Speech pathologist assisted stutterers

Times Staff Writer

Vivian Sheehan, a speech pathologist who, with her husband, Joseph, developed the “Sheehan approach” for treating stuttering, has died. She was 90.

Sheehan died Feb. 14 at her home in Santa Monica of complications from old age, said her daughter Kathleen Sheehan.

“Vivian was a very early pioneer of speech pathology,” Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation of America in Tennessee, said this week. Sheehan worked on the psychological stumbling blocks faced by stutterers, primarily fear of tripping over their words, Fraser said.

“Vivian’s philosophy was, ‘stop avoiding the problem and it will start to take care of itself,’ ” Fraser said. “She encouraged people to go out and order the hamburger with fries. That way they’d realize, even in the worst possible scenario, the world was not going to open and swallow them up.”

Starting in the late 1940s, with few guidelines to rely on, Sheehan adopted techniques of group psychotherapy in treating stutters. During weekly meetings, she encouraged patients to talk, no matter how badly they stuttered. For homework, she told them to begin by discussing openly their stuttering with their parents, which many patients had never done.


She encouraged them to tell people, up front, about their stutter because it helped reduce the fear of making mistakes. She also told them to maintain eye contact, not look away out of embarrassment.

Without such skills to help, “you’d rather be lost on the road for an hour than ask a stranger directions,” said Allan Holzman, a former patient of Sheehan and a documentary filmmaker.

Sheehan’s approach differed from others that taught stutterers to slow down their speech, dramatically, if they were having trouble.

“The goal there is fluency at any cost,” said Vivian Sisskin, a speech pathologist and longtime friend of the Sheehans. “Vivian wanted patients to become comfortable, spontaneous communicators even if it meant being less fluent.”

Sheehan was actress Patricia Neal’s therapist after Neal suffered a series of strokes in 1964.

“I couldn’t utter a single word,” Neal recalled in a 1967 interview with The Times. “Vivian seemed marvelously clever at coaxing my memory back and teaching me again everything I’d forgotten,” Neal said.

Sheehan also worked with Paul Coates, a Times columnist, after he had a stroke in 1966. She took away the toddlers’ books he was using to regain reading skills and made him read to her from news magazines. Anything less was demeaning, she told Coates.

Born Vivian Mowat on Oct. 15, 1917, in Chicago, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Adrian College in Michigan in 1938 and a master’s degree in speech pathology from the University of Michigan in the early 1940s.

For several years she worked at Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., where she set up a rehabilitation program for soldiers with language disorders caused by head injuries. She met her future husband, a speech pathologist who joined her staff, there. They married and moved to Los Angeles in 1949 so he could join the UCLA faculty. The Sheehans continued working as a team.

“My mother helped my father refine his ideas,” said another daughter, Marian Sheehan, a speech pathologist. She added that her mother helped her father write articles about their work. “They were truly partners, but in the 1950s it was men who had the professorships and were editors of books, so she was somewhat in his shadow at that time.”

The couple had three children. Along with daughters Marian of Seattle and Kathleen of Rochester, N.Y., Sheehan is survived by a son, Joseph, of Los Angeles, and six grandchildren. She is also survived by a brother, Jack Mowat of Ohio, and a sister, Marge Neal of Tennessee. Sheehan’s husband died in 1983.

Sheehan continued her work in therapy, most recently at the Sheehan Stuttering Center in Santa Monica until it closed in 2005.

Contributions in her name may be made to the Stuttering Foundation of America, 3100 Walnut Grove Road, Suite 603, Box 11749, Memphis, TN 38111-0749.