Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The King's Speech, and mine

I saw the King’s Speech Sunday. Great film. Colin Firth was simply extraordinary, showing restraint, gravity and the inner weight that a stutterer carries every moment. He was no Fish Called Wanda over-the-top comedy. He didn’t play it Porky Pig style. He inhabited the constant anxiety a stutterer carries within, fearing the without.

The film brought back many memories for me. No, I was never asked to ascend to the throne nor did I ever change my name to George. It’s always been Barry. Kind of like Bertie, in the sense of Ba-Ba-Ba-Barry. I was a stutterer.

Kids laughed at me. People thrust pads of paper and pencils in my face, imploring me to write down what I couldn’t say. My father and a business associate in the shoe business called me FD, or derivations thereof. It stood for Factory Defect. Nice, huh? I suppose it could have been worse. He could have called me Fuckup. The telephone was my enemy. I hated it. It compelled me to speak on demand. I would do all kinds of bizarre physical moves, unseen by the person on the other end of the phone, trying to push the words out, jerking my head, blinking my eyes, trying to utter a sound while taking in a breath. Oh, I was a sight. Later, I learned you can’t talk when you have no breath in your lungs. Kind of obvious, I guess. But that didn’t stop me from trying. I would bounce on consonants, often not getting past them. I, like Bertie, smoked. My doctor never told me it would calm me down. I found myself changing brands as each name became too difficult to say to the person behind the counter. They were all difficult. I guess I smoked M-M-M-M-Ma-Ma-Ma-Marlboros the longest. Ionce dated a girl in college who, when it was time to meet the folks, she asked if I would please not stutter. If only. I went to college in New York, the place of fast talkers… literally. They talk fast and expect you to talk just as fast. It was a little like hell. My father wanted me to get a job while I was in school. He could have helped me into a job in the shoe department at A&S or Ohrbach’s or somewhere. Can you picture it? Better yet, can you hear it? Mu-mu-mu-mumumumum-may I help yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-you? Customers would run as if I was contagious. Actually, I worked in my father’s shoe store in Newton, Massachusetts summers between college. Once I tried waiting on a woman. Her reaction to me was, “Christ, they’ll hire anyone to work here.” I graduated and moved back to Boston. I studied advertising design and graphics. I was going to be a Mad Man. Or, should I say, a Ma-Ma-Ma-Mad Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Man. I interviewed with the top creative director at the biggest agency in Boston. He liked my work, but told me I’d never amount to anything with “that stutter.” His words. “You’ll never be an art director.” I nodded and left his office with my big, black portfolio. I wanted to toss it into the nearest garbage can, buy a box of pencils, stick them in a can and beg, like a blind man on the street corner. I was handicapped. Some people thought it was worse. They thought I was a retard.

I did go into advertising and design—never the top jobs, but jobs nonetheless. But I never did make it to art director while I stuttered.

Past tense.

No one knows exactly what causes stuttering. There are plenty of theories. The latest is that there is a stuttering gene. And, there is no cure for stuttering. But I, or rather a friend of my mother’s, found the next best thing. It was over 37 years ago when the Today show did a feature on the Hollins College Research Institute, and the work Dr. Ronald Webster was doing. At the time, their Fluency Shaping Program was fairly new. But, from the get-go, it had achieved amazing results. He had developed a program based on the tenets of behavior modification. He didn’t particularly care what the causation was. He attacked the symptoms by breaking down the participant’s speech, correcting it and building it back up again. A few months after hearing about it, they had an opening and I drove down to Roanoke, Virginia. Rather than boring you with all the details, the bottom line is that when I first arrived at Hollins for the three-week program, I was diagnosed as 66% disfluent, meaning simply that two thirds of the time you couldn’t understand what I was saying. When I left, I was 99% fluent. To be honest, I had a bit of a setback during the first year after going through the program. I attended a reunion of people who had gone through the program. That helped snap me right back to fluency. For all intents and purposes, I have not stuttered since.

Hollins’ HRCI has a pretty amazing record. They run at about a 91% success rate. I am confident it would be higher if their students would do the follow-up “maintenance.” I have heard some stutterers say that the HRCI is not for everyone. I agree. It is only for stuttererers who want to stop stuttering.

I am not unique. I don’t think I am particularly special. To paraphrase John Mellancamp, I’m the same old jerk that I’ve been for years. But I don’t stutter.

The Oregonian ran a piece about a stutterer in Eugene and tangentially, the National Stuttering Association. I don’t like the NSA. I abhor their philosophy and have for years, since I encountered them when they were headquartered in Orange County. I approached them to speak and try to inspire some of the people attending their support groups. My advice was not particularly welcome.

The NSA's approach can be summed up in a quote form Sheryl Hunter, who, according to the article that ran January 19, (Stutterers hope new film 'The King's Speech' sheds light on communication disorder), sits on the board of directors for the National Stuttering Association and said that, “the conventional wisdom now is that if someone stutters, let them.”

Bullshit. That may be conventional but it is certainly not wisdom.

No one is comfortable being seen as handicapped, special or in need of “acceptance” by others.

I wrote a letter to The Oregonian in response to their article. Strangely, it wasn’t published. In part, I said that Ms. Hunter’s statement that "A lot of therapy is designed to make people feel almost comfortable with it" is simply bad therapy.

I corresponded with one of the stutterers featured in the article. She talked about support groups, which the NSA advocates. "Support groups are support groups" she wrote me. But stutterers are not recovering heroin addicts or alcoholics. They don’t need someone reassuring them that their disorder is socially acceptable, or should be. It isn't. I never liked being laughed at and no amount of support from similarly afflicted people could minimize that.

I think that some people who stutter are so self-identified with it that they are afraid to let it go. They don’t want to lose it. I wrote to the paper and the woman who was profiled in the article about the success rate of the HCRI. She responded that she knew people who went through it but reverted to stuttering after a few weeks or months. So did I. And then I compelled myself to practice my new speech more vigorously. She said that the HCRI program is not for everyone. She’s right. It’s only for people who stutter who want to stop stuttering.

I apologize to anyone who finds my tone offensive, overly brusque or impatient. I’m also impatient with Christian fundamentalists who refuse medical attention for their children, believing that God will heal them from whatever ails them. When the child dies, they say, well, it was God’s will. And they are justifiably arrested and sent to prison. Their blind adherence to Jesus Voodoo killed their child. Refusing to seek out a known, proven program to stop you from stuttereing, or at the very minimum, to reduce your stuttering, is equally and willfully ignorant. If you stutter and that is the course you take, then don’t ask the fluent world to “accept” you. You are choosing to be disordered.

And, for the record, I hope Colin Firth wins the Academy Award, and Geoffrey Rush along with him.

1 comment:

mjs said...

Wonderful film. I hope lots of people watch it--with any luck stories such as this build awareness and compassion, and that's a good thing.