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A Stutterer’s Take on the King’s Speech

Many of my friends have asked me, as a stutterer, what I think of the King’s Speech.  I watched it tonight with Alicia, and I have a couple of thoughts worth sharing and a few that are not (I apologize for the length).  However, I feel strongly that, because of the great multitude and degree of stuttering problems, different stutterers will respond to the film differently.  So I do not pretend to speak for all stutterers.

A bit about my situation: my own speech impediment used to be much more severe and, after all, just last week I gave a few reasonably coherent on-air interviews.  However, for those who watched those interviews, you may not have noticed that nearly every word is a struggle.  I am constantly flipping through a thesaurus in my brain, trying to say words and phrases in different ways.  I play rhythm games, and I’ll tap my thigh, my chest, etc.  I’ll rap four words in a row and change up the rhythms as to avoid notice.  My pauses are often forced errors in the middle of phrases, and I’ll finish the thought on the upbeat of the next rhythm I can create (in the 4 minute F&F interview for instance, I did this maybe 6 times, most noticeably between “each” and “other” two times in a row towards the end).  I’ll hold onto vowel sounds for longer than normal.  Fun aside: by just spending too much time with me, a few folks, maybe 15 over the course of my life, have found themselves exhibiting some of my speech patterns.

Almost everyday there is some blooper related to my speech.  Today, for instance, I was talking to two people, and they thought I was making a joke when I stuttered on the word “planning,” and they laughed nervously.  About a month ago I failed to get a job because I could not read a simple prompt.  In fact, for years now, I have broken down and cried irrationally about once a month through sheer pent up frustration, usually in response to one of these awkward incidents.  Alicia and I call it my PMS.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad for me.  We all have issues.  My point is that even if my stuttering does not come across as that bad, even if I am usually able to speak coherently with minimal problems, I am still thoroughly a stutterer, and to not see that, and my frustration with it, is to not understand me as a person.  It has done much to form who I am.

As the film shows quite well, stuttering is extremely frustrating.  It’s imprisoning.  (I thank God that I have the outlet of writing.  It is the one place where I can express myself in such a way that I truly forget that I have any sort of communicative impediment.)  The frustration definitely affects our behavior and our inner personalities. Therefore, I think stutterers are actually really bad film critics for this movie, because we want to feel understood first and foremost.  You can’t be a good critic if you are also seeing the art as a form of therapy and concurrently worried about its accuracy.  But on to the film:

  1. What helped Bertie’s speech impediment seemed odd to me.  My speech is the most fluent when I am not being judged on my speech as much as the quality of my ideas.  This is why I find myself good at speeches and bad at speech class.  Bertie, on the other hand, seemed to improve by divorcing himself from the ideas he was trying to say and focusing exclusively on the sounds themselves.
  2. I can relate heartily with how Bertie resisted attempts by those that he loved to fix him.  My mom for years tried to get me to try this and that, and many doctors promised what they didn’t deliver.  It becomes frustrating.  One nice thing (probably the only one) about other disabilities, like a missing arm or something, is that people aren’t assuming that if you talk about your deep fears and earliest memories your arm will grow back.  Stuttering’s quasi-fixability is exasperating.  As for me, I’ve mostly given up on fixing it.  However, I can give speeches with my stutter and function pretty well, so I can afford the luxury of defeat.
  3. I related to how embarrassed people feel for you, averting their eyes when you are stuttering.  This makes us not want to talk at all.  If I hate it, and you hate it, then I’ll do us all a favor and keep my ideas to myself.  However, in a strange way,
    my stuttering sometimes helps me in speeches.  People think I have something important to say if I am willing to risk looking like an idiot.  Also, in the same way that you cannot be bored when someone is crying on stage or making a fool of himself, when I am on stage it is hard not to pay attention to the high wire act I put myself through.  Also, my speech is often just bad enough to be a noticeable disability, but not so bad that it is overly inconvenient.  People, me included, like to be nice to people with disabilities if it’s not too much hassle.  In fact, I’ve observed at times that people will walk away from conversations with me feeling good about themselves for being a patient, caring person.  It’s a strange dynamic.
  4. “Keeping it real” and informal is one of the most helpful things I can do to decrease my likelihood of stuttering (the FUCK-FUCK-FUCK method is one I’m excited to try).  I am a very informal person, and it’s not just because I don’t like the arbitrary irrationality of pomp.  I can see how, as a king, keeping things chill-lax would be very hard to do, and that would make your speech much worse.
  5. I was appalled at how badly people in his family treated him.  “Just say it” is one of the stupidest things you can say.  Runners-up include “just relax” and of course people finishing your sentence for you.
  6. The king’s stutter was not at all like mine, and seemed fake to me, but I do not have a lot of exposure to stutterers.  In fact, when I come across other stutterers, their stutters often seem fake.  I can see how people who do not stutter at all look at a stutterer and wonder what in the world they are doing and that they must be doing it on purpose.
  7. I am glad the film raised awareness of the issue.  I am amazed at how many people remain ignorant about it, including service people.  However, virtually nobody has made fun of me for my speech knowing that I genuinely had a stuttering problem.  For me, meanness is usually just ignorance.  In fact, after someone laughs or makes a joke about my stuttering, I usually cringe for their sake, because now I have to tell them, and they are going to feel like a jerk.
  8. Stuttering is deeply associated with stupidity and/or mental frailty of some sort.  I got annoyed that Bertie did not break the stereotype with his brilliance.  He is portrayed as a normal person with average intelligence, I guess, but I was wanting him to turn out to be brilliant.  But again, this is also my own issue.
  9. As a lover of history, I actually became more interested in the content of his final speech instead of his experience speaking it.  Ultimately, a stutter is a boring thing and not that difficult of a difficulty.  Europe was descending into war for a second time.  I found myself just listening to what the king was saying and thinking about how alone the British were (America would not enter the war for a while of course).  They must have been thinking, “Is this really happening to us again?  Seriously?”

Ultimately, I am a lover of content, of ideas.  I don’t really care about stuttering, accents, grammar, punctuation, or capitalization.  I want to understand the speaker’s thoughts, and I want others to return the favor by stretching past my own interminable disfluency and seeing my ideas more polished and more brilliant than my presentation could ever make them.  I imagine that though my words and I might be frustrated, or even imprisoned, by a speech impediment (or melodrama), my ideas are not.

Clearly, I am not the guy you want as a film critic for this one.  It all was a little too personal and uncomfortable.  And they did not even show the worst parts: when he is stuttering heavily in front of people, this happened maybe 3 or 4 times, they just ended the scene instead of showing it.  But the worst part is when you completely give up and step down.  I’ve done that in the middle of stories and jokes with my friends and in class a couple times.  It gets real quiet.  Nobody knows what to do.  I suppose it makes for bad television.

I am impressed that Hollywood pulled off a successful movie about a stutterer in the first place.  However, in order to make this a good movie, his stutter had to never get in the way of what the film-watching audience wanted to hear or needed to hear in order to advance the story.  For example, at the beginning, the film-watching audience does not care what he is trying to say to the crowd.  They are only sympathizing with how badly he is struggling in saying it.  But of course, in reality, stuttering is very inconvenient, and the real audience often desperately wants to, and even needs to, understand what is being said.  But that, of course, would make for an awful movie.

So, I don’t think I’m going to watch it again, but I’m happy people are seeing it and it is raising awareness.  If you have not seen it, you should.


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