The King’s Speech…and my own

As we know this year several “Oscars” went to the movie The King’s Speech. While I do not usually follow the movies, I had hoped this particular film would win. It seemed at first an unlikely candidate.  The film is an historical drama devoid of violence, special effects, or sex, based on events known to very few people today, especially in the United States: the late King George VI (reigned 1936-1952) and his long painful struggle with a debilitating stammer; and the efforts he made to overcome it with the help of an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, and with the support of his devoted wife, the future Queen Mother. They are the parents of the current Queen Elizabeth II. I would suspect that hardly any of the audience who viewed the movie had any but the vaguest idea of the characters depicted but were moved by both the quality of the acting and cinematography and the human qualities of the story itself.  ( Of course, dramatic license was taken and unfortunately, there was a bit of (in my opinion) unnecessary profanity.)

I went to see it in January, but it was a story with which I was already familiar.  I knew quite a bit about George VI, his stammer, and Lionel Logue. I knew that a “stammer” (also called non-fluency) is a paralyzing (literally and figuratively) of a person’s ability to speak. Unlike a stutter, where sounds explode repetitively, a stammer prevents one from uttering sounds at all. One feels strangled and desperately helpless as an invisible hand seems to clamp down on one’s throat. The humiliation is intense as one “freezes” or utters inarticulate groans.

A 1924 speech of the then “Bertie”, Duke of York is shown as the nadir of the man’s affliction.  You can also find several clips of actual footage of him making a speech and visibly and audibly struggling to get his words out. His jaw works tensely as he pauses awkwardly, and the struggle is obvious. Colin Firth, the actor who portrayed him, said he wept while watching and listening to those clips as he prepared for the role in sheer sympathy for the man as he fought an affliction so terrible for one whose public role required a clear voice.

I knew the story well since it is similar to mine.

I too stammered as a child until my 20’s. I knew the terror a phone call, a public speech or reading, even speaking to a clerk at a store could bring. Early on I felt the humiliation and shame that a public speech impediment can cause; as well as the fear that it will never go away, or that one is mentally or emotionally ill.

Like many such people, I developed an early love of reading and learned to express myself in writing. When I felt within myself the vocation to the priesthood I went along with it, but all the while I wondered how I was ever going to be allowed to be ordained. After all, how could a man who cannot speak fluently or comfortably be a “preacher”?

All through my school days right up into college I feared and avoided public speaking. I had a little speech therapy as a child but to no effect. For the rest, I just had to “get on with it”. I would sometimes go to great lengths to avoid speaking in public or even chance conversations.

In those days, with my love of history, I chanced upon a biography of King George VI. Immediately I felt an admiration for such a man whose birth and duty propelled him into “…the fierce light that beats upon a throne” and who had to contend with a stammer.  I read anything I could about him and Logue.

As for myself, my own stammer essentially disappeared on its own in my college years. I was petrified in my first “speech class” when the professor evaluated us by handing each of us a copy of the newspaper and asking us to read an article out loud.  As I picked up the paper I told him that I had a stammer and to expect to hear me struggle. He told me to “Go ahead.” I did, not without some fear and pausing. He looked at me and said “What stammer?” It was from that moment on that the burden began to lift from my shoulders. Some might say I’ve made up for lost time ever since!

Like many such cases, there are times when fatigue or awkward moments trigger a “flashback”.  We know for the King, while it moderated, it never entirely disappeared.

So, when I went to see the movie, in a way, and I’m sure like many another sufferer from various speech impediments, I went to see something of my own “Speech.”

I write this account with some degree of reluctance. One might take away the impression of self-absorption; or perhaps too much self-revelation; and exposing my personal vulnerabilities is not my (or I suspect, most people’s) “strong suit”. Yet, I write them for any who might read these words and find in them some measure of comfort or even hope that such trials can be overcome.

At a climactic moment of the film, the King passionately blurts out at his mentor I have a voice!  

May all who so suffer find their voice.


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