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A stutter concerns kings and commoners alike

Public speaking consistently ranks as one of life’s most stressful events, up there with divorce, bereavement and home foreclosure. But there’s a look of paralytic terror on the face of the protagonist of “The King’s Speech” that goes beyond any working definition of stage fright. As the man who will one day become King George VI prepares to deliver a few ceremonial remarks, his doomed countenance suggests not so much a judgmental audience as a firing squad.

Colin Firth, who portrays “Bertie,” the second-born, stammering son of Great Britain’s King George V, captures the adrenaline-racing horror of a person obliged to speak when speech itself is an uncertain thing. As someone who has stuttered since childhood, I recognize his symptoms only too well — the blood-drained complexion, the collapsing gait, the passive acceptance of death in the eyes.

Director Tom Hooper approaches this opening scene from the overwhelmed perspective of a person who sees a humiliating obstacle course where others see only ordinary words. The psychological suspense, generated from something as banal as talking, is almost Hitchcockian. As Firth’s character slowly advances toward the treacherous microphone, the anticipatory rustle of the crowd sounding vaguely like heckling in the distance, his staunch wife ( Helena Bonham Carter) offers support, but there’s no escaping the stutterer’s radical loneliness.

The isolation is ironic given that the condition typically manifests itself only around other people. (Stutterers tend to be fluent when speaking to themselves, a baby or a pet.) The malady, a true social disorder, is mysterious. Periods of smooth speech alternate with spastic repetitions, seismic blocks and other alarming contortions. Stranger still, singing normally occurs without a hitch.

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These quirks have given stuttering something of a dubious air; as disabilities go, it barely makes the list. (An episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has Larry outraged at a stranger for parking in a handicapped slot when the guy’s only problem is a s-s-speech d-d-defect.) Parents and teachers treated my stuttering as an impediment, not as a life-altering affliction (even though, depending on the day, it could very much feel like one). My self-image was colored by having something unfortunate, like acne or a weight problem, not catastrophic, like a condition requiring a wheelchair.

Because the majority of young children who experience episodes of blocked speech don’t grow up to be adult stutterers, there’s an assumption that stuttering is something to be left behind with one’s lunchbox and pencil case. When the condition proves stubborn, it’s often met with a skeptical, impatient attitude, as though the problem would vanish if only the person would buck up. To those who can’t abide the sight of life being slightly out of control, this seeming recalcitrance (why can’t that poor kid get it together?) eventually takes on the sorry appearance of hysteria (good luck to him!).

Poor Bertie is subjected to the usual parental browbeating, sibling teasing and crackpot therapies, including a variation of the mouthful of stones technique Demosthenes tried back in ancient Greece. Like many stutterers I know, Bertie’s method of coping is to lay low, to avoid situations that will reveal his stigma and exacerbate his shame. The safe harbor of an all-consuming literary career (as pursued by Henry James, John Updike and W. Somerset Maugham), a library post (such as the one British poet Philip Larkin occupied) or even a theater critic gig (Kenneth Tynan’s stylish choice) is out of the question. Unlike these illustrious stutterers, Bertie isn’t as free to choose his professional destiny, which has been more or less determined since birth.

The tongue-tied prince’s predicament worsens as expectations on him rise. Set in the 1930s, the film takes in the societal changes requiring royals to perform their ceremonial role on a more regular basis. (Delivering speeches, not just in person but also on the radio, is one way of staving off the throne’s increasing obsolescence.) As the global crises pile up, with the Great Depression lurching into the Second World War, monarchial leadership has an opportunity to shine. Bertie isn’t expected to become king, but history moves in unpredictable ways, and the universal law decreeing that whatever one runs away from is what one must ultimately confront seems to be operating in full effect.

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After the death of George V (played by Michael Gambon with a glorious barking pomposity), Bertie’s rakish older brother, David ( Guy Pearce), becomes King Edward VIII. Unfortunately, he has no interest in being hemmed in by the office, and his intention to marry an American divorcee is something the Church of England will not abide. Rather than ending his relationship, he chooses to abdicate. And so the movie’s central question comes into focus: Will Bertie’s stammer thwart his historical opportunity, even though he’s next in line and temperamentally suited to the perilous challenges facing his nation?

Confession: I never thought I’d live to see the day when stuttering would be the subject of a serious mainstream movie. The condition, after all, has been coded as a joke in popular culture, one of the few disabilities considered fair game for laughs. The gag, passed down to generations of children by the dithering antics of Porky Pig and served up as giggly adult fare in “A Fish Called Wanda” and “My Cousin Vinny,” is so culturally entrenched that when strangers first notice my struggle, their impulse is often to innocently chuckle, as though I were engaging in a little comic shtick to brighten our otherwise dull transaction.

Films that have treated stuttering more sympathetically, such as the 1991 Australian coming-of-age drama “Flirting,” tend to equate a mild stammer with a sensitive, nonconformist nature. On the flip side, stuttering has served as a tag for something sinister. In Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Norman Bates approached certain consonants as though they might bite him. Less common is the presentation of stuttering as just one facet of a complex personality. Jim Broadbent won an Oscar for his portrayal of John Bayley, Iris Murdoch’s stammering husband, in “Iris,” the 2001 movie based on Bayley’s marital memoir. Bayley’s trippy speech was simply a fact of his being, a trait given no more emphasis than his shambling deportment. The performance felt like a breakthrough.

In “The King’s Speech,” Geoffrey Rush plays Lionel Logue, the unlicensed speech therapist from Australia who tries to help Bertie understand that his impediment doesn’t have to define him or even be a permanent part of his identity. His “unconventional and controversial” method of treatment blends traditional fluency shaping with life coaching. Behind this is the recognition that technical modifications in speech won’t fix the problem alone. The whole man must be treated, not simply his faulty vocal instrument.

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The science of stuttering has grown in recent decades, offering a more sophisticated knowledge of the disorder than was possible in Bertie’s era. My own understanding, gleaned from decades of reading, a Baskin-Robbins assortment of therapies and a lifetime of personal observation, is that stuttering is most probably a wiring problem. A glitch in the neurological circuitry becomes apparent when the system is taxed by unconscious or conscious stressors. I occasionally resort to the simplistic metaphor of twitchy Christmas tree lights to give an alternative picture of an impediment that can make armchair psychologists of even passing acquaintances. (Too bad the fix isn’t as easy as screwing in a new bulb.)

I’ll admit that it was hard for me to shake the idea that the malfunction wasn’t the outward sign of an inner conflict. I’ve clocked countless hours on the couch trying to unlock the mystery. I don’t regret the time. It helped sort out my feelings, forced me to ponder the meaning of self-esteem. Talking about stuttering also liberated me from the prison of an open secret, which in turn frees my listeners from having to walk on eggshells around me. But psychotherapy didn’t make saying my phone number any easier.

Yet I’m willing to concede that the disorder is all in my head. Reading Dr. Oliver Sacks’ writings helped clarify for me the peculiar mind-body nature of neurological problems. We prefer things to be either physical or mental, but often they are both in ways that aren’t so easy to parse. (With stuttering, the actual physiological block may be easier to overcome than the anticipatory terror, patterns of avoidance and bodily tightening that only aggravate the condition.) To diagnose and treat his patients in “Awakenings,” Dr. Sacks opted for elaborate case histories that, as he wrote in the preface, recognize that “it is insufficient to consider disease in purely mechanical or chemical terms; that it must be considered equally in biological or metaphysical terms....”

Lionel, whose early, improvisational training in speech therapy involved shell-shocked WWI veterans, has an intuition of this basic truth. His goal is to break through Bertie’s aristocratic armor so that he can treat him as a complete individual rather than as a marred figurehead. Bertie isn’t very likable. In fact, he can be haughty, dismissive and brutally ill-tempered. Yet his nature is softened not just by the extremity of his challenge but also by his close relationship with his family. He’s as warm and tender with his wife and children as his parents were cold and demanding with him.

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The ensuing match, then, is between a touchy-feely commoner and a supercilious sovereign, with Rush and Firth providing just enough nuance to keep things from becoming schematic. Yes, I was momentarily filled with worry that “The King’s Speech” was heading in a facile direction when Bertie’s childhood traumas began marching out under Lionel’s baton. But David Seidler’s screenplay ultimately rejects a phony, feel-good formula in favor of a more truthful yet no less inspiring vision.

Let me just say that the resolution is of a piece with so many things the film gets right about a disorder that can leave the sufferer feeling isolated and beleaguered, from the quandary over an appropriate profession to the exhausting worry over mortifying exposure. Probably the darkest period of my life was around the time I was just finishing graduate school and feeling completely overwhelmed with doubts about how I would make my way in the world. How funny that a future king could share my anxiety.

But “The King’s Speech” is more than just a movie about stuttering. It dramatizes the difficulty of self-acceptance, the painful ownership of the life you have rather than the one you assumed you’d get. The film is also about finding one’s voice, which I like to think of as a style of being that embraces the unique history you’ve been handed. Finally, it’s about the possibility of incremental change, or, as a wise speech therapist once put it to me, “learning to stutter more easily,” an approach that has had far more widespread application than I could have ever realized at the time.

Compromises, as the tale of the stammering king shows, can turn to advantages even (or should I say especially?) when they entail the death of fantasies. And they make it possible for those with even greater trials to endorse a remark Emily Dickinson once made to a treasured correspondent: “There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self & not somebody else.”

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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