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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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

19 responses to “A Stutterer’s Take on the King’s Speech

  • Abbie

    It’s on my list of things to watch. Thanks for the thought-provoking critique on this Jer!

  • Linda Clifton McCormick

    I’m glad you watched the movie and gave these helpful comments. We were wondering if you had seen it. I know much of your stuttering journey, and that you handled it better than most would have. I still get angry thinking of that ignorant sub teacherat Morrison who kicked you out of class, thinking you were being distuptive. I guess as a mom we always will be on the lookout for anything that might help our children. I’m sorry if and when any therapy we pursued set you up for disappointment. As I see it, God has used this to shine brighter through weakness and what He has done through you as a visual aid of this truth. Focusing on expressing your written thoughts and not letting your speech patterns lessen your value as a person has been wisdom and grace. Those of us who know you, love you….as you are….Proud of you, Jeremy….xoxoxmom

  • Alicia

    J, if you had to use the exact words someone else wrote for you for a speech, like Bertie has to or like you did for that job, then would you do better to focus on the sounds themselves? I think it works better for you to focus on the content because you don’t have say specific words. What do you think?

    • JDW Clifton

      That’s true. I would. I do. If I had to read someone else’s exact words, put me in a dark room and let me jump around, make faces, etc.

      • JDW Clifton

        Ad libbing does let me avoid words, but it also allows me to get lost in the moment. Its like, if I am in more of a flow activity it is less likely that I will stutter. I should tell Csiksentmihalyi about that.

  • Nick

    Jer, great post, I loved reading it. You didn’t mention what you think about the fact that you don’t stutter when you sing. Is that even still the case?
    -Nick

    • JDW Clifton

      It is true, but I think most all stutterers don’t stutter when they sing. A common way of saying something quickly when I am in a pinch is by singing a few lines, that is actually what I’m doing with my little raps I suppose.

  • Nathan

    The most angry I have ever been was when people made fun of your stutter. Seriously, I have said this before, but if I had a stutter I would become a recluse and probably be working in a warehouse stacking boxes. The frankness and resiliency which you have confronted it over the course of your life astounds me. I have not seen the movie yet but it is showing on our flight to HK so I will try and watch as much of it as my little boy lets me.

  • Jon Weaver

    Honestly, your stutter just makes you even more badass in my book, though I’m sure it doesn’t feel badass to you. Great comments on the movie, and the struggle of stutterers.

  • Marc

    Hi, I just found your blog when trying to find another stutterer’s perspective on the movie. I have to say I agree with everything you said. Point number 4 I’ve found especially helpful. I’ve been doing it for years. (Has gotten me in trouble at work a few times actually). So I just wanted to say thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Ayesha

    Wonderful commentary! I’m going to utilize your blog, this article in particular, to teach my homeschoolers today. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jasa SEO

    I was recommended this blog by my cousin. I’m not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my difficulty. You’re incredible! Thanks!

  • Joanna Sonnekalb

    Hey Jer,
    Just found this post randomly after click-click-clicking from facebook as sometimes happens when I have some time. I loved the King’s Speech and so it was really interesting to read your response to it and add to my own thoughts from the movie. I wondered what you thought about the implied reasons for his stutter (family dysfunction). As a family therapist I was doubly intrigued by this thread in the movie, but I also assume stuttering evolves from a number of influencing factors, since people stutter in very different ways often – I don’t know much about the etiology of stuttering actually. Anyway, when I read your post, a mortifying memory came to mind. I don’t know if you remember the first time we met, but somehow I did not pick up on the fact that you had a stutter, and when you said the word “Hong Kong”, you held onto the “o” a bit longer, and I stupidly thought you were making a dramatic reference to it, kind of like when they’re introducing someone on stage and they say “heeeeeeeere’s so and so!” Well being incredibly slow on the uptake, and trying to match whatever kind of humor I thought you were trying to use, I replied, “well I’m from Ugaaaaaaanda!” I have no memory of what was said after, only that I eventually figured out that you did deal with stuttering, and realized that you were most definitely not trying to make a joke or be dramatic – and of course immediately wanted to sink through the floor, and hoped that some miracle had happened and you hadn’t noticed my faux pas. I don’t even remember if I explained to you later that I had no idea, but there you have it. Anyway, I echo the people who commented above – I’ve always appreciated your willingness to talk about your stutter and how it influences who you are and what you do. And I am glad you persevere and share your ideas.

    • Jer Clifton

      Thanks for your comments Joanna! It’s a joy to hear from you. I think about you way more often than is apparent from the distance between our contact. Nothing but love for yah!

      Yeah, the idea that what caused his stutter was family dysfunction was a bit annoying. I’m sure it happens, but it is kinda like saying that depression happens because the people around the depressed person are jerks. I am sure it happens, but it is not diagnostically particularly useful or encouraging of a potentially productive line of thinking.

      Now that you bring up that story, I think I vaguely remember that, but to be honest, it is totally understandable and it happens to me all the time, and immediately once somebody finds out that I actually do just stutter, they all want to kill themselves. So I let people off the hook: it’s annoying, but I have only come across a very very tiny fraction of individuals who actually think that my stammer is a legitimate subject matter for joking, and it usually only happens when some asshole just thinks that they are more intimate with me than they actually are…never happens to me from a stranger.
      So be at peace. 🙂
      I didn’t know you are a family therapist. That is cool. Are you interested in positive psychology?

  • Nicholas Walker

    Hey Jer, I really enjoyed your article. I remember watching this a while ago and being excited that there was finally a movie that focused on stuttering rather than just having a character who stuttered or alluding to it. I enjoyed the movie as well but I agree that the way they showed some of the moments when he stuttered worst and then just ended the scene didn’t really capture the whole feeling of the moment. I think they did well to show some of the ways that they tried to overcome the dis-fluency though with the singing and the rhythmic speaking, all things I have tried as well.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, it’s always nice to hear another fellow stutterer’s thoughts on things like this. Hope you and Alicia are doing well. God bless.

    • Jer Clifton

      Nicholas! Absolutely, stutterers everywhere unite, and punch something so we can get these damn words out. Sometimes I wish I walked around with boxing gloves. I’m glad you related to my frustration on not showing the “giving up” moments. I assume you have had those moments?

      I do rhythm for sure. I am constantly creating raps 2 or 3 words long so that nobody notices.

      That’s why stutters need PhDs I’ve decided. It ceases to be a weird thing and is then interpreted as a sign of genius ; ) Or at least that is what I tell myself (interested in getting a phd these days).

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