The Invisible Chain

I am a stutterer. I am not like other people. I must think differently, act differently – because I stutter. Like other stutterers, like other exiles, I have known all my life a great sorrow and a great hope together, and they have made me the kind of person I am. An awkward tongue has molded my life. ---
Wendell Johnson, formerly professor of speech pathology, University of Iowa

Stuttering had an effect on my childhood years – and that’s putting it mildly.

My class marks were not particularly affected, but stuttering left its mark on virtually every other level. Worst were the reading lessons and other compulsory oral work in class. By far the majority of teachers were sympathetic, but they probably did not know how to handle children who stuttered. Like all the other children, I participated in oral activities. My speech, however, gradually deteriorated.

On a social level I became self-conscious about my speech. I preferred not having too many friends, and avoided social contact as far as possible. I far more enjoyed solitary reading.

At the time we lived for some years in the Netherlands, and my parents approached a speech expert at the University of Amsterdam. She told my parents that the bilingualism in our household could be a factor in my stuttering. Children of embassy staff, for instance, frequently experienced this problem, she told us.

Well, that applied to me. Afrikaans was spoken in our home, but at school I only heard and spoke Dutch. The speech expert reassured my parents. She said my speech would without doubt improve as soon as we returned to our own language environment ...

First 'therapy'

It was not to be. Moving back to South Africa and entering high school in the early 60s did not make life easier. My speech steadily worsened. At age 13 I received therapy for the first time at a city university clinic. I was treated by a rather pretty student therapist in a white coat. She was very optimistic about my case. She told my parents that I was not a ‘stutterer’, but a ‘hesitator’, a distinction which, I later found out, has no basis in science or therapy, but did give me some hope at the time.

Most of the ‘treatment’ consisted of reading in front of the therapist; but some aspects were very unpleasant. On occasion I had to go on walks on campus with the therapist and address strangers, for example to ask them the time. The purpose of this was to make me less shy about my speech by stuttering artificially, even when fluent on that particular day. I found this extremely humiliating, and it only increased my shyness.

However, for a time the therapy was successful – for six months my speech was fluent. My reading in class had also improved, and the therapist discharged me as ‘cured’. I believed that all my problems were over.

But that was not to be. Reading aloud in the English class one day I was completely fluent, though I had a growing feeling that I would not be able to suppress the stuttering for much longer. Then came the word that led to my downfall. To this day I can recall the book we were reading: The Black Tulip. The word was ‘carriage’. Then and there my own carriage bogged down in the mud, wheels and all, movement in any direction out of the question. Complete silence descended upon the class. When the teacher eventually asked what the matter was, one of the pupils replied: ‘He got stuck, Sir,’ as if it was the most common event on earth. Someone else simply continued reading.

The Black Tulip. A Tale of Two Cities. Minna von Barnhelm. The names of our prescribed books are forever engraved on my memory.

Today I understand why the effectiveness of that first therapy was only temporary. Stuttering treatment, in whatever form, tends to lower stress levels because of all the attention given to your speech. Outside of the clinic, however, all the usual stressors that maintain tension levels are still around. The result is that after treatment is terminated, your tension levels gradually rise again, thereby reactivating the stuttering reflex. (This theory of stuttering will be dealt with in later chapters.)

After this episode, going to school was more unpleasant than ever. In addition to all the other usual problems of the school years, I had to cope with my speech.

On one occasion our class staged a play. I only had to say one short sentence, but it was hard just the same. I tried my best for the dress rehearsal. The sentence was: ‘I have never seen this place before.’ When I said it, that incredible silence returned. Then I heard the hardly suppressed guffaws from all sides. Today I can laugh about it, but it wasn’t funny then. It was the beginning and the end of my stage career. Fortunately we only had one rehearsal. On the day of the performance I told my mother the whole story and she phoned the school to say that I was ‘ill’. But that was not the end of it. That sentence must have sounded very funny indeed, because for some time afterwards it provided a source of great amusement for the other children. Often as we changed classes between periods one of the children would announce as we entered a classroom: ‘I have never seen this place before’ and be guaranteed a hysterical response from his class-mates.

However, I somehow managed to adapt to the circumstances – in fact I had no choice. Life goes on. I can remember how, every afternoon when school was over, I would deliberately push aside the morning’s unpleasant experiences. But on the way to school by bus every morning, fear of the new day would raise its ugly head and I would tell myself: ‘Oh well, from now until two o’clock it’s a mess and I can’t expect anything good to happen. I may as well write it off.’ With this attitude I delivered myself daily into the hands of fate.

The bully boys

These three years, at a large boys’ school, were the worst years of my life. At one stage one of the school bullies used me as a vent for his aggression. He and his henchmen took great pleasure in making my life miserable, and I usually spent a major part of playtime keeping my distance.

Now, when I think back to those years, I still feel some anger towards my childhood tormentors. I remember how I once battled my way through my reading turn. At one stage I glanced upwards and saw a boy staring at me. During my entire turn he looked at me like that. Usually the other children would soon notice that my facial contortions were not exactly pleasant to look at, but this boy must have found them fascinating. I wonder now what he was thinking then and what kind of person he later became - maybe one of those scientists who experiment on rabbits and other animals.

I eventually learned not to look up as I read, as the reaction of some of the kids only upset me more. There were sneers, winks, and of course the incessant staring. The high school seniors, however, were more grown-up. By then I evoked sympathy, especially from the girls in the co-educational school I later attended. But I found their sympathy equally unacceptable. In any case it did not improve my speech. Teen movies tend to feature a ‘boy with a problem’ who finally succeeds in impressing the prettiest girl, but I certainly never had that experience!

As regards Sunday school – I never attended. I could not face all the oral work. I was never confirmed.

In my pre-matric and matric years my speech handicapped me to such an extent that I was excused from reading exercises and, in matric, from all oral exams. Naturally I said as little as possible in class. When asked a question by a teacher, I would pretend not to know the answer, unless I risked a hiding. Then I would grab the bull by the horns and utter the words as best as I could.

Existential stuttering

During those years my blocks were very intense. A major block is a frightening experience, also because you don’t know what’s happening to you. It’s like suddenly losing a limb. Your speech lets you down, usually when you need it most. This so dismayed me that the experience became an ‘existential moment’. It was as if time stood still, as if I was watching it all as in a movie, or in slow motion. You can’t believe that it’s happening to you.

Sometimes the thought flashed through my mind: This helpless embarrassment is the worst thing that can happen to me. Having realised this, I would then, ironically enough, experience an incredible feeling of freedom. It was as if this extreme emotional misery simultaneously made one intensely aware of the wonder of life itself. The wood of my school desk as I clung to it, the brown cloth of the blazer of the pupil sitting in front of me, the posters on the walls – every detail was clear and sharp, unique, overwhelming. Only much later, after I started reading literature, did I realise that other people have also had such experiences, maybe not as stutterers, but in other intensely emotional situations.

Many years later I read that of all the traumatic incidents stutterers have to deal with, those in the classroom make the biggest impression. That makes perfect sense to me. At such a young age it is more important than ever to fit in with your peers. These traumatic experiences can leave lasting scars.

Fortunately my speech outside of the classroom was much better, so that home became a haven away from the unpleasantness of school. At home and with friends I spoke very rapidly and jerkily, with numerous blocks, but at least I could cope as long as the situation was relaxed. Gradually I became aware of the link between tension and stuttering. I adapted by avoiding stressful situations in every possible way.

The walking dictionary

I also discovered many other ways to avoid stuttering. Thus I discovered the wonder of the synonym; I became a walking dictionary and a master in the use of alternative words where a specific word or sound combination would otherwise present serious problems. As a side-effect of word substitution I acquired an interest in language and literature.

After matric I went to university in spite of some uncertainty around my career choice in the light of my speech problem. During that time many people remarked that my speech had ‘improved so much’. The truth was that I had become increasingly successful at disguising my poor speech with word substitution.

I realise today that successful word substitution does not mean that your speech has improved. But in those days I did not know much about stuttering. Consequently I believed that my speech was improving and that it would no longer be a hindrance after my graduation.

A fatal assumption! The truth is that approximately three-quarters of all children who stutter outgrow the condition before or during their primary school years. By the time you reach high school the chances of outgrowing it decrease significantly. For those who do not outgrow it, it usually develops into a persistent habit. Stuttering may even become worse as time passes. Many years later I met a company director in his sixties who stuttered badly. He confirmed that his speech had deteriorated in time, up to the point where he had to rely on a few trusted officials who conferred with clients on his behalf.

Eventually the blocks and fears of the older stutterer may become firmly established in his subconscious. Others, however, experience improvement as they get older. It may be that, in these cases, adulthood and career success result in increased confidence which in turn has a positive effect on tension levels.

Anyway, I decided to study law. The general opinion was that a legal qualification was very useful and suitable for so many careers. That may be so, but – much too late – I realised that all those careers require good communication skills! If I had known more about stuttering and its effects then, I would definitely have made a different choice. It only confirms the importance of proper career counselling and guidance for the young stutterer.

The legal escape artist

Disregarding my misgivings about what my studies would entail – questions asked in class by the lecturer, answering in front of the entire class, oral examinations – I registered. On the first day of my course I approached the student dean with this request: permission not to do any oral work in class. He promptly approved, and during the first few years of study it went much better than at school.

But the whole set-up was somewhat distorted and artificial. Again I was ‘different’ from the other students. It was a form of escapism. At the beginning of each academic year the dean would inform all my lecturers about the issue, and nobody would ask me questions. I often felt excluded. The professors of law were otherwise particularly inclined to ask questions. In the large classes failure to ask me a question went unnoticed, but it must have been quite obvious in the smaller classes. I eventually presumed that everyone was aware of my ‘secret’.

It also did not do my self-discipline any good – I often did not prepare because I knew that I would not be questioned. Some of the other students would engage in spirited debates with the lecturers on various legal issues, while I merely sat listening, gradually losing interest. If I can’t even answer a question in class, I thought to myself, how will I ever be able to earn a living doing this?

Not being asked questions resulted in some embarrassing moments. On one occasion a lecturer started asking questions down the row. When it was my turn he simply skipped me and continued. I felt my cheeks glowing with embarrassment. Afterwards one of the students asked me what I had done wrong. He thought that the lecturer must have been very angry with me if he did not even want to acknowledge my presence!

The bullying lecturer

On another occasion – this was in the Afrikaans-Dutch Literature course – a new lecturer took over in the middle of the year and consequently knew nothing about the dean’s instruction. He was quite aggressive, this lecturer, maybe because he was young and inexperienced. On the very first day of his term he started questioning the students by referring to the class list lying in front of him. Suddenly he called out my name. The lecture hall was extremely large and could easily seat two hundred or more students, so I pretended to be absent. But he persisted: ‘But where can this gentleman be? ... Where does he sit?’ As he persevered, students started looking at me. Eventually I stood up. ‘Oh, there you are. Why are you hiding? ... So, can you give us a brief sketch of the Movement of the Thirties and its major poets?’

It was more than I could cope with in front of those hundreds of staring eyes. ‘No,’ I answered abruptly and sat down amidst laughter: the students who did not know me must have found me quite ingenious – I obviously knew as little about the poets of the thirties as they did and I had had the cheek to admit it.

The lecturer, who had a ruddy complexion, turned an even brighter red and directed the question at someone else. But he was furious. Then minutes later I had another turn. ‘Maybe you could tell us something about the poet D J Opperman?’ Again I had to stand. ‘N-No,’ was the only word I was able to utter. I sat down with burning cheeks, feeling helpless and hopeless. But I was not to be let off the hook so easily this time. ‘Let me see, surely you have a better answer than that? You’ve been doing this work for an entire term. And please stand up. What have you been doing this whole term? Hiding behind the pretty girls?’ The class burst out laughing.

Afterwards I went to see him in his office and managed to clear the air. It made me feel somewhat better.

Tutorials presented another problem. They were usually conducted by part-time lecturers who were unaware of my speech problem, and rather than stutter in front of everybody I skipped most of these classes.

I must add that my speech was much better off- campus. In stressful situations, however, it was very poor – conversations with post office clerks, traffic cops, shop assistants, the lady selling film tickets etc. If they were impatient or rude, it only made matters worse. I avoided telephone conversations and public speaking as far as possible.

Telephone terror

For the stutterer, telephone conversations can be an enormous problem, perhaps because one relies completely on oral communication. The absence of alternative means of communication increases your tension level when speaking on the phone. In a face-to-face conversation you can potentially use gestures, facial expressions, vocal intonation or even writing in support of your speech. But on the telephone it’s just you and your speech. Beyond the telephone an invisible being waits, a stranger perhaps, often in a hurry and unaware of one’s limited speaking abilities.

As a child I had lived in fear of telephones. Those were the days of the black-coloured telephones with an ear-piercing ringing tone. Ours echoed mercilessly down the passages of our double-storey house. If I happened to be near when it started ringing, I quietly tried to get as far out of the way as possible.

That particular telephone made it its business to terrorise me. Its cradle was like the stubby horns of an animal, pitch black contrasting with the white wall of the passage.

As for public appearances – some stutterers do not find these difficult. Some can deliver a reasonably fluent speech and afterwards stutter badly in private conversation. For these stutterers, public speaking is not very stressful, perhaps due to the relatively impersonal and one-directional nature of a speech, or the position of authority in which the speaker temporarily finds himself. These speakers find plain conversation a much more personal and complicated interaction with an associated increase in tension.

A world of fear

It is sometimes erroneously thought that stuttering is just a question of fear. This is a generalisation, though fear does play a role. There are good reasons for that fear. After all those years of stuttering you lose confidence in your speech. You are aware that you have problems with certain sounds, words or situations. The stutterer often senses when he is going to stutter. Consequently fear of the difficult sound, word or situation is part and parcel of stuttering. Unfortunately fear may become a habit, just like actual stuttering. Speech fears are acquired – and if acquired at a tender age, they can become extremely strong and persistent.

In fact, many stutterers experience the world as filled with fear – fear of embarrassment, humiliation, incidents, unsympathetic laughter, damage to self-image, loss of control.

There is fear of the unknown, of the future: What new demands will be made on your speech tomorrow? What new sentence construction will have to be produced? You don’t know. You only know that you will stutter – sooner or later. No matter how good your speech that day, or even for a week – how long will it last? You know that you stutter, that your problem is still there.

Then there is the big, underlying fear, the fact you cannot forget: your speech is built on unstable foundations, and may desert you without warning. This knowledge has a crippling effect on everything you want to do, on your confidence and your self-image. The stutterer is tempted to believe that he is a coward; he struggles with all kinds of speech fears which the fluent speaker – and often the stutterer too – sees as absurd and insignificant.

Not to mention shame. Shame is one of the reasons why the public is so unaware of stutterers and why so many misconceptions about stuttering persist. There is a strong tendency to hide the disorder – which only aggravates the stutterer’s problems.

When I was younger, I denied that I had a speech problem. If I happened to come across a magazine article on stuttering, it upset me deeply and I would immediately put the magazine down without reading it.

The conspiracy of silence

Often family members, friends and colleagues are part of the problem. At the self-help group for people who stuttered which I later joined, a young man told the following story. He once met a girl who also stuttered badly, and they had an enjoyable discussion about the disorder. Soon afterwards an angry member of her family phoned him and gave him an earful. The attitude was: How dare you discuss this painful matter with her! How dare you remind her of it! It was very difficult to get in touch with her again. Over-protective family and colleagues virtually isolated her from the outside world. They would answer all her telephone calls. They were part of the ‘conspiracy of silence’ which so often surrounds the stutterer and which is maintained by well-meaning people who think that they are being polite and sympathetic.

To return to my years at university. I managed to obtain the BA (Law) degree with difficulty, and then registered for an LLB degree – in which oral examinations play a significant role. I will never forget the following situation: three lecturers sitting opposite me, cool and calm, not batting an eyelid as I struggled with the most awful blocks. Maybe they were simply being polite and did not want to respond to my struggles. Or maybe they believed in a kind of judicial neutrality, as in a court of law.

I remember the exact court case on which the professor questioned me, concerning a woman who suffered from nervous shock after she had found a dead slug on the bottom of a soft-drink bottle. As a result she sued the negligent party for the medical costs. Jerkingly I explained the facts of the case. Miraculously I did not have a nervous breakdown myself …

At this time I made a second attempt to improve my speech. After the dramatic failure of the attempt in my high school days, I was convinced that it was a psychological problem that had nothing to do with a speech disorder, and believed that I would recover spontaneously (a typical attitude for stutterers and an old trap into which many people fall!) or that the problem would disappear as adulthood increased my confidence.

Now I realise that stuttering is both a physical and a psychological problem. It falls into that ‘grey area’ between the two, which is probably one reason why medical science still finds it difficult to deal with it. After all medical science is traditionally divided between the physical and the mental – a division that is not exactly helpful in explaining stuttering.

Shrinking the stress

Anyway, I turned to a psychiatrist who supposedly had a good reputation in the treatment of stuttering. His treatment included self-hypnosis and was to an extent beneficial. He taught me how to relax, and my speech improved accordingly. I had to do relaxation exercises for an hour every day. Nevertheless the enormous effort which I invested in these exercises was not reflected in the results. I had to learn the hard way that stress control in itself is usually inadequate in the effective control of stuttering, although it is a valuable supplementary aid.

During this stage of my life I experienced a number of unexpected frustrations which made a great impression on me and further shaped my life. One evening at a party I met a breathtakingly beautiful girl in a white, semi-transparent dress. At the time she was living with an actor, but she made it clear to me that she was tiring of him. (Usually my speech improved in the company of women – I found them fascinating and felt less tense with them.) I thought: This is my lucky day! But then she gave me her telephone number – I could phone her if I wanted to. Afterwards I racked my brain for a solution, but without success. I never saw her again. I could not make that call.

There were other limitations. I was very interested in politics, and all my friends were on the students’ representative council. I would have loved to join them, as I was part of a group of Young Turks on campus. But making myself available as a candidate was impossible. All candidates had to be prepared to appear and be questioned at a mass meeting. A career in politics was out of the question.

During this period I had to turn my back on another opportunity. I was approached by a judge who needed a new clerk. The position of a judge’s clerk is much sought-after by students, as it leaves one with ample time for studying. To my dismay I established that a judge’s clerk has to swear in witnesses - in the presence of the whole court. I knew that I would be unable to do that, and asked my mother to inform the judge that I would ‘rather concentrate full-time on my studies’.

The stuttering soldier

At one stage the army got hold of me, and I had to attend a number of military service camps. On the third day of the camp we had roll call. On hearing your name, you had to shout ‘Corporal!’ I anxiously awaited my turn and when it came, I could of course not get past the ‘c’. At the time my stutter was very internalised, i.e. without external signs of struggle, and not a sound escaped my lips. The corporal marked me absent.

Immediately afterwards another corporal took over for a night exercise. I spent the night running around with a rifle and worrying that I would be accused of being absent without leave. The next day I tried to find the roll-call corporal, but without success. Rude non-commissioned officers sent me from one officer to another, and each time I had to explain my story – with much stuttering. At last I found a lieutenant who was sympathetic. He sent me back to my barracks, where I had to explain, with much effort, why I had not attended the morning’s activities! I discussed the problem with the new corporal and was told always to stand in the front row during roll calls so that I could be seen.

After my first year of LLB I left university to find a job that did not require too much speaking. I ended up at the magistrate’s office. Usually people with my qualifications were appointed as prosecutors, but I asked to be a civil court clerk. I worked in a dusty room – fortunately it didn’t have a telephone – facing a stack of files. I had to open each file, check it and place it in the ‘out’ tray. Checking a file required about ten seconds. At the end of the day my ‘out’ tray would contain hundreds of files. Each morning, hundreds of fresh files were waiting on my desk.

This continued for six months. I was then transferred to the filing section in the cellar of the building, where I didn’t have to do anything at all, apart from supervising three black youngsters filing those same files in dusty, mice-infested cellars. I spent my days staring out of the cellar window – I could see a piece of blue sky, and nesting doves.

After three months of this I managed to escape. I moved to Cape Town, where I started work as a reporter at a newspaper – not as a general reporter (which would have necessitated using the telephone), but as a court reporter.

'Are you drunk?'

One incident from that period stuck in my mind. At the time I worked as a translator on night duty in the newsroom. This was one place where it was difficult to avoid using the telephone, which rang all the time. Naturally I avoided this duty as much as possible. Then one night found me virtually on my own in the office. A female voice needed information. I started to speak, but became badly stuck. Suddenly the woman became furious. ‘What are you saying?’ she yelled into the phone, ‘I can’t hear you!’ My words faltered clumsily. ‘What is going on there? What are you doing? Listen, are you drunk?’ I handed the receiver to a friend.

Shortly afterwards I married my first wife. I didn’t make a speech at the reception, which was held at a private home. Some members of my family did, however.

I have no doubt that my speech problem had an effect on our relationship. My ex-wife had to make most of the telephone calls. In shops it was up to her to talk to the assistant. She had to order food in restaurants. And so forth. A dependency such as this can seriously harm a relationship.

After two years at the newspaper the stress of newspaper work started getting the better of me. (It’s a vicious circle – stuttering increases your tension, which again impacts on your speech.) The news editor advised me to take tranquillisers, but I did not want to go that far – I felt that it would be the first step on the road to addiction.

So I resigned, as it seemed the only way out. In fact it only made things worse. I had recently married, but had no work or prospects. What kind of work could I do that did not involve speaking? My inability to use the telephone did not make me the ideal candidate. The sole solution seemed to be to return to university. However, I was unwilling to return to a campus university, with its lectures, oral examinations, questions and tutorials. So I registered with a correspondence university to complete my LLB degree.

I somehow believed that if I obtained this highly regarded degree it would be followed by a psychological miracle, that it would increase my self-confidence. (Another mistake! Yet again I was the victim of inadequate career counselling and ignorance about the disability.) Anyway, I spent the next few years studying in the Cape Town reference library. Fortunately I had saved some money for this, and also received financial assistance from my family.

Mister Gblogh

Life as a stutterer also had its lighter moments. One day a neighbour knocked on the door. He wanted to enquire about our rented house. I gave him all the information and he thanked me – and then asked me my name. There and then I had a terrible block and, instead of my name, uttered something like ‘gblogh’. The man responded quite seriously: ‘Well then, thank you, Mr Gblogh, until we meet again.‘ He actually thought that was my name …

This incident taught me something. A person who stutters tends to believe that the listener will react negatively. In reality this is not always the case.

At last I had something to show for my studies, and was admitted as an advocate in Johannesburg.

For me this was a moment of triumph, but it also had a sour note. I thought I looked like a vulture in my black advocate’s gown. I took the oath with one of the court officials, left the court and that was it. I was now an advocate. It was something – I had proved that I could pass the exams, although it eventually dawned on me that I had qualified to follow a profession for which my speech disorder had already disqualified me.

It may seem amazing that I made so many career decisions which, with the benefit of hindsight, were bad. On the other hand one must bear in mind that stuttering is not yet universally regarded as a potential handicap. I did not make informed decisions due to my lack of understanding of the disorder.

It must also be said that some stutterers do manage to hold down a legal career – and I take my hat off to them. Much depends, however, on the nature of one’s stuttering – for instance, whether the stuttering entails merely repetitions, or complete blocks that effectively leave you mute. For a severe stutterer to want to become a trial lawyer, with all the stresses concomitant with that occupation, is to prepare yourself for failure. Legal positions that require less intensive communication skills, such as that of a notary, conveyancer or contract lawyer may be more suitable occupations for stutterers.

'Have you hurt yourself?'

Back to my story: Shortly after this I again found work at a newspaper, and I recall a specific telephone conversation from this period. The assistant editor continually asked me to phone all and sundry, never realising that I found it an almost impossible task. (I found it difficult to tell my employers about my disability. They would only have replied: But your speech is perfect! – with no idea of the vast amount of word substitution and language strategies I applied in conversation with them. But even these tactics were worthless on the telephone, when the true stutterer was revealed.) My blocks were out of control. They went beyond the repetition of sounds; they effectively ended all speech.

Nevertheless, I had to phone someone in a civil service department. I tried to speak to a secretary, and blocked up. A grunting sound was all I could utter. At first the woman was baffled, then she asked worriedly: ‘Have you hurt yourself?’ She probably thought that I had been injured and was trying to make an emergency call from a public telephone … I put the receiver down and told my boss that I could not reach the person. He shouted at me – I was not the ‘newspaper type’, he said. I resigned soon afterwards.

During this period I had particular difficulty speaking English (my home language is Afrikaans). Many stutterers report this – they experience more problems with a language that is not their mother tongue, as they then have less confidence in their language and speaking ability. This causes their tension level to rise. Others may, however, experience the opposite: they reason that others know that it is not their mother tongue and do not set such high standards for their language ability. Consequently their tension level decreases. I always stuttered when speaking English, even in the simplest of situations. The same thing happened with other languages. Although I had studied German at school, I could never use it for speaking purposes.

The rule for me – and for many other stutterers, as I later discovered – was: The moment I entered a stressful situation, my speech problems became worse than ever. Yet one often has to rely on speech in these very situations. What kind of future does one have if you can’t rely on your speech, if it gets stuck with the slightest increase in your tension level?

The extent to which this limitation restricts one’s range of activities can be remarkable. I suppose that someone who has lost an arm or leg also finds that he lives in a much smaller world than others. Still, even though such a disabled person is much more handicapped, society in general recognises his disability. A communication disability, ie a hearing impairment or stuttering, is concealed, unknown – and standard demands are made of the sufferer. If he avoids these demands, he is too easily judged as ‘not having the personality’, or as weak or without initiative.

Growing older brings new demands. Suppose someone suddenly takes ill – imagine you have to phone for an ambulance? Or the police? This is why I tried to live very ‘safely’. When driving, I never exceeded the speed limit for fear that a traffic officer would ask my name and address. At one time I always had a notebook and pen on me when going out in case I had to say something and couldn’t.

It is difficult to stand up for your rights or make a point when you stutter. It is a nightmare to complain to a neighbour whose radio is too loud. It is then so much easier for the other party to overwhelm you with a mass of words.

The sadism of stuttering

It is a subtle disorder, tormenting you with refined sadism. Small talk can be a mixture of pleasure and frustration. One yearns to participate; a witticism waits on the tip of your tongue, but then, suddenly, fear confronts you. Daring to say something is like sticking your finger in a pot of milk to test the temperature. You could get scalded. There is always the risk of getting stuck in the middle of your sentence.

It often happened to me: a lively conversation, and at last I venture an opinion, only to come to a halt in the middle of a sentence. At once the convivial mood is shattered. An uncomfortable silence reigns. People don’t know if they should help you – and often they cannot, because they don’t know what you wanted to say – they look at you, and then they look away, and at last somebody begins a new subject, but the atmosphere has changed, the party is no longer what it was. The guests leave rather early, or leave the room to regroup in another – without you. The host won’t make the mistake of inviting you again. Of course you learn not to open your mouth – and then you’re not invited either.

My fear of the telephone also affected my friendships. As you get older, it becomes more difficult to arrive at someone’s home without an appointment. You have to phone first ... by now most of my friends were lecturers, teachers, attorneys, advocates, doctors.

I bitterly envied them, especially as I was convinced that I was no less competent.

A trip overseas was, from a speaking perspective, an unpleasant experience. Under the added stress of unfamiliar surroundings my speech collapsed completely. My ex-wife had to make all the arrangements: buying tickets, organising accommodation, talking to customs officials, etc.

It could be argued that in such circumstances one has to resign oneself to one’s fate. This, too, can be very difficult for stutterers. After all they often speak fluently and get the impression that their speech is improving. The stutterer finds himself in the frustrating position where a cure always seems to be dangling like a carrot within his sight.

During this period (1980) I heard for the first time of the visiting American Prof Martin F. Schwartz. I read a newspaper article about him. He was a research professor of surgery (speech pathology) and claimed that the cause of stuttering had been found.

The stuttering reflex is physical in its origin, he said. According to Prof Schwartz, the vocal cords of two per cent of the population are exceptionally sensitive to stress, not unlike the stress-induced neck, back or headache problems experienced by many people.

It sounded interesting. I thought: Why don’t I try his treatment? I had nothing to lose. Prof Schwartz was due to visit South Africa again the following year to treat people. I immediately wrote to his South African representative and attended his January 1981 workshop.

The workshop was a watershed in my life. However, this is not to say that I found an instant cure for my problem. The workshop rather marked the end of an era in which I viewed myself as a helpless victim of stuttering. It was the beginning of a profound process of confrontation with my problem, and of acceptance of responsibility for my speech. That is why I interrupt my personal account at this point. I continue the account in the chapter ‘Breaking the Chain’ near the end.


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