Behind most books lies a tangle of anxiety about perception, rejection and word-choice. So the laden shelves of Waterstones in Teddington seemed a perfect backdrop for the local launch of ‘Stammering Therapy from the Inside – New Perspectives on Working with Young People and Adults’. Like publishing, the event pulled together an array of knowledge, experiences and feelings into full public view: therapists, people who stammer, people who don’t stammer. To my left was a man who, like me, knew the authors through therapy. To my right was a father whose son stammers; he had dropped into the shop out of curiosity. Elsewhere in the audience was Norbert Lieckfeldt who for many years has campaigned as head of the British Stammering Association. Speech therapy, whether private or in groups, is so easily hushed away like an embarrassing medical operation. The King’s Speech helped slash the stigma and fuel media interest, but hearing Sam, Carolyn, Rachel and others talk publicly about the evolution of their work seemed to take this one step further – from screens and newspapers into real-life.
Over many years I have been inspired by all three
authors at various stages of therapy. This event was a
reminder that I have struggled to communicate to
others what this therapy has been all about. For all they know I’ve been star-jumping and balancing
marbles on my tongue, like Bertie under Lionel Logue’s instruction. I suspect they are unaware of the
emotional mechanics at play. It was provoking to hear two people talk publicly about their own therapy. As Yahoo’s head of retail, Dan Durling has to (in his own words) ‘talk a lot’. He had at first approached his intandem therapy with frustration, wanting not to ‘talk’ about his stammer but just get a cure. It had taken him some time to realise that his friends and colleagues actually cared much less about his imperfect speech than he did. This was an important step in his journey toward acceptance and modification.
Similarly Cara Steger, an amateur violinist, in a display of ‘therapy in action’, talked of her struggle with the passive-sounding idea of ‘acceptance’. By contrast Cara had been used to a physical struggle in trying to be fluent. She compared her speech to learning the violin. The initial controlling impulse is to grip the bow tightly, but with learning and hard work comes a realisation that a lighter touch produces a better sound from the instrument. That had felt similar to learning to work with, not against, her stammer. It is rare that I hear other people stammer, and ironically I find it difficult when I do. Dan and Cara were largely fluent as they spoke, but where they did stammer I felt initial frustration for them, before focusing on the content of what they were actually saying. I wondered if others went through a similar process, and I reflected this might be how people feel when I speak.
Stammering is complex, uncertain and serially misunderstood. There is much to be gained from opening up a traditionally internalized experience, against our media backdrop of polished fluency and rapid delivery. For communities, schools, employers or whoever else, perhaps poignant local events like this are the way to go.