Just after my wife and I watched the new hit movie, “The King’s Speech,” a friend asked me if I enjoyed it.
“No, I suffered through it. But it was a great movie.”
I have been a stutterer since the age of six. Every time King George VI puffed his cheeks helplessly as he tried to get out a word, I felt the frustration and pain.
We stutterers know all too well “Bertie’s” fear of situations that would force us to read a text publicly or speak before a group. Most stutterers fear the telephone because we cannot control the dialogue. We remember painfully the innumerable occasions when we had all the right words in our heads but could not utter them. We groan as we think of all the well-meaning friends and family who tell us—as they told the British king—to take a breath or just relax. If we could, we would!
Famous stutterers include Moses, Demosthenes, Churchill (whose problem “The King’s Speech” alludes to), Marilyn Monroe, Oral Roberts, Carly Simon, James Earl Jones, Tiger Woods, and John Stossel. Eighty percent of all stutterers are males.
Like most stutterers, my disability started when I was very young. My mother feared I would flunk kindergarten because no one but she could understand me. Somehow I passed. But then in first grade my teacher put me in front of the class to help me enunciate. My panic developed into stuttering, which I would be helpless to manage for the next thirty-two years.
Stuttering often turned school into a nightmare. Fellow students looked at me quizzically and mockingly. In high school, one considerate lad asked me publicly why I could not talk like everyone else. I was glad to take Latin and Greek, so-called dead languages because reading them was important—not speaking them. But I dreaded French class every day, when I would sweat rivers of living water down my sides as the recitation exercise made its way up and down the rows until it came to me. Everyone sighed because they knew I would take so much longer than everyone else, while I tried to force words from my uncooperative mouth.
In college I had to join in class discussion because the University of Chicago prided itself on small classes with lots of conversation. Sometimes, with the running start seen in “The King’s Speech,” I might be fluent for a few sentences. But invariably I would grind to a halt, utterly tongue-tied before an intractable consonant.
I was humiliated when my grad school advisor recommended speech therapy. How did he know? Strangely, many of us stutterers are in denial. But the speech therapy I received there made no real attempt to cure me, instead trying to help me accept myself. It was a waste of time.
Other speech therapists adopted something like the psychological theory used by the King’s therapist in the movie—thinking the cause of stuttering is childhood trauma. Attempts to help me talk through my supposed traumas did nothing for my speech. Later in life it dawned on me that many non-stutterers had childhood trauma, and many stutterers did not, or dealt with their traumas in healthy ways.
As a Christian, and then Christian historian and theologian, I wondered for many years where this fit into God’s providence. Luther’s famous line has been helpful: “A theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating.”
“Alienation,” “bondage” and even “damnation” pass from abstraction into vivid resonance when a stutterer takes the gospel seriously. Not of course in the fullest sense—for I know that in Christ I am no longer a damned alien in bondage—but I experience in my own speech moments when the alienation and bondage of those outside Christ are given typological expression, as it were. I have the words but cannot speak them, just as they may know dimly what is right and true but cannot approach it.
Yet stuttering can also point to redemption—by the very humiliation which it fosters. There is nothing like feeling helpless when trying to get out a word to help a person feel utter dependence on God. More profoundly, it can show how God uses even the devil’s work to redeem his people. The apostle Paul struggled with the “thorn in the flesh” which first came upon him when he preached in Galatia (2 Cor. 12.1–10; Gal 4.13). Some have speculated that it was an eye disease known to be common in that part of Asia Minor that intermittently damaged eyesight and disfigured the face so that the sufferer looked repulsive. Perhaps this is why Paul says that despite his “bodily ailment” the Galatians did not “scorn or despise” him, and in fact “would have gouged out [their] eyes” for him (Gal. 4.13–15).
In an oft-missed aside, Paul says of this thorn that it was a “messenger of Satan” meant to harass him (2 Cor. 12.7). But God used it to keep Paul “from being too elated” by his extraordinary revelations, lest pride keep Paul from experiencing Christ’s secret “power” (v.9). In other words, pride over the blessings of God would have kept Paul from experiencing the power of the messiah. So God enlisted a messenger of Satan—just as he enlisted Satan to test Job—to keep Paul humble and thereby open to a deeper work of grace.
I learned a kind of humility when from time to time I would feel like I was at the bottom of a pit whose walls were smooth and greased and lacking handholds. When I first heard the gospel message that Christ comes to save those who cannot save themselves, I could relate.
Then when I started the therapy that set me free from stuttering’s bondage, I learned another kind of humility that was another “type” of the gospel. For twelve hours a day over three weeks at the Hollins Communications Research Institute, I was taught to breathe and talk all over again. But in order to do so, I had to admit thousands of times that the way I had been pronouncing each sound was wrong. I had to become like a child and accept continual correction.
Today stuttering still works to check my pride. Like everyone else, I have accomplishments that if misinterpreted can give me a puffed head. Perhaps we writers and professors are especially tempted to think of knowledge as more important than love. But when I fail to use what I have learned and lapse into old stuttering habits, I am reminded of how fragile my fluency is. Often it reminds me of my moral fragility as well.
But then when I reflect on Paul’s thorn in the flesh and the way God outfoxed Satan to keep Paul close, I take a fiendish delight in the ways the demon of stuttering has drawn me, too, closer to God.
Gerald McDermott is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College.