Because “The King’s Speech,” a movie about King George’s effort to overcome stuttering, won the Oscar for best picture, reporters have been interviewing me about my stuttering.
Some ask why they don’t hear me stutter on TV. Others wonder why a stutterer is on TV in the first place. Here’s my explanation. Since I was a child, my stuttering has come and gone. Sometimes I was sure the problem had disappeared – then it would return with such a vengeance I’d fear saying anything. I’d stay silent in class. I avoided parties. When I was old enough to date, sometimes I’d telephone a girl and try to speak, but nothing would come out. I’d just hang up. Now, because of caller ID, stutterers can’t do that.
I never planned on a career in TV. After graduating from Princeton, I was accepted by the University of Chicago’s graduate school in hospital management. But I wasn’t eager to go to grad school. I hated school. Princeton bored me. I thought that if I took a real job, that would make me appreciate school. I went to every job interview I could get and took the offer that gave me the longest free flight: researcher at KGW-TV in Portland, Ore.
Work turned out to be better than school! And instead of paying tuition, my employer paid me! So I kept working at the TV station.
I never thought I’d have to speak on TV.
I was wrong. One day, my boss told me to cover a fire and report – on the air. “I can’t,” I said. “I stutter!” My boss said my stuttering wasn’t that bad and ordered me to cover the story.
In truth, my stuttering was pretty bad, but I concealed it by using synonyms for words that I knew would make me stutter (mostly those beginning with plosive sounds – d, g and b). That made it tough to do consumer reporting because words like “better” and “different” are basic to product comparisons. I got around that problem by using clumsy phrases like “works well,” “is superior to,” etc. When I did stutter, I’d go to the edit room and cut the blocks out.
Then the station told me to announce election expenditure totals – live. I thought I might pull it off because many of us stutterers (James Earl Jones, for example) can be fluent when we act or read out loud. But my stuttering returned.
It was a stomach-turning shock when, live on the air, I realized there’s no workable synonym for “dollar.” (There’s “bucks,” but that isn’t dignified, and it begins with a plosive sound, too.) I was still in mid-sentence – saying a politician had “spent 95 thousand d-d-dol-” – when they simply cut me off the air. I felt humiliated. I avoided live TV after that.
I went to speech therapists for help, but I still stuttered. Hypnotists, acupuncturists, psychologists and transcendental meditation gurus promised they could cure me. None of them could.
On days when any live work was scheduled, I’d wake in a cold sweat anticipating the humiliation that might come hours later when people would watch my mouth lock. That fear made me decide to quit.
But then I tried one more stuttering treatment. I heard about a three-week clinic in Roanoke, Va., called the Hollins Communications Research Center. It re-teaches stutterers how to make every sound. Apparently, stutterers, even when we don’t block on words, initiate sounds more abruptly, and that often leads to stutters. In Roanoke, they had us sit in little rooms reading words into a microphone, concentrating on beginning each sound gently. When we hit a word too hard, a red light came on. The therapy is tedious, and it doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked for me. After three weeks, I felt like a cork had been removed from my throat. Years of speech poured out. People couldn’t shut me up.
I’m not “cured” – I still stutter sometimes – and I still must practice the techniques I learned. But my stuttering is no longer the obstacle it was. For more information about stuttering therapy, consult the Stuttering Foundation.