Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Stutterer

The Stutterer

How he makes his voice heard.

By Nathan Heller

Behind bold facades lie a thousand small humiliations. Abraham Lincoln
grew so depressive that he couldn't, for a while, be trusted near
sharp objects. Ella Fitzgerald started her singing career after being
too ashamed to dance publicly. Susan Sontag came upon an issue of
Partisan Review as a teenager, found it totally impenetrable, and
spent the rest of her life trying never to be that unsophisticated
again. Some version of these unlikely equations lies behind The King's
Speech, the account of King George VI's crippling stutter that has
brought in tides of coverage and praise since its release late last
year. The movie describes the king's struggles to speak in the run-up
to his coronation and the start of World War II. Along the way, it
turns a spotlight on a barely understood disorder—one that, as it
happens, wasn't just a royal problem. Winston Churchill stuttered,
too, although the movie barely mentions the fact, making for an irony
that's striking even in a wartime history soaked with it: At a moment
when the nation's future rested on the power of public oratory, both
of Britain's highest leaders had a harder time speaking a sentence
than most people in the street.

The King's Speech has been quite successful—some people are expecting
it to walk away with many of this week's top Oscars—but it's vague on
certain key points. Even after seeing the film, viewers don't really
know what to make of George VI's stuttering. Roger Ebert saw a monarch
who "seizes up in agony" at the idea of speaking; Anthony Lane came
away assuming that the king's trouble exposed a deep childhood shame.
In the film, George VI's therapy, charged with heavy social and
Freudian overtones, becomes a metaphor for "bridging the gap between
classes," as the Daily News put it, and perhaps even the "unconscious
equation of words with feces," J. Hoberman wryly wrote. Or something.
For a movie that's supposed to be about finding one's voice, The
King's Speech raises more questions about life with the problem than
it answers.

Stuttering, in my mind, is a word that conjures beiges and grays: the
feeling of always being lusterless and square in conversation; of
woozy headaches brought about by gasping through my sentences; of
childhood boredom in stuffy, cork-tiled offices where speech
therapists told me to slow down and read long lists of words aloud.
Somehow, I never wanted to slow down, and still don't; and in this
respect stuttering also signifies a bargain I have spent adult life
trying not to make. The disorder is not what might be called "a given"
from birth for me, though it's been a looming specter for as long as
my memory reaches. I started speaking in sentences shortly before
turning 1. At 3, those sentences first met with some resistance on my
tongue, the way a car moves off asphalt, onto dirt—and then, finally,
across rocks that jolt the tires and make it hard to track where you
are headed. Today, I am still being jolted, and the jagged terrain
behind bears the track marks of my own innumerable small humiliations.
In the seventh grade: A substitute asks the class to read out loud,
and when I stumble over my first sentence, she inquires of the other
students whether I'm "OK" and "always like this," and while I continue
fighting with a pr sound, my ears tune in to every judging shudder in
the room—the creaking chairs, the restless exhalations, the
uncomfortable shifting, in the desk beside me, of a girl with many
colored pens who seems to me in some way very beautiful. In high
school: A medical assistant taking down my charts asks whether I just
have a problem with my speech or whether there is mental retardation,
too. ("As far as I'm aware …" my answer begins.) In college: I slow
down several seminars trundling through fragile language meant for
clever tongues. And so on. In each case, what I feel most impelled to
explain to the people who can hear me is just: This is not my voice.

The stutterer's voice is the central focus of The King's Speech and a
good part of the reason, I suspect, the movie has achieved its outsize
resonance. This is because the stutterer's voice points toward a
paradox of verbal culture: Language was born of a need to communicate
orally and in the moment, and yet, at its most influential, language
is so little dependent on spontaneous speech that even someone
permanently stymied on that front—a stutterer—can eke out a message
that commands a nation. It is reassuring to know this, partly because
it affirms that there is more to public meaning and shared truth than
smooth talk and rhetorical style. In a moment when the words of
leadership are routinely distrusted as fleeting or opportunistic, The
King's Speech champions a notion of the public voice as something
impervious to glib manipulation. The difficulty of the stutterer's
speech proves its good faith.

For stuttering people themselves, though, it proves something else,
which is that personal voices, the link between the mind and the world
outside, can come from places other than the larynx and the
spontaneous moment. About 1 percent of the world's population
stutters, four times more men than women, but the problem is, as far
as science and treatment goes, largely a mystery. It's not a
psychological hang-up—brain imagery has found actual differences in
stutterers' speech-production neurobiology—yet it's subject to some
psychological influence all the same: Most stutterers report
stuttering more or less in certain situations and under certain
pressures, though the triggers are opaque and ever-changing.
Stuttering is genetic, but it's unclear how the gene governs the
problem. (Researchers have pinpointed a mutation on the 12th
chromosome that's apparently responsible, but that mutation is in a
region normally associated with serious disorders like Tay-Sachs
disease, with which stuttering seemingly shares no similarities.)
There is no cure for stuttering or even, really, an agreed-upon
approach to treatment. Many people who have spoken smoothly for years
still think of themselves as stutterers, since the possibility of
blocking any moment never goes away.

It's hard to describe the feeling of stuttering to anyone who has
always spoken smoothly. It is not a nervous impulse. It is not,
despite appearances, a spastic feeling. Stuttering starts in the voice
box and the upper lungs with something like a pressure clench, the
sensation of some valves closing against a flow, a trap tripping its
release at the wrong moment. (John Updike described it as the feeling
of "a kind of windowpane suddenly inserted in front of my face while I
was talking, or of an obdurate barrier thrust into my throat.") The
clench occurs suddenly, irreversibly—in the final instant before
beginning a sentence, in the middle of a phrase—making the experience
of being a stutterer somewhat like the chronic knowledge that your
clothes may explode off your body any moment. You stay on your toes
for sudden self-embarrassment. Your sole object, when a verbal block
comes, is to break past. Most of the quintessential tics of
stuttering—the repetitions, hisses, swallows, blinks, head shakes,
gulps, silences—are coping mechanisms, habituated tricks for pushing
beyond this impasse in the throat. Why anyone would ever persist in
such tics is perhaps best answered by the predicament of a swimmer
cramping in the middle of a river. Part by reflex and part by urgent
pragmatism, you dispense with any hope of an elegant stroke and flail
toward the far shore. If you give up completely, or fall silent too
long, there's the risk that you'll be swept entirely under, lose your

Meaning is crucial here, because most stutterers feel in constant
danger of being misunderstood in at least three separate ways. There
are, first, the communication risks of trying not to stutter. Speech,
for a stutterer, is a chess game; it is not uncommon for our minds to
be running three or four sentences ahead of our lips, with constant
backtracking and recalibration along the way. In some cases, people
known as "covert stutterers" or "closet stutterers" go through life
apparently speaking smoothly but actually living like deer in season,
constantly fleeing from words and situations that might spell trouble.
Churchill—who rehearsed his speeches obsessively and faced the day
buffered by epic rations of whisky—is sometimes said to have been a
deft closet stutterer in maturity, his celebrated verbal dexterity
being just that, a means of maneuvering away from danger. Flight,
though, has a cost. When words change, meaning does also. This is true
in the literal sense (in my most craven moments, facing an impatient
cashier at a busy lunch spot, I've ordered the most safely
pronounceable sandwich on the menu, which is usually turkey) and in
more oblique ways, too. Not long ago, Joe Biden, who stuttered openly
into college, undertook a famously weird circumlocution seemingly to
avoid landing on the word Avatar—a sound that he'd just nearly blocked
on. The hesitation was roundly interpreted as a sign not of speech
trouble but of mind trouble, and, in some sense, maybe it was. To
word-substitute is to substitute one kind of verbal control for
another, to feel your speech slowly drifting away from the voice in
your head.

When stutterers don't succeed in sidestepping an obstacle, or aren't
comfortable living with their words at such a remove from their
thoughts, there is the problem of being literally understood.
Stuttering ravages the sentence, the sentiment, the idea, such that
following the stutterer's train of syntax can be like trying to parse
a line of Morse code. (Biden was nicknamed Dash in high school.) If
you happen to be a verbally minded stuttering person, this is
something you never get used to. Part of your mind holds onto the hope
of speaking clever things as effortlessly as you think of them, of
being witty and charming; words you wish you had the tongue to say
instead flourish inside, feeding a sort of verbal fantasy life.
Everybody dreams. But stutterers, perhaps especially, dream of verbal
transcendence: those rare moments when an ungainly cargo of words
rattling down the runway pulls itself together, roars into a final
burst of speed, and meets the sky.

Sometimes, this dream gets fixed enough to become a vocation. A
disproportionate number of stutterers end up writers, actors, and
other voices of public life. They tend even to "do jobs that require
them to speak in public, which you would have thought they'd have
avoided," someone pointed out to the stuttering novelist Margaret
Drabble. This is an irony only until you realize that the labor of a
verbal craftsperson, the work of nailing words onstage or in print, is
virtually coterminous with a stutterer's inner life. Sometimes a
stuttering actor's efforts to speak smoothly in the spotlight help
shape an iconic voice. James Earl Jones found he stuttered least when
he spoke at the bottom of his register and from a script. (Otherwise,
he's said, he struggles just to get "though the conversation.")
Marilyn Monroe went breathy, probably because people generally don't
stutter when they're whispering, and used ditsy-seeming pauses to
inhale and wait for her vocal chords to relax. Rowan Atkinson, who had
trouble with B and P words, developed a method of exploding past those
consonants with comic exaggeration ("Just popped out for lunch!").
Bruce Willis says being taunted for stuttering taught him "how to

The disorder teaches different things to writers, such as how a
sentence can fly when it is freed from the requirements of speech.
Writing as a vocation tends to attract control freaks, pathological
introverts, and uneasy narcissists—the sort of people, basically, who
don't mind spending hours alone at a desk, trying to make their own
ideas sound good on a piece of paper—but for stutterers, the endless
possibilities for voice control on the blank page carry especial
appeal. Give a stutterer a pen and some practice and, suddenly, what
seems imperfectible in speech is a few scribblings and crossings-out
and rescribblings away. ("[T]his anxious guilty blockage in the
throat," Updike wrote, "I managed to maneuver several millions of
words around it.") Even a partial list of stuttering writers points to
certain correlations between the impediment and the development of
literary voice: Updike, Drabble, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert A.
Heinlein, W. Somerset Maugham, at various points Christopher Hitchens
and the Dunne brothers (John Gregory and Dominick), Philip Larkin,
John Bayley, Elizabeth Bowen—and so on, back to Henry James.

In retrospect, James' impediment seems to gape back at us from every
lavish, stylized page of his prose. Who but a speech-blocked writer
would devote so much energy and ink to writing, rewriting, and
overwriting such a body of work? Who else would dwell so hungrily on
the rhythms and refracted meanings of the social sphere? As much as
James is a literary paragon, he is the person many stutterers spend
their whole lives trying not to be: the eagle-eyed wallflower, the
brilliant nonparticipant, a man so disengaged from normal social
congress that there's been scholarly debate on the extent to which he
was straight or gay or, as one theory has it, neutered on a fence.
This is the final and most insidious way stutterers fear being
misunderstood: They worry that their speaking voice, and the behavior
that accompanies it, will be taken as a window onto something like
their personality.

Well, why not? In most cases, the way adults carry themselves in the
social world betrays at least something about who they are. They can
be loud, timid, outgoing, punctilious, nonchalant, or devastatingly
clever, and these qualities are taken as facets of the self because
they are the products of control—you choose to keep silent, to make
snotty remarks, to turn your energy to one-liners. Stutterers lack
control. Our options are to speak at the mercy of our physiology or
not speak. Our social conduct, as a result, can be baffling.
Stutterers are frequently cast or cast themselves in roles on the
periphery: the Prufrock, the arbiter, the jester, the confidant, the
third wheel, the nonthreatening best friend. (Elsewhere in Slate,
Barry Harbaugh has published a comprehensive and illuminating study of
stuttering stereotypes in film.) But these roles are seldom perfect
fits. Close friends of mine report seeing flickers of another mien
beneath my normal milquetoast awkwardness. Women I've known well have
mentioned their "surprise" (this is the word that crops up, always)
at—actually, I've never been sure at what, exactly, but the intimation
hints at my worst fear: that people expect my stutterer's cloddish
surface to be representative, to permeate my personality like a pool
of ink.

This fear of being misapprehended may in fact have some influence on
stuttering itself. Alfred Kazin stopped stuttering badly as soon as he
made a name (and voice) for himself publishing in august magazines.
Samuel L. Jackson found he was miraculously fluent when he spoke as
any character other than himself. Escape from one's stutter means
escape from misjudgment, which is to say from the expressions often
writ too clearly in a listener's face: The looks I've gotten when I
start to stutter—eyebrows raised in surprise or else cocked in pity,
pressed lips and sidelong glances of impatience—could, honestly,
furnish albums. I tend to glance away when I'm stuck, not so much in
chagrin as to avoid subjecting someone else, and especially a friend,
to my own scrutinizing gaze: They shouldn't have to be on camera in an
awkward moment. I have stuttered nearly all my conscious life, but I
still fight the urge to apologize every time it happens.

I will probably always be tempted to apologize, or else to pretend
that the problem doesn't exist. If there's pain to this disorder, it
is not from looking silly—that is easy to get used to, easy to forget.
What's harder is the difficulty breaking through, working your way
into those hidden chambers where social transcendence takes place and
lives are made. It is one thing, after all, to go passably through the
motions of everyday discussion: making small talk over lunch, putting
in phone calls, eking out a decent story at a cocktail party. It's
another to run fast through the tight, quieter, moonlit streets of
banter or seduction using speech that feels as dexterous as a loaded
bus. Of all the minor pricks and pinches stuttering has given to me
over time, the only ones that still sting are the moments when I've
watched people kick off their heels and steal into that dark maze with
the realization that I won't be able to follow them apace. To stutter
is to be perpetually caught in what some people like to call
"nostalgia for the present."

Longing is, at bottom, a creative impulse. "There's no doubt in my
mind that you're destined to end up a writer," a college teacher once
told me. "You have all the right problems." The constant wistful sense
of loss, the need to slow it all down for the capture before it drifts
away—this is why writers put things into words. The premise of The
King's Speech is that George VI speaks for his people and their plight
and for posterity. This is a stutterer's fantasy of voice, a fantasy
about the nearly cosmic virtue of fighting to get the words out. But
it's our cultural fantasy, too. There's an implication in the movie,
in the king's pleased exodus from his broadcasting room, that all has
now been said: The language is pronounced, the meaning safeguarded in
history. Maybe it is. Maybe, as so many stutterers would hope, our
public, prepared voices reach farther than our real ones, and the
words we shape still sing beyond our time.

Or maybe their effect is smaller, more specific. Several years ago, I
had my own tiny King's Speech-like moment. For various reasons, I was
expected to deliver a longish address at my high-school graduation,
and after composing it—the easy part—I turned to a speech therapist
and rehearsed as if it were a Chopin nocturne. By the time the
ceremony arrived, I knew every word and flection of that speech, which
I had printed out in 16-point font, 1.5-spaced. I read it smoothly at
the graduation, just the way a nonstuttering person might. But it is
not a victory I frequently return to. "You have such perseverance,
Bertie, you're the bravest man I know," George VI's therapist tells
him in The King's Speech—yet it's hard to see how this could possibly
be true. In the end, a stutterer's real measure of bravery is the same
as anybody else's, and it doesn't have to do with persevering to
accomplish, with effort, what other people manage effortlessly. The
far greater challenge is—and this is more frightening than any
podium—working up the strength to make a leap that even fluent
speakers wouldn't dare.