Words don’t come easy

With The King’s Speech crowned at the Oscars last week, bringing to focus a debilitating disorder that King George VI suffered from and overcame, Smriti Daniel speaks to a popular local entertainer among others who have to face the daily challenge of living with a stammer

In the first few minutes of The King’s Speech, Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, otherwise known as Bertie, is utterly humiliated in front of 100,000 people in a packed stadium. If the man who would be crowned George the VI had come to the throne at an earlier time, he might have succeeded in impressing his people by doing little more than parading past in full dress uniform. Instead, at the beginning of World War II, the King has an enemy almost more menacing than Hitler himself – the radio.

Directed by Tom Hooper, this British historical drama is based on a true story. In essence it is about a man with a particularly debilitating stammer. Now, having been crowned King during wartime, he cannot afford to be anything less than completely confident and articulate. To fully become the ‘voice’ of his people, Bertie (Colin Firth) must first discover his own.

His royal dignity doesn’t stand a chance as doctors suggest tricks that range from speaking around a mouthful of marbles (a cure that apparently worked on Greek statesman Demosthenes) to shouting every profane word he knows. It is only when he meets speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) that he is forced to consider the possibility that the answer lies in coming to terms with the rejection and pain he experienced as a child.

A moment of humiliation: A still from the opening scenes of the fim. (Pic courtesy tdgawardscentral.blogspot)

Its emphasis on a psychological basis for the disorder is one of the first things that The King’s Speech seems to have got wrong. While environment does play a role, recent research has pinpointed very real differences in the neurobiology of speech production and associated genes in stutterers.

However, the movie’s value lies not so much in its questionable historical accuracy or in its support of Logue’s techniques, but in the awareness and conversation it has sparked over a condition that affects 1% of the world’s population – an estimated 68 million people.

When the movie was awarded 12 nominations and 4 Oscars last Sunday night, the President of the American Stuttering Foundation, Jane Fraser issued a press release in which she said: “It is an eloquently golden night for people who stutter. The King’s Speech has been a godsend for the entire stuttering community...Since its debut, the movie has given us a platform to talk openly and honestly about this complex and misunderstood disorder.”

Despite all the hoopla, it is true that the condition is poorly understood. Stuttering is common in children says Nimeera Weerarathne, a speech and language therapist, explaining that such ‘disfluency’ often accompanies the development of speech. Most children will overcome this and so it is not considered a disorder unless it persists into later years or unless it develops in the teen years. The latter happened with Bathiya. The 34-year -old musician is famous as the ‘B’ in the pop band BnS but he is also known for a stutter that keeps him quiet between songs on stage.

Over a call, Bathiya tells me that he first began stuttering as a 14 -year -old and that his stutter is normally worse over the phone (the same is true of others with the disorder). Having been for speech therapy, he says it didn’t help much. His approach has been instead to embrace it -– “the main thing that assisted me was accepting that this was a part and parcel of me,” he says. When he feels a stammer coming on, Bathiya will often stop, start again, slow down or find an alternative word. Like everyone else I speak to for this article, he also has relatives who stutter, testifying to the veracity of claims that the genetic inheritances are key.

A moment of glory: Actor Colin Firth holds the award for Best Actor for his role in “The King's Speech” at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre on February 27. AFP

Stress will also trigger it. When Nafisa Markar* and her husband moved to Canada and back within a year, their young son Rizwan developed a stutter. At just 4 years old, it wasn’t something he or his friends really noticed, but Nafisa could see him struggling to speak. “He would grimace, his face would change and he would struggle to form the words. Sometimes he would stop talking altogether, because he knew he couldn’t get the words out,” she says.

Their speech therapist prescribed simple breathing exercises and encouraged them to make his life stress free. “She told us to just to give him lots of love and attention and not to worry about spoiling him,” says Nafisa, speculating that the strain of having to adjust to so much change had brought it on. In The King’s Speech, Bertie is portrayed as having distant, domineering parents, and Mr. Weerarathne says that parents who are excessively strict or insist on correcting their children all the time can in fact exacerbate the problem.

Perhaps Ranjan Perera* would have benefited from a little parental indulgence. He says he remembers his father as “quite a dictator,” but that enrolment in a boarding school helped give him the space to find a way to overcome his stutter. Still, it wasn’t without its ups and downs – as a student he remembers signing up for the debate team, only to end up hiding in the toilet when his turn finally came.

At 31, Ranjan is someone you might consider a ‘closet stutterer’ – you’d never know from talking to him, but he knows that certain stressful situations, like being asked to speak in public, might have him stuttering again. (Winston Churchill, Bertie’s Prime Minister, was the same – though he survived by rehearsing his speeches obsessively and delivering them through a whisky induced haze.) “If you tied my hands, I’d probably stutter,” Ranjan says explaining that he still uses gestures like touching an ear or pushing back his hair to help take his mind off his difficulty with a word. He also reveals that he is an asthma patient.

There might be a connection there. Mr. Weerarathne believes that a stammer can have a great deal to do with an abnormal breathing pattern. People who find it difficult to coordinate their respiration and their speech often stammer, especially in stressful situations. (Even ‘ordinary’ people stammer all the time, emphasises Mr. Weerarathne, asking you to recall times you’ve been forced to speak in public or have had to cook up a lie.)

As for treatment, Bathiya is clearly onto something - Mr. Weerarathne believes that sometimes all that is required is to instil confidence in a patient. Explaining that therapy must in fact be part counselling, he says simple things like rehearsing something you want to say can make a big difference – it’s the reason why many of his young male patients tell him their friends know they stutter though their girlfriends haven’t a clue since they practise their wooing with such care.

Though he rarely stammers around his long time girlfriend, 25 -year -old Roshan Madiwela* says it has more to do with how comfortable he feels around her than any forethought on his part. Having stuttered since he was 3, Roshan hasn’t found a trick that works as well as simply slowing down his speech. Having taken advantage of the free therapy offered by the Speech and Language Therapy Clinic at the National Hospital, Colombo, Roshan says his therapist helped him find a speed and rhythm that he was comfortable with.

At first uncomfortable with talking to friends who would immediately notice the change in pace, on the advice of his therapist, he tried with people he didn’t know - “none of them batted an eyelid when I spoke to them in my dramatically slowed down speech,” he says. Rohan’s therapist seems the sensible sort; unlike Logue, of whom you’re never quite sure. He had the King rolling around the floor, shouting out of open windows and exercising his jaw and diaphragm muscles while speaking in riddles.

Yet, this treatment sounds tame when compared to that in years past. In Sri Lanka, swallowing a monitor lizard tongue placed inside a split banana was once said to cure stammering. That is still nothing compared to the horror of Hippocrates' acid, which was used to burn away the ‘black bile’ that was believed to render tongues clumsy. Boiling wine to thaw ‘refrigeration’ and even cutting tongues out altogether or into irregular shapes was not unheard of. Though earnest practitioners of Freudian principles have today given way to behavioural therapists and even iphone apps, a definitive treatment for stammering is not something readily agreed upon.

Bhathiya: Accepts it as part and parcel of him

Left to their own devices, stutterers who know where their problems lie often find very clever ways of circumventing them. Famously, Marilyn Monroe chose a breathy voice, probably because people generally don't stutter when they're whispering, and made the most of seductive little pauses to inhale as she waited for her vocal chords to relax.

Rowan Atkinson of ‘Mr Bean’ fame who had trouble with B and P words, developed a method (that Bertie uses to great effect in the movie) of bouncing emphatically onto those consonants with perfect comedic timing (“Brace yourself!”). Then there’s Bathiya himself, who is an extremely confident performer (though singing is coordinated by a different part of the brain.)

Awarded the Oscar for Best Screenplay for The King’s Speech, 73 -year-old David Seidler (the oldest person to ever win an Oscar in this category) is a stutterer himself. Growing up during World War II, Seidler has said that King George’s rousing wartime radio broadcasts were so inspirational because he knew exactly what the King had to overcome each time he spoke. In sharing that story with all of us, it would be safe to say Mr. Seidler has done the same for others all over the world.

*names changed on request of interviewee

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