My work with stutterers revealed that since they are intelligent they quickly
learn to scan for feared words to either shift the conversation or substitute
synonyms. All stutterers do this to some extent but some become so adroit
at it that they appear to stop stuttering altogether. I have labeled these
"closet stutterers," and they constitute approximately twenty percent of
all patients seen for treatment.
Winston Churchill was a closet stutterer and his vast vocabulary was
in large measure due to the fact that he was continually word substituting.
Closet stutterers are walking thesauruses; they do crossword puzzles in
ink. And since they don't stutter, they function well in society.
I recall evaluating a closet stutterer and then later communicating
with him by mail. His wife called to say that she had received the letter
and wondered what it was all about since her husband of nineteen years
had never stuttered. I told her he was a closet stutterer and that he avoided
certain words, sounds and speaking situations. There was a long pause and
then a torrent of questions. "Do you think that's why he has me make the
phone calls, and why I always wind up ordering in restaurants, and why
he never speaks up at PTA meetings?" As she asked these questions, questions
which were in a sense rhetorical, I could hear by the change in the pitch
of her voice that she was beginning to understand something about her husband,
something she had never known. I suggested she speak with him about it
since I felt if he were to undergo successful treatment, her assistance
would be invaluable.
Closet stutterers report they are exhausted at the end of the day. There
is no such thing as an idle conversation, they are always on, hunting,
substituting, avoiding. In a sense, they are more stressed than the overt
stutterer, because for the latter, everyone knows, "it all hangs out."
But if no one knows, then one must maintain a constant vigilance, and this
is always fatiguing.
Closet stutterers report that in an effort to hide their stuttering,
they frequently say things that are inappropriate, foolish or nonsensical.
They also often leave sentences hanging in the hope that the listener will
fill in the missing (difficult) words.
I recall treating a hair dresser whose name was Pierre and who spoke
with a thick French accent. As part of my evaluation, I asked him where
he was born and he responded, Brooklyn. Thinking that he had been raised
in France, I asked him where he gone to school. And again he responded
Brooklyn. "So your accent is phony?", I queried. "Yup", he answered without
a trace of an accent. He then recounted his discovery that if he spoke
in this manner, he tended not to stutter, and people would forgive him
for the fractured English that his word substitution required. Also, if
he couldn't say a particular word such as comb, he could easily point to
it and say, "How you say in English?". This strategy had worked well until
his brother-in-law suggested that he join him in his Insurance Agency.
He wanted the job and so now sought treatment.
Closet stutterers will go to inordinate extents to hide their difficulty.
I evaluated a man who was a judge in a state Supreme Court in New England.
He had been a closet stutterer for over thirty years, and although his
word substitution habits had sometimes resulted in rather unusual language,
he was so good at it that, in a sense, it added to his speaking charisma.
He controlled his stress by taking a moderate dose of Valium each day,
and this he had done for over fifteen years. While on a cruise with his
wife in the Caribbean, he decided to forgo the Valium and within a day
began to have seizures - the sign of Valium dependency. He immediately
went back on the drug.
He was a respected member of his community and much admired for his
legal expertise. It was no surprise when he was asked to take a Federal
District Judgeship. But he refused the offer and no one knew why. He gave
some excuse of liking the kind of work he was doing when everyone knew
the Federal position was a real prize.
He came to see me for two reasons. First, he wanted to be able to gradually
reduce his Valium intake, and this he felt could only be accomplished if
he eliminated the stresses associated with being a closet stutterer. Second,
and by far the real reason for visiting me, turned out to be the explanation
for his refusal to take the Federal District Judgeship: on the State Court
he was allowed to paraphrase the charge to the Jury, on the Federal Court
he had to read it word-for-word, couldn't substitute, and thus obviously
couldn't take the position.
He was now confiding this for the first time, and the apparent release
of tension associated with this confession reduced his Base Level Stress
considerably. I did not see him immediately; he was initially unwilling
to substitute my technique for his well-established avoidance behaviors.
But a year later, when he was again offered a position he wanted, he presented
himself for treatment and was successful.
While any consideration of stuttering reveals approximately five times
as many men have this problem as women, the statistics for closet stuttering
are reversed. In the study reported in the appendix of this book, 87 of
the patients were closet stutterers. The group was comprised of 62 females
and 25 males - a ratio of two and a half to one favoring females. It would
appear that women elect to hide stuttering more often than men.
One female patient I treated reported that she had stuttered openly
until the age of twelve at which point she had learned to word substitute
and situation avoid. When I asked her why she had elected to do this, her
response was quite revealing: she said "It's just too darn unfeminine to
fight." And I think there is some truth to that. Some male stutterers may
feel it is, in a sense, alright to show their struggles while more females
may find physical behavior of this sort totally unacceptable. Of course
no one knows if this is in fact the reason, but the evidence is clear,
two and a half times as many women as men are closet stutterers.
Closet stutterers make more rapid progress than overt ones because they
have less to accomplish - they already function well in society and are
not viewed by themselves or their peers as handicapped. Their self esteem
and socialization skills tend to be good. And when they stop word substituting
it constitutes virtually a seamless transition into their everyday activities.
The overt stutterer, on the other hand, has a direct and negative effect
upon his environment and suffers as a result of it. His socialization skills
tend to be poor and when he no longer stutters he must begin to acquire
new skills for interacting with his peers. As one patient said to me, "Dr.
Schwartz, now that I don't stutter, what do I say to people, what do I
I often tell the closet stutterer: "If you stutter openly and you stop,
it is a gift to the world because the world is no longer required to see
and hear you stutter - and a gift to yourself because you know you are
free of the affliction. But when you are a closet stutterer, it is a gift
just to yourself, you can't expect society to know or care or be interested
in your hidden problem. The gift, of course, is this incredible sense of
freedom to be able to say whatever you want to say, wherever you want to
say it, whenever you want to say it - without fear."
I once treated a closet stutterer who, after learning the technique
successfully, and practicing it for several months, called to tell me that
one of his colleagues at the office had said to him, "John, for some reason
you now make a lot more sense when you talk".
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