Monday, March 22, 2010

Go Taboo Yourself

The following passage comes from George H. Shames and Herbert Rubin in the book Stuttering: Then and Now.

"Talking about stuttering is a social taboo. Even in households with disfluent children, overt commentary is the exception rather than the rule. Taboo subjects tend to surround themselves and the members of the problem with a sense of shame and guilt which, together with a sense of victimization and helplessness, can continue through adolescence into adulthood.

For adult stutterers the social ritual proscribes any comment about disfluent speech, with the possible exception of the stutterer himself, in the form of a joke or an excuse. Neither the family nor friends risk the embarrassment of commentary, as if they were confronting the emperor without his clothes, conspirators in denial."

This is a remarkable statement. Let's look at your average stutterer: filled with guilt and shame, helplessness and a self-pitying victimization, making jokes or excuses for their behavior. And the stutterers family and friends? They can only feel embarrassment when faced with such a person.


I'm 55 years old. As a child, my parents rarely talked about my stuttering. Not out of a sense of embarrassment, but because there was rarely anything to talk about. What would you say to a blind child - "How's the lack of sight going?" If I wanted to talk about my speech to my parents, I did so. Otherwise, they treated me like a son, not a stutterer. I knew I stuttered, they knew that I stuttered, and we all dealt with it. There was no taboo, no guilt, and no shame. I was often frustrated, but certainly never thought of myself as a victim, and helplessness never entered my mind. I stuttered - I wasn't paralyzed in a bed.

As to friends - I can't say what was in their minds. but as with my family I rarely discussed my stuttering with them. No denial, no avoidance, no shame or guilt. Just a simple principle - it wasn't there problem, it was mine. To be a friend - or a girlfriend - was to be a person who could deal with it. If a person found it embarrassing to consider, then I assumed that they would not choose me as a friend.

Within the Stuttering Industrial Complex, there is a strong contingent that loves to talk about fear, guilt and shame. And anxiety... don't forget anxiety. I've certainly lived with the fear of stuttering, but the fear was situational. I didn't spend my childhood living in fear, and my adult life has been remarkably ordinary. Guilt? Why in the world would I feel guilty? Stuttering is a pain in the ass - not a sin or a crime. As to shame, there's been some of that over the years, but again it was always situational. At my worst - those memories that stay with me to this day - the feelings of shame experienced when stuttering were generally gone the next day. As with a broken leg, you remember that it happened, but you don't remember the pain.

It is my impression that the people who want to peddle guilt and shame to stutterers belong to the school that holds psychology at the heart of stuttering. And they need fear, guilt and shame to motivate the condition. Are there stutterers who see themselves as victims? Pathetic, self-hating creatures surrounded by pitying observers? I'm sure they're out there. I'm also sure that many stutterers are well-balanced people with no need to wallow in the misery expected of them by stuttering "experts."


  1. Well, regarding stuttering we are certainly living in interesting times. The attitude towards it changes step by step. Recent research achievements and the internet, allowing people to share information and personal experience, contribute to a better understanding by society. Moreover, it seems to me that people become in general more open-minded. I am 29 and my observations are certainly not very deep, but I think in the last ten years the progress is noticeable.
    I guess, soon the old-school theories will sound as ridiculous as Freud's "explanations" of stuttering.
    So, based on your interest in the evolution of stuttering research, your own experience as a stutterer and your background in genetics would you take a look into your crystal ball and try to predict how will stuttering "look" in 10--20 years? With "look" I mean all aspects of stuttering: the attitude from stutterers as well as from non-stutterers towards it, understanding of the biological mechanism causing the disorder, possible treatments, etc. Can we say "we are living in exponential times" regarding stuttering, i.e. the progress in 2010 -- 2020 will be, say, twice as much as in 2000--2010? (Well, progress in such general terms is impossible to measure but still.)

    Even if your predictions turn out to be false, I guess this won't lead to any financial losses for anyone since stuttering (still?) does not influence the stock market :-)

  2. There's a general principle that once people learn something in school, they go on believing it for the rest of their careers. So fields only change as new students enter the profession at a time when there are new ideas in the air - and the older generation die off. At some point, I expect that there will be a medical intervention that really helps - not just a pill to lessen anxiety like pagloclone. The problem is that I don't see it coming around any time soon.

    As far as attitudes go, I think we've come a long way from past generations, when parents didn't know how to deal with a stuttering child, and often treated them badly. The widespread use of daycare and preschools may help catch stuttering early and lead to useful interventions. Ultimately, prevention is the key - if it's nipped in the bud, you don't have to deal with it long-term.

  3. What you are saying about pagoclone is interesting. Do you think this is the only reason that it work for many people?
    I have read a few reports and people do not say they become sedated or tranquillized. But maybe controlling dopamine levels means exactly the same as controlling anxiety?
    There was a Chinese genetic study, suggesting that defect genes cause the more dopamine in stutterers. I don't know if the data is reliable since the statements in the paper are somewhat vague.

  4. Nathan's motherDecember 11, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    Im french, so my english isn't very good... I've read your article and it makes sense for me, cause i've got a child of 4 years who stutters. And I feel guilty about this. What you say about your parents is interesting for me. We talk sometimes about stuttering to our child, but he's young and for him, there's no problem... But for me, it's a problem. And I'd want that his stuttering disappears.