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Here is a little background.
In 2010 the movie “The King’s Speech” took the world by storm. Winning four Academy Awards and seven British Academy Film Awards, the film depicted King George VI’s painful struggle with stuttering. Its popularity was due to two factors. First, it was a gripping psychological drama revealing the king’s inner frustrations and family conflicts, and tracing the efforts of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue to tame the king’s unruly tongue. Second, most viewers were startled that such a well-known historical figure was afflicted with such a serious debility, and that he somehow found a way to give important speeches in a time of great crisis while England was at war with Hitler’s Germany.
Just after my wife and I watched the film, a friend asked me if I enjoyed it.
“No, I suffered through it,” I replied. “But it was a great movie.”
I have been a stutterer since the age of six. Every time the king (Colin Firth) puffed his cheeks helplessly as he tried to get out a word, I felt his frustration and humiliation.
We stutterers know all too well “Bertie’s” fear of situations that would force us to read a text publicly or speak before a group. Most stutterers fear the telephone because we cannot control the dialogue. We remember painfully the innumerable occasions when we had all the right words in our heads but could not utter them. We groan as we think of all the well-meaning friends and family who tell us—as they told the British king—to take a breath or just relax. If we could, we would!
Much of our agony is invisible. People who hear us block on words occasionally think it must be trivial, or a minor annoyance at most. But they don’t know the times when occasional blocks mysteriously morph into paralysis, when even sounds that are normally effortless become mountains to climb. They have no idea of the apprehension when answering the phone, or the nervousness when in conversation that goes quickly, we are afraid we won’t be able to reply at the right pace, and all eyes will turn to us as the conversation suddenly stops. They don’t know of the worry for weeks about upcoming speeches or presentations—not over what to say but whether we can get our tongue to cooperate.
Famous stutterers include Moses, Demosthenes, Churchill (whose problem the movie alludes to), Marilyn Monroe, Oral Roberts, Carly Simon, James Earl Jones, Tiger Woods, John Updike, Annie Glenn, and John Stossel. Eighty percent of all stutterers are males. It is estimated by specialists that roughly one percent of the population (3 million Americans) stutters, and that upwards of five percent (15 million) have stuttered at some time in their lives.
Like most stutterers, my disability started when I was very young. My mother feared I would flunk kindergarten because no one but she could understand me. Somehow I passed. But then in first grade my teacher put me in front of the class to help me enunciate. My panic developed into stuttering, which I would be helpless to manage for the next thirty-two years.
Stuttering often turned school into a nightmare. Fellow students looked at me quizzically and mockingly. In high school, one considerate lad asked me publicly why I could not talk like everyone else. I was glad to take Latin and Greek, so-called dead languages because reading them was important—not speaking them. But I dreaded French class every day, when I would sweat rivers of living water down my sides as the recitation exercise made its way up and down the rows until it came to me. Everyone sighed because they knew I would take so much longer than everyone else, while I tried to force words from my uncooperative mouth.
In college I had to join in class discussion because the University of Chicago prided itself on small classes with lots of conversation. Sometimes, with the running start seen in “The King’s Speech,” I might be fluent for a few sentences. But invariably I would grind to a halt, utterly tongue-tied before an intractable consonant.
I was humiliated when my grad school advisor recommended speech therapy. How did he know? Strangely, many of us stutterers are in denial. But the speech therapy I received there made no real attempt to cure me, instead trying to help me accept myself. It was a waste of time, at least for me.
Other speech therapists adopted something like the psychological theory used by the King’s therapist in the movie—thinking the cause of stuttering is childhood trauma. Attempts to help me talk through my supposed traumas did nothing for my speech. Later in life it dawned on me that many non-stutterers had childhood trauma, and many stutterers did not, or dealt with their traumas in healthy ways.
I wrote this book for a couple of reasons. The first is that the subject is fascinating. Most people are amazed that the famous people profiled in this book were bedeviled by such a difficult problem. For each, the ways it manifested were different, and the therapies they used to cope with it varied. But the fact that these great and famous people faced what could have been a debilitating problem and somehow accomplished great things anyway is intriguing. This fact surprises and gratifies most of us. We are surprised that they had a serious obstacle–and this obstacle in particular. We are gratified that their lives were not painless, for the thought that others can skate through life without serious problems would be unnerving for all of us who face our own serious problems.
The stories are also inspiring. For all of these accomplished persons, stuttering was an enormous difficulty. None had a sure-fire remedy. Most had to blunder and stumble through. The persistence and courage they displayed tells us that there might be ways we too can survive and achieve—despite our own serious difficulties.