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Black Swan Green revisited

David Mitchell | 01.03.2011

BSA Patron David Mitchell took part in a BSA conference call in November to discuss his book Black Swan Green, about 13-year old Jason Taylor who sees his stammer as a 'hangman'. In these extracts from the call, David Mitchell reflects on what he has found useful for stammering, and on raising public awareness.

Black Swan Green: book coverA major goal of Black Swan Green was to show non-stammerers what it's like to stammer. But I also wanted to talk about how I've come to coexist with my own stammer. We are our own best resource - which is one reason why the British Stammering Association is so important. No non-stammering speech therapist on Earth can know what it's like to stammer to the same degree as us. Of course, that isn't to say non-stammering therapists can't help us - demonstrably, they can, and I want there to be properly-funded speech therapy programmes. But stammerers are, I think, a powerful fund of knowledge and methods for other stammerers. The sections towards the end of Black Swan Green, where Jason feels he makes some breakthroughs with his speech impediment, those are insights and techniques which were useful for me, and which I hope can be of use to other stammerers.

There is the idea in the book that the stammer really does feel like an antagonist, one as malevolent as a hangman who wants us to die a public death. But what if that ongoing conflict - between oneself and one's stammer - what if that's actually at the heart of the triggered stammer-attack? What if we can, in a sense - and this is why it's good to personify it - 'say' to our speech impediment, "Okay Pal, you exist, maybe you have a right to exist. You live in me and through me. Can we come to some kind of a symbiotic deal here, where I stop trying to eradicate you - which probably isn't going to happen anyway - and in return, you let me go about my verbal business with a minimum of interference and grief?"


One insight that I stumbled upon whilst writing Black Swan Green was to do with that instant when the Hangman closes his grip around a word or phrase. Thinking about why we don't stammer when we sing, talk to ourselves or address animals, I got to thinking that what triggers my speech impediment is an ingrained self-consciousness about how my listener is perceiving me. Thinking back to when my stammer was more pronounced than it is now, I believe that it was my fear of revealing that I stammered which was guaranteed, more than anything else, to make me stammer.

What can you do about this? My answer is an odd sort of militant indifference, and so I try to cultivate a conviction which states this: "I may stammer on this word, yes, and I may look like I'm being strangled by an invisible man, but if that makes you uncomfortable, then that's 100% your problem and 0% mine." The better I become at indoctrinating myself with this conviction, the more quickly the stammer-fuse gets snuffed.

I try to cultivate a conviction which states: 'I may stammer on this word, yes, but if that makes you uncomfortable, then that's 100% your problem and 0% mine.'

It's easy to say, it's a lot harder to do, but I think this is partly why I can now do live radio stuff without really stammering, not very much, and if I do, then without minding overly much. I've worked on strengthening this militant indifference for many years now, and because it has been so helpful, I wanted to put it in a book. If it helps you guys or anyone else, wonderful. If not, you'll evolve your own methods, and good luck to you. Share them with the BSA when you find a different approach that works for you. Back when my stammer would have prevented me doing this conference call, it used to be very heartening when someone who spoke more fluently than I did then assured me, "I used to be worse than you." I'd like to do the same to you now, if you don't mind: Stammering itself may be incurable, but my experience is that the degree to which it impacts upon your life can be reduced to something pretty close to negligible. For me, it was once 'considerable': now I'm 'not far off negligible'. For me, at least, this transition has been made possible by shifting my attitude away from seeing my stammer as a hangman, or as a lock, and starting to see it as an informant, as integral a part of my mind as my imagination or my conscience. I'm not saying 'I am my stammer': I am saying, 'My stammer is a part of me, and thirty years of waging a permanent war against it never did me an ounce of good. Negotiating with it, that helped.'

Participant: How did you get to the point where you could befriend the stammer. Was there a particular moment where you suddenly had a breakthrough or did it creep up on you?

DM: No breakthroughs, no. For me, it was more incremental. It's like a plant growing, you don't notice it growing. Then when you come back a couple of years later, it's "Blimey, you've come on, haven't you?" I'm a bit suspicious of sudden conversions and blinding breakthroughs. It's a consoling myth that if only you can find the right method, you'll be suddenly cured. But that's what it is - a myth, and a pernicious myth, at that. It implies stammerers are at fault for not trying hard enough. The backstage guy in Shakespeare in Love, who stammers really severely, is thrown in at the deep end, has to perform in public, and suddenly he's OK. It makes a heartwarming scene if you're ignorant about stammering (as most people are) but we know it's utter tosh. Get thrown in at the deep end and you drown, like Colin Firth in the opening scene of The King's Speech. If only a moment's heroism was all it took! We have to be heroic, hourly, for years.
Raising public awareness

We know what it's like to stammer, but I think the non-stammering public actually knows more about blindness than about stammering. So in Black Swan Green I wanted to show non-stammerers what it's like to stammer.

Participant: I think it's really important that stammering is written about and written well because that will bring in fluent people as well which is so important.

DM: It is, and the BSA - under its currently rather inspired leadership, if I may say so - agrees with you, and is acting accordingly. We can help ourselves, we should help ourselves, we are the experts, but we also need to build a bridge to the non-stammering public. For my part, in a non-religious way, I feel a certain sense of mission in this respect, which is why I accepted the Association's invitation to become a patron with more pride than I've probably ever accepted any honour. If I was a religious man, I'd say this is why I was born with a stammer, and why I've been helped this far on the road to fluency. But in my secular way, I nonetheless do want to act as if what I just said is true. I want to educate the fluent majority about life for the dysfluent minority.

Participant: There is some writing out there, it is just that quite a lot of it is really only interesting if you have a stammer, whereas with Black Swan Green I could recommend it to people in the library. It was relevant for them.

DM: Thank you. Just that, thank you.

Extended version of article from the Spring 2011 edition of Speaking Out, page 17

Jason Taylor, the hero of Black Swan Green, is revisited in later life as a speech and language therapist, in a new short story published by the Financial Times in December 2010. You can read it online: 'Earth Calling Taylor'