“Why is every stutterer I have ever met a man?” asks Jeremy Zorn, the main character of another fine novel, David Shields’s Dead Languages. “Ninety percent of all impeded speakers are male.” The gender ratio, slightly exaggerated by Zorn, is indeed one of the mysteries of the stuttering syndrome. Approximately 80 percent of the world’s stutterers are estimated to be male. Although girls begin stuttering a little earlier, they recover earlier and more frequently than boys. Lionel Logue attributed the difference to women’s greater “power of concentration.”
Others who have commented on the disparity estimate that the reason lies in the general physical superiority of women. “In terms of matters physiological, women are generally the stronger, throughout life,” writes one theorist of speech ailments, Marcel C. Wingate, who elaborates on women’s greater physical stamina. “The physiological superiority of the female is readily expressed in terms of the survival of the species: endurance of the female is the more necessary for the succession of generations.”
Another important organic difference favoring females, Wingate adds, is that girls generally develop and mature earlier than boys. “This difference is especially relevant to the higher recovery ratios in females,” he notes. “Adult female stutterers are quite rare. Also of special interest relative to the sex ratio, substantial evidence indicates that females are less strongly lateralized than are males.” For “laterality,” or a preference for left- or right-handedness, is equally related to stuttering. Most stammering children are left-handed, as the Duke of York was, and their stutter may prevail into adolescence or beyond, especially if they are forced to be right-handed, as I was, a common practice until recent years.
There are also important parental influences. In his excellent memoir Stutter, Marc Shell relates that his father was anxiously aware that his own uncle and his older son were stammerers. Like a significant percent of persons suffering from speech defects, Shell had suffered from polio as a youngster; his was not an easy childhood. “When I was eight years old and recently paralyzed from polio, he [father] would sometimes yell at me because I was not speaking fluidly enough.” Shell senior’s aggressive fear that his younger son Marc would stutter like male relatives probably accounted for Marc’s stutter. Some speech theorists have pointed to the possibility that the defect might be genetic, basing themselves on cases such as the one recently documented by The New York Times, in which an Indiana woman plagued by the ailment had a father, grandmother, and two children who were equally afflicted. But so far there has been no scientific evidence whatever confirming genetic causes for stammering.
Most stutterers, inevitably, deplore their state. Jeremy Zorn, the young protagonist of David Shields’s Dead Languages, even considers suicide, seriously contemplating jumping out of the window. Along with b, d, p, r, and l, his lethal letter is f, and he can not even pronounce his girlfriend’s name, “Faith.” And yet Jeremy, at times, defends his ailment: “Only in broken speech is the form of disfluency consonant with the chaos of the world’s content. Stutterers are truth-tellers. Everyone else is lying.”
Are there racial, national trends in the stuttering syndrome? In my own experience, Russians stutter considerably; French, Italians, and most other Romance language speakers stutter minimally; and the British take stammering so much for granted that some of them, seeing it as a mark of good breeding, even assume it as an affectation. Early physical traumas imposed on upper-class British children are also relevant. As a British friend recently noted to me, it is chiefly Great Britain’s upper classes, who have been plagued by the hazing and corporeal misery imposed by the public school system, who stutter. Members of the middle and lower classes are as relatively exempt from the affliction as their peers in Mediterranean countries.
One of the most interesting aspects of Lionel Logue’s healing techniques of King George VI, beautifully narrated in the film The King’s Speech, was his insistence that instead of following protocol, which would have had the therapist go to the king to hold their sessions, the king go to Logue’s offices on Harley Street. This imposed an effort on the king that Logue thought essential to success. But Logue often went to whatever palace the king was living in at the time to help prepare his speeches, pacing his speed, correcting his flaws, helping him substitute easy words for perilous ones. Logue was much liked by the queen, who often asked him to stay for dinner with the immediate family—the royal couple and their daughters, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret. Logue and the king seem to have become genuine friends. The two men exchanged Christmas and birthday gifts, and wrote each other numerous letters.
Logue was at George VI’s side when, after his older brother Edward VII abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, the new king prepared his coronation speech. (The two men worked on the address for an entire five months.) He was with the monarch when he had to announce the onset of World War II and proclaim D-Day, and, a year later, at the war’s end. Although he could not claim to have achieved mellifluously perfect elocution, George VI, thanks to Lionel Logue, pleased his subjects by attaining a fairly fluent, often eloquent, mode of speaking, which in turn helped to make him into an excellent wartime king.
But Marc Logue and Peter Conradi’s book, even more persuasively than the film on the same theme, makes it clear that “Bertie” was an exceptional human being—as disciplined as he was modest, kind, never failing to do the exercises assigned him by Lionel Logue with intense perseverance. Having helped George VI overcome an impediment that has caused anxiety to numerous rulers since the beginning of recorded time, Logue described him as “the pluckiest and most determined patient I have ever had.”
The discipline and determination on both sides—the patient’s and the therapist’s—indeed need to be formidable. Marilyn Monroe’s most famous line in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot was “It’s me, Sugar.” The phrase was very difficult for Marilyn to speak fluently. It took Billy Wilder forty-seven takes before the star could get it right.