Two thousand and five marks the thirty-seventh anniversary of my association with New York University Medical Center. During most of these years I have led two lives. The first has been my association with the Department of Surgery and basic research on birth defects, particularly the problems of cleft lip and palate. My second, which emerged from the first, started thirty-one years ago when I accidentally discovered the physical cause of stuttering, developed a treatment for it, and subsequently founded The National Center for Stuttering.
The birth of my second life was not without incident. When I entered
it, research colleagues were there waiting, contending that stuttering
was not my area, that I should stay with basic research, and that direct,
clinical work with stutterers represented a form of prostitution that would
destroy my career.
Clinicians, on the other hand, contended that I was an interloper, that
I should remain in my "ivory tower" and stay off their "turf." They even
went so far as to threaten legal action!
I listened to both groups for quite a while before making the decision
to forge ahead. In retrospect, I was correct, and the ensuing years have
borne witness to a revolution in both our understanding and treatment of
stuttering - all stimulated by my initial discovery of its physical cause.
As I have continued to work with stutterers I have been struck by their
similarities. There is no difference treating a person from France, Nigeria,
Japan or the US. The stories and emotions are the same.
What follows is a compilation of experiences gleaned from many patients;
it represents the voice of the archetypical stutterer speaking about his
life; it is why I feel so deeply about the problem and why I continue to
work personally with stutterers whenever I can.
"Imagine that from the time you were a child you stuttered
with everyone. Not that you wanted to stutter, mind you, you just couldn't
help yourself. As a result you often went to great lengths to avoid stuttering
and, in so doing, found that people misunderstood you. They considered
you aloof, withdrawn, a loner, the silent type.
Fortunately, this tale of woe is becoming a thing of the past. Not only
do we have a technique that works, but one that works quickly, often in
a matter of minutes, and stops stuttering completely. We have perfected
the procedures for making a habit of this technique, and have made remarkable
strides in eliminating the fears associated with stuttering.
But you ached to be with people, you had much to say, and the thought
of the interaction was marvelous. And so each night before you went to
sleep you prayed that this dreadful affliction would be gone. But it was
not to be.
As a child you were sent to specialists who tried to show you how to
stop stuttering or how to stutter in less offensive ways. Sometimes you
stopped with them, but as soon as you left their office it returned, and
their suggestions, which earlier had worked so well, now failed miserably.
The stuttering demeaned you, it humiliated you, it destroyed your self-esteem.
And often, when it was at its worst, as if to add insult to injury, people
laughed at you, called you stupid, and never took you seriously at all.
In school if you had a question you wouldn't ask it. If you had to respond
and couldn't give the correct answer you'd give an incorrect one. In the
cafeteria, you ordered what you could say rather than what you wanted.
Anything to avoid the humiliation.
You studied a lot, and since you were intelligent, received excellent
grades, as long as the grades were based on written exams. You lived in
constant dread of required oral reports and begged your parents to ask
your teachers to excuse you from them. Some teachers were sensitive, and
made class participation easier. Others insisted that the way to overcome
the problem was to force you to participate - and the memory of this nightmare
persisted for years and made your fighting worse, not only in class, but
You wanted to go to college, but dreaded the prospect of an interview.
As a matter of fact, any sort of interview was a nightmare. Because of
this, jobs were difficult and you were lucky to find an employer who would
overlook your problem.
Dating was another torture; the very prospect filled you with terror.
The first hint of a stutter seemed instantly to destroy the evening. Occasionally
you met someone kind, a person who did not appear to be bothered by your
problem, someone who looked beyond the superficiality of it to the person
beneath. These were wonderful times.
And as you grew older you grew smarter, you learned tricks to avoid
stuttering and chose an occupation you could perform without penalty -
like accounting or engineering or computer programing or truck driving
- activities that could be performed alone.
Your parents gave up. They no longer mentioned your affliction. It was
as if it didn't exist. And your friends and acquaintances did the same.
A massive conspiracy of denial gradually descended to protect you and them
from a behavior too painful for anyone to acknowledge.
You tried alcohol and illegal drugs because you heard these sometimes
worked. But not for you; they only made it worse, and you stopped. You
tried tranquilizers, anti-convulsants, beta-blockers - anything that modern
medicine might suggest had the slightest possibility of helping. But again
You joined a self-help group of others with your problem, but it was
like looking into a mirror. You especially couldn't stand confronting those
worse than yourself; it suggested what might happen if your stuttering
To say that the stuttering affected your life would be the profoundest
of understatements. It permeated your life and controlled it in so insidious
a fashion as to often cause you to reflect whether any life like this should
And so you gave up. You quit looking for an answer. You joined the conspiracy
of denial and made the best of it."
Of equal importance is our hope for the future. The promise is bright.
New research is shedding light on the inner workings of the brain: the
neural center responsible for stuttering has been located. It seems more
likely than ever that the 21st Century will witness a cure.
But until then, we can stop stuttering with a simply-learned technique and can, after 9 to 12 months of practice, make a permanent, new habit.
It is clear that no one need stutter any longer!
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