How he makes his voice heard.
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.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.