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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

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

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.

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 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.

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.

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