This is about living with and eventually conquering a severe stammer [stutter]. Whilst this may find empathy with those having any noticeable, or debilitating, personal aberrations, what follows is simply about the author, Ernie Weiss, and what perseverance may reap, with no intent to extol any virtues.
Stammering is a speech impediment and is usually blatantly obvious. To the observer it is often ugly, discomforting and embarrassing. It may be much more so to the 5% of children and 1% of adults with this difficulty. The ratios differ as most children grow out of it and that the earlier modern therapy starts, the better is the outcome.
Understanding this condition is difficult, as the causes are still unknown. My stammer began, out of the blue, when I was two and a half years old in Switzerland. It happened some time after starting (rather late) to speak, in German. This was before resettlement in Britain and any language change (which, incidently, had neither positive nor negative effects).
Why four times more males than females stutter is puzzling too. Originally, I felt that this may have had something to do with the differing ways and rates of development between boys and girls. Yet dyslexia is also more prevalent with males - but this is hereditary, whilst stammering is not. Although dyslexics suffer from abnormalities in specific areas of the brain, with neurological implications, what causes this is also unknown. Dyslexia is over twice as common, yet much more insidious, than is stammering.
Some lady stutterers feel that it is tougher for them, as they claim to be more personality conscious and more disposed to talk than men! Not surprisingly, the extent of the attendant problems usually varies directly with the severity of the impairment.
More surprisingly and very sadly, stammering falls easy prey to sick humour and attracts cruel insolent mimicry. It is most peculiar that many people seem to find misfortune in others so funny (more ha ha than peculiar!). It also carries the stigma typical of all obvious human flaws - but much harsher, as it is often misconstrued as idiocy - even by some professionals, who should abandon arrogance but not their objectivity. Stutterers, especially as children, thereby are prone to become targets to tease, scorn and bully.
Although very gradually being redressed by the odd life-style journal and recently more so via the internet (see Links below) little about stammering has been published. Hopefully, this personal anecdotal snippet will aid understanding and may even contribute, albeit modestly, to the scant literature.
The Primary Pain
Trials & Progress
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Being unable to converse with any fluency until my late teens was painfully frustrating. In an effort to avoid the melodramatic, this may seem to be an understatement. Yet, I believe that the term is appropriate. Frustration fairly, if not completely, describes the feeling of not being able to express oneself orally. The resulting risks of social exclusion and precluding the opportunity to test and reinforce one's learning through peer group discussion (so important to child development, which is sadly often forgotten) increases the pain.
Like most stammerers, I was teased, mimicked, ridiculed, and written-off as thick, stupid or mental, even marginalized, as often by adults (which made me angry) as by my peers (which hurt). Though humiliated at times, very fortunately I felt no lasting bitterness, low self-esteem, or despair, thanks to my family, friends and some more enlightened teachers. My parents helped in every way, including the choice of my extraordinarily positive progressive schooling - which I enjoyed immensely (described elsewhere on this web site - see Author's Home Page under Links below).
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1. The Tavistock Experience. The first remedial attempt, when I was six, was at the Tavistock Clinic in London. My parents had waited until we had re-settled in Britain and allowed me time to learn English. They sought the best and met the consultant Dr. H first. My few visits consisted of tests, play and painting. At what turned out to be my last visit, Dr. H noted in one picture that the blue had run (inadvertently) into the red, making mauve - a sign of melancholy, she claimed. (I had to ask mother what this was - it was, of course, quite untrue.)
Dr. H then told me that my arrival (although prematurely) just over eight months after my parents married, had been a mistake, that I was an unwanted child and that this was the likely cause of our little problem. She became furious when I laughed at this preposterous (and highly presumptuous) idea, as I felt secure and loved at home. On asking mother why this old woman spouted such nonsense, my visits ended forthwith.
On what therapeutic theory or rationale should anyone, let alone a young child, be confronted with such gross and dangerous assertions, about which the subject can neither be held responsible nor can remedy? Albeit etched in my memory, I emerged from this cruel attempt at therapy by trauma, very fortuitously, undamaged - but, even from this apparently renowned centre of excellence(?), alas, no better.
Is it gross professional arrogance, or merely rank selfishness, that the psychiatric fraternity seems to presume that stammering is "simply a phychological problem?" Like many other stutterers, I was never any more neurotic, nervous or shy than anyone else. My only shyness was in speaking, which was due to the potential embarrassment as a consequence of stammering and never its cause. Having lived through the left-handed to right-handed "forced conversion" causal belief era (although inclined to be ambidextrous, I was never forced to be right-handed) plus much Freudian claptrap, like many speech therapists, I have long believed that the biological explanation to be the more promising and helpful focus.
World War II and school evacuation intervened shortly after the Tavistock fiasco and some years elapsed before we tried again. So, I lived on with my stammer, knowingly stretching the patience of and causing much embarrassment to those around me.
My stutter affected my learning. Rarely could I ask questions in class, this being too disruptive. Oral exercises were avoided as too difficult, so my reading and writing suffered significantly. I often felt bemused. Thankfully, my natural curiosity never waned. My enthusiasm for sport, art, crafts and an acute interest in how things and nature work, complemented by my keen visual and spatial senses and memory, sustained my self-confidence.
With the end of war, a school change and the awakening intense self-consciousness of adolescence, we tackled this speech thing again. Tavistock left us with no faith in psychotherapy, with its typically Freudian obsession with speculative psychoanalysis. Unlikely to find any useful answers, particularly any definitive ones, it diverts focus from therapy - but expands the fees. (Treating causes rather than symptoms makes every good sense - but of course only when causes are found. Although this is obvious, the realistic probabilities of benefits to the client, rather than to the consultant, are too often overlooked.)
2. Lilli, an elocutionist (whose husband Arnold was a character actor, both being in my parents' circle of friends) read poetry in public. She felt that she could help, on learning that I, like many stammerers it transpires, did not stammer when singing songs.
So, when home on school holidays, I visited Lilli weekly for nearly two years. She emphasized posture, breathing and to transfer the rhythm of poetry to a form of poetic prose. In due course, I began to converse - but awkwardly, like Swedish English "gone wrong" and unable to convert this to more normal and acceptable discourse.
3. Meanwhile, the professional "speech therapist" had emerged and, encouraged by the above, we tried this next. Pauline promoted relaxation, primarily physical. This made sense to me, as stuttering tied me in knots physically, in tension, or maybe compression, specially around both the throat and the diaphragm. While significantly strengthening my muscles, speaking expended considerable physical effort.
My main speaking strategy, familiar to many stammerers, was the liberal use of synonyms. With the perpetual expectation to crash to a sudden halt, this meant the continuous frantic search for alternative words and phrases, with some not being as precise in meaning as intended. My mind went racing far ahead of my mouth, generating frenzied mental effort and "noise." Pauline felt that this hindered relaxation, so some mental relaxation was also addressed, by trying to focus more on the message than on its constituent parts. This was also to boost confidence and deal with the inherent anticipation to stammer. So, at nearly 16, with a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, I started to make headway.
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Certain speaking situations were especially hazardous. The telephone, despite its one-to-one nature, was one. Its ring evokes an alarm-like stress condition - to answer feels to be an imperative. It generates the auras of urgency and the unexpected, with time short and speech rushed (due mainly to the high call charges at that time). This induced such stress that I regularly became stuck for words.
During the bleak post-war era of shortages and rationing in my teens, queuing was a British national pastime, like when shopping (pre-self-service) and at ticket offices. For the stammerer, the wait for ones turn builds-up immense pressures and anxieties to speak on cue, rapidly, clearly and concisely. It is almost as bad with the wait to speak at meetings, on committees and in debates.
The worst scenes were in the law courts. After many undue delays, once in court, the stresses intensify with the ludicrous charade and jargon. The legal players are often unduly pompous and arrogant, at the expense of and with little respect for the witnesses and victims. Despite the solemn oaths, the courts often seem uninterested in truth and justice - but thrive on confusion, intimidation and scurrility.
This often causes humiliation and a grim ordeal for those giving evidence, which is especially squalid and degrading for the less fluently articulate. Both victims and witnesses often feel more on trial than anyone in the dock. Much time and effort is taken to try to discredit the former, casting doubt on one's credibility if one is hesitant and sometimes even resorting to the foul means of snooping and broadcasting "confidential" medical records. Small wonder that witnesses and victims grow evermore reluctant to participate - without whom the process of law and order cannot proceed.
A system that permits, indeed encourages, such gross conduct is pretty sick and, overall, is probably even self-defeating. How many cases fail to succeed, or fail to be brought at all, due to the unwillingness or failure of victims and witnesses to face the prospects of such harassment and scornful treatment by the courts? There must be very many. If the judicial system fails justice, it follows that the system must be remedied. Yet the stuffy inertia, trapped in some time-warp, seems set seized solid with the rigid fear of change.
Finding that I was in good company, such as King George VI, Winston Churchill and more than a few past and current celebrities, failed to move or help me. We are all different and have to find our own individual ways.
The term learning difficulty in todays ridiculous "politically correct" parlance often means, in plain English, mentally deficient, or retarded - a linguistic travesty. There are many people with early learning difficulties (variously caused) which have nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence or mental health. They simply may have to work much harder and take longer to realize their potential.
Many of us catch up, indeed may gain extra strengths and wisdom from having to cope with and to meet the attendant challenges, both educational and social. In my case, I had to become very alert and mentally agile ("quick on my feet") - but the reverse was perceived, as I had to control my speech as deliberate and precise to control my stammer. It was indeed a terrible irony that I was criticized (careerwise) for not being more spontaneous in oral rapport! That hurt.
Despite not learning to read until almost nine years of age, I reached postgraduate masters degree level, albeit part-time and not until my 40s (due not to any intellectual delays on my part, but that this was the first part-time MBA programme available to me). This proves, as with all mature students, that there are late developers and that we are never too old to learn.
Stammering also affected my career, as it is often regarded as a sign of weakness. Many people mistakenly correlate deliberate or hesitant speech with slow or muddled thinking. This may be seen as indecision, made worse by recent trends for slick sound bites and rapid response over-simplistic one-liners. At best, hesitancy is seen as an eccentricity - but even this is prone to raise queries about conforming to the corporate norms expected, with today's emphasis on excellence and zero defects. Idiosyncracies are often construed as indicating higher risks, or poor potential. First impressions linger, often hiding real talent. Countless cases exist where the best idea was dismissed because a lesser case was presented with greater gloss or panache.
These "values" also influence employment appointments and promotions, where the fiercest competitor often wins against the candidate with the better match to the job. Moreover, there is a management myth that, if one had not made it by one's mid thirties, one never will. Sadly, ageism is a modern western malignancy, of growing rampant proportions.
So, I had to work harder, be more patient and missed some promotions. I may be a little poorer - but, had I risen much further, I may not have had as much fun from the latter part of my career.
During my earlier years at work, my speech very gradually became more fluent. By my early 30's, I had gained enough confidence to begin tentatively to speak in public. I tested this when joining Roundtable (the young man's offshoot of Rotary International in Britain) and by becoming a part-time (evening) lecturer at a local college (in addition to my day job). Despite still being very self-conscious about speaking, I began to learn to unfreeze and more openly acknowledge and even joke about my stutter.
In retrospect, I believe that this more relaxed attitude was significant in both reducing mutual embarrassment (I am unsure of the cause and effect relationships here) and in gaining confidence. Of enormous help too was when I discovered how rarely people, at least in a social setting, seemed even to notice any impairment.
To aid my public speaking, I shift the attention to the audience by encouraging questions and rapport. This relieves the self-conscious tension of and spotlight on delivery. The better actors and orators learn their lines and switch to auto-pilot, to play the audience. In contrast, as a stammerer I find it extremely hazardous to recite or read scripts.
Contrary to conventional advice, my scripts are solely key words. This frees me to speak as my mood and audience reaction decree, in a more impromptu manner. Although then not word perfect (and having to keep control to avoid becoming diverted for too long) I am thereby much more spontaneous, responsive and more alive with enthusiasm - an highly infectious and very powerful aid. As I am not a "natural" speaker, I need all the help there is to keep delivery dynamic, fresh and interesting.
The invitation for me to transfer from Engineering to Personnel was due to my voiced concerns (this is what happens when one talks too much) about the lack of company skill planning and strategic training. These concerns arose when I was working in engineering resource planning and realized that both technology and the demands of managing change were rapidly overtaking the skills available.
My personal interest in my own education at the time, with my willingness in mid career to risk overtly and formally testing myself at its highest and most rigorous level, I suspect also played a part.
So, I changed career to help manage the companys education and training effort and find solutions to these critical problems. Consequently, when discussing with managers at all levels their changing and future business and skill needs and then devising and implementing solutions and by running conferences, courses, seminars and workshops, there were ample opportunities to practise speaking.
It felt very fitting to tap ones personal resources and use the power of speech to impart knowledge and to develop the skills in others to help them cope with change, particularly at the forefront of technology and with the drive to meet ever higher performance targets.
As I matured through my 40's, I began to enjoy, rather than just endure, the platform, even though I still may lapse into hesitation at times and therefore need to concentrate vigilantly.
I further tested my confidence in public speaking by adding to my already demanding job the role of company spokesman (I was invited, not coerced!). There are fewer riskier, more exacting and higher pressure speaking situations than that - and no, whilst enjoying a challenge, I am not a masochist!.
Today, I enjoy retirement. On reflection, I feel fortunate to have led an happy and fruitful life. I believe that we take much, including speech, for granted far too easily. To speak is a profound and unique human faculty, one in which to achieve fluency - especially in public speaking - was well beyond my wildest childhood dreams.
Hence, I have come to more fully appreciate the great joy of being able to speak freely, in a more fluent and hopefully more eloquent manner.
Author's Home Page and Menu to Telling-Tales web site
British Stammering Association (BSA)
Stuttering Homepage's Case Studies
Copyright © Ernest Weiss 1998 - 2004 . . . . . www.telling-tales.fsnet.co.uk