by Jerry Johnson
from Wisconsin, USA

I classify myself as a "hard-core" stutterer. I never remember not stuttering. One of my earliest memories of stuttering was at a birthday party when I was about 3 and we had to introduce ourselves. I couldn't do it! This was the story of my speaking life until my mother heard of Dr. Van Riper. Off we went on the train from Milwaukee to Kalamazoo. My life turned the corner that day. I was 21 years old and had just finished a disastrous three years of college.

The speech clinic was on the top floor of student health services. I remember the building seemed old and Dr. Van's office was filled with oak furniture. My first impression of Dr. Van, was that he was "old." Dr. Van had this look about him that said "well kid, let's see what you can do." This really scared me. He wanted to see what I could do with my speech. Of course I failed miserably at the task. Years later Dr. Van played back one of my first interviews with one of his assistants and I couldn't understand one word I said.

But there is more to my first impression of Dr. Van and his assistant: they both stuttered! "What am I doing here anyway" was my first thought. I am here to get rid of my stuttering and the people who were supposed to help me still stuttered. What could I learn from them?

The message that has lingered the longest from this first encounter was to learn to accept what will be with you forever, learn to deal with it therapeutically, move forward, give yourself credit for what you can do and stop beating yourself up because you stutter. Dr. Van presented the image of dealing with the impossible by making it possible to deal with it at any given time. He could understand the hurt and pain but he didn't tolerate self-depreciation and any lack of motivation to self-correct.

I remember (now some 46 years later) the first group meeting of the stutterers, the students, and Dr. Van. He was usually the last person in the group to arrive and it seemed like it took him a moment to make up his mind where to sit. Later I learned this technique of closeness, protectiveness, and caring for a particular person on a given day. He chose his location to meet the needs of the individual. However, Dr. Van never made us feel dependent upon him. In fact, he said that if we didn't do the assignments he would kick us out of the program. I don't know if that ever happened but a few left voluntarily -- the ones who were the most vulnerable, and who felt helpless and hopeless. One gentleman left and joined the circus.

Dr. Van never wanted to be made to feel dependent either. He delighted in telling the story of a father who brought his son to see him. The father poured on the compliments to Dr. Van and told him what a great man he was and how he must take his son in for therapy and cure him of his stuttering. Dr. Van saw through this ploy and laid it upon the father to stop being a so and so. The father said, waving a $100 bill in front of Dr. Van and placing it upon his desk, "I can have any d... thing I want and I want you to cure my boy!" Dr. Van responded by saying, "if you don't take that d... money away from me I'll throw it out the window." The father laughed and said that Dr. Van was full of it. Dr. Van picked up the $100 bill, opened the window and tossed it out. Dr. Van delighted in saying that he "never saw an s.o.b. run so fast in his life."

Our first assignment was to give ourselves permission to stutter openly, freely, without embarrassment, shame, hostility, or guilt in any and all situations. This first goal was really an eye opener because here we were all bound up in hiding and avoiding our stuttering and now we were told to do just the opposite. What freedom this afforded me. I made many an unsuspecting listener suffer through my stuttering, but for the first time in my life I was like a young bird just out of the nest testing my wings. The breeze in my face was refreshing and clean. As you might suspect, my stuttering became "better." I was still stuttering but I had a sense of relief that I could actually give myself permission to do it.

Not too long after this assignment some of us were asked by Dr. Van to talk to his introductory class about stuttering. I volunteered to do it. I remember having performed pretty well until Dr. Van whispered in my ear to tell the class about my last sexual experience. Now, remember this was the early 50's and I wasn't sexually active, at least not that I would want to talk about. After all, how much of a story can you make up about kissing a girl?

I was asked to meet Dr. Van for breakfast one day at his favorite diner. At this time I was feeling pretty cocky about my ability to talk "fluently" and he thought I needed to be brought down a peg or two. He told me to go in ahead of him and place an order for cinnamon toast for him. I did as instructed, with much stuttering, and he came along with what I thought was a slight smile of having proved something to me. Adding insult to injury he asked me why I ordered cinnamon toast for him. I think he did eat the toast and I ate humble pie.

Dr. Van's therapy was good for me. Stutter openly, cancellation, pull- outs, anticipatory modification, and high stimulus speech all played a role in my getting better. Taking personal responsibility for oneself played a major role in my treatment and my success in conquering my stuttering. Too bad Dr. Van's therapy will probably fade after time as the young professionals reinvent the wheel and put their spin on symptomatic therapy. And what about genetics? And what about the brain wars? And what about chemotherapy? And what about all the hype over some type of appliance to cure stuttering? And what about the new, miraculous, treatment for stuttering? I hope to live long enough to savor these "new and startling" revelations as I stutter on into the next millennium.

July 19, 1999