2011 has been a good year for stuttering. Thanks to “The King’s Speech” — the Oscar-nominated film about King George VI’s attempt to overcome his speech impediment — the largely hidden, sporadically mocked and much misunderstood condition is on everybody’s lips. The non-stutterer Colin Firth, and the character he portrays, have become the voice of a condition that has long remained mute. But if “The King’s Speech” has become a stuttering education for much of its audience, what sort of lesson is it teaching?
On one hand, the film neatly corrects many of the standard depictions. In a performance that is uncommonly impressive, Firth manages to perfectly evoke the experience of stuttering without falling back on a simplistic, Porky Pig-style rendition. He addresses the complex difficulties of one man’s speech, the inner silences that tortured a proud man, and the cold fury that his impediment left in its wake. Having stuttered for most of my life, I found the authenticity of the opening scene to be both riveting and uncomfortable to watch. The film opens with the then-duke’s speech at the closing of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley Stadium. My cheeks redden for him, for us all, as words jam painfully in his throat and spluttered syllables echo mockingly across the silence. My own body tenses as he strangles himself to force out a sound and, as the camera pans to the awkward fidgeting of the crowd, I witness the familiar communal embarrassment.
However impressive Firth’s acting may be, it cannot overcome the film’s use of simplistic psychoanalysis and pseudo-Freudian shorthand to eventually explain the king’s stutter. As “The King’s Speech” progresses, he reluctantly ends up in the shabby speech therapy office of Lionel Logue, and it is in their scenes together that we are introduced to screenwriter David Seidler’s depiction of Freud’s “talking cure.” (Seidler, it should be noted, has claimed he struggled with his own stutter as a child.) As the repressed king tentatively begins to tell Logue about his emotionally frigid upbringing, tired old stereotypes are given the spotlight. It is deduced that his stutter was caused by the use of corrective splints on his legs, being forced to overcome his left-handedness and undergoing virtual starvation at the hands of a spitefully cruel nanny. Taking the idea even further, his speech is blamed on the mockery and teasing of his older brother and the verbal abuse that he received as a child from his father. To hammer the point home we are shown a scene where the adult Bertie is heckled by his father, his frustration mounting until he screams at his cowed son, “Get it out!”
The psychoanalytic approach that Logue uses (along with a series of mechanical tricks) made sense in the context of the prevailing ideas of the 1930s. But in using them,”The King’s Speech” reinforces the destructive misconception that stuttering reflects an emotional deficiency or is caused by a traumatic childhood. It’s a misconception that makes parents feel guilty for their child’s speech and stutterers blame themselves, as if their speech is a character flaw they could overcome.
Stuttering has long been — and still is — an enigmatic disorder. Evidence of it can be traced back as far as the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt and yet the riddle has yet to be truly unraveled. Even before the emergence of psychoanalysis in the late 19th century there was a long, grim relationship between stuttering and treatment. First, stutterers’ tongues were blistered and burned with acid. Then, in the Middle Ages, bloodletting and searing irons to the lips became the recognized treatments, and in the mid-1800s a gruesome operation came to the fore that involved cutting a wedge out of the sufferers tongue without anesthesia. In the early 19th century a series of psychoanalysts emerged who labeled stuttering as a neurosis and treated it as such. So began the sad and sticky beginning of stuttering being labeled as a mental problem traced to everything from childhood trauma to sibling rivalry, cruel upbringing and suppressed anger.
Despite the fact that Freud himself made only meager references to stuttering in his research, an abundant proliferation of stuttering theories emerged from his followers. Sandow (1898) believed that stuttering was caused by either a dread of speaking or a violent eagerness to speak. Steckel (1908) called stuttering one of the worst forms of fear hysteria and saw the condition as a psychological betrayal. Each depiction labeled stuttering as a byproduct of emotional repression and abuse. These outdated beliefs have limped on, despite their inaccuracy. In actuality, if stuttering were caused by anxiety, everyone would stutter for a large part of their lives. Today, research has shown that the instances of stuttering are identical for a child who has two loving parents compared to those who are clinically anxious or physically traumatized.
In “The King’s Speech,” the most successful treatment scenes are those in which Logue gets the king to confront his childhood demons and express the memories that he has long repressed. Here the filmmakers emphasize the king’s catharsis as an essential part of his recovery and his emotional release is tied to the ebb and flow of his speech. If only stuttering were so easily solved. In reality, stuttering is a complex problem that forever tempts people to offer simplistic “cures.” Despite the language of “The King’s Speech” and the words of many of the film reviewers, there is no cure for stuttering. We know that the stutter is not caused by an emotional trigger, yet the cause of stuttering remains a mystery rooted in the machinery of translating our thoughts into a set of complex bodily movements. Genetic and neurological research continues and speech therapy remains a journey into the unknown, hopefully with someone you trust.
What ultimately redeems “The King’s Speech,” however, is the way it uses stuttering as a metaphor for human struggle. In the film, stuttering is not really about speech at all. It comes down to our desire to be loved and accepted as perfectly imperfect. It is about the pain of being out of control of one’s body in the presence of others. The relationship that emerges between the king and Lionel Logue depicts the need to connect and the courage that it takes to do so through a disabling condition. In the final scene of “The King’s Speech” the stutter has not disappeared, but the king has learned to find grace and strength from within his unique voice. And that’s a lesson that all people — including stutterers — can take to heart.