Annie Glenn found her voice
Annie Glenn, pictured here in 2014, died recently at age 100.

Annie Glenn found her voice

‘What makes stuttering unique is that it’s easy to hide. All one has to do to not stutter is to not talk. Annie Glenn kept silent all through school, as did I and most every other stutterer I know.’

BRATTLEBORO — Sometime today, if everything goes A-OK, John Glenn will be orbiting the Earth in the space shuttle Discovery.

Glenn, who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the earth, is our country's last great hero. The outpouring of affection and excitement for him after his first flight in space was as unexpected as it was authentic.

The space program, when initiated, had many goals - the least of which was space exploration. It was, first, a very expensive Cold War ploy to beat the Russians in space. More importantly, it was a New Deal–like public works program for scientists, engineers, and skilled blue-collar workers, and it worked. Thirdly, it was a public relations strategy to stir patriotism - and, for a time, it did.

Though not a fan of the space program, I did see Glenn with his fellow astronauts and their families in the ticker-tape parade in New York. I remember, despite myself, the tears of joy I shed as our hero passed by. I felt - we all felt - inspired by his feat, that good times were coming on.

How innocent I was, and how desperate we were, as a country, for something to believe in. This was the beginning of the Kennedy Era: Our youthful idealism, a new frontier, would soon be squandered in the jungles of Vietnam.

The space story was a wonderful PR job. The astronauts sold the rights to their story to Time-Life, which airbrushed and censored everything human and interesting about them.

The astronaut families were portrayed as adults in a 1950s TV family sitcom - seemingly perfect, and oh, so boring. In reality, one astronaut couple was separated; some of the astronauts were boozers and womanizers; one, Scott Carpenter, played the guitar, sang folk songs, and entertained deep thoughts.

And then there were the Glenns, in every way perfect except for one fact that was hidden from the public: Annie, John's wife, stuttered.

* * *

I, too, stutter, as do millions of others, but none of us has ever been in the position that Ms. Glenn was when her husband orbited the Earth and became a national hero.

What makes stuttering unique is that it's easy to hide. All one has to do to not stutter is to not talk. Annie Glenn kept silent all through school, as did I and most every other stutterer I know.

Anything, even playing dumb, was better than exposing ourselves as flawed speakers. Stuttering, we then all believed, was an affliction of shame - not necessarily in the judgment of listeners, but worse, in the judgment we made about ourselves.

As wife of a hero, Annie Glenn was going to have to expose her shameful secret; she would have to appear on TV and either remain embarrassingly silent or show her stutter to the entire world. For a while the astronauts and their wives protected her secret by talking for her.

The denouement came when John Glenn was in his space capsule counting down to blast-off and Lyndon Johnson, then vice president and desperate for publicity, was demanding to bring network TV crews into her house so he could be shown watching the launching with her.

I can imagine the fear Annie Glenn felt in this situation: under pressure from LBJ to go on national TV and face humiliation. She was saved, as the story goes (see, e.g., Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff), by her husband, who demanded that NASA keep LBJ and the TV crews away.

* * *

But what was Annie Glenn to do? Her husband was in the limelight. She couldn't forever play the wife who never uttered a public word.

Ms. Glenn did extensive speech therapy and learned to control - though not totally overcome - her stuttering. More important, she got up the courage to accept herself as a person with less-than-perfect speech and to become a public advocate for people with disabilities by giving speeches and interviews.

With John orbiting in Discovery, she'll be a frequent presence in the media, talking about her husband's flight and, I'm sure, her battle to overcome her shame of stuttering.

Big changes have taken place since John Glenn first went up into space and public relations experts deemed human flaws to be unfit for public consumption. Now we all know (and if we don't, we should) that there's no one of us who's perfect. We all have imperfections and disabilities, some large, some small, but none worth keeping secret to fester as shame.

John Glenn is a pioneer in space; Annie Glenn is a pioneer to all of us who have struggled to overcome the shame of a disability. I admire John for his skill, determination, and bravery in space. I admire Annie even more because she has transformed herself into a role model who refuses to stay silent or be hidden.

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