The King’s Speech Strikes a Chord
Watching the movie, “The King’s Speech” I had more trepidation and fluttering heartbeats than I could ever have anticipated. While actor Colin Firth ably portrayed the pitiable nascent King George V1, I experienced aching echoes of images and agonies, reverberating back sixty years. In pained staccato stutters, The “King” transmitted shattered words, triggering long forgotten feelings and pitiless interior dialogues, which now boomed inside my head.
Long discarded locked in memories- laboriously etched in crevices of my mind- began smoldering from wounded encounters. Sounds bubbled up, bursting like volcanic lava, detonating on my dry lips, falling like soldiers in exploding minefields.
Locked in Memories
Stored, lurking within a stutterer’s mind, there often lies a free-ranging lexicon of angst and unexpressed fears: long stuffed memories, shelved since childhood. When unleashed unexpectedly, it can become a brewed mix of astonishing power. Each stored memory- whether real or imagined- is tightly woven in a fabric of disturbed thoughts, uneasy feelings and breathing patterns and combined with dramatic pictures of unmitigated humiliations.
The King lived with his unshakeable, debilitating stammer since childhood. When his public duties as head of state increased during World War Two, his excruciating disability became more of a liability, possibly fearfully undermining his obligations and regal duties. In this theatre’s darkness, I saw him quivering, standing before an intimidating new-fangled radio microphone- a man, deeply conscious of his predicament. With each hesitation during his speech journey, I hung, suspended on each anxious breath. Bertie knew dread in seconds, as did I. Just one extraneous sound from this cursed radio contraption would penetrate every British and colonial subject’s eardrums as they hung onto his every word. The King sensed any shred of shattering in his voice, any untimely pause, would be detected instantly as uncertainty and relayed, nation-wide, as a Royal Grande Faux Pas, deflating England’s War Ego.
Every strain of speech plucked my own chords of disruptive chopping sounds. Every wave of performance anxiety would strain and sabotage understanding: shaking the very foundation of human communication.
Time for Humiliation
In the public arena of my grammar school classroom, anticipation of my performance was my Enemy. With ever-increasing heart-pounding torment, I feared my one debilitating destiny: My Name “HUMPHRIES!” to be yelled out next. Chalky, black-robed, Brylcreemed schoolmasters formally called upon me to utter my unique, broken sounds. Thoughts broke out like raging, erupting pubescent pimples. I wondered whatever clatter, letter, bugaboo sound could I possibly stumble upon next? Would my agonized face be exposed, revealing my crushed and fading psyche? Would an already skinny adolescent body now be stripped of rank and dignity? What audience would appear in my imagination- guffawing kids? Admonishing masters? Would they dare peel back my raw Achilles Heel… red flagging my dysfunctional, inarticulate voice? _
My turn. Now! Unless. God…saved by the Bell, of course, Pleeeease Ring! YOU! NEXT! “You’re on CENTRE STAGE!” Read…blah…blah… BOY! Part of this story…part that play…next verse. What matters? Who cares? My anxiety overrode any meaning or understanding of poems or passages. Meanings became bundled in a twisted mass of agony. What would have been a normal everyday experience for most, I dreaded. I had turned words into a melded morass, inside a blackened cauldron of perceived failure and shame.
For years, I visualised snapshots of audiences: of masters, classmates and peers looking away, with tried on faces of detachment or indifference. Deeply within, I imagined an endgame: an apocalypse of hyper-humiliation.
In the presence of other students, the currency of one’s image is at stake. To kids, acceptance in the peer group is vital. A murky future of failed friendships was a dreaded possibility. Each stuttering event piled on more stress, making fluency difficult. Self-confidence eroded. Feelings of inferiority (called a complex then), presented my ultimate horror: abandonment and isolation.
A Test of Life
Then at 13, failing Latin meant one thing: the CANE.
Bend over, Boy! THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!
Silence. Prevailed. The deed. Done in the Office. Shuffling trousers. Catching breaths. Thoughts… Of actions… Of consequences.
Yet. Deep inside… A smile. A stillness… amidst this formality of ritualised mayhem. Amidst my alienation, I had one consolation: no more Latin conjugations to endure.
Needless to say, attendance at school faded with each year of adolescence. I began missing the school train, spending mornings frequenting instead the “Snake Pit”- a no-frills, windowless basement in a local milk bar.
From Joker to Recalcitrant
I always sat at the back of the class, avoiding the searchlight eyes of schoolmasters. I evolved into the class clown and became The Joker, poking fun behind their backs. Inevitably, I was “in trouble” with authorities for petty rebellious acts, leaping from schoolboy disorder to the chasm of disaffection. My stuttering behaviour eroded any enthusiasm for school. My will to defend myself from those masters who labelled me negatively, was undermined. In term reports, they duly recorded my behaviour in neat handwritten words like “recalcitrant”. My isolation and alienation was documented and complete. But underlying all this was my deafness, complicated by a weeping perforated eardrum, created by chronic mastoiditis, and contracted ten years earlier from a highly contagious scarlet fever.
Mum thought perhaps my stuttering had started then, when I was three. It seemed to present itself after being hospitalized with the scarlet fever- a disease spread via the air or by touch. It was 1944; we had been travelling to Wales by train to visit Nan during the disorder of World War Two. Suddenly, developing a high fever, mother whisked me off the train and placed me hastily in a local hospital’s isolation ward. I was alone- forbidden from seeing anyone but fleeting, swishing, glimpses of adults in starched uniforms, donned in sinister sealed masks. Each moment must have seemed like an eternity to a three year old. No reassuring smiles on adult faces- banned from feeling human touch. I must have been in turmoil- frightened, intimidated, isolated. Years later, Mum said whenever she’d try to look through the high oval window in the locked ward door at me, staff directed her to not wave or draw attention to herself, for fear of upsetting me. As a tot, I must have been in profound shock, like on first hearing of a loved one’s death. This experience was possibly triggered a post-traumatic world of anxiety.
Decades before the arrival of 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 contagion at bay, especially in an anxious society engaged in a fully-fledged war. In the UK of 1944, locals lived in constant fear of bombing the local munitions factory, where both my parents worked.
Emotional traumas early in life may trigger “Psychogenic stuttering” patterns. In primary school, I was singled out and lined up as one of the “Three School Stutterers”. This early label of “stutterer” stuck throughout my youth, in Scouts and in Sunday school. My sensitivity to being stigmatized with a speech problem, induced nausea “through nerves” so I avoided situations involving speaking. The fear of stuttering became greater than the stutter itself.
Looking for a cure is perhaps, an unworkable hope. Most stutterers realise they must “own” their stutter as a life-long condition- while working on ways to control it, like an alcoholic.
My stuttering lessened gradually in early adulthood with a number of affirming experiences. Escaping from dismal failures at school, I invested my energy in the local air cadets where I made close friends and played in the band. Here I was within a structure of role-playing, discipline and compliance, with more formal speech patterns in less threatening settings. I was given some authority, becoming top non-commissioned officer in control of one hundred and thirty cadets. Governed by rules and discipline and giving orders with forced RAISED VOICE, I fell out of a continuous stammering habit, reining in my inchoate sense of fear, finding solid patterns of fluency. Like doing an apprenticeship, confidence improved and feelings of humiliation and doubt diminished, laying a foundation of dignity- later empowered in trusting relationships and in careers in education and counselling therapy.
While at university, I found ways to express myself through art, photography and writing. I looked at my “handicap” as an ally. Through Psychosynthesis, I creating a sub-personality called “Eric” with whom I identified as the stutterer within me. Through humour and quiet dialogues, I was able to integrate “Eric” into my personality.
Breaking the Barrier
At times I still stutter, becoming surprised whenever I do. Thinking of oneself as a lifelong stutterer enables Eric to pipe up sometimes and help laugh off and quell any would-be chaos within. Reflecting after the movie, it’s much what I imagine George V1 had felt at his coronation in Westminster Abbey, while his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, looked on proudly from the balcony behind.
Eric and Lionel inspired both of us through intensive therapeutic dialogues. We had broken the stuttering barrier. We had jumped through flaming hoops of disarray, able to forge whole, understandable, words, each leaving behind a maelstrom of chaotic and broken sounds. We had discovered our own power to strike our very own chord.