"It's been emotional": How her son's stammer inspired Helen Rutter to write The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh
Published on: 03 February 2021 Author: Helen Rutter
Watching her son Lenny grow up dealing with a stammer made author Helen Rutter want to share the most important part of his story - learning to be gentle with himself. She talks about how kindness (and comedy) helped her write The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh.
Using comedy to deal with a challenge
My son Lenny was ten by the time I began writing a book about a boy with a stammer.
The fact that Lenny happens to have a stammer has always been a feature of our lives. The moment I realised I wanted to write about it was as I pictured a time when Lenny had been playing table tennis, in the village hall, with a little boy who was deaf. I started to imagine how a boy with a stammer could communicate with a boy who needed to lip-read and the idea for the story started to grow in my mind.
Lenny had also recently started making jokes at moments when his stammer was particularly strong and I was enjoying seeing him flex his comedic muscles, and using humour to deal with something that was incredibly challenging for him.
The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh is about eleven year old Billy who loves jokes and dreams of becoming a stand up comedian but, because of his stammer, he doesn’t think it's possible. The story follows Billy as he tries to rid himself of his stammer and struggles to find his way through his first term of secondary school. Billy comes to realise that maybe he can do more than he imagines- without having to get rid of his stammer at all.
Fighting against the words
Lenny has stammered since he was old enough to speak in sentences. As a toddler, lining up and naming all of his favourite dinosaurs, we thought nothing of the way he spoke, if anything it was ‘cute’ and seemed as though he just had so much to say. As a parent I’ve often thought back to when it changed from being a cute quirk and started becoming more challenging for him, differentiating him from the other kids as someone who stood out.
We’ve had many theories about what (if anything) made his stammer get stronger, ranging from: our daughter finding her (rather loud and dominant) voice at age two, having a teacher who he was terrified of, and his best friend's Dad suddenly dying. All of these things were happening around the same time and that's when we started seeing his stammer become harder for him to cope with. He began fighting against his words and became increasingly frustrated with himself for not being able to speak in the way he wanted to.
Over the years he’s had periods where his stammer vanishes completely and others where he finds it difficult to get to the end of any sentence.
We’ve been to two different speech therapists, read numerous books and watched every documentary going and it seems as though no one really has any answers.
Being kind to yourself
No one is sure why and where it comes from and there’s no clear road map through it. What we’ve realised is that it comes down to being kind to yourself and finding ways to manage it, rather than any cure being available. I think when Lenny realised that it may be something he lives with forever, he was understandably disappointed, but he quickly started finding ways of dealing with the situations that were the toughest.
You can imagine seeing your seven year old trying to explain to the old man in the corner shop that he has a stammer and needs people to be patient when he speaks, or age nine seeing him perform in the school play, or listening to him aged ten talk to a speech therapist about how he feels when kids laugh at him. It’s been emotional!
Watching him deal with all of these moments in such a composed and dignified way has made my heart sing.
I’ve learnt a lot from my son, that's for sure, and that’s why I decided to write The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh. I wrote a chapter every day and read it out loud to Lenny before bed, who told me when I’d missed the mark and pointed out moments when I had really understood what it was like for him. I obviously took a lot of things from our life and had to check in with him that he was happy about how I was telling the story. As I wrote and rewrote, exaggerated and pushed the characters further, Billy slowly started to become someone entirely distinct from Lenny. Someone with his own story and struggle.
A small part of the story
Lenny’s now twelve years old and his stammer comes and goes, he mentions it occasionally in passing, saying ‘I wonder if I’ll stammer when I’m a Dad?’ or ‘I’ve not noticed my stammer for a while, Mum, have you?’ or ‘I used to hate reading out loud, but now I don’t mind it.’
The difference now when we talk about it is the gentleness with which he treats himself. He’s no longer fighting it or embarrassed and I’m no longer scared for him, for what it may mean for him. We’ve all just accepted it as a very small part of his story.
Maybe that’s why it arrived as an idea when it did. It was no longer defining him/us and with that came a lightness that allowed me to see it for the unique (but hopefully universal) and inspiring story that it is.
Two years (and many edits) later Lenny’s just finished reading the proof copy of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh and I think it's fair to say that we’re both pretty chuffed to see Billy head out into the world.