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What “The King’s Speech” Teaches Us About Stuttering

The film “The King’s Speech” won the Academy Award for Best Picture [on Sunday night.] The movie has come in for some criticism for its depiction of the political machinations surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII  and Britain’s appeasement of Hitler. The British-born writer Christopher Hitchens, unsparing and deliciously eloquent as always, puts the politics of  George VI in a far less favorable light than the movie does.      

But ”The King’s Speech” has won almost universal praise for its portrayal of the reluctant monarch’s stuttering, a speech pattern that includes involuntary repetition of sounds and syllables and “speech blocks” that cause prolonged pauses. Many young  children who stutter grow out of the problem, but perhaps as many as one in every 100 adults are affected by the condition, 80 percent of whom are men. Stuttering clusters in families, so researchers have been searching for inherited genes that might cause the condition. Last year, in The New England Journal of Medicine, NIH researchers reported some success with results showing an association between three mutated genes and stuttering, although those mutations are probably responsible for a very small minority of cases. 

It’s been said that ”The King’s Speech” will do for stuttering what “Rain Man” did for autism: Plant a sympathetic view of a disability in the public consciousness. One danger of such a quick infusion of awareness, however, is that it can harden into a fixed, if largely favorable, stereotype. We are finding out — or are being reminded — about all the famous people who have stuttered (many of them writers). First-person accounts are popping up all over the place because of the film. The best I’ve come across is by Philip French, a British film critic, who describes vividly what it was like to listen to the radio broadcasts of the real King George VI, wondering if he would make it to the end “like a drunken waiter crossing a polished floor bearing a tray laden with wine glasses.” Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Medical Aspects Of “The King’s Speech”

Over the weekend I went to see “The King’s Speech.” So far the film, featuring Colin Firth as a soon-to-be-king-of-England with a speech impediment, and Geoffrey Rush as his ill-credentialed but trusted speech therapist, has earned top critics’ awards and 12 Oscar nominations. This is a movie that’s hard not to like for one reason or another, at least most of the way through. It uplifts, it draws on history, it depends on solid acting.

What I liked best, though, is the work’s rare depiction of a complex relationship between two imperfect, brave, and dedicated men. At some level, this is a movie about guys who communicate without fixating on cars, football (either kind), or women’s physical features. Great! (Dear Hollywood moguls: Can we have more like this, please?)

The film’s medical aspects are four, at least: The stuttering, the attitude of physicians toward smoking, a closeted sibling who had epilepsy and died at an early age (just mentioned in passing), and the king’s trusted practitioner’s lack of credentials.

At the start, Prince Albert (young King George VI) has a severe speech impediment. It’s said that he stutters, and on film Firth does so in an embarrassingly, seemingly extreme and compromising degree. He’s the second of George V’s sons, and might or might not succeed to the throne depending on events in history, his older brother’s behavior, and his capacity to serve the Empire at the brink of war. Being effective as the king of England in 1936, and especially at the start of war in 1939, entails speaking confidently.

Prince Albert’s been through the mill with doctors who’ve tried to help him talk. Some recommend he smoke cigarettes — these, they advise, would help him to relax because they’re good for the nerves, they say. One asks him to speak with a mouthful of marbles, on which this doctor watching the film worried he might choke. Eventually Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Queen Mother to be), finds a speech therapist in London, Lionel Logue, who uses unorthodox approaches with, by rumor, exceptional results. Eventually Prince Albert — or “Bertie” as the therapist insists on calling him — trusts and accepts help from this peculiar Australian who, it turns out, developed his methods of assisting stutterers through his work with shell-shocked soldiers in WWI. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

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