The King's Speech raises more questions about stuttering than it answers.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Feb. 22 2011 7:24 AM

The Stutterer

How he makes his voice heard.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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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 fight."

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.

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