's meta cachet in the world of memoir, a form G. Thomas Couser calls autosomatography or life writing primarily concerned with the experience of inhabiting a specific body (2). G's title also alludes to how discrimination, bullying, and the low expectations of teachers and peers stalled the author's own personal and artistic trajectory.

In the book's Introduction, G lays out the common experience of having people talk over her— an encounter known all too well by people with speech impairments. She explains her policy of using identity-based and person-first language depending on the audience being addressed or situation at hand.

Chapter 2 ("Four Generations Disabled") details the occurrence of disability among her family members who first migrated from Italy before settling in Alameda, California. She explores the many benefits of having a supportive disabled parent as a role model, without sugarcoating the real struggles her father experienced in school as a child with a hearing impairment. Access to strong disabled role models emerges as a major theme, as when, in Chapter 6, G volunteers for the National Stuttering Project after seeing a local television commercial for the organization while still in high school. Through these initial contacts with other stutterers, G begins to speak and act with more authenticity as she enters college, gradually expanding her network of disfluent and disabled peers during graduate school at Berkeley and as she begins her career as a disabled student services counselor and professor in the Bay Area.

According to statistics at Ihaveavoice.info, there are only three million stutterers in the US, and, of those, only one in four are women. G shares the evolving significance of friendships with other disfluent women in Chapters 8 and 15 and how these friendships helped restore her own confidence as a performer.

"People don't necessarily accept their disability all at once; many times we have to re-accept and re-embrace it in different parts of our life;" this statement speaks to how G came to pursue her life-long goal of becoming a comedian, a career she had put aside as a child because she believed fluency was a prerequisite for doing standup. Chapters 9.10, 11, and 12 recount G's emergence as a standup comic in the Bay Area.

Shared laughter is, at its essence, a release of tension that can foster a feeling of community, however momentary. Chapters 14, 16, and 17 critique the multitude of misguided ways people have responded to and commented on her stuttering in real life and online, while Chapter 13 ("Assholisms") and Chapter 17 ("Stuttersplaining") dig deeper into the types of social exchanges that promote greater understanding and mutual respect. "As a comedian, I save my heaviest punches for punching up." She walks us through her process of assessing the "asshole" offender in each setting. She sees real world interactions with humor as possessing radical power greater than any sensitivity training or other approach currently available in our human repertoire. While having a sharp wit won't put a stop to all microaggressiosns or self-appointed disability "experts," humor can serve as a mitigating agent of change.

Comedians study the power dynamics that guide social interactions. What distinguishes standup from its slapstick and situation cousins is its emphasis on the strategic deployment of the spoken word. One of its hallmarks is the use of language to upend our expectations about conventional social mores. As G points out, this can mean turning the tides on a heckler who crossed a line of acceptability. Such narrative jousting matches jar us out of fixed ideas of reality. David Robbins defines "concrete comedy" as a practice that "aligns itself with the real" by invoking social justice struggles or through autobiographical narrative. This brand of humor strives to create social change rather than simply commenting on human experience (333-334). In the hands of a skilled performer such as G, insult comedy becomes a tool for dispelling toxic myths and fighting oppression.

G's writing generously reveals moments of vulnerability without bingeing on self-deprecation—the type of humor famously disavowed by fellow disabled comedian Hannah Gadsby in Netflix's Nannette. In Chapters 1 and 5 she discusses her comedic heroes Lillie Tomlin, Gilda Radner, Emo Phillips, and Howard Stern. While Chapter 5's focus on Stern may give some readers' pause, G makes a compelling argument for how his inclusive (if routinely exploitative) radio and television shows made a significant impression on her formative comedic sensibilities. G remembers a recurring segment in which a stuttering show regular was dispatched to conduct red carpet interviews with Hollywood celebrities to capture the stars' surprised reactions. Being "in on the joke," the reporter inserts a surprise element into the breezy scripted banter of celebrity press events, thereby recentering his supporting role and momentarily disrupting the Hollywood caste system that typically excludes performers with disabilities.

Throughout the book, G advocates for the visibility and availability of disabled role models and allies in education (Chapter 3 and 7), in social groups (Chapters 3, 8, 15, and 18), as well as in the media. She stresses the need for humility and openness when listening to disabled people to better understand how they define their own lives.

G's first book, Once upon an Accommodation: A Book about Learning Disabilities, provides an illustrated guide to teach young people about advocacy and navigating the IEP process. G's expertise and generous ethos as a psychologist and counselor are evident in both texts. Her candid account of navigating the education system with learning disabilities takes the reader from private Catholic grade school through graduate school and a community college professorship and encourages readers to consider the tensions inherent in highly specialized academic writing and pedagogy. Stutterer Interrupted would make an excellent companion to recent works such as Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education by Jay T. Dolmage or Presumed Incompetent: the Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia edited by Muhs Gabriella Gutiérrez y, et al. This book successfully debunks the rampant misconceptions regarding speech impairments that continue to circulate across clinical and academic disciplines. G is a comedian and author who values the authenticity and authority of the spoken and written word to reimagine and amplify empowered disability narratives.

Works Cited

  • Couser, G. Thomas. Signifying Bodies Disability in Contemporary Life Writing. University of Michigan Press, 2009. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.915367
  • G., Nina. Stutterer Interrupted: the Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen. She Writes Press, 2019.
  • G, Nina, and Mean Dave. Once upon an Accommodation: a Picture Book for All Ages. CreateSpace, 2013.
  • Robbins, David. Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy. Pork Salad Press, 2011.
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