Editors note: this is an article I wrote for the Speak Easy Newsletter way back around '90 or so.  Speak Easy Int'l Inc. (founder: Bob Gathman) is one of the three national self help groups, besides the National Council on Stuttering (at the time) and the NSA.

Bob Gathman has battled on the shores of Normandy and stuttering all of his life.  He's an old friend and fellow stuttering veteran from my days back in the late 70's when I was organising a self-help group in NYC.  I hope he'll forgive some loving needling on that logo of theirs.  It's really not a big issue for me personally and I'm actually rather grateful for it, for it became an excellent 'foil' which helped me to put together my thoughts on stuttering at the time.

Sadly, Antionette left us last year ..  I'll really miss being able to annoy her on this one!  As well as that voluntary stuttering I never got out of her!  She was intelligent and fun.

By the way, there's some playful teasing of my friends here.  For those not familiar with this :) symbol, it's a smile and intended to generate one.

Geoffrey Mangers -- July 30, 2004  (updated from 3/30/90)



To HELL with Fluency!

   Antoinette, as you know, one of the things I've been bothering you about for several years now is your logo: "Focus on Fluency".  Recently I've been going over a few pages from Sheehan's "Research & Therapy" book.  I should be more literate on Sheehan, Van Riper etc.  Most of the stuttering consciousness raising I've done has been vicariously through self-help groups.  Sheehan says: "The stutterer is usually at least a part-time normal speaker." He would call this false fluency.  To continue--"More precisely, most stutterers are just part-time occupants of that role.  The experience of speaking normally may set up a role expectation for fluency, and actually lead to more stuttering."  The role expectation for fluency can ultimately produce what Sheehan later refers to as a false role disorder or assumption of the false role of a fluent speaker.  This is a denial of one's stuttering which is a learned response we acquire from the negative responses (overt and/or covert) of our listeners, family, society, etc.  to our stuttering. Continuing: "On the other hand, when the individual stutters and thereby enacts more fully the role of stutterer, the fear-producing role expectations for normal speech are diminished.  In this manner enactment of the stutterer role leads to fluency, and vice versa.  "Focusing on Fluency" thus becomes an excellent way of reinforcing stuttering.

  Antoinette, you are the eternal optimist and very supportive of Bob as my wife is of me.  For us stutterers these are wonderful assets indeed!  Undoubtedly, with your optimistic "focus on fluency--look on the bright side of things" philosophy you say think about the positive aspects of your speech i.e. the fluency you have rather than the stuttering.  This would seem like a logical conclusion.  However for us stutterers it is Sheehan's trap of a false role disorder.  Forget fluency.  Fluency is a Trojan Horse.  Welcome it with open arms and it will stab you in the back.  Stuttering self-help groups ought to be encouraging stuttering!  And voluntary stuttering too.  Not fluency.  These groups ought to be a safe place to stutter, like Sweden's P-Club (the oldest stuttering self-help group in the world), or Plus Club--so named because they wanted to make speaking a "Plus" or positive experience instead of a negative one.  These groups should be a safe place to stutter, to openly and comfortably make funny noises without shame as you play around with your malfunctioning articulatory system, to get a better motoric insight for how to work with blocks. Only by encouraging stuttering and this motoric experimentation will you help to decrease it.  Fluency should never be the goal of a stuttering self-help group (somebody please help bring those Australians into the 20th Century!).

  If focusing on the fluent parts of ones speech is good then this implies that the non-fluent parts are bad, that stuttering is bad--this is the curse that fuels our stuttering.  The curse of negative emotion--being the attitude that stuttering is somehow something not to be desired.  We're all prone to negative emotion, to relapse.  When you can stutter openly and not feel anything, then you really have most of the stuttering licked.  It is useful to stutter openly in safe places.  I do not mean to minimise the importance of motor skills.  Indeed, an insight into how to get motoric control over your blocks is essential.  The higher levels of consciousness in stuttering therapy are into VanRiper's and Sheehan's therapy.  Which involves the idea of becoming comfortable with your stuttering (desensitising).  As Van Riper would say--to be able to touch the snake of your own stuttering without flinching.  Ultimately, if possible, of being able to do it anywhere and not feel anything.  Dean Williamsís speech at Symposium VII was very much into these ideas and voluntary stuttering.

  The problem with most of us is that we're so desperately trying to be fluent to please our listener.  And subsequently, a lot of what we do trying so desperately hard to be fluent becomes stuttering.  When I was much younger I remember reading with much mystification in one the Speech Foundation of America books, that stuttering is what you do when you try not to stutter.  And thought to myself "What kind of double-talk is this?"  Now it is quite clear.  And anyone reinforcing our false fluency--per Sheehan (or e.g. focusing on the fluent parts of our speech) is inevitably setting us up for a relapse.  The best thing a listener can do for us would be to encourage us to stutter more!  And certainly NOT to focus on the fluent parts of our speech.  Or at the least to indicate any level of stuttering is acceptable.  The more our listeners encourage us to be fluent the more inevitably the anxiety of our fear of stuttering is going to be reinforced.  It's enough to make you seriously consider punching the next guy in the nose who compliments you on your fluency.  :)

  It is perhaps somewhat mystifying to a non-stutterer listener to hear that the last thing we stutterers need to do is to focus on fluency.  Stuttering is a performance anxiety.  Fluency is something that if you want it you have to give it up.  Speak Easy is a favorite group of people I am quite fond of, and as such would like to see it as spiritually pure (therapeutically speaking) as possible.  As such, I feel compelled to point out this one flaw in your logo.

  I've talked to several of your guest speakers (stutterers) on this and so far they all are pretty unanimous in agreeing with me on this but are very reluctant to express their views directly to you.  Mel Hoffman who knows you better and subsequently feels more comfortable discussing it said he tried once to suggest you change the logo.  But e.g., trying to get a well-respected nationally renowned therapist to tell you his initial impression of the logo was like pulling teeth (sort of like the problem of the "Emperorís Clothes"). But he finally relented and confessed that the first thing that came into his mind (before he met you and talked with you) when he saw the logo was the medicine man.

  We're all so desperately buying into fluency.  Which is a large part of the problem that feeds our stuttering.  We're all so vulnerable to the promised cure.  Fluency peddlers are sleazy.  And definitely anyone charging big money implying they can cure stuttering is unethical (if not an outright crook).  You guys know this.  You've been sold down that road before.  You and countless others.  Which is why you started Speak Easy.  As long as we keep buying into fluency, the fluency peddlers and medicine men will continue to become as rich as they are useless and unethical.  It would be a godsend if there really was a legitimate cure for stuttering.  Until that day comes we're stuck with what we know.  Most of that knowledge (I believe it is commonly recoginsed) has been consolidated by (indeed, if not developed by) Van Riper (and his colleagues) who has given us the best therapy to date.  When I was much younger obsessively searching for the holy grail of the cure, I remember reading in one of his earlier books, roughly: 'Unfortunately we have not yet found the pink pill or a cure for stuttering...' at which point I said to myself "Well, toss this one in the trash bin, this guy's no help...." and went on to the next book.  The honest therapists with the best therapy tell you there is no cure and the medicine men and fluency peddlers fill in the vacuum.  A very confusing situation!  We're all so desperately thirsting after the mirage of fluency.  The sooner you become more comfortable with stuttering, the less of a problem you'll have with it.  The more you focus on fluency, the less of it youíll have.  Like many things in this world--if you want it, you canít have it.  And when you don't want it, you're stuck with it.  I speak for the whatever proportion of the 20% of us who didn't make it who suffer from what Eugene Cooper refers to as the chronic perseverative stuttering syndrome--an idea whose time is long overdue.  And not the other 80% who've been shaped, smoothed or solved, free'd, flowed, or faith healed, precisioned, Bogued, placeboíed, (or any other Cinderella therapies), spontaneously remitted, or "recovered"--many of whom I expect are probably closet cases anyway.  I speak as a dyed-in-the-wool hard-core chronic perseverative 20%-er obsessive compulsive stutterer, when I say that ANY THERAPY PROGRAM THAT INCORPORATES FLUENCY AS A GOAL CREATES THE SEED OF IT OWN RELAPSE.  I believe that no stutter free, fluency shapers, smoothers, stuttering solvers or even the best horses of Van Riper's motor skills are a damn bit of use to any of us if we are so psycho-articulatorily stressed out in a given situation that we cannot use them.  When I was very young, I used to visit my cousins at my Uncle Babe's back yard and we would ask him how can we catch one?  "Sprinkle some salt on their tails." he would tell us (with a slight wink), "that'll slow 'em down." After chasing fruitlessly over the years with salt shakers in hand, it eventually dawned on us that "Hey, wait a minute!  If we ever got close enough to sprinkle salt on their tails we'd be close enough to grab one!"  Similarly, these "just don't stutter" therapies (like the salt of any motor skill) are just as ridiculous and make no sense unless we can get close enough to overcome the panicked rabbit of stress in our psycho-articulatory system.  But hell,...if you can lower your psycho-articulatory stress level sufficiently enough to use a motor skill, you can often catch the rabbit of fluency without having to use any skills at all.

  Even "Fluency :) Goldberg" (who we are all quite fond of) is coming around to accept the higher truths of stuttering awareness therapy, e.g. voluntary stuttering.  Boy, That's Incredible, Herb!  That's really Incredible! :)*  I would suggest that when you are doing voluntary stuttering you are definitely not focusing on fluency!  Herb, are you exiting a fluent lifestyle?  Voluntary stuttering (no pain, no gain?), as you have learned helps satisfy the fear so you can become more comfortable with it.  Perhaps you may find yourself eventually rethinking your concept of "entering a fluent lifestyle".  I know what you mean, and I applaud what you've accomplished but you may want to call it something else in the future.  Something a bit more hygienic.  Maybe something like entering a lifestyle free from the fear of stuttering.  Maybe you may come to see that a Foundation for Fluency may be its own contradiction.  What about a Foundation for the Fluency Obsessed (stutterers and non-stutterers alike)?  Perhaps you may want to start to rethink the idea of promoting any form of fluency.  "Entering a fluent lifestyle" will ultimately promote what Sheehan calls a false role disorder as does focus on fluency.  Anyway, I don't begrudge the forward movement you've made with the masker in your life or your method of "entering a fluent lifestyle" (though I wish you'd call it something a bit more hygienic).  Indeed, I applaud what you and many others have accomplished with the masker.  I believe in masking!  When it works for people it can be fantastic.  And people should certainly consider giving it a shot.  It is vitally important for us all to get some relief from the strangle-hold that stuttering has on so many of our lives.

*: It would be useful to explain that Herb Goldberg (who [formerly] markets the masker) appeared on the TV program "That's Incredible" and received several thousand responses to it.

  In any event, I no longer argue with people about their cures, no matter how conventional or bizarre.  It's bizarre, the kind of things that can work for people.  If you've been cured by a faith healer, terrific.  There is such a strong psychological component in stuttering (but I do believe it's ultimately primarily neurological, the psychological component is so strong that it is very easy to mistakenly see it as the only component), that I have no doubt faith healing will work for some people.  The placebo effect is a well-understood and powerful psychological phenomenon and tool.  But ultimately there are certain higher truths about stuttering which start to emerge on (what I call) the higher levels of consciousness of stuttering therapy, elaborated particularly by Sheehan, Van Riper, and other angels.  You too, Herb, in promoting voluntary stuttering, are seeing the wisdom in becoming comfortable with your stuttering.  And I think as you continue to ascend into the higher levels stuttering awareness, you might come to see the wisdom in letting the word fluency fade from your vocabulary.  Fluency possesses an inherent schizophrenia for us stutterers which comes from the pursuit of Sheehan's false role of trying to be a normal speaker.  There is an inherent craziness in trying to avoid stuttering.  After I got my motor skills# many years ago, I thought "Boy this is great, I'm cured now!"  Only later to realise the pitfall of this way of thinking.  Thinking of myself as no longer a stutterer inevitably led to unrealistic expectations.  Ed Schulman says he still calls himself a stutterer as a matter of good mental hygiene.  It is not only good mental hygiene but it is also good social hygiene in terms of having an opportunity to enlighten the public about stuttering.

  Antoinette, when I was discussing the pitfalls of in focusing on fluency with you, I suggested what our self-help groups need to do is to increase the public's understanding and acceptance of stuttering so we can extricate ourselves from the constant unrealistic demands they make on us to be fluent.  To which you replied (feel free to correct me) that you thought that might be a difficult, if not impossible, task.  We should be, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, judging people on the content of their character and not on their or fluency (or lack of it).  I'm quite sure you don't disagree with me on this.  You say it will be hard to change peopleís attitudes, and we have to deal with the world as it is.  But just because an attitude the majority of the people may hold does not necessarily make it right.  Or diminish our responsibility to try to change it.

#: You can learn skills ("motor skills") through competent speech therapy, to help you manage your malfunctioning neuro-articulatory system.  Some people, though, who have a particularly strong neurological component may find it difficult to achieve complete fluency no matter how skilled ("motorically") and desensitised ("comfortable") they become to their stuttering.  Their neurology will impose a fundamental limit to the amount of fluency they can achieve.  They have hit their "BFL" (Basal Fluency Level) as I recall from Mysak.  I believe some people may refer to this as "core-behavior" (but Fred Murray told me this is something different).


  Our problem is that the whole society that we live in is always encouraging us to stutter less (an excellent way to reinforce stuttering).  Which is why I think there needs to be a lot of education (including desensitisation) of the general public as to what stuttering is and what psychological forces perpetuate it.  Peter Ramig says he'll probably never see the change in his lifetime.

  I've had to explain this to my sister recently who after I got my motor skills many years ago (whereby I overcame a lot of my stuttering) and thought I'd do some disclosure (open talking) on the subject of stuttering.  She shot back--that is what it felt like, with what seemed like a fair amount of anxiety on the whole subject of stuttering that "You don't stutter anymore."  In the sense, I felt, that it might be a bad thing if I did.  So I proceeded to explain that it's a performance anxiety and you're never really cured of it and that developing a feeling of being "cured" will inevitably lead to a relapse.  And explained how part of the therapy involves talking to people about it and stuttering on purpose and proceeded to demonstrate (with some apprehension!--you can learn a lot about the environment you grew up in this way!) some voluntary stuttering.  I think it was a therapeutic and enlightening experience for the both of us!  As I grew up I'm starting to realise that my stuttering was virtually never openly talked about.  Growing up in a vacuum can create problems--I subsequently took to self-help groups like a fish to water.  I believe it is incumbent upon all of us to educate (I like the Council logo: self-help, education, support) the people we come in contact with about this nature of stuttering.  Probably beginning with our own families.  It's important to try to desensitise and raise consciousnesses of not only ourselves but listeners as well, to stuttering.  In this education process you can do some interesting some reality testing.  One of the most pleasant and interesting responses I received while doing this was from a woman (fluent) I had just met who commented "It teaches us patience."  Certainly, an attitude change in the general public would be desirable.  In order to more effectively foster the transfer and maintenance of fluency gained in self-help groups or therapy, to the outside world.

  Stutterers can often be their own worst enemy--blaming their stuttering or therapy failures on themselves.  Reinforced by some of those sleazy therapists who blame their failures on us, which many of us seem so willing to accept.  Self-recrimination seems to be a hallmark of stutterers.  I think itís about time that we all learn to open our windows and shout at the top of our lungs (like the play says): "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"  We need to get away from blaming our stuttering on ourselves.  Is it ultimately really our fault that we stutter or is it the fault of the unacceptance of our stuttering to others that creates and perpetuates so much of our stuttering problem?  Was it Wendell Johnson who said that stuttering exists in the ear of the beholder?  It is incumbent upon us all to assert our right to stutter in the world.  You have the RIGHT to stutter.  You have the Miranda right to remain silent if you so choose.  You have the right to make funny noises as you play around with, in order to gain more control over, your malfunctioning psycho-neuro-articulatory system.  As Gerald Johnson explained eye contact: "What you hear is what you get."  This is it and it doesn't get any better.  What we need is a stutterer's Bill of Rights.  Only by asserting our right to stutter in the world, shall we (chronic perseveratives) ever become free of it.  Which is why it is incumbent upon all of our self-help groups to have as goals: the enlightenment of the general public about the performance anxiety nature of the problem, the reduction of stutter-phobia, as well as addressing attendant problems of job (& other forms of) discrimination and exclusion.  There is a definite need for more public education and understanding about the problem.

  The paradox of fluency is that if you want someone to stutter more, you would encourage him to stutter less, and if you want someone to stutter less you would encourage him to stutter more.  Unfortunately, with this fluency speed trip everyone in the world seems to be on, our encouragement is constantly to stutter less.  The paradox of fluency is that ultimately, that if you want it, you have to give it up.  Which means you have to psychologically divorce yourself from the fluency speed trip.  You have to tell yourself "It's OK to stutter.  It's OK to have silence.  It's OK to let people wait, as you attempt to lower your psycho- articulatory stress level.  And yes, ultimately, it's even OK to struggle, that's OK too."  You have to tell the world to go to hell (in a nice kind of way) in terms of their time pressure and fluency demands.  You have to relax.

  Focus on Fluency?  To HELL with fluency!