The King’s Speech (Part 2): Interview with Jane Fraser, President of The Stuttering Foundation

Stutterng awareness poster from the Stuttering Foundation

Stuttering awareness poster available from The Stuttering Foundation

As mentioned in “Part 1” of this entry, I was invited to interview Jane Fraser, president of The Stuttering Foundation, about the movie “The King’s Speech.” This was an offer I couldn’t refuse, never mind that the only interviews I’ve ever conducted were to obtain case histories during the client assessment process. There was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity of channeling Larry King…or Anderson Cooper…or, more likely in my case, Wayne Campbell (think “Wayne’s World”). So on a cold, snowy morning in Clarion I connected with Ms. Fraser via Skype at her location in Sea Island, Georgia to talk. The hour I chatted with Ms. Fraser sped by quickly, during which we touched on memories of her father, bandied about names of speech pathology legends such as Charles Van Riper, Eugene Cooper, Robert West, and William Perkins, and discussed stuttering in the context of what she fondly called “That Movie.”

It is impossible to discuss “The King’s Speech” with Ms. Fraser without talking about her father, Malcolm Fraser. The two are intertwined, as each evokes memories, recollections, and impressions of the other. The founder of NAPA Auto Parts, Mr. Fraser, a significant stutterer, began The Stuttering Foundation in 1947 with the goal of providing “the best and most up-to-date information and help available for the prevention of stuttering in young children and the most effective treatment available for teenagers and adults.” Each Christmas, Mr. Fraser would hold a company party at which he would give a speech and distribute awards to a sizeable audience, a task which placed him in a situation which was not necessarily the most comfortable and necessitated his publicly facing the communicative challenges created by his stutter. Ms. Fraser recalled these annual events as she discussed an early scene in the movie during which the future king addresses a crowd at Wembly Stadium and a nation-wide radio audience to commemorate the closing of the British Empire Exhibition on October 31, 1925. She believes the sheer terror Colin Firth, the actor playing the future king, shows on his face prior to and while delivering this address will help people realize what a person who stutters might be going through when required to talk and hopes it brings about a greater day-to-day sensitivity. So powerful was the scene and its association with her father’s annual holiday party speech that Ms. Fraser watched it with tears streaming down her face.

Unlike previous cinematic depictions of stutterers as buffoons or villains “The King’s Speech” depicts the stutterer as a hero and, in this instance according to Ms. Fraser, “a man of duty.” In the movie we see an individual faced with the pressure of ascending to the throne while simultaneously tackling a severe dysfluency which disrupts almost all his interactions and attempts at communication. Undoubtedly he was motivated to become fluent and did achieve a significant level of success with the assistance of Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist. Ms. Fraser believes a large part of the future king’s success was the “therapeutic alliance” forged between himself and Logue. This therapeutic alliance, which Ms. Fraser views as a vital component of the rehabilitation process, extends beyond the mere implementation of techniques and strategies, but involves the process of establishing rapport, instilling confidence, and acting as a cheerleader for the client. She often mentioned Logue’s calling the future king “the most courageous person I know” as proof of the bond between the two and Logue’s sensitivity to his client. The nature of their therapeutic alliance perhaps allowed what Ms. Fraser cited as the interesting uses of desensitization depicted in the movie, namely the practice session in Westminster Abbey prior to the king’s coronation. They practice alone, free of any royalty associates, as if this landmark structure were any old place. Logue even takes the liberty of sitting on the throne and describing it to the soon to be king as “just a chair.”

Ms. Fraser and I talked at length about Logue’s promise of curing the king’s stutter in the movie (a point I took issue with in “Part 1” of this entry). Like me, Ms. Fraser felt that perhaps Logue did this as more of a confidence building gesture and means of establishing a therapeutic alliance rather than a guarantee of total fluency. By way of elaboration, Ms. Fraser noted that she would never do this (promise a cure) and that fluency can be increased in those who stutter and, citing the work of Van Riper, prevented if early fluency enhancing strategies are used with young children. Following this, I asked Ms. Fraser to speculate how King George VI would have fared in the age of television. She thought this medium would have been a “nightmare,” feeling that perhaps speeches would have been taped instead of broadcast live. Ms. Fraser was also of the impression that with each successful speech the king gave, his self-confidence would have grown and subsequent ability to fluently deliver a live address increased.

The movie has much to teach speech-language pathologists about stuttering, so much so that Ms. Fraser hopes the movie becomes part of the curriculum in training programs. What lessons can be learned? Ms. Fraser believes future practitioners can learn that confrontation is not necessarily a bad thing in the therapeutic process and that sometimes the unorthodox is needed. To support her case, she drew upon the work and examples of Cooper and Van Riper. Therapists should also not be afraid to take a break during the course of therapy, terminating intervention for a period and resuming it later. She feels this might be particularly useful when the clinician and client are out of sync, motivation is on the wane, or the process is not moving ahead. Perhaps, most importantly, Ms. Fraser thinks this movie provides incredible insight into the overpowering fear which occurs when a stutterer hits a block.

I would like to thank Ms. Fraser and The Stuttering Foundation for the opportunity to talk about “The King’s Speech.” That King George VI is a hero to her and that she views this movie as extremely important were evident throughout our discussion. Feel free to share your impressions of the movie and Ms. Fraser’s remarks in the comments section.

The first installment of my series reviewing “The King’s Speech” was previously posted on ASHAsphere and describes my impressions of the movie.

Kenneth Staub, M.S., CCC-SLP, is an Assistant Professor, Communication Sciences & Disorders at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. He will be a regular contributor to ASHAsphere and welcomes questions or suggestions for posts.