My Story

by Michael Susca

The following is an autobiographical sketch. The stages of my life that I have included are from

  1. the early fifth grade prior to speech therapy with Dr. Knepflar (I had been in treatment but
    this is where the first valid -- in my view at the time -- treatment began)
  2. just prior to starting graduate school (21 years of age
  3. current - 43 years

Background: There is no history of stuttering in my family. My mother's pregnancy was unremarkable. Labor was long, difficult, and I was born two weeks beyond my due date. I am a first born. General health and development unremarkable, speech and language development unremarkable. My mother was anxious to start me in school and though a "December baby," I started kindergarten at the age of four. I remember meeting a boy who stuttered and one bright morning recall asking my parents about him, saying he talked like "I-I-I-I want-want-want-to-to-to-go-go-go-go-to the store." My parents' response was to "not mind" the speech problem and just treat him like all the other kids. But I remember my stuttering started soon after that and I think in part, I must have felt sorry for him and took on his problem in order to lessen his isolation.

Up to the ninth grade when friends asked why I stuttered, I would say I said some "magic words" and would repeat the stuttered sentence. Another possible contributor to my stuttering is that my father was born of immigrant parents (Italian) and when he went to school he had to learn English as a second language. He is a little perfectionistic, especially with language, and may have been overly-concerned with normal non-fluencies in my speech. Since he was made fun of as a child (regarding speech), he may have been a little concerned that his children not experience the same problems about communication. My parents have always been loving and supporting, not allowing siblings or neighbors to make fun of my speech and/or me. My father is a retired university music professor and my mother a former P.E./dance teacher.

Stuttering from Kindergarten to third grad went from easy part and whole word repetitions to glottal blocks, "staccato-like" repetitions, and secondary mannerisms of eyeblinks, head nods, and facial contortions. In third grade, my father got a university speech department recommendation to see my first speech pathologist. I saw him from third to fifth grade during which time I actually got worse. He took a psychotherapeutic approach, with emphasis on stresses in my life causing me to stutter (such as the sibling rivalries I had with my brother who is 17 months younger). I remember being so stressed by going there I would cry to and from my appointments with him. After a couple of months of tears, my father finally got the point and sought another referral from the speech department at his school. I was referred to Kenneth Knepflar. In my later years Ken said one of the first things I said to him was, "if you're going to blame my stuttering on my brother, I'm getting the heck out of here!" I bring this up although I did not remember making the statement, since it clearly reflects to me that I viewed my problem as MY problem (an internally-driven problem, not an externally-driven problem). Upon my now "educated reflection," Knepflar took a stuttering modification approach, incorporating Van Riperian and Sheehan methods as they became known. I know now that he was typically using "current approaches" of the time. From time to time I participated in Sheehan's groups and was a subject in some UCLA studies. From fifth to seventh grades I got rid of my secondaries and went from being a severe stutterer to a mild stutterer. My father got a sabbatical so I spent the last half of my seventh grade in Europe. I did not return to Knepflar because I could live with being a mild stutterer (in contrast to the "strangulation" and contortions I experienced as a severe stutterer.) However, in the next year and a half I started slipping back: increasing my use of avoidances, substitutions, circumlocutions, and physical quirks. I started "heaving" and dropping to the floor in my efforts to say "hello" on the phone. I was a mess. After seriously blowing an oral report in the ninth grade, my father offered to have me resume seeing Knepflar again which I graciously and tearfully accepted. I saw him throughout high school and in the 11th grade fluency shaping techniques were beginning to be explored and behavior modification was coming into it's own. It was at the end of High School, lazily reflecting upon my future while resting on my bed, that I realized I had spoken without a stutter for a few months. This revelation I call my "religious experience" because I had a huge psychic shift in my self-perception (I still had occasional stuttering, but the majority of the time I was fluent or experiencing speech in a normal way).

I went to UCSB during its ascendancy as a powerhouse for speech pathology in California (Costello, Prutting, Hanley, Keogel, Gerber -- for whom I bow my head respectfully) and for the first two years saw Knepflar at quarter breaks to "smooth out" rough edges in my fluency, discuss stuttering clinically and philosophically, and to (later) observe and participate in his treatments of stutterers. I wish he were still alive as I owe much to him.

I went to UNM for my masters. The last major "episode" of stuttering was during my master's program. There I was talking to a professor and another master's student about stuttering, had a definite block but managed it so efficiently that when I referred to it, both individuals were totally unaware that I experience the disruption in my speech and could not believe I had modified it so seamlessly in my conversational utterances. I may have had a difficulty since then, but nothing significant enough to register strongly.

I have been fortunate to have worked with many people who stutter (all ages) and note an increase in my disfluencies when working with them (as opposed to talking with non-stutterers). But the disfluencies feel natural: I don't have any of the physiological, emotional, mental, psychic, or muscular discomforts that I recall experiencing during "real" stuttering. I consider myself a normal speaker. I consider myself "cured" as Webster would put it: restored to (communicative fluency) health. I believe stuttering is "curable" but do not believe there is a cure: I believe that is different for different people.

added with permission September 9, 1999