On July 5th, 2012, my wife and I welcomed our son into the world. He has completely changed the way we live our lives, but some old habits die hard. In particular, I’ve found myself scrutinizing his every movement, expression, and utterance for signs of stuttering. I’ve been reading and writing about Victorian narratives of stuttering for a few years now, and I’m continually fascinated by how many of the Victorian’s ideas about language development persist in our culture today, and in ways not always welcome in my own thinking about stuttering. Some questions I’ve asked myself, at times without welcome, about Graham include: is he tongue-tied? Does he have trouble with breastfeeding (because this might be a sign of tongue-tied-ness)? Is he left or right handed (because the vast majority of stutterers are right handed, despite the fact that many folk theories suggest otherwise)? Would being right handed even be a sign of potential stuttering, given that most people are not sinister in this way? Does Graham show signs of Coleridge’s estimation of the infant babe’s natural lisping and cooing? Does he respond well to rhythms and singing? Of course, this constant questioning is ridiculous because even the Victorians knew that stuttering does not occur until at least 2 years of age, when babies are capable of subsisting within the symbolic order. Yet, I constantly look for the signs nevertheless.
Part of my fascination with Graham’s language development, even at such an early age, certainly stems from my current research in Victorian speech rehabilitation. I find it fascinating, though, that my own anxieties stem from everything I know to be old-fashioned, out-dated, and plain wrong about Victorian and neo-Victorian folk theories of stuttered speech. In the 1840s, Victorian doctors in London picked up the predominantly German mania for surgical procedures for stutterers. Influenced primarily by Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach’s Memoir on the Radical Cure of Stuttering (1841), London doctors began performing surgical procedures on stuttering, claiming that a quick snip inside the mouth could instantly cure stuttering. The mania became so prevalent, and traumatic for stutterers that James Wright decided to publish his pamphlet The Stutterer’s Friend (1843), pleading with doctors to cease their dangerously injurious surgical procedures. Fortunately, the mania subsided almost as soon as it arrived, but some contemporaries of Wright estimated that in the one or two year period of the mania, surgeries were performed on upwards of 500 stutterers in London alone.
My initial ventures into this surgical mania of the early 1840s first hit me with a personal recollection of a trip to the dentist in 2007. My dentist at the time asked me point blank during my first visit if I was a stutterer. Shocked at the question, I answered that, yes, I do have a mild stutter that I’m capable of controlling and that most people don’t even recognize. My dentist’s reply shocked me. He suggested that he could eliminate my stutter completely with one quick laser incision because I was (and still am) tongue-tied. Now, I know from my extensive reading that there is no evidence whatsoever today to suggest that stuttering is a problem relating to simple defects of the speech apparatus. In fact, current research has so completely moved away from such simplistic theories that my dentist’s belief in his abilities was thoroughly laughable. Yet, my trip to the dentist has always reminded me that Victorian medical theories persist still today, almost as if they have become part of the folk wisdom that we all at times believe will be the magic solution to our complex physical, cognitive and even neurological conditions.
That I have lately found myself worrying that Graham is tongue-tied confirms my suspicion that Victorian knowledge often still persists today, but in a skewed sort of way. Now that I’m a father, one with worries that my own stutter might be passed genetically to my son, I find it difficult to separate my extensive knowledge of stuttering with the powerful superego injunctions of folk wisdom about speech disfluency. I find myself wanting my son to be “normal” in his speech, and I can’t help but thinking that my desire for Graham is actually the desire of the Other. It’s strange how such simplistic, and I would suggest incredibly Victorian, fantasies of “normal” speech have invaded my wishes, hopes, and dreams for my son. Clearly, I have some fantasies that I need to traverse sooner rather than later. For now, I take comfort in the fact that Graham seems to be very happy to eat, sleep, and cuddle with his mommy and daddy.