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KNOTTED TONGUES by Benson Bobrick


Stuttering in History and the Quest for a Cure

by Benson Bobrick

Pub Date: April 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-671-87103-X
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

A surprisingly entertaining essay on stuttering, chock full of hey-listen-to-this and did-you-ever-know-that anecdotes, plus, for sufferers, an account of a therapy that worked for the author. A stutterer from the age of seven, Bobrick (East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia, 1992) uses his considerable research skills to shed light on this mysterious ailment, which afflicts 55 million people worldwide. The story of how Greek orator Demosthenes worked to overcome stuttering by shouting over the roar of the waves with a mouthful of pebbles is well-known, but Bobrick has dozens of others about notable stutterers—Moses, Claudius, Robert Boyle, Cotton Mather, Lewis Carroll, Somerset Maugham, English kings Charles I and George VI, and Winston Churchill, among others—and how they coped. He describes some of many psychoanalytic theories that attempted to explain stuttering and some of the astonishing therapies that sought to cure it (nosedrops, purgatives, gargling with breast milk, wrapping the tongue in little towels soaked in lettuce juice), and a host of surgeries (most frequently on the tongue, but also on the skull, the adenoids, and even the coccyx). Effective therapy, however, awaited a more complete understanding of neurophysiology, and in his final chapter, Bobrick concentrates on the work of Ronald Webster, an experimental psychologist who concluded that stuttering is a motor-control disorder based on a defect in the auditory feedback loop and developed an effective program to treat it. Eight years ago Bobrick enrolled in a program based on Webster's work, and has ``seldom stuttered since.'' No knots in this author's tongue. If the book has a weakness, it's the final chapter on current understanding and treatment of stuttering: a touch lackluster compared with the lively and amusing history that precedes it.