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.

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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.

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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.

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Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.