Jonathan Mirsky

Finding my voice

Love helps a stutter more than speech therapy

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I was cured of a lifelong stammer by a technique even Lionel Logue, George VI’s celebrated speech therapist, never tried. The cure lasted exactly three minutes, and has never been repeated.

In the mid-1990s, when I was stationed in Hong Kong as the East Asia editor of the Times, the BBC commissioned me to write and broadcast three three-minute pieces to be called Secrets in China. A producer arrived with a cameraman. What I had written was now in front of me on an autocue. I told the producer that I, a stutterer, couldn’t read smoothly from a text; when reading out loud stutterers can’t employ those little tricks — pauses for thought, substituting easy words for hard ones, purring a bit — that the lifelong hesitator knows to a t-t-t. ‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘It’s not live. We can just repeat it until it’s right.’ I tried about ten times and couldn’t get past the second sentence. The producer suddenly snapped: ‘Hey, let’s forget the fucking brain damage and just read it, OK?’ In six decades no one had ever said anything like that to me, and I read it straight off. The producer, a thalidomide victim with only three vestigial fingers, apologised fervently. ‘How could I of all people say that?’ I instantly forgave him. What a cure! But it didn’t last for the next two pieces, through which I hacked my usual halting way.

In the book The King’s Speech, co-written by Mark Logue, Lionel’s grandson, there is some information on stammering. Much better in this respect is Stutter, by Marc Shell, a Harvard professor of comparative literature. There it all is, the catalogue of stuttering: who, how and when. Besides George VI and Shell himself, Moses stuttered, as did Demosthenes, Darwin, Henry James, Churchill, and Somerset Maugham (whose ‘thoughtful’ pauses were famous) and among the very few women who stutter, Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Drabble. Seven per cent of zebra finches hesitate in their calls and songs.

There have been many remedies: pebbles in the mouth while talking for Demosthenes, 19th-century tongue cutting, and of course Logue’s exercises, so vividly shown in the film as Colin Firth’s authentically stammering Bertie struggles to speak. In school I was advised — uselessly — to write the stubborn word inside my trouser pockets on my leg. I doubt ‘cures’ really work, even Logue’s, although like my BBC producer he could startle Bertie into temporary improvements. Logue’s daughter-in-law, a child psychiatrist, really knew his secret. ‘Anyone can do tongue-twisters and breathing exercises, but he [Logue] was a first-class psychotherapist… He was a super-good daddy where George V had been a ghastly one.’

My own father was menacing and sometimes violent; years after he died I learned that he ordered that my stammer must never be mentioned in my presence, which meant that at dinner I would go into jaw-wrenching spasms surrounded by silence. Changing left-handers to right-handers is said to be a possible primal cause of stuttering; that’s what happened with Bertie. I was subjected to an entire language makeover when I was about three. My parents and sister had gone to Peking (as it then was), leaving me in California with two kindly German-speaking carers. When the family returned my German was perfect and I didn’t stammer — yet. The impediment showed up when I began to speak English. But maybe that was because the Germans were shuffled away. Sixty years later I found one of them, now very old, in California. I asked him about my father. ‘Brilliant,’ he said. ‘And a very cruel man.’

So how, by my mid-teens, did I manage to control 75 per cent of my stammering? A shouty football coach astounded me by saying that he used to stammer and I would get over it. He also played me in the first team. Then, as with Bertie and his nice wife, I discovered girls. Kissing in the back row of the cinema was a terrific remedy. One girl told me that my quivering open mouth was sexy! I bet Bertie didn’t stammer in bed with Elizabeth.

Like most stutterers I am a motor-mouth, not like people with, say, scars on their faces, who avert their heads or wear makeup. Unlike the deaf or mute we have no special language. Like many stutterers, and the king, I can sing, act, swear, and tell jokes fluently as long as the voice is not my own. Hence, as Arthur Miller confirmed to Marc Shell, Marilyn Monroe’s girlish whisper that knocked everyone dead in Some Like It Hot. I stammer rather less when I speak Chinese. And, like Darwin, Henry James, Maugham and Churchill, and of course George VI, never when I write.