How My Stuttering Ended
By Miriam Mondlin
Aesthetic Realism shows that what interferes most with our self-expression is contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it" -- this includes the feeling that the world is not good enough for us to express ourselves in. And Aesthetic Realism shows that the self-expression everyone is looking for is the doing all we can honestly to like and respect the world.
There is much written on the subject of stuttering, but the definitive explanation of its cause is in "An Approach to a Philosophy of Self and Disease," chapter 11 of Self and World, by Eli Siegel [Definition Press, 1981]. "Stuttering," Mr. Siegel writes, "is one of the most conspicuous manifestations of the antagonistic impact of a desire to express, with a desire to withhold." And as he continues, he literally is describing technically what happens when one stutters:
Stuttering: A Battle about the World
Like every child, I wanted "to be related"--to go towards a world filled with the sights and sounds I loved--for instance, the sound of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or "Apple Blossom Time" sung by the Andrews Sisters, coming from my family's treasured Victrola. And one of my earliest memories is of my family's sitting on our Brooklyn stoop on a hot July 4th evening when I was about three and my feeling of wonder and pleasure as we watched fireworks across the street on Bay Parkway. I loved those fireworks, because, I learned, art--and this can include the art of fireworks--shows how a person wants to be.
"The world, art and self explain each other,"stated Mr. Siegel, "each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." Opposites that battle in stuttering--assertion and retreat--are together in beautiful fireworks, as a sudden explosion makes for arrangements of outline and color in space that come forward in brightness and then gracefully recede, blending into the sky.
I also saw the world as inimical and fearful. I was born during the Depression, and my family, like millions of others, was suddenly plunged into financial straits. My father lost his tailoring shop shortly after I, the fifth child, was born. Unable to find work, he felt very much a failure, and after a lingering illness he died. My mother did her best with the little we had, with my older sisters and brother pitching in, and while we never went hungry there was always worry about money for the next meal. Yet I was pampered and spoiled. I thought, ungratefully, this was a mean world that takes fathers away, and felt I'd been gypped out of the comfortable middle class life my family had had before I was born.
My mother was devoted to me, would take me to Dodger games on Ladies' Day, or to play near the ocean at Coney Island. But she also could raise her voice angrily, accusing a salesgirl in Woolworth's of trying to cheat her, or could fight with neighbors, and then could suddenly take to the couch, sometimes for days, not wanting to talk to anyone. In Self and World, Eli Siegel greatly explains: "Aesthetic Realism sees the important cause of stuttering as the attitude of the stuttering self as a whole to what it meets." I used my mother's contradictory ways to intensify a fight in myself: I thought I should go out, meet the world; but I also thought, this world is so messy, so confusing, what is there to get excited about? I was truly disappointed that my family didn't want to understand me, but I also used the weaknesses in people to have contempt--to feel I had better things to say than anyone, and these ordinary mortals were not good enough to hear me.
I began to stutter noticeably when I was about three, and as I grew up the stuttering increased. Often terrified to utter a sound, I felt I could never be sure of saying anything without stuttering. When I went to elementary school I was eager to learn to read and write, but I couldn't say "Miriam" without a painful, long M-m-m-m-m sound. The most difficult thing for me to say was my address, 4117-15th Avenue, with the sounds of f and s. After many painful tries, I would act as if I forgot. The other children would laugh uncomfortably and I would feel mortified. The guidance counselor told my mother, who was very worried, that I stuttered because I was "insecure" and would probably "grow out of it." But the stuttering went on.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that even as we are pained, we can have the triumph of contempt. And I did--giving people the message, "See if you can get something out of me!" As my family coaxed me to speak, inwardly I would go to a secret world where I was the princess Alicia and everybody served and adored me. Then when I tried to speak, the two directions in myself--wanting to go toward the world and wanting to go away from it--jammed up. I am tremendously grateful for what I was to learn years after about the hope that interferes with our expression, as Mr. Siegel so kindly explained to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson: "The way we are friendly to what is different from ourselves and then hope to see it as hostile affects us in ways we don't know. Do you think this could contribute to stuttering? " The answer is a resounding Yes.
Aesthetic Realism has none of the unscientific, clinical way with which stuttering is usually seen. For example, in an April 1991 article in Health magazine, Jacqueline Shannon, while admitting that the "precise origins" of stuttering are not "clear," writes: "New studies show that stuttering is a largely inherited disorder that may involve specific abnormalities in the brain." She mentions "a range of promising experimental treatments, from drugs conventionally used as antidepressants to injections of tiny (and safe) doses of a deadly poison." I think this way of seeing a person who stutters is ignorant and cruel; and it is one of the results of the press boycott of Aesthetic Realism.
At age 19, unable at the time to hold a completely fluent conversation with anyone, I read these sentences from Self and World about a young woman called Hester Jackson and thought, "Thank God. Mr. Siegel really understands! This is how I feel":
I had most trouble saying s sounds, and when looking for a job I would pray that the company's telephone number would not have a 7 in it. I remember turning down more than one job because I felt I would never be able to say the phone number. Persons who stutter are tortured by this kind of thing all the time. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson in 1958, Eli Siegel explained why I stuttered particularly on the s sound and on the word seven. He said that in the word seven "you have to accept the world as ugly and beautiful": seven has both the sound of a hiss and the lovely ehven sound that is also in heaven. Mr. Siegel asked me, "Do you like to cheer people or hiss them?" I answered, "Hiss them." Then he asked, "Do you associate these s sounds with hissing?" I did.
Mr. Siegel explained: "All sounds have a certain ethical value. They can be misused [and] usually are misused. In order to get rid of a problem, you have to get rid of something. Don't associate the s sound with the triumphant lessening of the human race .... Reconsider sounds and say what you think about them. Practice this sentence: 'I love you,' he hissed."
In this magnificent lesson, I was learning how to reconsider sounds, to use for respect sounds I had associated with contempt; and this changed how I saw seven forever. Mr. Siegel said I should memorize the first stanza of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem "The Blessed Damozel," in which seven and heaven are rhymed:
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
Miriam Mondlin is a consultant on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. This article is part of a landmark public seminar presented there titled: "What Interferes with Your True Expression?" Mrs. Mondlin had the honor to study in classes taught by Eli Siegel, in which he lectured on the poetry of the world, literature, science, art, music, economics and the questions of the human self. She continues her study of Aesthetic Realism in classes taught by Class Chairman Ellen Reiss. The Aesthetic Realism Foundation is located at 141 Greene Street, New York, NY 10012, (212) 777-4490, http://www.AestheticRealism.org