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Comment: The King’s Speech Strikes a Chord

By Glyn Humphries

I watched the movie, “The King’s Speech” with more trepidation and fluttering heartbeats than I expected. While actor Colin Firth ably portrayed the pitiable nascent King George V1, I experienced aching echoes of images and agonies, reverberating back sixty years.

Transmitting shattered words in pained staccato stutters, the “King” triggered long forgotten feelings with pitiless interior dialogues, booming in my head.

Long discarded, locked in memories, laboriously etched in my mind’s crevices, began smoldering from wounded encounters. Sounds bubbled up like volcanic lava, detonating my lips like falling soldiers in an exploding minefield.

Often stored within a stutterer’s mind, there lurks a free ranging lexicon of angst and unexpressed fears unexpectedly springing to life from a bookshelf of remembered emotional episodes.

Each episode, real or imagined, was woven within a fabric of everyday events, of disturbed thoughts, feelings and breathing patterns, along with pictures of humiliating and unmitigated disasters.

The King lived with his unshakeable, debilitating stammer from childhood. His disability increased in excruciating importance as his public duties escalated and began to pervade his regal duties and obligations as head of state during World War Two.

In the darkness of the theatre, I sat watching him stand before an intimidating new fangled radio microphone, quivering, so conscious of self. I empathized with each hesitation during the “The Speech”, the tension resonating through the air of anxiety, sinking into my core.

Bertie knew dread in seconds. Me too. He knew any shred of shattering in his voice would be relayed instantly through this cursed radio contraption, piercing every British and colonial subject’s ears.

Each effort in speaking struck personal chords of disruptive chopping sounds. Newly minted pressures would bring more performance anxieties- familiar to stutterers world over- straining and sabotaging meanings.

In the public setting of grammar school, with ever-increasing heart-pounding torment, I feared my one debilitating destiny: the name “Humphries” to be called next. Black-robed teachers formally called on me to speak my unique utterances of broken sounds.

Like an erupting adolescent pimple, what clatter, letter, bugaboo sound would I stumble upon next? Whoever the audience, what imagined set of guffawing kids, of admonishing teachers, of embarrassed adults, would discover my red raw Achilles Heal: the raised flag of my dysfunctional, inarticulate voice?

My turn. Now- unless, God, bell, pleeeease ring. You. Target. Action. “You’re on stage”. Read, part of this story, that play, what matters? Anxiety overruled understandings, meanings of poems or passages: agony compounded what may be a normal experience for others, into the morass of perceived failure and humiliation.

For years, I tried to visualise snapshots of audiences of teachers, classmates, mates, and family looking away trying on faces of assumed detachment or indifference.

But profoundly within, I imagined an endgame: an apocalyptic hyper-humiliation. In the presence of other students, one’s image is at stake: acceptance in the peer group, not a murky future of failed friendships.

Every episode meant more stress, making it harder to talk fluently, steadily eroding self-confidence, enhancing feelings of inferiority (called a complex then) and more isolation.

Needless to say attendance at school faded with each year of adolescence. I began missing the school train, instead frequenting the “Snake Pit”- a local milk bar.

Always sitting at the back of the class avoiding teachers’ eyes, I evolved into the class clown. This gave me trouble with teachers and bossy school prefects for petty “rebellious acts”.

My stuttering behaviour eroded my enthusiasm for school and the ability to defend myself from being labeled negatively by teachers- duly recorded in term reports. I became more isolated from teachers- compounded by deafness brought on by a punctured eardrum, contracted ten years earlier from scarlet fever.

Mother said perhaps my stuttering started then, when I was three. It seemed to present itself after I was hospitalized with scarlet fever- a highly contagious disease spread through the air or touch. We had both been travelling to Wales by train to see Nan during the war in nineteen forty-four. Suddenly, I developed a high fever.

My mother whisked me off the train and was hastily taken to a local hospital and immediately placed in an isolation ward. I was forbidden to see anyone, except fleeting, swishing, glimpses of faceless uniformed adults donned in forbidding sealed masks.

To a three year old, it must have seemed like an eternity:  banned from seeing reassuring smiles on faces: a frightening, intimidating and an isolating experience. Mum told me years later whenever she had looked through a high window in the ward at me, but staff directed her not to wave or draw attention to herself for fear of upsetting me.

To a tot, this must have seemed like a death: the final abandonment. I may have experienced a profound shock - probably shifting me to experience a post-trauma world of anxiety.

Before antibiotics, scarlet fever was a major cause of death. Normal functions like eating and swallowing become extremely painful. Keeping patients isolated was critical in keeping the disease at bay, especially in a anxious society engaged in a fully-fledged war. In nineteen forty-four, locals lived in constant fear of bombing of the munitions factory where both my parents worked.

Some think patterns of “psychogenic stuttering” can be triggered by emotional trauma early in life. In primary school, I was singled out as one of the “Three Stutterers” along with chronic stutterers: Tony Tressiter and a poor diminutive girl- whose name I can’t remember, who could not blurt out even her own name.

When they strained to utter sounds, I felt reasonably normal.  I learned from them, what a murderous thing stammering could be, and sensed I wasn’t that bad.

Although I was fingered no more in school, being labeled a “stutterer” continued ringing in my head, through boy scouts and Sunday school. My stutters existed as smoldering humiliations in my mind.

Living with a stigmatized speech problem, shaped me to avoid situations involving speaking and served to increase my sensitivity, defensiveness, nervousness, sometimes nausea, creating a fear of stuttering worse.

Some people may say King George was “cured” or “overcame” his handicap, becoming a hero of World War Two. However, curing or overcoming stuttering may be a mere projection of commentators.

For many with a stuttering (stammering) affliction, a cure may be an unworkable hope. Many come to realise they need to eventually own their stutter as a life-long condition, while ceaselessly working on ways to control it, as if they were diabetic.

Comfort Zone
Microscopically in later adolescence and adulthood, symptoms diminished with a number of affirming experiences. Investing time in the local air cadets, I made friends. Within cadets, there was a structure of role-playing, discipline and compliance, allowing sets of scripted speech and less threatening settings.

Eventually, I became the top non-commissioned officer in charge of one hundred and thirty cadets. I was given the authority to be in control: in a power position- a sensation where I was able to relax, enhancing my self-confidence.

Governed by the rules and discipline, giving orders with raised voice, I fell out of a continuous stammering habit, finding patterns within a comfort zone of not stammering.

Like an apprenticeship in gaining confidence, cadets offset various degrees of humiliation and doubt- restoring a sense of dignity, which would be later reinforced in close relationships, a career in education and counselling.

While at university, finding ways to live with my handicap, I expressed myself through art and writing.

Examining my past, I created a sub-personality called “Eric” whom I identified as the stutterer within me. Dialogues with Eric over the years enabled me to integrate him into my personality.

I still stutter today, but mostly not. Thinking of yourself as a stutterer enables Eric to pipe up, now and again. Being my imaginary friend, Eric and I will have a quiet laugh, enjoying our accomplishment through our dialogues.

After seeing the movie, it’s what I imagine George V1 may have felt at his coronation in Westminster Abbey, with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue looking on proudly from the balcony.

Through dialogue, Eric and Lionel helped us both to break through the stuttering barrier.