Monday, December 5, 2011

Role Models Revisited

In an earlier entry, I discussed the standard list of 'famous stutterers' that we see so often. While re-reading that entry before writing a new post, I was reaquainted with the following comment:

"Hi Mark, I think there is huge benefit in studying those who have managed to improve their fluency or have cured themselves. In many cases it would seem that career success has improved their confidence, so weakening the stutter to a point where it is no longer an impediment. Confidence seems to be a major ingredient in improvement. I believe this is due to the fact that confidence reduces tension levels, so improving fluency. Regards.

I'll use this response to my more critical take on stuttering role models to amplify on my concerns. Let's start with the list provided by The Stuttering Foundation. The list is too long to copy and paste here, so I'll refer to it and encourage you to read it for yourself.

I'll put these people into categories other than the ones listed on the web site. First, there are the professional speakers: actors and politicians. Their relevancy to stutterers is that when they do speak in public, they never stutter. These would be the people refered to in the quote above.

The professional speakers actually fall into two sub-categories - those who have experienced effective recovery (they don't stutter any more), and those who have gained what might be called a 'situational' recovery. The first group are part of a very rare minority of persistant stutterers who simply stop stuttering. Whether this is because of their acting or public speaking experience, or whether they were bound to recover in any case cannot be said for sure. What we know is that they are rare exceptions to the rule of persistant developmental stuttering.

So what do stutterers learn from those who have recovered? Is drama class the cure for stuttering? I see no suggestion in the stuttering therapy literature that it is. I would speculate that those who do recover are likely to come from the mild range of the condition, and are probably more amenable to the powers of suggestion and 'confidence.' It is difficult to gain such confidence when the first attempted word is mangled by a seconds-long struggle. For most stutterers, surely this is not a reasonable path to follow.

The second sub-category of professional pubilc speakers fall under the heading of situational or performance recovery. I believe that actor James Earl Jones belongs in this group. As well noted in the literature, some stutterers can speak without blocking when adopting a 'different' voice. This can be an accent or a caricature voice, or through adopting the role of another person, as in acting.

This sort of stage 'cure' for stuttering is certainly interesting in an academic sense, but what does it do for stutterers? There are only so many acting jobs available, so actor is hardly a profession to which stutterers can reasonably aspire. The performance 'cure' is really a sort of trick - a dramatic (pun intended) one, but a trick none the less. The fact that some stutterers can pull it off while still stuttering in 'normal' life is interesting only in the sense that it is a curiousity. If it was any more than a curiousity, then we could all use the same 'trick' in school or in our jobs. We can't.

Also in the first group are singers. Of course, we know that many stutterers can sing without any sign of stuttering block. This is one of those curious facts of the condition. What does it tell us that Carly Simon and Marc Anthony and John Lee Hooker stuttered? They are successful through their voice, but not through their speaking. And stuttering is a speech pathology, not a voice pathology. These are/were very successful people, but their success did not come from 'overcoming' their speech disorder. Their success came from sidestepping it. I don't know how severely the singers on this list stutter, but as far as I know only Mel Tillis was known by his audience as a stutterer. And it is Mel Tillis who makes my (very) short list as true role models. More about that later.

Next on the list is athletes. These are people who are rarely if ever called upon to speak during their day-to-day jobs. I'll note here that I live near Boston. Damien Woody played at Boston College, and then spent five years with the local New England Patriots. In all the time he was here, I never heard a mention of his stuttering. To what purpose is his name put on this list? If you are 6' 3" tall, weigh 320 lbs, and can move like a cat, and stutter, you too can be a professional athlete? I've seen Tiger Woods interviewed, and I've seen no evidence of stuttering. If I wasn't told, I wouldn't know. Again, if you have freakish skills hitting a little ball into a coffee cup, you too can be rich and famous.

I'll add to my short list by citing Johnny Damon. As a Boston resident, I learned that during his time with the Boston Red Sox, Damon successfully dealt with his significant stuttering to the point where he could do radio interviews. It was clear during these interviews that Damon stuttered, but he was willing to put himself on the spot, and was able to communicate clearly and without obvious stress or serious blocking.

The writers? The best that you can say is that the writers prove that you can be successful in life and even famous if you find a career in which you never have to talk. I think we already knew that. Maybe for children this could show that stutterers are as smart as anyone else, but how many children will be impressed by John Updike and Somerset Maugham?

The short list of journalists include the recovered like John Stossel, and tycoon Henry Luce, of whom we know nothing related to his stuttering. Was it mild or severe, or did he recover as well?

The politicians include people like Joe Biden, Frank Wolf and Tom Kean, who don't appear to stutter at all. Their cases can be looked at in two ways. First, their example holds out the hope that you, too can be one of the tiny minority of the 'cured,' and go on to success. To what degree lottery winners should be role models for investors is open to debate - to say the least. On the other hand, given that there are no stuttering (as opposed to formerly stuttering) politicians today that I am aware of should tell you that if you do stutter, there is no evidence that you have an icicle's chance in Hades of being successful in American electoral politics.

Then there are the business tycoons. Like the politicans, I suspect we're dealing entirely with the recovered. I've heard Jack Welch and Stephen Brill speak, and neither stuttered. A quick trip to YouTube shows that John Sculley intersperses his speech with momentary pauses that could, theoretically, be the remnants of a former stutter. On the other hand, let's face it - he doesn't stutter. The same two possiblities as above hold here: either you can use these people under the 'you may be one of the lucky few' banner, or you can accept that if you're going to be successful in business at a high level, you can't stutter.

The Moses and Demosthenes thing? Please - don't embarrass yourself. They may as well be King Arthur and Hercules. They are there just to pad the list.

So let's summarize my take on 'Famous Stutterers' lists. They are grab-bags of those who don't stutter and are successful, those whose careers depend on their not having to talk and are successful, and those whose careers depend on their not having to talk and are successful while also talking to the media. The latter consists, as far as I know, of Mel Tillis, Johnny Damon and Bill Walton. And Bill Walton may be a case of situational recovery, with his television appearances being done in 'performance' voice.

The best I can do is to say that these lists show children - and adults who don't stop and think - that they are not inevitably doomed to failure in life. This is true, in a literal sense. Unfortunately, it is also true that Mel Tillis is the only person on the list that I know of who became famous on a national level while being known - and observed - as a stutterer. And his stuttering was incidental to the performance of his profession. I know of no other person successful on a national level who stuttered openly on national television. The only other person who comes close to fitting the bill is Johnny Damon, and he spoke rarely and only to a local media market.

Tillis and Damon are people you could point to and tell your children "see, they stutter and they don't let it stop them." They were not only successful, they were successful while being stutterers. I think that is a far more powerful message, given what we know about success rates of speech therapy, than "if you can stop stuttering entirely- somehow - you can be successful like (fill in the blank) too!" Giving stutterers hope by way of the 'cure lottery' surely must end in tears for most stutterers.

Now that I've been thoroughly negative (again), I'll take some responsibility and suggest how it could be done better. The list we need is not basketball players and singers and recovery freaks. Far better would be to find stutterers who are successful in their professions, and still stutter. That would include those who have their condition mostly under control, but are still subject to some speech disordering.

A stuttering engineer from New Jersey who has received three promotions at his workplace would be a far better 'role model' to my mind than a long list of 'Famous People,' most of whom do not, in fact stutter. A stuttering pizza shop owner, or a stuttering plumber would be more comforting to the average stutterer than a Hollywood actor who makes a living out of perfectly controlled speech. Most stutterers will be far more concerned with getting and holding a job that will cover a mortgage and pay for a child's dance lessons than being 'famous.'

The replacement of 'famous' (mostly former) stutterers with stories of successful stutterers who are just 'normal people' is what stutterers - particularly young stutterers - need. Not Moses and a Hollywood actress you've never seen stutter. And while I'm at it, a photo gallery of the hot wives (and husbands) of stutterers would serve a valuable purpose as well. Think about it - do teenage stuttterers dream of being Joe Biden? I don't think so. On the other hand, attractive companions are rarely far from their minds.

I'm serious about this - a single 'hot spouse' photo could do more for teenage morale than one hundred captains of industry or professional athletes and all their money and fame. Can someone get on this?

1 comment:

  1. I love the idea of hot companion photo galleries. I would also like to see hot stuttering female swimsuit calender. Seriously, have you seen Katherine Preston? Holy shit. Her new book looks good too.

    Jack Welch still stutters on interviews and he openly acknowledges to everyone. Marc Anthony also stutters during interviews. I saw one of the rare instances BB King stuttered and looked away during an interview.

    I think the point of the lists is to spread awareness and improving morale is secondary, but they're better than nothing.