Faith in one’s voice (part 1)

Last night, I saw the Oscar-bait movie The King’s Speech and loved it. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an Anglophile. I also think that having a figurehead monarch is a great idea. All that to say that this movie was cut out for me.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm. As best I can tell, despite what he concedes are fine performances all around, New York Times’ film critic Manohla Dargis ultimately dismisses it on the grounds that the film is too happy. As is often the case, a critic’s assessment often says more about the critic than the film. (Although I do agree with this critic, who favorably compares it to the first Karate Kid movie—and means that as no put-down.)

I find the film’s triumph—that a king with a severe stammer learns to speak as his country braces for war—realistically small-scale. In the annals of oratory, the prince isn’t magically transformed into Churchill or JFK. Instead, in his own halting way, he gives a good speech. And I hope quite a few of us have known someone like the king’s therapist. He’s no miracle-worker; he’s simply compassionate, competent, and self-confident enough to be bold—an inspiration, I hope, to those of us in the “caring professions.”

The movie is set in the 1930s and concerns the travails of Prince Albert, the second son of King George V. Albert has struggled throughout his life with an almost debilitating stammer, a problem made many times worse by the burgeoning popularity of radio. A king must now be heard by his subjects, not merely seen or read about.

Albert eventually finds the help he needs from Lionel Logue, an unorthodox speech therapist from Australia, played by Geoffrey Rush, reminding us why he’s already won an Oscar. Logue determines immediately that there’s no physical reason for the future king’s impediment (he doesn’t stammer or stutter when he talks to himself). Therefore Logue gingerly explores—in the face of his patient’s understandable resistance—the deep-seated reasons for the problem. Therapy is tricky for people who rule by divine right: At one point, Albert warns Logue that his prying questions are treasonous.

Colin Firth plays the prince—who would soon become King George VI after his father dies and his older brother abdicates—with skill and subtlety: his Albert is a man in great pain, which Firth registers as much in his face and body language as his speech. In one revealing scene, Logue rewards Albert’s cooperation by letting him glue wings on a model airplane that Logue’s son left lying around. Firth shows us, poignantly, that in Albert the child is indeed the father of the man.

Shortly before his coronation, Albert discovers to his horror that Logue has no formal training or credentials in speech therapy. Logue, it turns out, learned the art of therapy working with shell-shocked veterans returning to Australia after the Great War.

He defends himself to  Albert: “I helped them have faith in their voices and let them know a friend is listening. Sound familiar?”

Learning to have faith in one’s voice. This has been a lifelong project of mine. Some of you may note with irony that the most conspicuous part of my vocation is speaking in front of people. God is funny that way.

Here’s one small example of my challenge to have faith in my voice: Beginning around 9, and lasting throughout my teenage years, I had an untreated speech impediment. I don’t know what its technical name is. As an adult, I met a woman at a party who was a educational speech therapist. I described my problem to her. She said, “Oh, yes, that’s…”—sadly, some term I no longer remember.

The problem felt like this: Often when I spoke to people, I couldn’t clearly enunciate each word. It was as if the words jumbled together. I knew what I wanted to say—I could form the words clearly in my head—but it wouldn’t come out right. My mom called it mumbling—and angrily accused me of being lazy—but I was trying hard to be clear. In fact, the harder I tried, the worse the problem seemed.

It was especially bad if I had to ask someone a question or initiate conversation. Calling someone on the phone was a nightmare: I dreaded asking the simple question, “May I speak with Wes, please.” The parents of my good friends knew my voice, so it didn’t matter that they couldn’t understand me.

Back then I frequently repeated myself. It was embarrassing—at an age in which avoiding embarrassment was a chief preoccupation.

Once, around 14, I was watching Letterman. His guest was former Tonight Show host Jack Paar, who talked about his stuttering problem. He said that when he was off-camera, in his personal life, it afflicted him; on-camera it was no problem.

He shared an embarrassing anecdote about it. I remember thinking, “I’m glad he can laugh about it.” I was also relieved that someone like him, a famous celebrity, wouldn’t let it hinder a successful career of speaking in public. There’s hope for me! (Of course, at that time, I hadn’t heard the story of Moses’ similar problem.)

During my college years, I mostly solved the problem—I think by learning to pause between words and draw out, in an exaggerated way, the first syllable of frightening multi-syllabic words, especially words with those hard k-, p-, and b- consonants. Who knows how or why it worked itself out? I wish I had gotten help when I was younger.

Even now, my old enemy occasionally intrudes in conversations. No rhyme or reason for it. I think, “Oh, you again? I forgot you were even here!” Then he vanishes.

More to say later… I didn’t even get to my main point.

Allow me to explain. Back in ’99, on CNN, I happened to catch Prince Charles giving a speech officially handing Hong Kong over to the Chinese after Britain’s century-long rule of the land. As he was speaking, I thought, “This is great. Here you have someone empowered to speak on behalf of all the people of his country, and who can do so above the political fray.” (The prime minister gets his hands dirty in the rough-and-tumble political world.)

By contrast, the role of president combines both ceremonial and executive duties in the same person. So depending on your political sympathies, you may or may not want this person representing your or speaking for you.

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