A British monarch, my brother and an inspiring tale of the struggle to speak
Stammerers bravely fight a daily battle to be heard, writes Alison O'Riordan
Published 09/01/2011 | 05:00
Stammerers speak as if they have a bag of marbles in their mouth.
They get tongue-tied and contort their faces to get the words out.
They fill their inflamed red cheeks with hot air in an effort to persevere through their verbal pain.
Some are like a machine-gun on full blast.
People forget those with speech impediments have a right to be heard and that they, too, have a voice.
A king from the British royal family of the Thirties and my 27-year-old brother, David, are an unlikely pairing, but the little-known yet true story of King George VI of England and the unlikely friendship that develops between him and his eccentric Aussie speech therapist has captured my attention.
I grew up with a brother who has always had a severe stammer. I have never known him without it. It does not define him, yet he has never been able to conceal it.
People know when they speak to David that he carries a burden around with him. They know if he is tired he struggles to string a few words together. Yet his gentle nature entices you to look past this and see there is more to this boy who is frustrated at his tongue for not letting the words roll off it like they do for others
Colin Firth interview Living, page 6
Film review page 6
Growing up together, I saw how he was teased as he opened his mouth but the words failed to come. I was there as the beads of sweat poured down his brow and he fought his own mouth in front of our peers as they chanted abuse at him. He learned first-hand how cruel mankind could be, and how he had not only been dealt an unlucky card but a lifetime of ill-fated cards.
In the film The King's Speech, King George VI, or rather Bertie, is a jittery blue blood. He meets a speech therapist who helps him become worthy of his throne by addressing the nation in its time of need as countries begin to fall like Jenga pieces to Hitler, who himself was victim to a stammer in his earlier life.
My brother, too, has suffered from a debilitating speech impediment but instead of delivering radio addresses, he has to overcome his fear on a daily basis of asking for a pint of milk in the local shop or approaching a girl at a bar in a club and wondering whether she will still be standing there by the time he finishes his sentence, or if she will have walked off laughing with her friends, mid-sentence.
The king and my brother, despite being from different eras, have a lot in common. Both have shared deep friendships and tightly knit bonds with speech therapists, as therapists are sometimes the only people who can begin to understand the sufferers' torment.
Stammerers have confronted their worst fears, admittedly on very different scales in a quest to find their voice. They meet people on a daily basis who finish off their sentences, interrupt them full-flow and suggest words. They know they create an uncomfortable feeling in others. Yet amazingly, the words flow for both of them when they sing or get angry.
In this inspiring story, the Harley Street speech therapist, Lionel Logue, helps the king with his obscure yet effective speech-impediment techniques.
However, there is one big difference between my brother and the king: David stutters without shame. He is not afraid to take a chance on being cured, and is the first one in the house to pick up the phone and engage in conversation with the person on the line. Many stammerers avoid speaking on the phone for fear of people detecting their stutter but not our brave David; he stutters but does not try to conceal it with long pauses as the king did.
He is not afraid to speak and refuses to see it as his execution but more his life to which he must become accustomed. He does not see himself as "voiceless" nor make his stammer bigger than him or lets it control him as Colin Firth's royal character does in the movie but rather has faith in his own voice and the right to be heard.
In the latter half of the film, the speech therapist tells the king before he delivers a radio address, to speak to the people of England as he would a friend. This line grabbed me, for if only all people could be friends of stammerers and as forgiving, the world would be a much nicer place.