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From Porky Pig to George VI

'The King's Speech' throws the spotlight on stuttering.

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

Terror is not an emotion one associates with Porky Pig.

But if you were a kid with a stutter growing up in the 1950s, Porky Pig was, well, terrifying.

My father is 63 years old, and he's stuttered for about 60 of them. He can't remember a time when he didn't. He's been an attorney for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division for nearly 40 years, argued cases in front of appellate courts in districts all over the United States and probably stuttered at least a little in every one of them. Like most stutterers, his comes and goes almost at random — sometimes it's barely there, sometimes it very much is. He's learned, mostly through sheer force of will, to manage it.

But even at 63, Porky Pig still bugs him, and when he was a kid, going to largely useless (for him) speech therapy every Saturday, Porky Pig was the godforsaken enemy.

"At least a couple of generations of kids were called 'P-P-P-P-Porky' because of that cartoon," he once told me. He's not an easily offended guy, but he'd just as well avoid most TV shows and movies with characters who stutter.

You can't blame him. Most media portrayals of stuttering have been crass and cruel, and they've been so for decades. Forget the hated Porky. Think of Michael Palin's Ken Pile whom Kevin Kline abuses in "A Fish Called Wanda" (1987) or Austin Pendleton's stammering attorney in "My Cousin Vinny" (1992) or Adam Sandler's "Waterboy" (1998).

These aren't movies from the '40s. These are movies from when everyone should have known better. This is nasty stuff, and it's from the Internet age. Enter "The King's Speech."

It's the somewhat historically accurate story of reluctant monarch Albert Frederick Arthur George , known as Bertie, who tries to manage his stutter with the help of Lionel Logue, an almost amateur speech pathologist who acts as therapist both physical and mental.

After Bertie's playboy brother King Edward VIII abdicates to be with the divorced American Wallis Simpson on the eve of World War II, Bertie is forced to take the throne and works with Logue on the speech that explains to England it is time for war.

It is a movie of hard work, difficult families, the pressures of duty and triumph without a final victory. It's been nominated for and won a host of awards, including 12 nominations for Sunday's Academy Awards. It's up for best picture, director, original screenplay and three for actors Colin Firth as Bertie, Helena Bonham Carter as his wife, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and Rush as Logue. "The King's Speech" picked up seven Golden Globes nominations; Firth won for best actor.

Stutterers and organizations advocating on their behalf have embraced it. The National Stuttering Association has a whole section of its website devoted to the movie. In a statement, Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation (www.stutteringhelp.org) , gave it "a hero's welcome."

"For the stuttering community, there are few, if any, more accurate portrayals of the anguish faced by people who stutter, or of the hardship it places on family and friends, than in this movie," Fraser said.

Many people have asked my dad if he's going to see "The King's Speech." They assume he would be interested. They are incorrect.

"Why on Earth would I?" he said. "I lived it."

Behnaz Abolmaali feels differently. The 24-year-old UT student is the founder and president of the Austin Chapter of the National Stuttering Association.

"I thought it was very good," Abolmaali said. "Stuttering is a very complex disorder, and a wide array of emotions and experiences are involved, and there's always room for improvement, but I think it really captured the experiences of stuttering in terms of the isolation and the frustration."

"Frustration" is the key word. This might be the most important thing to remember about stuttering — it can be frustrating beyond measure. Frustrating to experience in the moment, frustrating to treat, frustrating to live with. There's nothing wrong with your brain, you know what you want to say, and you can't physically say it. And people listening to you are getting annoyed, or maybe you just think they are. Either way, that starts a feedback loop. And everything can get worse.

"Frankly, I'm not sure the movie quite captured how much emotional weight is involved in his disorder," Abolmaali said. "It's hard to convey what a crippling thing it can be because of the social stigma. My stutter was a hundred times more severe than Colin Firth's in the movie, and it took me to a really dark place."

Courtney Byrd can sympathize. The 36-year-old speech pathologist has been working with stutterers about half her life, since she was an undergraduate at Louisiana State University at Shreveport. After her National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship, she started an assistant professorship at the University of Texas, where she opened the Austin Center for Stuttering Intervention and Research , treating children and adults.

"The most important thing for people to understand is that stuttering is not a psychological disorder," Byrd said. "There are baseline genetic factors that can be mitigated by physical factors, environmental factors and situational factors.

"Nor do people who stutter do it because they are trying to hide something. People who do not stutter tend to be more disfluent when they are nervous or lying. This isn't true for stutterers."

This is the sort of thing that adds to the stutterer's frustration. People who stutter do it differently from one another. Severity can vary widely, from people who have trouble getting out certain sounds to people who can't say their own name. There are a wide variety of therapies, which have to be tailored to the individual. There's no cure for this, only figuring out how to live with it. Can I get through this conversation OK? Can I get through this afternoon OK? Can I get through this week OK? And, oh yeah, I have to remember not to be self-conscious about it, which will make it worse, even as I am thinking ahead in the conversation to find words that are easier to say. ("Word substitution — I do that," my dad said with a hearty laugh. "Occasionally, I skip so far ahead in the sentence, it ultimately makes zero sense even without stuttering.")

Alex Murphy's stutter didn't surface until he was in seventh grade. He wouldn't go to parties and avoided social situations.

"I thought it had kind of gotten better over the years, but really I'd gotten better at hiding it," the 21-year-old UT film student said.

A few years ago, he hit a crisis point. "For some reason, I broke down; I couldn't get more than three words out," he said. "That's what made me realize it was a big part of my life that I hadn't been facing."

To that end, Murphy recently completed a short documentary called "Let Me Finish." He interviews Byrd and three people with stutters, including Abolmaali. (The movie is scheduled to be released on YouTube today.) He is hoping to go to the national group's annual conference — this year, it's July 6-10 in Fort Worth .

He is unabashedly pro-"King's Speech." "I thought it did an excellent job," Murphy said. "I loved the ending — he gave the speech, it went pretty well, but he still stuttered and still had issues. That's the truth. That's the first thing you learn: You're never going to cure it; you have to battle the fear that you associate with those moments, learn to live with it, and get in control of it."

"What's ironic about 'The King's Speech' is that it took the story of a real person to get a real perspective on stuttering," Byrd said. "Movies like 'The Waterboy,' those were all hypothetical people. This real person struggled with it, but it didn't define who he was."

My father certainly hasn't let it define who he is. But he'll still probably skip the movie.

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5925