Bruce Willis struggled as a child because of his stutter.
“There was a lot of bullying in my life, and I had to fight my way out,” he recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. “Kids get mean.”
So when he was honored by the American Institute for Stuttering in New York City on Monday night, he got emotional upon accepting the award from his wife, Emma, saying, “It means much more to me than you can know.”
To prepare for his speech, Willis tried to recall at what age he began stuttering, and concluded — with the help of his mother, cousins and friends — that he was around six years old. “[I had] no plan, no help, just flailing wildly for a really long time,” he said.
Willis then encountered “miracles” throughout his life: He had tried out acting at school and the local YMCA and learned that he could better control his speech impediment while playing a character onstage. He later worked with speech therapists while attending Montclair State University in New Jersey.
“The hardest thing I remember was being a kid stuttering. My advice to the people in this room is to never let anyone make you feel like an outcast, because you will never be an outcast,” he said while tearing up and quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
He added, addressing the room’s parents: “It’s easy to get frustrated with a child who stutters, but believe me, the one who stutters is much more frustrated. Be patient, always listen. Offer encouragement, give positive reinforcement always.”
The Freeing Voices Changing Lives gala, held at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers in New York, also honored Vice President Joe Biden, who momentarily went off-script from his 25-minute speech to scold a few in the room who giggled when he demonstrated his childhood speech impediment.
“I resent the laughter,” he said strongly. “Think about it, stuttering is the only thing people think they can laugh at. If I was up here talking about having a cleft palate and had it operated on, or had a withered arm or was partially paralyzed, no one would make fun of me at all.”
Biden recalled trying to control his stuttering and resulting face contortions by reciting poetry in the mirror. Like Willis, he admitted that he learned how to fight to defend himself in his youth, and thanks to other public figures and films like The King’s Speech, he is no longer ashamed of what he went through.
“I learned so much from having to deal with stuttering,” he explained. “It gave me insight into other people’s pain, other people’s suffering. It made me understand that everyone has something they’re fighting to overcome and sometimes trying to hide.
“Your stutter does not define who you are,” he stressed, applauding the courage stutterers demonstrate daily. “It has nothing to do with your intellectual competence, decency or character. Everything that matters, it has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with. … When you persevere in the face of struggle, you discover strength you didn’t know you had and, I guarantee, you will need someday.”
The evening raised over $700,000 for AIS, including $100,000 from Willis.