Lost for words

Prospect Magazine

Lost for words

by
/ / 21 Comments

The King’s Speech is the first film to portray my speech defect realistically, says the Man Booker-nominated novelist David Mitchell

Being the owner of a speech defect, I watch the portrayal of stammerers in the arts with a hypercritical eye. No film (to my knowledge) comes close to the intelligence with which the award-winning The King’s Speech handles the subject of stammering. Scriptwriter David Seidler and actor Colin Firth’s portrait of George VI’s struggles is perceptive, unsentimental and refreshingly accurate.

The future monarch’s speech is dogged by a phonetic band of main offenders—hard Cs and Ks, Gs and Qu-words—plus a narrower group of sporadic “guest” troublemakers: Fs, Phs, and Ws. Bang on. Many fictional stammerers stumble over random letters—a dead giveaway of an under-informed author. Accurate, also, are the observations that you don’t stammer when singing, talking to yourself or swearing, and speech therapist Lionel Logue’s conclusion that the problem is not mechanical—as scientific fashion claimed in the 1930s—but neurological, as scans now prove.

But The King’s Speech’s most singular merit is that stammering is not merely a character handle or a plot device implant, but the film’s star subject. As far as I know, this is a first. The two best-known screen stammerers in British culture to date are Ronnie Barker’s grocer Arkwright in the 1970s and 1980s sitcom, Open All Hours— my, how we laughed—and Michael Palin’s character Ken in the hit 1988 comedy, A Fish Called Wanda. Both exploit the dramatic colour of stammering, but neither offer an ounce of understanding about the phenomenon. Why is this particular dysfunction, lived with by approximately 750,000 people in Britain, represented so dismally and so sparsely in contemporary culture?

*****

I detect a taboo. All disabilities are disabling, but the degree of discomfort they inflict upon the non-disabled varies, depending in no small part on the condition’s “assistability.” Helping a blind person navigate King’s Cross gives the decent-minded Samaritan a certain glow, and inviting a special needs classmate to our child’s birthday party makes us feel civilised. But watching a stammerer suffer a mauling? That’s agony. What can you do, apart from inwardly (or outwardly) wince, and thank God you don’t suffer that mortification every time you’re called upon to read in class, answer the phone or buy a ticket?

I guessed that screenwriter David Seidler was a stammerer just from the reactions of the onlookers during the Duke of York’s Wembley speech, in The King’s Speech’s foggy opening scene. Finally (and I confess to grim relish here) non-stammerers can see themselves as we see them and their shouldn’t-look-away-but-don’t-know-where-else-to-look Look.

This individual discomfort, I believe, transforms into a broader cultural “looking away”—hence the dearth of intelligent television and film on the subject. And the cultural looking away, in turn, translates into political indifference and funding apathy. The Donkey Sanctuary receives 200 times the annual donations of the British Stammering Association, of which I am a patron. To mangle Oscar Wilde, stammering is the disability which cannot say its name.

This silence is even common in the homes of stammerers. Despite growing up in a much saner family than the Duke of York’s, my open and kind parents and I discussed my speech impediment exactly never, and this “don’t mention the stammer” policy was continued by friends and colleagues into my thirties. I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13 year old. Intentions are honourable—“the poor bastard’s suffering enough without bringing up the subject”—but silence leads to public ignorance, and this has allowed fallacies to take root: fallacies that make stammerers’ lives harder in the long run.

The first fallacy’s stupidity is matched only by its doggedness, and in The King’s Speech it is embodied by the Duke of York’s father. It’s the belief that stammerers can be urged and exhorted to “get it out!”—because stammering is caused by a lack of willpower. Do me a favour. Stammerers are furnaces of willpower, burning more of the stuff in making a single phonecall than our non-stammering accusers get through in a week. My first ever public event as a writer was in 1999, at the generous invitation of AS Byatt and Tibor Fischer. Tibor picked up on my nervousness and, meaning to reassure me, said: “This will be the scariest reading you’ll ever do.” I’ve never told him how right he was.

The second fallacy is a cousin of the first and might be labelled “throw-’em-in-at-the-deep-end.” If a stammerer is forced by circumstances into public speaking, it’s assumed that the disfluency will evaporate as if by magic. This is patent bullshit, as The King’s Speech demonstrates, but it is still widely credited, and rears its head in the Oscar-winning screenplay Shakespeare in Love, where a hitherto tongue-tied stammerer is forced onto the stage of the Globe, and lo and behold, his verbal shackles fall away. If only. I remember pleading with an otherwise astute deputy headmistress to waive my prefect’s school assembly reading, something I’d been dreading for many years. She agreed, but not without implying that by submitting to my cowardice I was avoiding the chance to cure myself. This isn’t a “poor me” anecdote: my point is that even gifted educators may not grasp that if stress could cure speech defects, stammerers wouldn’t exist in the first place. We’d all be lawyers, or establishing cults, or outsparring John Humphrys on the Today programme.

A third fallacy is that stammering is curable, like rabies or cowpox. When the speech therapist Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech mentioned the word “cure” early on, I feared a heart-warming scene where King George has a “Run, Forrest, Run!” moment. In fact, his victory is a fluent-ish speech rather than mellifluous perfection. ‘You still stammered on the “w,” Logue half-jokes after the speech, and the king half-jokes back: “I had to throw in a few extra ones so they knew it was me.” The bad news is that all stammerers are lifers. The good news is that strategies which alleviate a stammer can become so integrated that, much of the time, the joins won’t show—and you can get on with jobs, relationships, call centres and wartime speeches.

What are these strategies? They vary from stammerer to stammerer, but we all collect a box of tricks. I subdivide mine into technical fixes and attitudinal stances. Blunt technical fixes would include the “Punch”: where I attack a word to force it out, and the “Foot Tap,” which works like a musician’s a-1,2,3,4, though only when I’m standing, hence my fondness for lecterns. I often use the Long Pause and the Long “Erm…” where I “assemble” a word under the cover of searching for it. There’s the “Autocue Substitute,” where I scan my current sentence for trouble and change vocabulary and grammar to avoid it, without (ideally) my listener noticing. This doesn’t work when I’m doing a reading (though occasionally I’ll substitute a word in one of my own books on the hoof), but it was excellent training for a future novelist. By the age of 15 I was a zit-spattered thesaurus of synonyms and an expert on lexical registers. At my rural comprehensive, substituting the word “pointless” with “futile” would get you beaten up for being a snob because the register’s too high—it’s a teacher’s word—so I’d deploy “useless.” Another crafty technique is “Vowel Vaseline,” where I smear a tricky consonant with its preceding vowel. For example, I fumble with the “s” of “salad,” but not with the word “assalad,” so when I’m ordering in restaurants I say, “I’ll have assalad, please.”

If these technical fixes tackle the problem once it’s begun, “attitudinal stances” seek to dampen the emotions that trigger my stammer in the first place. Most helpful has been a sort of militant indifference to how my audience might perceive me. Nothing fans a stammer’s flames like the fear that your listener is thinking “Jeez, what is wrong with this spasm-faced, eyeball-popping strangulated guy?” But if I persuade myself that this taxing sentence will take as long as it bloody well takes and if you, dear listener, are embarrassed then that’s your problem, I tend not to stammer. This explains how we can speak without trouble to animals and to ourselves: our fluency isn’t being assessed. This is also why it’s helpful for non-stammerers to maintain steady eye contact, and to send vibes that convey, “No hurry, we’ve got all the time in the world.” (While we’re on the subject, please don’t finish off our sentences: it makes us feel like doomed contenders in a hellish, eternal game of Countdown.)

My second shift in attitude was to stop thinking of my stammer as an enemy, and to start seeing it as an informant about language, and a feature of me; as legitimate as my imagination or conscience. Sure, it needed domesticating, and this took time, but we’ve come to a modus operandi where I recognise my stammer’s right to exist, and it recognises my right to do readings and radio interviews. Sometimes I have to Autocue Substitute or resort to a blunter technique, and very occasionally I may have to say to a festival audience something like “I’m sorry but my stammer’s refusing to let me say this one word” and “syllable-spell” it out, but it beats being at war with myself, and nobody’s ever asked for their money back.

The last fallacy I’d like to dispel is that stammering is a phase that children will grow out of. It isn’t, and they won’t. This fallacy still festers in surgeries and schools where it sweeps concerns under reassuring carpets, but also trashes childhoods and squanders potential. Would you put your hand up in class if you know you’re going to stammer? Better act dumb, at least you keep some dignity. Worst of all, this fallacy discourages stammerers or their parents from seeking professional help. My coping strategies described above are ones I evolved over many years, and they let me function as an author, but a modern-day therapist could help me acquire them in as many months and save two decades of secret trouble. Therapy has come a long way since my own patchy experiences of it in the 1980s—let alone Lionel Logue’s intuitive approaches in the 1930s—and there are positive reports about new initiatives like the Starfish programme, which emphasises breathing control.

The footballer Jimmy Greaves once said that an alcoholic is an alcoholic for life; but that his aim was to become a teetotal alcoholic. My own goal is to become a non-stammering stammerer. In the year of The King’s Speech, people with speech impediments shouldn’t feel imprisoned by their disfluencies or suffer alone. So if you’re asking for tea when you want coffee because of that tricky “c,” find a speech therapist you can work with, stick at it, and start ordering your coffee.

  1. March 1, 2011

    Ben Parsons

    Great article. Thank you for expressing what I have dealt with my entire life. Though my stammering may not be as severe as others’, I still struggle with it as much as anyone else. I will try to learn to accept it for what it is and “become a non-stammering stammerer.”

  2. March 1, 2011

    Sally-Ann

    Thanks David for your very insightful comments. I would like to share this article in my team of SLT’s – I’m sure there will be somet new for everyone in what you have written.

  3. March 2, 2011

    Christine

    So many people think that speech impediments, along with many other pathological conditions and disorders that don’t have a visible or tangible cause, can just be “set right” by getting it over with and dusting their hands off. I’m sure depression and anxiety were in the same boat as stammering not many decades ago. People tend to view these conditions as the owner’s fault, unfortunately.

    Somerset Maugham was another stammerer. He was so anxious and worried about his stammer that he would enlist the help of younger, self-assured men to go around with him and make introductions on his behalf.

  4. March 2, 2011

    Hetty Collins

    Thank you. Spot on. Describes my life (apart from the novel reading, panel show and satirical appearances) entirely. And thank you for giving me names for all the techniques I’ve evolved over the years to try and cover my stutter. Also would like to say – that girls stutter too.

  5. March 3, 2011

    arthur

    We heard David Mitchell being interviewed earlier this year (mideelburg, netherlands) but no hint of any speech defect. he almost coudn’t be stopped talking and it all went fluently.

  6. March 3, 2011

    Martha Southgate

    What a beautiful piece. My son does not stammer but he has learning disabilities with reading, writing, attention and time management that complicate his life. You’ve beautifully articulated the lifelong sense of dealing with these things. As a parent, thanks so much

  7. March 3, 2011

    Elizabeth Jackson

    Thank you for ‘speaking up’ for us stammerers in so many ways. As you say, there is no cure, but I had some useful speech therapy as a teenager in the 1970s. One of the key points I remember from it is that ‘technical fixes’ are counterproductive because avoiding certain words or certain sounds reinforces your fear of them, and hence your difficulties. This is easier said than done of course – if you’ll excuse the pun. Like yourself, I have learned over time not to be ashamed of my stammering, and this, more than anything else, has enabled me to develop a (so far successful) career as a university lecturer. Such a career choice would have been unthinkable in my hellish younger days when even answering the phone or trying to answer a simple question in class was torture. I was not surprised by the comment of someone who had heard you speak fluently. As you say, one of the many unknown truths about stammerers is that we all speak fluently sometimes.

  8. March 4, 2011

    Carla

    Great article! You are right that people who stammer or stutter (terms for the same condition)“are furnaces of willpower.” We have to develop “a sort of militant indifference to how [people]perceive [us]” in order to make it through each day. Good that you shared some advice for those who do not have any problem with their speech. The Stuttering Foundation has some brochures downloadable from their web site (www.stutteringhelp.org) that I have shared with friends, teachers, and coworkers. “Tips for Speaking with Someone who Stutters” has made conversing much easier for me.

  9. March 4, 2011

    Dick Baznik

    Wonderful article! I was first conscious that I stuttered at the age of six, and while I have developed many of the same managerial techniques Mr. Mitchell describes, I still have the problem as I approach the age of 70.

    As a young student, I was deeply engaged in the study of languages, both classical and modern. I was good at it, and my teachers and classmates assumed I just had “that kind of mind.” Little did they know that I had an unusual motivation — the need for more and more synonyms to substitute for looming troubles in my conversations.

    Over the course of two decades I went through about seven speech therapists. The worst were the ones whose approaches ranged from telling me to stand in a certain way when speaking or warning me never to consider a career in the public light. The best, who was also the last, understood that I had the capacity to manage stuttering so long as the motivation was there, and that career demands for public speaking can present legitimate motivation.

    Even if the publicity around TKS doesn’t yield a year filled with more understanding about stuttering, I’m happy we’ve had a good month.

  10. March 4, 2011

    Teresa

    Thank you for a fantastic article! I, too, went through speech therapy in the ’70′s as a preteen, and seemed to “grow out of it,” but maybe it was just the talent of my last therapist. I’ve gone on to a career as a school teacher, and now I’m the “Story Lady” at the public library, earning my pay doing what I feared most as a child – reading aloud. The frightening thing to me at this time is how this movie (which I’m not sure I can bring myself to see) has brought the memories and fears back to the forefront of my mind, and lately I’ve felt the catch in my words more than at any time since my high school days. Frankly, I’ll feel better when the interest dies down.

  11. March 5, 2011

    Renee Sweet

    I really enjoyed this article. Thank you for your candid remarks and the information. I do not stammer and I especially appreciated your comments on what I can do to avoid being like one of the onlookers from the Wembley speech.

  12. March 11, 2011

    David Mitchell

    I just wanted to thank you all for responding to my article.

    Individually:

    Ben P: You’re welcome, good luck. You sound pretty sorted, but if my ‘policy’ helps, great. If not, you’ll find your own, no doubt.

    Sally Ann: Long live dedicated SLTs. If what I wrote helps you and your program, great. You’re not just therapists remember, you’re emancipators.

    Christine: I didn’t know that about Somerset Maughm. Not the happiest of men. I understand his fear too well to feel any scorn,
    but his is not a ‘technical fix’ I would recommend, even if I had the wherewithal to copy it!

    Hetty C: Yes indeed, many of British Stammering Association members are female. Odd how the default stereotype of a person who stammers is male – maybe popular culture has disseminated this image. You might be mistaking me for the other David Mitchell, by the way – the comedian/columnist/satiricist (if the
    latter’s a word -my spellcheck doesn’t think so). So far as I know, he doesn’t stammer at all. Don’t worry, you aren’t the first and won’t be the last – especially when he starts publishing novels.

    Arthur: your comment brought a big fat grin to my face. If any youngish stammerer is reading this, take heart – you can one day
    be (charmingly) accused of verbosity too! (I had a great time in Middelburg by the way, Arthur – if you’re a local, thanks for making me feel so welcome. What an amazing library.

    Martha S: you’re welcome too. Hope all goes well with your lad. It will. It’s a long slog, I know, you need ten times the energy, ten times the patience and ten times the positivity of a “normal” parenting context. But it makes you ten times as tough, ten times as compassionate and you learn ten times as much about human beings in general and your own human being in particular. Hang on in there, wear your battle-scars with pride, stuff the disapproving stares in public, and he’ll amaze you.

    Elizabeth J: Way to go. Here’s to unthinkable career choices :-)

    Carla: Thank you for your kind words, and thanks for the link also.

    Dick B: And thank you too. Your stammer obviously hasn’t held you back in life either. Recently I heard Alan Bennett make the observation that literary style is everything that is ‘wrong’ with how a writer writes. Of course he phrased it better than that, but the point is that all a writer’s foibles and indulgences and weak-points and overcomings of those weak-points are what, collectively, make that writer different to any other writer. I love that idea, that it’s not what we do right that really matters, but what we do wrong. I think the same principle might be applicable to people, too: whatever is ‘wrong’ with how our brains are wired up, that, collectively, is what makes us unique, what influences our interests and paths through life, what informs our individual views of the world, and is what bestows upon us particular insights and perspectives which we can share with others, and how we can help them. Put more succinctly, stammerers are world-class experts on how to live with speech disfluencies, and how to create a more helpful and enlightened understanding of stammering. There’s massive room for improvement. Let’s make that our mission, whenever we get the opportunity. We can do better than Somerset Maughm.

    Teresa: I know where you’re coming from, and if ‘non-examination’ of your stammer is an effective strategy for you, I wouldn’t knock it,
    even though it never worked for me. I hope interest in stammering stays engaged and informed, because speech therapy intervention needs to be properly funded and GPs need to stop saying, ‘Oh, he (or she) will grow out it.’ But equally I hope that a higher profile for stammerers doesn’t cause a relapse for you. Good luck, whatever happens.

    Renee S: Clearly, you mean well and you want to understand. I don’t think a stammerer could ask anything more.

  13. March 23, 2011

    Will Sleath

    Really enjoyed this article too. I am in the category that I sometimes kid myself I have reached the “non-stammering stammerer” stage, then of course the stammer turns around and tells you not to be so silly.

    In fact for me, the relationship with the stammer is a bit different – not an enemy, but something you want to outwit and get satifaction when you do. In fact “Outwitting the stammer” is maybe another technique for the list, shifting suddenly to a regional accent or a different pitch. Though it sounds odd to the listener, of course. (I absolutely share Molly’s experience about foreign languages, French in my case, accentuaing the issue).

    And maybe this is middle age taking over, but I also find now that years of my brain working on parallel tracks – what to say and can I say it – mean that I sometimes say completly the wrong word in a sentence now, even when not stammering. The mental overload of doing both just seems to being a disconnect.

    Thanks again for the article

  14. March 24, 2011

    Paul Mason

    I met David Mitchell in a small town in Herefordshire back in (I think) 2005, and, knowing nothing of his novels, found him both refreshingly modest and a fluent and engaging speaker.

    It occurs to me that those of us who are ordinarily labelled ‘non-stammerers’ might benefit from turning things on their head and realising that we, too, are simply stammerers who have learned, like David Mitchell (though perhaps without the herculean effort and intelligence) to cope with it. Actually, for me this makes sense, when I consider the times I’ve been tongue-tied, or having to make speeches.

  15. March 24, 2011

    Tim King

    Thank you for such a very good article David. And how generous to reply to those who have expressed their gratitude. This post is not about stammering (so don’t reply to it)but your Alan Bennett quote and your extension of that(which is also spot-on): it made me think of Jean Cocteau’s “What others criticise in you, cultivate. That’s the real you.”

  16. April 20, 2011

    Feurmann

    It’s always heartening to hear about a fellow sufferer who has overcome his affliction. (Women are far less often stutterers, for reasons that aren’t well understood.) Gratifying also that the film is evidently well researched and doesn’t just portray a stuttering character as a dithering figure of fun. I wish it every success (particularly being an Australian), but could never go and see it.

    David is fortunate in being a writer, and thus mostly (I suppose) sef-employed. My stutter has been responsible for me underachieving professionally. Most jobs over a certain level require good communication skills, and what most people mean by that is talking. If you apply for those (and I must have applied for over 100 jobs), somehow a fluent candidate always wins. Not an excuse to give up? How about if, in my case, you’ve thought of suicide? I have decided to stop setting myself up for failure and concentrate on the rest of my life; playing an instrument, spending time with my wife. Waiting to retire. But bitter? Sometimes, for sure.

  17. May 7, 2011

    Matthew

    Hi David,

    I very much enjoyed listening to your interview with Kim Hill broadcast on radio nz this morning.

    Your discussion of stammering is fascinating. I thought your comments on the both the genetic / environmental causality of the condition and the phenomenological expression of it through enveloped points of view between stammerer and interlocutor were extremely well put. So well put it lead me here and I was delighted to see that you had replied to a number of the comments above. As such I wanted to ask whether you’d ever come across the great writings of Gilles Deleuze which use stammering and stuttering as a philosophical / critical motif. I suppose the most concerted piece is one entitled (translated as) ‘He Stuttered’. If so I really wondered what you made of his particular use of the condition.

    Thanks for your indulgence.

  18. May 11, 2011

    Betty Vanderstoop

    Hi David,
    Just wanted to thank you for this enlightening piece. I am a member of the Best Book Club in Canada and this coming Friday night we will discuss your book “Black Swan Green”. It was my turn to choose, so I am very curious how well it will be received. I am 77, but could still remember how awkward I felt at times in grade school, even though I was not a stammerer. Your book brought back memories of feeling inadequate in different ways, but still relatable to your Jason Taylor. That feeling never completely faded away. I know though that one is never too old to learn. Good luck, David, in your future writing endeavours. (One of our daughters is working hard at following you in your footsteps.) From me to you best wishes. I would like to say: Have a VERY good life!
    Greetings from Betty Vanderstoop

  19. April 29, 2012

    Jochen

    Thank you very much, David Mitchell, for your frankness and this invaluable insight. Jochen

Leave a comment

  1. From stammerer to master of words: David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green | Tea, Books & Thoughts10-22-12


Author

David Mitchell

David Mitchell
David Mitchell is the author of “Cloud Atlas” and a patron of The British Stammering Association: www.stammering.org 


Share this







Most Read






Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times


Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia