The King’s Speech

October 23, 2011 11 Comments

This year’s Reel Deal Film Series opened with the award-winning “The King’s Speech”, the film by director Tom Hooper that was (to use the much deserved cliche) celebrated by critics and audiences alike.  Why?  When many historical films fail to provide adequate facticity (remember when the British soldiers incinerated poor American colonists in a church during Mel Gibson’s “the Patriot”?) or entertainment (think of all the boring biopics you’ve seen), this film managed to connect its present day audience with the emotional impact of mega-events (the Nazis owned Europe and had their sites on England) as well as personal ones (we are touched by the pain of this stuttering King (Colin Firth) and cheer for the success of  his plucky speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush).  Why we do so was the topic of today’s Reel Deal program.

Dr. Brian Murphy began with the question ” What makes a small idea a huge film?”  He then used film clips to trace the protrayal of stuttering in cinema and made connections to the underlying psychological elements thought to contribute to the speech disorder and help create powerful movie moments.   Remember that Norman Bates stuttered in Psycho (1960) in a way that cued the audience that SOMETHING was up with this “nice young man”?   Scenes from Billy Budd(1962) and I,Claudius (1978) underscored the tragic results of living in a verbal world with an inability to speak fluidly.  Dr. Murphy then showed several other adaptations of the King’s Speech story (Edward and Mrs. Simpson(1978) and Bertie and Elizabeth(2002) that varied significantly in the emphasis given to the King’s stuttering and helped shape the eventual “feel” of the character.    His final clip was from The King’s Speech, suggesting again that humiliation was a significant factor in Bertie’s speech disorder and placing the (now) sympathetic audience squarely on the side of the not completely fluent King.

Dr. Merton Shill then provided several additional film clips and a psychoanalytic discussion of the nature of stuttering, which he hypothesized as primarily a regressive defense against hostility–a sort of “oral constipation” in which the stutterer  feels humiliated–as Bertie most certainly did at the hands of his father and brother–and gains revenge by depriving others of the gift of hearing clear speech.  The Oedipal age child( 4-6) is most vulnerable to such issues as he(more often) begins to struggle with issues of power and identifications that continue to grow in intensity and complexity.  The role of  the Austrailian speech therapist–a man also thought incapable of truly speaking “the King’s English” adds depth and dimension to the film.  Dr. Shill does not however believe that this film dealt with a psychological treatment, but strictly a behavioral program facilitated by the personality of a kind therapist creating what is called(sometimes perjoratively) a “corrective emotional experience”

The program concluded with thoughtful comments by Ashley Balbes, a speech therapist, who was able to compare and contrast the representations of  Lionel’s methods with current practices, which do intergrate physical and psychological components.  The accuracy  of the methods portrayed in the film does add credibility without sacrificing entertainment.

The question and answer period raised interesting ideas about the genesis of stuttering and the absence of stuttering in verbal events such as singing.

Many questions remain open:  was the treatment truly not “psychological”?  Why does stuttering occcur in some circumstances and not in others?    Does stuttering occur in some languages more than others?  Could the King’s stutter have been cured with a more traditional psychoanalysis?  More marbles?

Plenty to speak about!  What do you think?   Jolyn Wagner

Must See Movie of the Week
11 Comments to “The King’s Speech”
  1. Bruce Russell says:

    Some things are causally sufficient for some outcome; some just causally necessary. We think that striking a match is causally sufficient to produce a flame and that oxygen is causally necessary for that to happen. Merton Shill suggested that the cause of Bertie’s stuttering was a psychological condition, roughly, outrage caused by the treatment he received from his father and older brother (among others). How can we tell if this was the cause? Well, generally evidence that A is causally sufficient for B is given by observing many cases of A followed by B. We strike many matches and regularly find that a flame appears. If we find some cases where A occurs but B does not, our evidence for a causal link is weakened.
    In the film, we observed instances where Bertie did not stutter, namely, when he sang or had earphones on that prevented him from hearing his own speech, or cursed enthusiastically! Why, since we can assume that the proposed mental cause, outrage, was still present? And why, in other cases people described from real life, can people sing without stuttering but cannot read a familiar text without stuttering, even when both involve public performances involving familiar material? Even when other things are held equal, singing will not involve stuttering but reading will. If the underlying cause were psychological, you would expect stuttering in both cases, or in neither, since that psychological cause would be present in both cases.
    Of course, it’s possible for A to cause B in general, but not on particular occasions. In general, striking a match will cause a flame, but not if the match is wet, there is no oxygen in the room, the temperature is so cold that the striking won’t raise the match head to the kindling point, etc. But if some psychological state is the cause of stuttering, what are the special conditions present when stuttering is not seen and that prevent (block) that psychological state from having its normal affect? In particular, why is stuttering not seen when the stutterer sings (say, a familiar song in public) but in the same conditions is seen when he reads (say, from a familiar text and in public)? There are two hypotheses to explain the appearance of stuttering on some occasions but not others: (1) there is an underlying psychological cause (maybe outrage) of stuttering, and there are various conditions that can prevent this underlying psychological state from causing the stuttering (so what are they?), or (2) there is no underlying psychological state causing the stuttering; there are just a multitude of poorly understood physical, chemical, and physiological causes. With mixed data (sometimes B follows A, sometimes it doesn’t) and without explicit “saving hypotheses” for (1), shouldn’t we suspend judgment about whether (1) or (2) is true?
    When I asked these sorts of question, Merton Shill surprised me by saying that he did not know what the psychological data were for therapeutic treatment of stuttering. I was surprised because I could not understand how this bears on the question of whether outrage causes stuttering. When I reflected, I decided that he must have been thinking that I was wondering whether outrage is a causally NECESSARY condition of stuttering, just as the presence of oxygen is a causally necessary condition of a match’s catching fire. If you take away the oxygen, will the match still light? No! So oxygen must be causally necessary for the match to strike. So if you take away the outrage through therapy, will stuttering still occur? Merton says he doesn’t know. Even if it would, this would just be evidence that outrage is causally NECESSARY for stuttering, not that it is causally sufficient. I had been wondering whether it is causally SUFFICIENT in the way that we say that striking the match is causally sufficient for the match to light. And the data about therapy will be irrelevant to this question.
    These questions about the evidence for a particular psychological hypothesis generalize: do we ever have good enough evidence to support them over competing non-psychological hypotheses?

  2. Jolyn Welsh Wagner says:

    I think you have a point….outrage and humiliation seem to be sufficient to cause stuttering….the interference of a fluent(confident) way of expressing one’s thoughts..however, clearly, not all humiliated people stutter and we will not ever know if all stutterers suffered humiliation, so not yet necessary…stilll…I do like the data that suggests that traumatized soldiers are more likely to stutter and stammer and this resonates with data and experience that support the idea that trauma(especially the mind boggling mixing up of danger and fear and humiliation–ie rage at the “superiors'” who put you in this situation in the first place–really messes up one’s ability to express thoughts.safely…stuttering then becomes a point on a nasty continuum ….my experience with patients who do stutter suggests that yes..if you take away the outrage and create a feeling of safety of expression, stuttering does not occur…otherwise, there’s no answer but to just keep singing….

  3. Joan says:

    It would appear to me that stuttering has a genetic component as well as a psychological component. King George V ridiculed all his children. He just picked on Bertie’s stuttering because it was his obvious “flaw”. It would not appear to me that his stuttering was caused by his father. It was just reinforced because it increased his anxiety related to the speech impediment.

    With the advancement in neuroscience I would think the literature would show it is not just “oral constipation” due to rage. This is not my area of expertise but a review of medical literature in fMRI and PET scans must show some other factor related to brain structure/function. Is anyone versed in those ideas?

  4. Dave Lundin says:

    I appreciated Merton’s comment that stuttering creates feelings of frustration and discomfort in the listener, a form of unconscious hostility on the part of the stutterer while he himself appears weak and anything but hostile on the surface.

  5. Bruce Russsell says:

    Actually, I didn’t think we had good evidence to support either the view that outrage and humiliation were causally sufficient or the view that they are causally necessary for stuttering. As you said at the meeting, if they are sufficient, why don’t we see stuttering when people sing or talk out loud with earphones on? Well, you say, there must be some intervening cause that prevents the manifestation. But what is it? Familiarity with the material? But stuttering occurs when such material is read. It involves a public performance? But singing can involve that and no stuttering occurs. If you think it’s the outrage and humiliation that is the cause when stuttering occurs, then what is your “wet match” or “no oxygen” explanation when it doesn’t? People used to think that stress caused ulcers, but we’ve discovered that it doesn’t. It (mostly) has to do with the bacteria in the stomach. Maybe the outrage and humiliation explanation is like the stress explanation of ulcers, plausible but false.

    In fairness to the other side, it’s true that sometimes we are justified in believing A causes B even if in few cases of A does B follow. A famous example in philosophy of science is the example of syphilis causing paresis. It happens rarely (in advanced cases), but it seems to be what makes the difference. It could be that way with outrage and humiliation causing stuttering: most people who are outraged and have experienced humiliation don’t stutter. But it’s what makes the difference. Hence, it’s the cause. I’m just unsure whether we have enough evidence to justify that conclusion.

  6. Bruce Russsell says:

    When I started writing my last comment to what Jolyn said, your comment had not appeared, Dave. But here’s my reply to you.

    Sometimes we are justified in positing unconscious motives because they are the best, or the only, explanation of some phenomena. But I don’t think that positing unconscious hostility is the best, or only, explanation of stuttering in the presence of a listener. Why isn’t a better explanation that the person can’t help himself, can’t help stuttering? Isn’t that what we’d say in the case of people with Tourette’s (sp?) syndrome who shout out obscenities uncontrollably? We don’t think there are tree spirits because we don’t need to assume there are to explain how trees behave. Why think that unconscious hostility is behind the stuttering if we can explain it in terms of the inability of the person to control it? And don’t we have lots of evidence that they are unable to control their stuttering, even in private when they read out loud?

  7. Carol Levin says:

    So Bruce is onto something in challenging, essentially, a linear psychological explanation for the etiology of stuttering. How could such a symptom not have complex and overdetermined etiologies and a multiplicity of meanings. But let’s not focus only on Bertie’s symptom of stuttering, but on the complex whole people of Bertie and Lionel and what happens to each of them in this multi-layered film, which is, after all, a work of art, a text, not a documentary, that is a historical record. At the heart of The King’s Speech we find the complex relationship of Bertie and Logue, and of course the film portrays a therapeutic relationship. I would argue that Lionel’s skill in working with his extraordinarily challenging and challenged patient–a man who is emotionally damaged and narcissistically injured and vulnerable–makes makes the treatment he offers him unquestionably dynamic and analytic, not just *psychological*, as Jolyn puts it. For me, an analytic treatment is defined by the capacity of an analyst to have the skill to meet the patient who arrives in his office desperate, with everything else he has tried having failed, and to engage him and create a relationship of safety in which the patient’s derailed development can restart. Analytic understanding resides in the mind of the analyst, and analytic work engages whole people, not just the mind or the *drives* or the symtom, whatever it is. Lionel has an analytic theory of what caused Bertie’s symptom–trauma, and he knows how to use his theory skillfully in creating opportunities for Bertie’s trauma to emerge in his consulting room, welcoming all the *material* and giving Bertie the space to find words to work through enough of the traumatic experiences in his childhood (beginning in his infancy with his sadistic nanny) in the presence of a caring other, for him to grow. He also moves along and becomes freer to speak from the complexity of all that is going on while they are ostensibly “doing exercises.” And while of course we could say that Bertie develops a paternal transference to Lionel, as Merton outlines, Bertie’s transference to Logue has another, perhaps more important, dimension: Logue serves a self-object function for his desperate, depleted patient: he is there with him emotionally, consistently, no matter what, and he supports the vigor and cohesion of Bertie’s fragile self and his capacity for increasing competence.
    I don’t agree with Merton’s view that Lionel “manipulates” Bertie in the powerful scene in Westminster Abbey, or that this film is about a “corrective emotional experience,” used pejoratively, in which, according to Alexander, who coined the term, an analyst deliberately constructs “caring”. Bertie and Logue do have an emotional experience, and it does repair Bertie’s damaged self. But what would analysis be if it didn’t touch one’s heart? As portrayed in this film, Logue’s interest and engagement with his patient are heartfelt and genuine, and he isn’t afraid of Bertie or his feelings. He has been trained in the trenches, so to speak, and trusts his theory and experience. The way I see it, Lionel is deeply in tune with his patient, answers his angry accusations with moving honesty (he appropriately *self-discloses*, we could say), and of course, as a good analyst, welcomes Bertie’s expression in words of his anger for the shame and humiliation he has suffered in defending Lionel (who is not a credentialed “Doctor” it turns out) to the palace and church. In his outburst at Lionel, draped casually on the *throne,* the soon-to-be crowned, reluctant King is simultaneously articulating in front of our eyes the terror he feels at the crushing mantle of history that he must carry on his shoulders. Lionel senses what his patient needs to say, and he listens and witnesses, continuing this dynamic treatment, in the best sense of the word, in this powerful moment which they have co-created and which they find themselves. What could be more genuinely analytic than than that?

  8. Merton Shill says:

    Bruce Russell seems to have misunderstood what I said. I did not say that stuttering was caused by outrage. I said stuttering was caused by the defense against rage, i.e. it is a way to stop the utterance of rage, it is not caused by rage–hence the oral constipation=stuttering. This is an extremely important difference which he overlooks.
    To anticipate Bruce’s usual objections, I’m sure I cannot prove to his satisfaction that that the film demonstrates either the existence of castration anxiety per se or its relevance to stuttering. One has to be trained in analysis and treat patients to have access to the empirical evidence to support this. A film will never supply the requisite data for this purpose and a film is not a scientific study or a random clinical trial. And in this connection, I did not say I did not know what the psychological data were for the treatment of stuttering. In fact I specifically said the reverse–that there are case studies in the literature on the psychoanalytic treatment of stutterers, which there are. I am not aware of any large scale outcome studies of this and I suspect the reason is that stutters who come for psychoanalytic treatment probably come for other or additional reasons and the stuttering is one symptom among many that are treated. Perhaps others who read this may know of such studies.

  9. Bruce Russell says:

    I’m sorry Merton fi I misunderstood you. Part of my cmooments were a response to what I thought you said in the QandA in response to questions by Jolyn and me. Jolyn suggested that stuttering was caused by humiliation and you corrected her and said, “No, it’s outrage.” And when I followed up Jolyn’s question by asking why stuttering does not occur when the person sings or wears earphones, you said that you were unaware of what the therapeutic results of treatment of stuttering were. I thought that at this point we were not talking about the film but rather what are the causes of stuttering in general, and whether therapy is effective in curing it. Maybe you meant that you weren’t aware of any large outcome studies, as you say above. OK. And, of course, I wouldn’t expect the film to prove anything about castration anxiety or its relevance to stuttering.

    I think what Joan said in a comment here is relevant: if George V ridiculed all of his children, why think that it caused the rage and, yes, the stuttering as a defense against that rage, when it did not cause it in the other children? Same cause, same effect? Well, not if there is a “wet match” or a “lack of oxygen” defense. But you have to have independent evidence for those types of defense to legitimately save a causal hypothesis.

    I try to keep straight questions about the interpretation of a film and those having to do with the real world outside a fiction film. Different evidence is relevant to those different questions. I intended to ask you about matters in the real world, outside the film. I’m sorry if I did not make that clear. Of course, in general, I’m interested in what constitutes good evidence for causal hypotheses. Much of the criticism that philosophers of science have offered of psychoanalytic theory is based on the idea that those theories are not the best explanation of the data. Other hypotheses are at least as good, even if not better. Well, OK, let’s see if they’re right. You and the other analysts know the data. So I’d like to hear it from you, and them, so I can make up my mind if the theories you offer really best explain it. This general question applies to the specific case of stuttering that we were discussing at the meeting.

    The big issue for me is always what’s the best explanation of the data (or evidence), whether it concerns the interpretation of a film or some phenomena in the world outside the film. Others who were at the Reel Deal session can tell me if I misunderstood what you said in response to Jolyn and me in Q&A. If they say I did, I’ll gladly concede. But it’s really not important to the bigger questions about what is the cause (or are the causes) of stuttering and whether, and why, therapy helps, if it does.

  10. Bruce Russell says:

    Here are two analogies that seem relevant to two different, but possible, explanations of stuttering. We observe that in the desert when rain storms come dry streams quickly begin to flow and sometimes become torrents. When that happens, suppose some buildings in some towns are destroyed, washed away, but others are not. More specifically, sometimes just the cardboard shacks are destroyed, sometimes those plus the wooden structures, sometimes (but rarely) all those plus the brick buildings. Explanation (1): the water runs unimpeded down the stream beds and what it destroys is a function of how much water there is. Explanation (2): dams have been erected on the streams and what structures are destroyed depends on how good the dam is and how much water is roaring down. If we did not have independent reason to believe (2), we should believe (1) because it is the simpler explanation,.
    Let the buildings that are destroyed represent people who stutter and the amount of water represent how much pressure people are under on any given occasion. An explanation that resembles (1) would be: (1S) our environment and genetic endowment create what sort of people we are (what sort of “structures” we are) and the amount of pressure we are under determines whether, given our “structure,” we will stutter or not. (More will stutter under wartime conditions than under more standard conditions,) Our genetic endowment will include what sorts of brains we have been born with. So when it comes to George V’s children, some, like Bertie, will stutter, and some will not, even if they were raised in exactly the same way, because they have different brains to start with. Explanation (2S) will say that “dams” have been erected (for whatever reason, including castration anxiety) and that outside pressures will increase the likelihood that stuttering will “leak out” in some. Why not in all? Well, because some have stronger “structures” than others, either as a result of native endowments or upbringing, or both, OR because some have leakier dams (weaker defenses) than others.
    Barring independent evidence for the dams and all, shouldn’t we accept (1S) over (2S) as an explanation of stuttering? (1S) = Nature + nurture + pressure VS. (2S) = nature + nurture + psychological defenses + pressure. Occam’s Razor says (1S) is the better hypothesis.

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