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My stammer is a secret informant

Jan Anderson, David Mitchell | 01.12.2006

When BSA Scotland's Jan Anderson spoke to David Mitchell, author of the Booker nominated Black Swan Green, at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, he revealed a vital clue to his success.

David MitchellJA: Can you tell me a little bit about your own experience of stammering?

DM: Well, it's kind of how it is in the book, really. I realised, rather to my horror, at primary school that I couldn't say certain words and had no idea why. Of course, when you're that age, you don't know the word 'stammer', you don't know what it is. All you're aware of is this kind of defect, this fault. And of course, you take adaptive measures, but quite rudimentary ones that an eight year old can work out. You avoid words, or stay quiet. I was maybe ten or eleven before I got around to speech therapy.

But stammering is so context-based that, if you're unlucky enough to have a stammer that seems to disappear in a speech therapy context, it's a misfortune because it's not addressed. I'm sure speech therapy's come on a lot, but back then, it was quite elementary and not much more involved than "Well, here's a picture of a thing you can't say - say 'cat'."

To go to a speech therapist was itself quite difficult because I'd get picked up from school early and other kids would want to know why - and, of course, when you're nine or ten, you don't have the mechanisms to handle this. I think that scenario was repeated about three years later. That was the only formal speech therapy I had and it didn't do any good at all - though I don't want to be disrespectful to speech therapists now or then.

JA: Mrs De Roo, Jason's speech therapist in the book, seems like quite a sympathetic portrayal.

DM: Yes - my speech therapist was called Mrs Lester and she was one of those people who'd speak to you as an adult. Such adults, early on, make a big impression because not many people do it ... I'd like to think there are more adults who do this now, but back then it was more unusual. She was one of these unusual people who did speak to me as an equal, so I remember her very fondly.

JA: How do you view the cause of your own stammering.

DM: That's very interesting. I'm fascinated by this question! I think it's, as all these things are, a complex relationship between nature and nurture. The potential to stammer, I believe, is probably genetic. Whether this potential gets realised as a stammer, and to what degree, is going to be environmental. But that's good news - it means we can neutralise and ameliorate it.

JA: I like the way Mrs de Roo says that when it flares up, you can learn what to do to put the fire out. What was it about being a non-stammering stammering person?

DM: Exactly - that's my aspiration.

JA: Is Mrs de Roo's character actually your voice? Or is that something you remember a speech and language therapist saying to you?

DM: It's actually the voice of Jimmy Greaves talking about alcoholism! He sought to become a teetotal alcoholic, because he always was an alcoholic, even before he started drinking - and he always will be. But the aspiration is to be a teetotaller.

I want to stress two further things that Mrs de Roo says as well. One is that it's destructive to view your stammer as an enemy - civil war with yourself is no good. Secondly, will-power does not work... it's counterintuitive... but it's the process of trying which can make it flare up. It's not a question of force - it's a question of stealth and even more than stealth, it's a question of achieving a working accommodation with it. So, view stammering not as a civil war with yourself where everybody loses - but as a benign parasite that has a right to exist. Ultimately, if you can come to befriend it and view it not as this thing that's just going to mortify you in public, but as an informant on language and speech that makes you a specialist - it gives you insights and knowledge that non-stammerers will never ever have, not really, not that directly.

And this works - it's the best thing I've ever felt really. I mean, there are a few rudimentary, linguistic tricks that stammerers my age have worked out or have been taught, that you need to fall back on sometimes - and occasionally that means word avoidance or word substitution but... hey! ... that's all right - you can live with that.

Here's a nice metaphor from science fiction: imagine there's a reflective forcefield and the more you try to pound it... the more the force propels back. Until one very clever soul works out that, actually, if you use a very, very, very low power laser, the weakest possible laser, that would get through the forcefield. Anything stronger than the weakest laser bounces back - and that's precisely what stammering is like. The more you fight it, the stronger it gets.

Actually, my speech is better now than it's ever been - the thought of doing something like this would once have just filled me with fear. I would've found excuses not to, but now it's OK.

The last thing I want to say, Jan, is that it's good to have a kind of benign attitude towards your stammer, but a more militant one against listeners. If you honestly don't give a damn that you might stammer, then, lo and behold, you don't. That's how the militancy works. You might be a really nice person and of course I'm not suggesting that you show this militancy, but you have to think 'Sod them'! You know, it's not multiple sclerosis. We're bloody lucky compared to lots of people.

And if I fall short? I'm not stuck in a school full of merciless children - I can now choose the company I keep.

JA: If you were to think about where stammering is now, in the field of your life, where would you place it?

DM: In my life, in the long-term, from the centre of London... let's make it Islington. And sometimes it kind of comes in a bit, and sometimes it moves out to... Harrow!

JA: And the impact and actual stammering has shrunk at this point?

DM: Yes, they both have. To a stammering teenager, I would say, "Just don't worry". I hope I'm proof that you can even have a heavyweight - mine was middleweight - but even a heavyweight stammer and, as an adult, be doing Radio 4 interviews live, and it's fine.

From the Winter 2006 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 4-5