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A stutter unfit for a king

Posted: December 30, 2010 10:30 a.m.
Updated: January 3, 2011 5:00 a.m.

At last, somebody has made an epic, triumphant movie about a hero with which I am personally familiar: a recovering stutterer.

In "The King's Speech," Colin Firth gives an Oscar-worthy portrayal of the inconsolable despair behind the stiff upper lip of Britain's stuffy King George VI -- the royal family's second banana who did not aspire to be king at first, but for whom fate had other plans.

In 1937, his older brother, King Edward VIII, gave up the throne to marry his divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson. The young Duke of York had to step up despite his debilitating stammer, as the English prefer to call it, a condition that severely threatened his ability to perform one of the most important duties left for a British royal: rallying his country on the brink of a world war.

As an adult, the aspiring king did what I and many of this country's other estimated 3 million stutterers have done, he sought therapy. In his case, the therapeutic Yoda for the royal Jedi was Lionel Logue, who actor Geoffrey Rush turns into a scene-stealing force, trying -- when he is allowed -- to break down the royal inhibitions and build the necessary level of trust between the aspiring king and his commoner therapist.

"The movie helps to demystify stuttering," said Atlanta lawyer Adam Marlowe, 31, in a telephone interview. Marlowe is remarkable for containing his own stutter well enough to become a successful litigator, a job for which effective talking is essential.

After a stuttering eruption caused an unusually "bad meeting" one day in New York, where he was living at the time, Marlowe decided to seek help at the American Institute for Stuttering, a nonprofit organization of which -- full disclosure -- I happen to be a board member. There he received much of what is depicted in the movie, treatment that probed the underlying emotions, memories, anxieties and attitudes that undercut his ability to control his own voice.

"A lot of people want some quick cure, a mechanical technique or a magic pill that will make everything fine," he recalled. "In reality, what really helped me was what you saw in the movie, a long-term therapy, working on your voice and your breathing but also on how you view yourself as a stutterer in the world."

In my case, I thank the public school system in my hometown, Middletown, Ohio, for providing me with a parade of encouraging speech pathologists in grade school. I also thank our high school's speech and debate club, and supportive grown-ups like Fred Ross, a local attorney and family friend who patiently coached me through what Marlowe might call a "bad speech" during a contest at the local Optimist Club when I was 14.

After sympathetic applause from the crowd, I slumped off toward a corner where my coach was waiting with a big smile on his face. "When are we going to start working on next year?" Fred said. With his encouragement, I came back the next year and stunned the crowd with a near-flawless performance that, in a moment suitable for a Walt Disney film, took home the second-place trophy. It was better than first place, as far as I was concerned. I've hardly stopped talking since.

Every stuttering kid needs optimistic support like that. I was reminded of that night as I watched Colin Firth's young prince in the film's opening scenes. He faces a microphone that looks as large as the U.S. Capitol Building to stutter his way through a speech that is being broadcast to the entire British Empire. During the real-life 1925 speech that he failed to complete, the future king's hesitations lasted over a minute in several cases, according to the therapist's grandson and co-writer of the movie, Mark Logue, in an interview with NPR host Diane Rehm.

The prince went to Lionel Logue a year later because, as his grandson recalls, "by that stage, he was pretty desperate." But, as history shows, he persevered. He beat what I call "the beast."

This is a film intended to make everyone feel good about their own potential. Most important to me is the message it sends to concerned parents like mine were. On film and in real life, King George VI never completely cured his stuttering. None of us do. Like reformed alcoholics, we are constantly recovering, learning how to subdue the beast so it does not stop us from pursing greater things.

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