Tom Hooper’s new movie, The King’s Speech—about King George VI’s stuttering problems—revived some old memories and old pain for me.
I am a stutterer, although most people would be surprised to hear that. My stutter affected me most acutely as a child, and by my 11th birthday, I had stopped talking altogether. The effort it took to force out every word was so exhausting and frustrating that it was easier just to shut up.
Ironically, it was speaking from the stage that gave me back my voice.
I have a box that I call my Posterity Box, where I keep things that are too precious to discard. The earliest item is the script of a play from my last year in high school, and holding it, I am transported back 40 years. I hear the audience’s loud approval; I see my father standing in front of his seat yelling “Bravo.”
The year before, I had been standing beside my dad when a teacher expressed concern over my younger brother’s stutter. I had said, flippantly, “Oh, it’s a family trait—I stutter; Dad stutters; we all stutter.”
“Yes, it is the curse I have passed on to my children,” said my father. I was stunned. As I watched him fighting back tears, I realized that throughout my childhood he had blamed himself for my speech impediment.
My stutter started in kindergarten. But my first mortification memory happened two years later when the school principal, an insensitive nun, asked me a direct question in front of my class. In attempting to answer her, my facial muscles went into a spasm, and I could not make my mouth and tongue form words. The more I struggled to force my breath through my teeth, the more my jaw became locked.
Sister Julie giggled and mimicked my convulsions until the entire class roared with laughter. They were laughing at her, but I knew that the next time I stuttered they would laugh at me. And they did. Every time.
My parents sent me to a speech therapist who, after several sessions, gave up on me. After that, I think the adults decided to ignore my stutter because, like nose-picking, the best thing to do with bad habits in children is not to draw attention to them.
At about the time I chose muteness, we moved to a different city, and I transferred to a new school. Wanting desperately to fit in, I decided I could figure out ways around stuttering for myself. First, I analyzed my physical situation. Since I had all the equipment I needed to speak—tongue, lips, and teeth—the breakdown had to be in the command center of my brain. I just had to think my way into speaking without a stutter.
Each night, I lay in bed beneath the pictures of Mrs. Peel from The Avengers. I wanted an all-in-one catsuit like Mrs. Peel’s. I wanted my hair to have her precise flip. But most of all, I wanted to control my body and my world just like Mrs. Peel. I liked the way she always had the perfect retort that left John Steed with an appreciative grin before the end credits rolled.
I replayed the vocal interactions of my day. I imagined how my face had looked to anyone trying to have a conversation with me. Then I talked to myself aloud: “Yes, I felt really embarrassed, but today wasn’t as bad as yesterday. I will stutter again tomorrow, but it won’t be as bad as today, and the day after that will be even better.” I convinced myself that I could make it true, and this became my nightly routine for years and years. I never told anyone, especially my father. We never talked about the way I spoke.
In the meantime, I stumbled onto something wonderful. I could be funny. As long as I said something quickly, before my brain had time to plan how I was going to say it, the remark came out stutter-less. At school I became the class clown and now everyone was laughing at what I said, not at how I said it.
Very gradually, things did get better.
There came a day, six years later, when I was working on the script that is now in my Posterity Box, and I read the narration for my cowriters with a silly accent to make them laugh. I didn’t stutter, and my friends had cast their narrator.
Now, I feel the agony of my father’s sense of responsibility for passing on what he thought was the curse of the family stutter. But, remembering his face in the audience on the night of the performance, I also understand why he was elated. He was yelling because the curse had run its course.
The King’s Speech is now playing in Santa Barbara theaters.