‘The King’s Speech': A Stutterer’s Reflection

In the first five minutes of The King’s Speech, the newly released Oscar-bait film from the Weinstein Company, a man who will soon be known as George VI, King of England (but for now, known as Prince Albert, Duke of York), approaches a microphone. He’s at Wembley Stadium, it’s 1925, and he’s supposed to deliver the closing speech for the Empire Exhibition. He opens his mouth to speak, and nothing happens. His lips part and close several times, signaling his failed attempts to begin his oration. Finally he chokes out “I have received” before unintentionally pausing, continuing after what feels like a minute, “from His Majesty, the King.” His throat tenses up, and he produces unattractive guttural sounds, punctuating his lack of fluency and destroying his confidence to continue.

In my seat in the movie theater, I cringe. The awkward silences and uncomfortable looks that the Prince receives from the crowd are too familiar for me. I’ve been there. After all, the character (referenced throughout the film as “Bertie”) and I have the same speech impediment: stuttering. We don’t have the more typical impediment based on repetition, but rather one based on hesitations; that is, not st-st-st-stuttering, but rather not-talking-not-talking-still-not-talking-now-he’s-gurgling-and-there-are-awkward-noises stuttering. Our throats tense up and our vocal chords refuse to produce sound. It tends to be something of a roadblock to effective communication, to say the least, and that logic is probably how these pauses got their name—“blocks.”

I may not be a king, but this movie is my life. I mean, if you fast-forward about 80 years; replace Bertie’s supportive, doting wife with my supportive, doting parents; reduce the severity and frequency of the blocks a bit; add in the fact that I’m a second-generation stutterer, following in my dad’s footsteps; and nix that whole part where the entire population of England is relying on the courage of their leader in a time of imminent war, our stories are pretty damn near identical.

In the film and in real life, Bertie has stuttered for as long as he can remember, and he’s seen too many speech pathologists to count. As he grows older and is saddled with more public-speaking responsibilities as a member of the royal family, he resigns himself to believing that it can’t get better. As a sort of Last Hope scenario, he begins therapy sessions with an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who works him through every fluency technique in the rulebook. Lionel tries to reduce the impact of Bertie’s stammer (Brit speak, naturally) through the practice of easy onset, by singing sentences with a melody, by speaking while listening to blasting music, and, in a particularly interesting scene, by yelling what basically constitutes George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” when he experiences a block.

The King’s Speech is the first mainstream movie that focuses on a stutterer and his ventures into therapy. For about three million American stutterers—one percent of the population—this is the first time they’re seeing a representation of their struggles on the big screen. I’ve tried all of the techniques Bertie tries (save for the shouted curse words), and I’ve been to lots of speech therapists, albeit none as cool as Lionel. I understand how frustrating it is when Bertie is told to “spit it out,” “slow down!,” and “just relax,” as if his voice will suddenly remember to cooperate with his brain and stop being so damn unhelpful. And I connect with his need to laugh it off as a punch line (“Timing isn’t my strong suit,” he replies to Lionel’s request for a joke).

The movie’s not the easiest thing to watch. Of course, a stutterer, with his sometimes severe facial tics and other involuntary physical techniques, is also not always the easiest thing to watch. But this film is a near-perfect representation of a stutterer’s life. As King George IV, Colin Firth is a marvel, and his re-creation of the King’s first wartime speech in the final scene is terrific, marked by an appropriate number of blocks but clearly displaying confidence and progress.

There’s no cure for stuttering, no quick fix. So I’m glad that this final scene didn’t resolve with Bertie as a master orator, unhindered by silly things like vocal blocks or tension! Fluency is something that must be consistently practiced and worked on. It’ll never be truly perfect, and I’m glad that The King’s Speech exists to communicate that message, all the while showing that, despite the involuntary noises and false vocal starts, a stutter isn’t capable of keeping a good man down.

—Photo hsxjedi/Photobucket

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About Adam Polaski

Adam Polaski is a writer, designer and organizer for Freedom to Marry, where he works with an amazing team to win marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. He also enjoys the New York Public Library, love stories overall, and the perpetual quest to go vegetarian. Follow him at @AdamPolaski

Comments

  1. great article!

  2. Tom Matlack says:

    Adam great work. Love this piece and am motivated to go see the movie ASAP to learn more about what you have gone through. You are right, a stutter isn’t capable of keeping a good man down.

  3. Chris Larsen says:

    Few people know that Vice President Biden had a horrible stuttering problem as a child. When people complain that heis is too fond of his own voice, I think, “go ahead Joe. You earned the right to enjoy talking.”

    As someone who was once told I might never talk again, and still has great difficulty enunciating I have great respect for those that overcome or meet this challenge head on.

    Regards,
    Chris

  4. Chris Larsen says:

    Also, Moses had a speech impediment. What more can be said?

  5. Well done, Adam. Your written eloquence will help inform so many.

  6. Your article about The King’s Speech is perfect. I am a speech/language pathologist who had quite a lot of experience in my earlier years working with stutterers. I first learned Van Riper’s MIDVAS technique when I was a student at the University of Michigan and it was surprising to me how intuitively correct Lionel Logue was about stuttering and what to do about it. He used masking, “easy onset”, controlled prolongations, etc. I have been searching on the web, trying to figure out how they found the old techniques that he used. Do you know if they had professionals helping? Or were the records that well kept describing what Lionel did with George VI?

    Suzanne

  7. Suzanne, I’m actually not sure if the film team had professionals helping out, although with the accuracy of stuttering’s portrayal in the movie, I can’t imagine that they didn’t. In terms of research, I take it that King George IV’s stutter was at least fairly well documented…this link from the Stuttering Foundation (http://www.stutteringhelp.org/default.aspx?tabindex=822&tabid=835) talks about some of this documentation – biographies, and other written histories do seem to exist. Hope that helps a little!

  8. Great article. I too have lived with a stutter my whole life, but foolishly tried to cover it up for a long time, which did not work. I saw this movie a couple of days ago, alone, because I knew it would resonate strongly and I would become emotional mush. I am much better at weepy mushiness when alone.

    You are a great writer. Many of us who stutter write really well – for me it was the way I thought I could comunicate best. I just wrote my own reflection on the movie, which will run on my blog tomorrow.

    Keep on keeping on – no excuses. Dont let stuttering define you!

  9. Allie Lemco says:

    Adam, this piece was fantastic. Thanks for sharing your story in a humorous and charming way.

  10. Loved the movie and I loved your post!

  11. I randomly came across this article since I just saw this movie last night. It was such an incredible film! Ironically, I’m a speech pathology major at IC!

Trackbacks

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