Marian's Story

Adult stutterers can engage in subtle behaviors that often defeat the therapeutic attempts of beginning clinicians. --- Prof Martin Schwartz, Stop stuttering

As with the case of Alan, who featured in a previous chapter, Marian was part of our South African Passive Airflow self-help group in the 80s. I interviewed her five years after we all did the Airflow intensive course. At the time she was a housewife and mother in her thirties.

When did you discover that you were ‘different’?

It was in standard 1. One day my best friend came to me and told me that her mother had forbidden her to play with me. Her mother was afraid that her daughter would start talking like me.

In standard 5 my speech really deteriorated. My classmates were sympathetic. Oral work, however, was a problem. There were unpleasant incidents every day.

Suppose you are a teacher and there is a child in your class who stutters. How would you deal with it?

A child with a stutter needs a lot of understanding. But don’t overprotect him either, because then he will feel like an outsider. A balance should be maintained.

One day we had an oral exam. That was in standard 6. I wanted to be like the others and when my turn came, I went to stand in front of the class. It was a disaster. Nobody could understand a word. At the end I was completely out of breath, flushed and perspiring. The teacher gave me five credits, which was very high. I burst into tears; I felt that I didn’t deserve that mark and that she had only done it out of pity.

Tell us about the time you stood in front of the entire school.

I still don’t know why I did it, but in standard 9 I wanted to be a prefect. According to tradition all candidates had to appear in front of the entire school and explain why they thought they would be good prefects. Some candidates were very serious. Others had a lighter touch. I also decided not to take it too seriously. It was a terrible experience and a complete humiliation. I thought: Here I am, asking the audience to vote for me, and I can’t say a word!

To my surprise I was elected. But I never became a prefect. The principal called me and told me he couldn’t offer me the position. He explained that a prefect was supposed to give numerous speeches and appear in public. On the one hand I was very relieved, but I also felt that the school had chosen me and that it was unfair not to appoint me after all the misery I had gone through.

Did your speech limit you in other ways?

Yes. I attended a convent school and I wasn’t very happy there. Later a good friend of mine went to a co-ed school. I wanted to join her, but felt that I wouldn’t be able to cope with new teachers, friends and situations. I just had to stay put. My speech restrained me.

What about telephone conversations?

I had a boyfriend, and when he wanted to phone me I always asked him when exactly he would phone. Then I would take two tranquilliser pills two hours before the time. At one stage my speech deteriorated to such an extent that I was taking three to four tablets to relax before making a phone call. I also took these pills before going out in the evening. Unexpected phone calls made me furious. People were not supposed to phone me.

One evening I went out with my boyfriend and his cousin to see a movie. In the bioscope she started talking to me and said that I had to leave school and do something about my speech, or no guy would look at me twice.

One day I had to ask the local telephone exchange for a telephone number. As I waited, I heard the telephone operator tell her colleague: ‘Just come and listen to this girl’s stutter.’

People often said that I should be grateful that I was not a cripple and merely stuttered. But from a communication point of view that’s exactly what you are. You can’t speak when you need to. And then there are all those things you decide not to do. For example, I could have gone to university. I never did.

Have you ever feared that stutterers are intellectually abnormal?

Oh yes. I was convinced that they are very dumb. Later I discovered that in most cases the opposite is true. According to some studies stutterers tend to be of above-average intelligence.

I wonder why this is so. Could it be that intelligent people who also fall in that category of the population whose vocal cords are highly sensitive to tension, become stutterers because they think faster than they are able to speak? In other words, they tend to think and speak quickly, and this causes additional tension on the vocal cords.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.

Did you have very bad blocks?

Yes, especially when I was fifteen. I had terrible facial distortions. At one stage I had a kind of whistling stutter. In standard 5 one teacher always said: ‘Ah, the whistler!’ when it was my turn to read or speak.

My eldest child’s name is Kerry. I once went to fetch her at a party. A man there asked me what her name was. I struggled terribly to say it, but my face was turned away from him and he couldn’t see how distorted it was, though the other people could. Suddenly he burst out laughing and loudly told everybody that I didn’t even know my own child’s name. I was terribly embarrassed and so was everybody else, but it made no difference to him. I just sat there and said nothing.

I often noticed that people tried to hide their laughter, and then I would say: ‘It’s all right, I know it’s funny’ – to try and prevent any embarrassment. But at the same time it hurt a lot.

I can remember how other people’s voices always made a big impression on me. When I met somebody, I never thought: what beautiful hair, or: what a beautiful skin, but: what a lovely voice she has.

What therapy did you have?

At first I went to a speech clinic, and later to elocution classes. Naturally, the elocution classes didn’t help me. After that I went to two private speech therapists. One forced me to phone someone in the telephone directory. I phoned, and a woman shouted at me. I replaced the receiver, walked out of the therapist’s office and told my mother that I would never go back to that therapist.

In standard 4 I went to see a faith healer. He prayed for me and put his hands on my throat. I really wanted to believe, and for an entire day my speech was fluent. But the next day I was stuttering again. I also saw a hypnotist, but I found him a bit peculiar and didn’t complete the course.

Next in line were three or four speech therapists – I can’t even remember their names. When I was seventeen I returned to the speech clinic for the second time and received therapy for two years. I had a wonderful therapist. She was extremely kind and pleasant. For a while I improved, but after some time I was back to square one.

After this I was treated with an auditory feedback machine, which is a kind of tape recorder with headphones and a microphone so that you can hear your own voice as you talk. With that thing on your head you actually become fluent. However I was unable to transfer this fluency to the world outside of the clinic.

Next I heard that somebody on the island of Jersey apparently had an excellent stuttering clinic. I was there for two weeks. My group had six patients and we spent days doing speech exercises, from eight in the morning until six in the evening. We were taught to speak ve-ry slow-ly, to di-vide all the words in-to sy-lla-bles. Speaking like that sounded quite unnatural – like a robot. That healer was quite harsh, he smacked the boys if they didn’t get it right. I was glad to be a girl! He didn’t treat me like that.

On the last day of the course everybody had to make a farewell speech. It was awful. I stuttered ‘slowly’ – and got stuck on every syllable! The others were reasonably fluent. I wondered what my father had felt like; the course was quite expensive. Back in South Africa I corresponded with the others who had been on the course, and within a few months their speech was as poor as it had previously been.

How did you hear of Prof Schwartz?

In 1979 something very strange happened to me. One day I visited a library. I looked around a bit, went to a shelf and took the first book at hand. It was Stuttering solved by Prof Schwartz. A cold shiver ran down my spine.

It was as if Somebody Up There had guided me, because I really had no intention of going to the library.

How soon did you master the airflow technique?

Too soon, in fact. After practising for a year I became so fluent that I stopped practising. Eight months later my problems started again, and it took a while before the exercises improved my speech to a satisfactory level.

Airflow was absolutely my last chance to improve my speech. Before starting with the course I told myself that if this doesn’t work, I’m not going to try again.

Describe your speech as it is now, after five years of airflowing and attending self-help group meetings.

I’m no longer the fearful person I used to be. I have more or less stopped practising so I still have blocks, but nothing compared with what I used to have. If it gets worse I can always start practising again. Telephones are no longer a threat. I’ve been given a second chance with my life.

A few years after the airflow course I even had the courage to address the third- and fourth-year speech therapy students and lecturers in an auditorium at the university clinic. And I actually enjoyed it! The technique really worked well and the audience was very interested. It was a milestone. I coped very well.


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