This is me as Madonna at age 8. Don’t be fooled by the devilish gleam in my eye. Yes, I liked to dress up in my Mom’s slips and belt “Like A Virgin” in the backyard, imagining audiences screaming my name. But outside of that yard, I was the quiet girl in the library buried in Sweet Valley High. I kept to myself because of my stutter which was so bad I couldn’t say my own name. I ordered cheese pizza even though I wanted pepperoni because saying “p” was like climbing Mount Everest. I attempted the word at a restaurant once. I reached the first “p,” but the next two were impossible. The waitress imitated me and I wanted to disappear to a place where I never had to talk. I learned shame hurt worse than not getting my favorite pizza. I went to speech therapists and even took violin lessons because my Mom read this helped one stutterer somewhere. Nothing worked.
When I was seven, my mom gifted me a typewriter and an escape into my imagination. I typed 100 page stories about teen girls in Malibu who were secret Russian spies with brawny boyfriends. I wrote the words I couldn’t say, creating characters free to order pepperoni pizza and eagerly read aloud in class. I kept a daily diary, recording my sexual feelings for Christian Slater, but also documenting the days I got teased. My imagination became my most sacred place, my anchor. I found a refuge in Malibu and the gold-lined pages of my diary. Words, once my worst enemy, had saved my little wrecked soul.
After high school, I enrolled at Hollins, a women's university, in Virginia. The first time read my poem aloud was Mount Everest again. It ended in tears, but this time, no one teased me and the women in my class encouraged me to do a public reading. My friend Johanna brought me a stuffed snake. “Put him on the podium,” she said. “Tell everyone he gets stuck on s’s, too.” So I did. And I got through it, hardly stuttering. People clapped and I truly became that little girl singing in her backyard. I’d done something I’d loved and it felt really awesome. There was power in feeling vulnerable, to taking up space with my words. Surrounded by supportive women, I stopped being scared. I found community, I found my voice.
A graduate of Hollins University, Jennifer is the recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a grant from the Money For Women/ Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She is the author of 2 YA novels and short stories. She lives in Los Angeles.