A different kind of freedom of speech

By WALLACE BAINE

Being a repressed, passive-aggressive, uptight middle-class white male with giant roiling reservoirs of hidden rage and longing that erupt at awkward times – we have our own group page on Facebook now – I’ve always felt a kinship to the British actor Colin Firth, who plays that part better than anyone.

Now, though, with his latest role, Firth is striking my psycho/emotional tuning fork with even more intensity. Dude, you’re spooking me a little bit here.

Firth is in line for his first Best Actor Oscar for his leading performance in “The King’s Speech,” the audience-pleasing story of Britain’s King George VI who reluctantly ascended to the throne shortly before World War II as Adolph Hitler threatened Europe.

While, yes, my job covering the arts/culture scene in Santa Cruz County has several undeniable parallels with ruling over one of the world’s greatest empires and facing down one of its most bloodthirsty dictators, that’s not why I have such a personal stake in Firth’s role in “The King’s Speech.”

The premise of the film is that the would-be king is hampered in his rise to greatness by a crippling speech impediment. The man was a stutterer. And that’s where he has me at hell-l-l-l-o.

I am grateful to God, the Cosmos or whatever force is responsible for such things that I have escaped the vast majority of the frustrating and crippling conditions that afflict humankind. There’s no conceivable way I would want to be dealt any other hand by the Great Croupier of Fate – unless, maybe, the hand George Clooney was dealt.

But I am a stutterer and have been as long as I can remember.

It’s not so much a huge problem now. I’m not entirely fluent, but I’ve learned to masquerade as a fluent speaker over the years. Yeah, I still have to bulldoze through a troublesome word now and then, and I have a few vocal tics – equivalent to running starts through some tough words – that seem to work for me.

Years ago, though, I was a wreck. It’s deeply ironic that I gravitated to the only profession mentioned in the First Amendment given that I had free-speech issues that no lawyer could ever litigate.

In “The King’s Speech,” the king, as played by Firth, seems to have problems with swallowing his vowels. With me, it was consonants that were the land mines. The world was a haunted forest of plosives and fricatives that bedeviled me with every utterance. I was regularly mocked and mimicked by people who were not necessarily cruel, but who innocently thought I was playing some kind of game with them. I made an art out of pretending not to notice.

As a teen, job interviews, talking with girls or authority figures and speaking in class were occasions for existential torment. I would practice at home, develop workable synonyms for certain unspeakable words, and make sure my non-verbal communication skills were in peak condition. The telephone was the instrument of the devil.

My life as a stutterer took a turn one day when I was a college student. At a party, I met a guy, a bit older than I was, who was also a stutterer, only more so. To my astonishment, I found out this guy – who could hardly get through a sentence without extended tics and pauses – was a journalist. He was, in fact, considered one of the best young investigative reporters in the business and regularly had to interview politicians and other public officials with what was obviously a speech disability. Today, he is a widely respected and award-winning free-lance reporter on the East Coast.

To my shame, I didn’t really talk to him much, mostly out of fear that he would assume my much milder stutter was yet another instance of a jerk mimicking him for a laugh, and I knew what that felt like. But he did take apart a careful rationalization I had been clinging to, that stuttering prevented me for pursuing certain careers. My stutter didn’t disappear at that point, but the self-pity that accompanied it gradually vanished.

At the same time, I went through speech therapy and endured many of the silly tricks portrayed in “The King’s Speech.” Fluency was greatly enhanced when I sang or spoke in a fake accent, for example. Neither was really an option in day-to-day life.

Stuttering is still something of a mystery. And no one knows why it improves or fails to improve as years go by. But in my case, the problems strangely migrated to different letters in the alphabet. As a kid, P’s, B’s and D’s were impossible, particularly after certain vowel sounds. For several years, I literally couldn’t say d-words with the short-e sound like “debt,” “Debbie” and – paging Dr. Freud – “death.” You try to find a synonym to death that doesn’t sound like a 19th-century Baptist minister. It ain’t easy.

As a young man, I figured those out, only to be waylaid by M’s, N’s and L’s. I gradually mastered those and now I break out in sweats at F’s and V’s. Perhaps as an old man, those last few consonants that I’ve always mastered – good ole S – will turn on me.

Who knows?

I’m thankful that the problem has largely gone away as I’ve gotten older. But now I’m kinda thankful it was there in the first place. Maybe it taught me to be more empathetic and patient with people and their many struggles and barriers. Maybe it turned me into a writer on the theory that someone who is blind compensates by becoming very good at hearing. Maybe it’s a silly vanity that no one else cares about, like a mole you’re convinced makes you look like Quasimodo.

Maybe one day Colin Firth, my long-ago reporter friend and I can discuss it all over lunch – a very long and slow lunch.

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One thought on “A different kind of freedom of speech

  1. ‘I’ve learned to masquerade as a fluent speaker over the years.’ Wow! I never read anything which summed up how I feel so correctly. I am a stutterer myself; and even though I am pretty fluent now, the feeling that the next word will provide difficult will always stay with me. It’s just great to read that there are people out there who feel like that, too. Thank you very much for this post!

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