The King's Psychobabble

I saw The King’s Speech a few weeks ago, and the acting was excellent and the movie as a whole was formulaically pleasant (albeit not fully worthy of its likely Best Picture Oscar win), I found myself irked by the dominance of psychotherapeutic model of understanding human experience. King George VI, according to the film, stutters because of early childhood trauma at the hands of his nanny and because of constantly feeling inferior to his older, more suave brother. All the tongue-twister practice in the world won’t overcome his stuttering, unless he learns to talk about his deep, inner wounds.

While I recognize the great benefit psychotherapy has truly brought in many people’s lives, I’m wary of a film that seems to reinforce the cultural myth that talking about our feelings is the great panacea. It can help some problems–and no doubt there are some individuals who need to be doing more of it–but talking can’t cure all ills.

Having already reached this conclusion about The King’s Speech, I was glad to see a piece by Jonah Lehrer–himself a stutterer–in The Wall Street Journal that confirms that, in fact, there is no correlation between stuttering and emotional trauma. The true causes of stuttering are a mystery, but it seems to have more to do with pesky neurological words like “ganglia.” As Lehrer points out,

Such research, of course, doesn’t lend itself to dramatic narratives. After all, “The King’s Speech” would be a rather tedious piece of entertainment if the climactic scene involved Logue telling the monarch that his primary motor cortex was to blame. And yet, I worry that the good intentions of the movie will be undone by its antiquated model of stuttering and the way it exaggerated the role of catharsis in fixing the problem. The King didn’t get better because he confessed to Logue about his inner pain – he got better because he found, with Logue’s help, a way to calm and distract his overexcited brain, practicing his consonants until they became easier to express. Modern science has moved far beyond Freud’s description of Frau Emmy, in which the disorder is caused by the repression of early childhood trauma. It’s time for Hollywood to move on as well.

About Carrisa Smith
  • Carissa Smith
  • Ben

    Hey Carissa,

    One interesting note (without endorsing or denying, I have zero expertise on the subject) is that the screenwriter himself was a stutterer, as was his uncle who had recieved therapy from the therapist in the movie. He recently gave a very thoughtful interview with Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

    This writer, David Seidler, was clear in stating that he is very aware of the debate on this topic, and that he comes down in support of the need to interact with core emotional problems as well as learning strategies for calming and correcting speech.

    Further, whether right or wrong, he had done extensive research on that particular therapist, his influences, his methods, etc, and felt that the movie was a very accurate depiction of what actually happened. In fact, several of the most amusing lines and situations came straight from the therapist’s notes and diaries from that time period.

    Anyways, thought that might be an interesting aspect of the conversation.

  • Kristi

    This is interesting. I loved The King’s Speech, and have seen eight of the ten nominees for Best Pic so far. I think it should win hands down! On a side note, the theater was pretty full when I went, and afterward, the audience actually applauded, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen except after midnight premiers.

    I can’t abide Freud AT ALL, but also believe that a lot of our current disorders do have to do with trauma of some kind. I think King’s Speech does a good job of showing the progress made with the king’s therapy for a couple of years before his revealing his trauma from the nanny, and even then, it wasn’t a cure-all. It did seem to place value on the physical and psychological therapy he underwent, though, like the other author says, the throat strengthening exercises are not quite as dramatic as the nanny confession.


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