Fear Therapy?

by Michael Hughes, executive director Speak Easy, a Canadian organization for people who stutter, and editor of their monthly magazine, Speaking Out

A number of years ago, I was quite involved with the Royal Canadian Air Force Association or "Air Force Club." After spending some time as an ordinary member, I was voted to the Executive and served as Sports Director, Entertainment Director, and other positions before earning the honor of being elected President of the club. That was one of the busiest years of my life as our Treasurer became incapacitated due to illness and the bookkeeping/accounting functions fell on my shoulders. My presence at the club was required just about every evening and most weekends.

Those were lean economic times and the Air Force Club's finances were unstable. Two years earlier, we had benefited from another organization being burned out of their quarters and temporarily using our facilities. They were a fun-loving bunch of blue-collar workers, free to act rougher than usual since they were not in their own building. They made good use of our bar service, and the profits permitted us to buy a bus for the transportation of our affiliated air cadet squadron (a bus we may now have to borrow to drive us to the poor house).

The past year and a half had been comparatively slow for our club and means had to be found to generate some sorely-needed revenue. One of our members had arranged for his company's social club to rent the main hall of the Air Force Club for their annual Christmas party. It was a good source of funds and, if the event went well, we could hope to build upon it to create a source of potential revenues. Everyone wanted the party to succeed.

The company's Christmas Party was scheduled for a Friday night, and all Air Force Club members were warned to be on their best behavior. Members were told to use the other rooms in the building, leaving the main hall for the renter's use. The temporary inconvenience was more than made up for by the rental fee received from the private party.

Mack was one of our newer members, having joined the Association within the past year. I didn't know his real name, just called him by his nickname "Mack," as did the rest of the membership. The moniker was well suited; he was five-foot-eight - 5'8" tall, 5'8" wide, 5'8" thick - resembling the Mack truck for which he had been named. He was usually dressed in blue overalls that served to highlight his thick, but neatly trimmed, black beard. He presented a foreboding and imposing figure.

Those who have spent any amount of time around a liquor-serving establishment know that things go wrong. Booze and good sense are an oxymoron. Tonight, it was Mack's turn to upset the applecart. Either he felt left out and wanted to join the festivities, or felt indignant at being excluded from one room of the Air Force Club's property. Whatever the reason, Mack decided that he was going to join the private party in the main hall.

Since I was sitting within earshot of Mack's loudly announced decision to join the party, I was able to quickly station myself in front of the closed doors leading to the main hall. As Mack approached, I smiled and greeted him in a warm and friendly manner - hoping to divert him with relative ease. Using jokes and camaraderie, I tried to convince Mack that he was making a mistake and offered to buy him a drink if he would return to the bar.

Mack knew that I was President of the club. We had met many times and had played several enjoyable snooker matches on the table in the games room. We got along well, and I expected no real trouble in trying to divert Mack.

Oh, well -

The combination of booze, indignation, and jealousy had put Mack into an antagonistic mood. He was determined that he was going to join the private party and told me to get out of his way. I was just as determined that the party would not be interrupted with a resulting loss to the Club of current and future revenues. I stood my ground and things quickly turned nasty.

Keeping my voice low so as to not disturb the company party, I informed Mack that he was not permitted to join the festivities. I talked slowly and quietly to him in a manner I thought would serve well to placate the savage beast. While talking, I kept positioning myself in front of him as he attempted to walk around me in order to reach the entrance to the hall.

I focused my attention on trying to calm Mack while maintaining my barrier to the room. It came as a shock when Mack used his right hand to gently cuff me on the left side of my face. The meaning was clear - get out of my way, or let's get it on!

Before and after this incident with Mack, I had occasion to use physical force to remove unruly customers from the Air Force Club. While Mack was as big as a wrestler, he was neither the biggest nor the baddest dude I'd been forced to deal with. But tonight was not the time for a brawl. We were desperately trying to attract new business to the Club, and private parties promised to be a good source of revenues. A fight now was definitely not in the Club's best interest and, as club President, I had to quietly dissuade Mack from crashing the private party.

With a calmness that amazes me to this day, I continued softly talking to Mack despite a couple more soft slaps to my jaw. I appealed to his sense of loyalty to the club, I appealed to his spirit of Christmas, I appealed to his sense of humor, I appealed to any of his senses that might not be befuddled by drink. Suddenly, I sensed that I was making progress. A light seemed to go on in Mack's eyes. He turned his head to the left, glanced down at the floor as he thought for a moment, then turned to me.

"Mike," he said, "How come you're not stuttering?"

His question struck me harder than had his slaps. I had been talking continuously to Mack for at least fifteen minutes (although it felt like hours), and had been speaking fluently the entire time. Trying to not disturb the rent-paying customers in the adjacent hall, I had kept my voice low. Trying to placate the burly Mack, I had been speaking in a softer than normal voice. Trying to avoid an ill-timed brawl, I had been focusing my attention elsewhere than on my speech. As a result, I had displayed no signs of a stutter, despite everyone's knowledge of my normal disfluent speech.

"Are you afraid of me?" Mack continued. "Did I scare the stutter out of you?"

The humor of the situation struck me immediately.

"Yes, I guess you did," I replied as I laughingly clapped Mack on the shoulder. "I should carry you around in my hip pocket, so that you can scare the stutter out of me whenever I want to speak."

With that exchange, the tension was broken. Mack mentioned something about one of us being a damned fool - which one wasn't made clear. He gulped down the remains of the beer in his hand, set the glass on a nearby table, and went out into the night. He never returned to the Air Force Club.

Meanwhile, I added another fluency technique to my stutterer's arsenal - Fear!

added with permission, December 4, 1999