HOW ERNIE DOUGLASS BEAT HIS STUTTER
He used to carry calling cards because he often couldn’t say his own name. They called him "Yammering Douglass.’’ Then, after years of painful struggle, he hit upon the revolutionary treatment that is helping scores of Canadians master this serious, mysterious affliction
FOR the first twenty-five years of his life, Ernest Douglass, the thirty - eight - year - old Scotsman who heads the Speech Clinic of the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital, stuttered so badly he was nicknamed “Yammering Douglass.” He feels that, while cruel, this was fairly descriptive. Each sentence was painfully broken by awkward pauses during which Douglass closed his eyes, opened his mouth and grotesquely jerked his head back and forth.
But today, after a long and arduous struggle, Douglass is a fluent speaker. In attaining fluency he learned so much about stuttering that he is now employing radically new methods to help others conquer this ancient and painful affliction. “I’ve got a good memory,” he says. “I generally know what my patients are feeling and thinking.” The Speech Clinic is the first all-out scientific attack on stuttering ever to be made in Canada, and will serve to broaden the world’s slim store of knowledge on this mysterious affliction. The careful scientific approach to the problem—a result of Douglass’ own painful battle with his stutter— represents a giant step forward from the days less than a century ago when a French surgeon was treating stutterers by cutting small chunks from their tongues.
Many people regard the stutterer as a figure of fun; some years ago Roscoe Ates rose to movie fame with his stuttering routine. However, this isn’t remotely funny to Canada’s one hundred and fifty thousand stutterers, who every day of their lives pay a shocking price for their handicap— emotionally, socially and economically. The stutterer lives in constant fear of being humiliated. He is frustrated because he is constantly being held back by his lack of fluency.
The suffering of the stutterer starts in childhood. Parents and teachers sometimes scold and even punish him for his defect; other children ridicule him. As an adult he is often avoided because people are embarrassed by his agonizing efforts to speak. Ernest Douglass knows one stutterer who couldn’t make the proper responses at his wedding ceremony. Another, asked for his name while registering at a hotel, had such a violent speech spasm that the desk clerk had him bundled into an ambulance. Another sold his house at a loss and moved away because he couldn’t say his address without a spasm. Still another became so discouraged that he gave up talking for five years, pretending to be dumb. He later became one of Douglass’ most successful patients.
Even though he may have special abilities, the stutterer often prefers mediocre jobs where he’ll remain unnoticed. One of Douglass’ brightest patients works in a factory because he can shout fluently above the din of the machinery. Others go on dreading the day when they may be fired. A young fireman always made it his business to be far away from the telephone lest he have to answer an emergency call. A newspaperman suffered so much from nervous exhaustion, even after a routine day, that he had to lie down for two hours before he could eat his dinner at night.
The stutterer’s freedom of choice is limited. In a restaurant he’ll often order items he can pronounce in preference to what he wants. (“I’m sick and tired of oysters and omelets,” remarked a stutterer
who doesn’t block on words starting with vowels.) Out shopping, he’ll buy goods he can point to, rather than try to describe what he needs. Mortally afraid of the telephone, most stutterers become inveterate letter writers. Socially, the stutterer shies away from situations where talking is required. One young man abandoned all sports in his childhood because he couldn’t shout like the rest of the team. An attractive girl avoids dates and parties and never speaks unless spoken to; she’s regarded by her working associates as cold and queer.
The stutterer is usually surprised by Douglass’ unorthodox approach to his problem, which seems to be, “Get in there and stutter.” He explains that the stutterer, because of fear, is suffering more from the things he does to avoid stuttering than from stuttering itself. Douglass reduces this fear by giving the patient a scientific attitude to his stutter. One of the ways he does this is to send the stutterer out into the community to stutter freely in situations he has been avoiding for years. Only after the stutterer has conquered his fear and learned the details of his handicap is he ready to go to work on it and ultimately attain fluency.
Douglass himself started stuttering when he was four. His parents blamed it on the shock caused by three minor surgical operations. After he had begun to stutter he received parental advice to “speak slowly, think of what you’re going to say.” At school he was taunted with such names as Yammering, Stuttering and Doddering. In class he was down-graded, either because he couldn’t spit out the right answer soon enough, or because he often found the wrong answer easier to pronounce. He often lashed out at tormentors and became known as aggressive and belligerent. “I’d often be fighting three boys at once,” he recalls. He wasn’t asked to parties. Once, when the girl next door was having a birthday celebration, he overheard two of the invited guests say they wouldn’t come “if Yammering Douglass is going to be there.” During the party he hung around outside the house on the off-chance someone might see him and invite him in. He was terrified of the telephone: although a poor swimmer he would swim a river half a mile wide to avoid having to call a girl he knew.
He Was Fluent If He Whispered
His stuttering became so bad that by the time he left high school he couldn’t visualize a career for himself. When one prospective employer asked his name he went completely dumb. “What’s the matter, boy?” demanded the employer. “Don’t you know your own name?” Douglass fled. He thought it would be good training for him to meet the public, so he took a job selling portable radios from door to door. He was forced to give this up too; whenever a housewife came to the door he was paralyzed with fear. Eventually he became an electrical engineer. He again tried to force himself to acquire fluency by opening a small electrical appliance store. At twenty-four, after a year of shopkeeping, he admitted that stuttering had him licked and he started making the rounds in search of a cure.
His first therapist gave him reading exercises for eleven months. “It got to be that I could recite
At Toronto University School of Medicine a twenty-hour series of tests (see pictures) prepares patients for Ernest Douglass' eight-month course in speech therapy — the first all-out scientific attack on stuttering in Canada. Most of the patients stuttered from childhood. Learning to talk properly, said one, was like being born again after years of emotional distress.
TO BEAT THEIR FEAR OF STUTTERING. DOUGLASS' PATIENTS GO OUT AND TALK TO STRANGERS
Gunga Din perfectly,” recall« Dougla««, “but I’ll be darned if I could work it into my everyday conversation.” Another therapist fold him, “You stutter because you’re tense. Learn to relax.” For the next two years Dougla««’ treatment con«isted of lying on a couch in a quiet room, carrying on a whispered conversation with his teacher. He became proficient at whispering fluently in quiet rooms. But this didn’t improve his speech in real-life situations. He took other courses. “They all told me stuttering was due to tension,” he says, “but none told me why I was tense or how I could overcome it.”
His speech steadily deteriorating. Douglass decided to find out all he could about his handicap on his own. He haunted medical libraries, spoke to doctors, speech therapists, neurologists and psychiatrists. He finally went to one of Britain’s leading psychiatrists for treatment. While the treatment failed to help his speech it was the turning point in his life. He became so fascinated by and curious about the mysteries of the human personality that he decided to devote his life to finding out more about stutterers and how to help them. His research pounded home the lesson that no superficial method of treatment would ever help
a stutterer. It was a baffling condition about which it was difficult to formulate general principles.
Douglass discovered that the affliction chooses its victims indiscriminately. Moses was a stutterer and so were Demosthenes, Charles Lamb and Charles Darwin. Today the King of England, Somerset Maugham and Jane Froman all stutter. All races seem to have their share of stutterers with one exception— the Shoshone and Bannock Indians of Idaho. No one knows why.
For some obscure reason no diabetic has ever been known to stutter. There is, too, more lefthandedness among stutterers. And there are just as many types of stutterers as there are stutters: One German scholar listed ninety types and then quit. The causes of a stuttering spasm are unknown. One stutterer can say two and to, but not too. Some block on words starting with vowels, others on consonants. Some stutterers find it hard to talk to strangers, others to friends. A Canadian bishop was a fluent preacher but stuttered hopelessly when talking to one of his parishioners. A soldier found he could talk fluently on a walkietalkie device but not on the phone. One child would stutter only when seated in his stepfather’s favorite chair.
Armed with his knowledge, Douglass enrolled at the University of Glasgow, where as part of his training he worked in hospitals, speech and psychiatric clinics. By the time he was granted the degree of L.C.S.T. (Licentiate of the College of Speech Therapists) he already had strong convictions about stuttering. «
To start with, he felt most treatments were wrong in assuming a stutterer can’t speak fluently. Douglass recalled his own fluency during the whispering sessions. “All stutterers are fluent under certain conditions,” he declared, and he named 120 of them such as singing, shouting, talking in dialect and so on—when the stutterer is so distracted he forgets to be afraid. (Demosthenes, the Greek, became an orator by putting pebbles in his mouth.) The real enemy, concluded Douglass, was the fear of stuttering.
The average stutterer does not suffer so much from stuttering as from trying to avoid it. Stuttering starts in childhood and grows with the stutterer. The childhood stutterer adopts the credo, “Avoid stuttering at all costs.” He therefore uses a number of devices to help him avoid stuttering. As each device loses its effectiveness a new one is added until the stutterer has
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How Ernie Douglass Beat His Stutter
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built up a complex pattern of automatic actions. Douglass set out to analyze this pattern.
When he was seven he discovered he could say “well” fluently, so he used it at the beginning of each speech as a starting device. Others, he noticed, had starting devices of their own: some coughed, others whispered, still others would say “ah.” As happens to all starting devices, Douglass’ finally lost its effectiveness. He began to stutter on “well,” so he added “you see.” By the time he was twelve he was prefacing each speech with “W . . w . . well, y. . y.. you see, yousee, yousee,” then stuttering on what came after.
He Didn’t Want Socks
Douglass found he was using another trick to postpone saying a difficult word. Sometimes, just before the dreaded word, he would stretch out preceding words so they could hardly be understood. Or he would pause for several seconds. Then, to fill the pauses he started to jerk his head up and down as if agreeing with something. He found that other stutterers stalling for time might wring their hands, scratch their heads or tap their foot. These were postponement devices. He also found that he was using avoidance devices that is, avoiding words he might stutter on. Often he said things he didn’t mean. Once he ordered three pairs of socks instead of underwear. Douglass also identified anti-expectancy devices—tricks to get rid of the dread of stuttering, such as talking in a monotone where no word stands out enough to be feared, or bouncing a ball as a distraction. Also on the list were release devices—usually a body movement by the stutterer to free himself from a spasm. Douglass soon recognized that most treatments for stuttering leaned heavily on such devices. They were bound to fail, since they were aimed at symptoms of an illness rather than at the illness itself.
To cure himself Douglass realized he must change his attitude. Fear and shame would have to be replaced by objectivity. Instead of trying to hide his defect, he would have to learn to stutter freely, then study it. So he gave himself “fear assignments.” He made it his business to shop for at least one item a day not on display. He came to terms with his most dreaded enemy, the telephone. His wife Renée, an attractive ballerina, agreed not to take any more phone calls for him. He tore up the calling cards he used rather than say his own name. When entertaining he no longer waited for his w'ife to make introductions. He spent hours talking to his bedroom mirror, making observations. “How can you correct a habit when you don’t know what that habit is?” he reasoned. He made careful notes of the emotional experiences in a stuttering spasm his fear before the spasm, the confusion that accompanied it and the successive waves of relief, shame and embarrassment when it was over.
Now Douglass felt he was ready to tackle the stutter itself. But where to begin? He ruled out the pre-spasm period—no one had had any luck with that since Aristotle’s day. He felt he couldn’t work on the spasm itself, because it was involuntary. He went to work on what appeared to be the only weak link in the chain—the period following the spasm.
To break the vicious circle Douglass came to a dead halt immediately after each spasm; surprising things began to
happen. He became aware of his spasmic tricks, and the number of blocks that followed became less frequent. He then went to work on the spasm itself. To begin with he tried to exercise some voluntary control over it, but he only succeeded in exaggerating it. “But even that was a tremendous step forward,” says Douglass. “1 was actually able to make the spasm do something I wanted.”
From being able to lengthen the spasm voluntarily, Douglass found that with practice he could also shorten it. After several months he found he was left with a simple primary stutter, which in time almost vanished. Today Douglass regards himself as a cured stutterer, but that doesn’t mean he never stutters. “All people have a certain number of speech hesitations,” he says. “A cured stutterer is a person who usually speaks fluently, but on an occasion he’s prepared to stutter in a calm relaxed manner.”
After getting his degree in speech therapy, Douglass worked in British hospitals and clinics, and by 1948 he was in charge of four speech clinics in Glasgow. In January 1950 he came to Canada to head the Speech Clinic of the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital which is conducted by the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Toronto’s School of Medicine. (Later he became consultant speech therapist to the Sunnybrook and Toronto General Hospital.) Dr. Aldwyn Stokes, chief of the Department of Psychiatry, is in charge of over-all planning. Working with Douglass as a team are psychologist Bruce Quarrington and psychiatrists Robert Arthurs and Daniel Cappon, as well as consultant specialists in neurology, radiology and other fields.
To Stop a Pretty Girl
Recently I sat in with Douglass and a group of eight stutterers starting his eight-month course. The patients meet once a week and see Douglass privately once a month. They are from all walks of life—a doctor, a shoe-store manager, a tool-maker, a student, a landscape gardener, an accountant. Only serious patients are accepted. Sometimes, to test their sincerity, Douglass will ask an applicant to come to an 8 a.m. interview. “They’ll be there if they’re really interested,” he says. “I’ve known stutterers to come three thousand miles for help.”
Before joining the group each stutterer is studied for twenty hours by specialists. First comes a complete medical examination, then a battery of psychological tests. After interviews, tests of intelligence, blood, the nervous system, and leftand right-handedness are taken. Finally the stutterer’s vocal apparatus is X-rayed and an electroencephalogram —a chart showing electrical impulses passing through the brain-—is made.
Douglass plunges in at the first meeting to get his stutterers to be objective. When one of the patients gasped his way through a speech, others looked away, embarrassed. “Keep your eye on the stutterer,” cautioned Douglass, “or how can you learn about stuttering?” After a few meetings the stutterers are recounting their experiences; they can now joke about their difficulties.
After the first month they are ready for simple assignments. Working in pairs—a participant and an observer —they ask strangers directions, shop for groceries, ask a cashier to change bills. Gradually their tasks become more difficult, like stopping a pretty girl, making a telephone call to a
stranger, questioning a policeman. Douglass’ patients exchange experiences when they meet again. One stutterer stopped a stranger to find he was a stutterer too.
Once a young man and woman, both patients, entered a store. The young man stood silently while the girl painfully asked the saleslady for a dress of a certain size, color, fashion and price. Unable to endure the girl’s struggling, the saleslady turned on the man. “You beast!” she shouted. “Why don’t you help your wife?” After the explanation the saleslady became sympathetic. “My own sister stutters,” she confided. “I’m going to tell her about your Speech Clinic.”
A favorite assignment for ádvanced students is to ask the girl in the box office of a certain Toronto movie what time the feature starts. The girl rates high as an assignment because apparently she hates stutterers: they make her blush, turn away, talk sharply. One memorable night she was questioned by four stutterers in two hours. She broke down completely after the fourth encounter. “Next time any of you wise guys come around here pulling my leg I’ll call the police,” she shrieked.
Forty Years a Stutterer
Other top-rated fear situations are: asking a groceteria cashier at the height of the Saturday rush if this is the place you get a watch repaired; claiming a suit from a cleaning establishment when you have none there; asking a pretty girl where to find the nearest stuttering school.
Douglass helps each patient discover his own stuttering pattern. Stutterers study each other and observe themselves in front of a mirror. The stutterer has his spasm recorded by film, tape recorder, X-ray machine. Invariably, when he sees the results, he asks, “Is that what I really do?”
After the first phase of treatment, friends and relatives of the patient are often disappointed because he’s stut-
tering as badly—or sometimes worse— than before. But, as Douglass says, “We’re not aiming at fluency at the beginning. We’re trying to get the patient to drop his defenses and stutter in a relaxed manner. Usually the stutterer who is a “human bean-pole” begins to put on weight because he’s relaxing for the first time in his life. The social recluse begins to enjoy other people.
In the remaining six months of treatment the Speech Clinic tackles the stuttering itself. Seventy patients have been treated by these methods, either at the clinic or by Douglass privately, and the results are encouraging. The patients are healthier, and their personalities have undergone a change. Their stuttering has either disappeared or become less severe.
A few weeks ago at a gathering in Douglass’ home I met a dozen of his graduates. One was a forty-six-year-old railway foreman who stuttered all his life; now fluent, he was being considered for an appointment to executive rank. A young man who could never finish a sentence is leaving his job as a minor civic employee to enter university and go on to a profession. As one guest said to me, “It’s like being born again!”
One of the Speech Clinic’s present aims is to analyze all the data now being collected to throw more light on stuttering. It is this research activity which may some day spare thousands of children the torment of a stutterer’s life. Until the Clinic has had the opportunity for further study and analysis, it offers the following interim theory:
There is no single dramatic cause oí stuttering. However, an early disturbing incident can bring out a speech defect if the child is already vulnerable. One stutterer, for example, claims his stuttering started at eight when his neurotic mother threatened to kill him for a child’s prank. Closer study showed the mother for years had kept the household in an uproar. The child was tense and anxious practically from
The broad underlying cause of the stuttering can include anything in the person’s physical make-up or environment that acts as a breeding ground. A child whose nervous system has been affected by long illness with high fever may find it difficult to exercise the delicate muscular control needed to speak fluently. Anything that embarrasses a child may lead to speech hesitancy— the fat child, the tall child, the child with a club foot or unsightly birthmark. Emotional conflicts in the home can be destructive. One stutterer recalls that his parents didn’t speak to each other for weeks. At such times he was expected to be the go-between. A typical day would start with the child being asked by father to tell mother, “You no-good lazy tramp, get out of bed and make my breakfast!”
Researchers are certain of one thing: impatient, emotional parents have condemned many children to grow up as stutterers. When learning how to speak it is natural for the child between two and six to stutter on at least fortyfive words out of every thousand. The real trouble starts when the parent becomes alarmed at the normal vocal stumbling of the child and makes him self-conscious of it by nagging and scolding. The final blow comes when the child is labeled “a stutterer.” The more lie is corrected and punished, the more frightened and tense he becomes. Erom then on his speech may steadily deteriorate.
The Speech Clinic believes that extreme caution should be used before labeling a small child a stutterer. Douglass points to an experiment by Wendell Johnson, who was asked to “cure” fifty pre-school stutterers. Johnson sent the children home and invited the parents to several sessions with him to help revise their attitude toward the children. Within a few months forty-nine of the children were speaking fluently. Stuttering parents often have children who stutter because when their child begins to speak they often imagine they detect a stutter. They say, “No child of mine is going to go through what I did,” and embark on an intensive—and usually harmful— campaign to correct the child.
It’s Worth the Effort
How can parents help their children avoid stuttering? The first rule is to provide a happy and healthy home. If the parent is concerned about the speech of a child between two and six, then he should take him to a physician to rule out any possible physical cause. From then on nothing should be done — by word or by gesture -to make him self-conscious about his speech. Above all, don’t label him a stutterer, and don’t ask him to show off in company. When he speaks, listen attentively. Your job as a parent is to convince him you enjoy his company, that you’re fond of him, that you like listening to him. Follow these rules and chances are your child will outgrow his speech hesitations.
As for the adult stutterer, he requires therapeutic treatment such as that offered at the Speech Clinic. As Douglass discovered, there’s no shortcut to fluency; it demands months of effort, courage and determination. “But,” says Douglass, recalling the gloomy days when every conversation was a major crisis, “it’s worth every minute of it.”
The happiest moment of his life, he j says, was after his cure when he was j addressing a women’s club in London, j “I had to actually explain to them j that I was once a stutterer. Imagine i me—“Yammering Douglass”—-having to make an explanation like that.” it '