Remembering Ed Mysak
by Geoffrey Mangers

I actually know very little about Ed Mysak's professional background.  But will tell you what I experienced of him personally. 

Dr. Edward Mysak (now deceased) was Chairman of the Speech Pathology and Audiology Dept. at Teacher's College (Columbia University).  I understand his specialties were stuttering and cerebral palsy.

I originally started the "N.Y. Assoc. of Stutterers" with meetings at my apartment in Brooklyn Heights (after I moved there from St. Louis around '75).  Starting with ads in the Village Voice in their bulletin board on the back page.  My stepfather knew Mysak and suggested I meet him (originally looking for a job actually, thinking my BSEE might be useful somehow in their Speech Science dept.).  I wound up elsewhere, but later found myself renewing my contact with him.  After which he invited our group to meet in the evenings in his own personal conference room atop Thorndike Hall.

I remember when I first met Jules North (an executive at ABC) at our meetings.  I liked Jules (a wise and savvy skeptic) who impressed me by checking around about Mysak.  After which he told me with incredulity (he might as well have just said "whew" as he rolled up his eyes "giving up") that all he discovered for all his efforts was that Mysak turns out to be some sort of saint in the field.

I'm particularly grateful to him for helping to direct me into some competent therapy I could afford.  After which I could finally start to feel that lifelong stuttering stranglehold start to ease.  The glacier was starting to crack.  I had reason for hope.  As I felt those blocks begin to "melt in my mouth".  And I was completely sold on VanRiper: "you've got the best therapy in my book" I told him on the phone afterwards.  "I have no therapy" Van told me.  And invited me to visit him.  I wish I could have afforded it and had the time and energy to do so.  But didn't tell him that.  Anyway, I'm glad I at least had those words I did with him on the phone while he was still with us.

But I couldn't sell our members on therapy.  "Of course they're skeptical!  You can't blame them for being skeptical" Mysak told me (as he reflected their anger and frustration to me) in a phone conversation.  He didn't have to say it: if you try everywhere getting nothing but ineffectual therapy over the years, you "don't want to hear about it" anymore.

I'd always enjoy his attendance at our meetings.  He had a refreshing way of "cutting through the crap" and telling it like it is.  And I know when it came to us stutterers, he was all heart.  I asked him at one meeting why he cared so much about us.  He said it all began during the war (WW-II, I think) when a friend of his became a laryngectomee.  I asked him once who he thought had the best therapy.  Without hesitation: VanRiper.

I remember Hana commenting about finding herself stuttering more since coming to our meetings.  Mysak told her "Hana, a clinician would say you're making progress.."  It brought some chuckles as she commented to us about stuttering more but enjoying it less.

He told us about "TTT" and "BFL".  Encouraging us to keep up our "TTT" ("Total Talking Time").  The more we talk, the more it helps to overcome stuttering, "keep the vocal instrument exercised" you might say.  Silence is *not* golden for us.  The more we withdraw and hide, the more those fears grow "as the instrument rusts".  An analogy he gave us in baseball was "to play the ball, don't let the ball play you" ( .. yeah, well "that’s easy for *him* to say" :) .. interesting for me: in grade school, they'd always place me far out in "left field" where everyone would aim for me knowing I'd be terrified of those 'incoming' missiles).

(aside:)  Self-esteem--"the energy for pursuit"

But the chemistry of self-confidence ("playing the ball") is not inherent in us, it comes from the Environment.  You can't do it alone .. you will need a support system (Sheehan knew how important it was to have those to help one over the hurdles--and they are immense).  The shame is learned and inherent in the social milieu we've grown up in.  Overcoming it requires an environment that reverses a lifetime of learned shame.  And which is why I so very much believe in the stuttering self-help movement.  As Mysak also did, telling us at one meeting, "..we don't know anything .. you're the experts .. what can we learn from you?" -- those are the kind of words that you hear from a top-notch expert in the stuttering field.  And I learned so much from him in the unfortunately little time I was able to spend with him.

He told us of "BFL" ("Basal Fluency Level").  I'm pretty fortunate to have a pretty good one.  Being essentially fluent if I can get my self-esteem up high enough.  Like in our stuttering support groups where "I already know it's going to be a hit" (but I still struggle with a passivity problem and have to push myself at stuttering conventions if I don't know anyone).  But there are some of us that no matter how much therapy and desensitisation they get, will always struggle with a baseline neurological limit to their fluency.  They’ve hit their "BFL".

He commented to us about how the intensive programs seem to be helpful.  But clarified it with: "We're trying to avoid the McDonald's approach to therapy".  He talked to us about the purpose of ASHA and why it was formed explaining about the historical problems of unregulated "stuttering schools" promising false hope and un-productive therapy.  How ASHA has struggled with stuttering for decades and still hasn't found something they can call a definitive therapy or cure for it.  I know how elusive it is.  I'm certainly not cured.   I know what the honest therapists say and you know when you're in the hands of an expert.

And he cautioned us about therapists claiming or inferring a cure for it.  Indeed, he pulled no punches when it came to the medicine men.  If they have an honest contribution, why haven't they found a legitimate publisher, instead of 'Come to me, I have the cure' as he pointed to the invisible bottle in his hand.  As he spoke to us in a private group in his office one day.  Asked "then why?" -- he answered with that simple gesture rubbing some invisible money between his fingers "business".  After he bluntly told us "[he's] my good friend, but he should be strung up for what he's doing".  He indicated to us (by example, as we felt his respect for them) how people like VanRiper have made money legitimately in this field.



Explanation: "voluntary stuttering" is "stuttering on purpose".  It's purpose is to help (hopefully) with "desensitisation".  As VanRiper would say "to be able to touch the snake of your own stuttering without flinching".  It's still a real struggle for me often in public.  But I understand the dynamic: "assert your right to stutter in the world".  Because there is an extremely strong psychological component to stuttering for most of us (at least it has been for myself).  Much of its intensity is caused by the simple fear of it.  Society seldom if ever rewards us for it.  And the stigma is very powerful.  So we must hide it at all costs.  That is to say, much of stuttering is caused by its suppression.  Like Tourette's.  But "stuttering will out"--"why bother?", eh?  But "that's easy for me to say"..  I can do voluntary stuttering pretty effortlessly and comfortably in our support groups where stuttering is absolutely no problem for me (I'm often questioned about my 'credentials' by newcomers, as I used to do myself to our fluent members, when I first became involved in our support groups in the early 70's, now I have to deal with these little snots myself..).  Anyway, like I said, it can still be a struggle in public--that stove still has significant heat left to extinguish for me there.  Peter Ramig told me (way back, at a Speak Easy Symposium .. or was it the IFA Conference..?..), he's gotten it down to "warm" in public.  I'd settle for "warm"..



Anyway, at our support group meetings, I'd always like to ask Mysak questions to "put him on the spot" a bit.  I remember struggling with my public voluntary stuttering assignments and not doing particularly well with the desensitisation bit.  So screwing up a bit of courage at the beginning of one of our particularly large meetings in front of everyone, I thought I'd put it to him directly: "Can you do that and not feel anything?"  And I remember how immediately stunned and horrible I felt as his voice filled the room as I looked to the floor thinking about how I've really done it this time.  And I can't fully recall how many seconds or weeks it took me to finally fully recover from that deer caught in the headlights feeling as I heard those words "Oh Geoffrey, we don't have to go back to it day after day.."  just 'echoing' in the room.  With his heart just reaching out to me.  And finally fully comprehend what he had just said to me.  And the full import of what those words meant coming from a non-stutterer.




Offhand, I forgot what it was I had to call him about a few years after I moved out here (maybe early 80's) to Calif.  But what I remember are his first words to me on the phone before I could even ask my question: 
   "Oh Geoffrey, how can we get you back here?"

They are also the last words that I can remember of him.