by J. David Williams
(Now Emeritus) Professor
Dept. of Communicative Disorders
Northern Illinois University
Joseph G. Sheehan, a speech pathologist and clinical psychologist who specialized in the problem of stuttering, died in November 1983 after a long and productive career.
Joe started out to be a chemist, but decided instead to pursue a career in speech pathology and psychology. He was a former severe stutterer. His hometown was Battle Creek, Michigan, and shortly before the Second World War he went to nearby Kalamazoo for speech therapy with Charles Van Riper at what was then Western Michigan State Teachers College.
I first met Joe at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1946. He was there as a graduate student in speech pathology, and he and George Wischner, a doctoral candidate in psychology with a special interest in stuttering, were in charge of the stutterers at the speech clinic under the general guidance of Wendell Johnson. All the stutterers were divided between Joe's group and George's group. I was assigned to Joe's group, and, like the other stutterers, I also had a student clinician assigned to me individually.
In one of my classes the professor called roll in a rapid-fire manner, and nearly always I would stutter when trying to say "Here." As a 'starter,' I got in the habit of saying "Oh, here." I reported this to my personal clinician, and she consulted Joe about what to do. Following Joe's instructions, she told me that the next time I answered roll call, I was to deliberately say "Oh" five times, distinctly and rather slowly, before I made any effort to say "here." I was scared, but I couldn't duck the assignment, because my clinician was taking that same class and had me under direct observation! So the next time I answered roll call, I braced myself and followed Joe's instructions - quite successfully, somewhat to my own surprise. Both Joe and my clinician congratulated me, and I felt on top of the world.
In our weekly group meeting, Joe gave us regular assignments which we had to carry out and then report on at the next meeting. These involved all sorts of social encounter: on the street, in stores, over the phone, and so on. We had to practice 'faking' stuttering, maintaining eye contact, reporting the listener's reactions, and other activities designed to decrease our anxiety about stuttering and increase our feelings of confidence and control. Joe's main theme was always "Don't avoid, don't hide, don't deny your stuttering. The only way you'll ever get over your fear of stuttering and thus become genuinely fluent, is to meet it head-on. Always do the thing you fear, and gradually you will learn not to fear it."
Joe and I became personal friends. He was intensely humanistic, had a variety of interests, and was a ready conversationalist. I recall being impressed with his knowledge of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, including the backgrounds of the various gangsters involved and their gang wars of the Prohibition era. Joe was also quite musically inclined, and he and I and another graduate student would get together to play our "Tonettes," a small plastic wind instrument also known as a ocarina or "sweet potato." We would practice together at night in Joe's office in East Hall, and we became fairly good at keeping together and getting some harmony. In addition to speech pathology and psychology, East Hall also housed the department of journalism, which published the university newspaper, "The Daily Iowan." One morning a brief article appeared in the paper with the headline: "Who Are the Unknown Musicians in East Hall?" The reporter described how, night after night, the dulcet tones of our caterwauling resounded through the corridors of East Hall.
After leaving Iowa, Joe obtained his doctorate at the University of Michigan. His graduate training was in clinical psychology as well as speech pathology, and he always viewed stuttering as a psychological phenomenon, a form of learned behavior. He acknowledged the possibility of some form of innate, possibly hereditary, predisposition to fluency disruption, but he was convinced that stuttering, with its accompanying sense of personal handicap, developed only as a result of emotional conflicts about the ability to speak acceptably. Such conflicts or self-doubts were acquired through interpersonal relationships, most commonly with the parents. Joe always felt this process of learning was a complex affair, not easily explainable in terms of straightforward conditioning. Though not an out-and-out Freudian, Joe believed that psychodynamic forces could play an important role in the development and maintenance of stuttering. He rejected any notion that stuttering had physiological basis independent of the stutterer's learned emotional reactions. He would never have called himself a "speech scientist" attempting to unravel the mystery of stuttering with the aid of apparatus designed to measure physiological responses in that specialized environment known as a "laboratory." To Joe, the only laboratory necessary for the investigation and treatment of stuttering was the room where the clinician met the stutterer, and more importantly, the everyday living environment of the stutterer.
For many years, Joe conducted group and individual therapy with stutterers at UCLA and in private practice. When challenged as to the efficacy of his therapy methods or his theoretical position, Joe would reply that he rested his case on the record of success that his clients had achieved.
To Joe, the heart of the stuttering problem was the conflict the stutterer felt between the desire to speech (to achieve communication) and the fear of stuttering. The stutterer is caught in a double bind. When faced with the need to utter a particular word, the stutterer wants to speak that word and achieve desired communication. But by saying the word, he runs the risk of stuttering. On the other hand, if he chooses not to say that word, he eliminates the risk of stuttering but incurs the penalty of not achieving communication. The stutterer feels he is caught in a no-win situation. The cumulative effect of this process is increased anxiety and feelings of helplessness, which only serve to maintain the whole vicious cycle of stuttering.
The only solution, as Joe saw it, was for the stutterer to go ahead and attempt to say the feared word in the best way possible at the moment. A basic purpose of therapy was to teach the stutterer always to go ahead, to not hold back, to have a damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead attitude. In brief, to learn not to avoid. In psychological jargon, the purpose was to increase the 'approach drive' and decrease the 'avoidance drive.' This would decrease and ultimately eliminate the terrible feeling of conflict that underlies stuttering, and leave the way clear for the stutterer to work constructively on changing any overt characteristics of his speech that would further improve matters - if any such changes were necessary at all.
Of major importance, of course, is how these 'approach' and 'avoidance' feelings are learned and maintained. Joe felt that a major factor is the social role the individual plays, especially the way the stutterer views his or her self-role as a speaker. Joe referred to stuttering as a false-role disorder. In their desperate quest for fluency, stutterers try to avoid or conceal all stuttering - to give the impression (play the role) of being a normal speaker. Due to the nature of stuttering, they may be able to succeed just enough to maintain this type of avoidance behavior, but the attempted masquerade is never really satisfactory and almost always fails. As a result of trying to maintain a false role as a fluent speaker, stutterers undergo constant stress, never accepting themselves as they are - and their problem is perpetuated. Joe tried to train his stuttering clients to be honest, to face themselves and others openly as stutterers. By doing so, they could free themselves of false role anxiety and gain confidence and self-respect. Their 'approach' attitudes would increase and their 'avoidance' ones diminish. Gradually they attained more and more genuine fluency rather than the false 'fluency' based on suppressive tricks of avoidance and concealment. Whenever this procedure does not seem to work, it is only - Joe would point out with exasperation - because the stutterer never really tries it.
Joe Sheehan was a direct academic descendant of Lee Edward Travis, Wendell Johnson, and Charles Van Riper, the specialists in stuttering who came out of the University of Iowa in the late 1920s and 1930s. Like them, his approach to stuttering therapy was basically psychological, involving (under the guidance of a clinician) self-confrontation, self-analysis, self-modification of stuttering behaviors, and aimed at reduction of fear and avoidance. It is an approach that has lost some popularity in recent years, with the advent of current interest in physiological findings (laryngeal dysfunction and so on) and the highly programmed and rather mechanistic 'fluency shaping' treatment procedures. It has even been referred to recently, and disparagingly, as the "mental hygiene era" in stuttering therapy.
I asked Joe a year or so ago what he thought future trends would be in therapy. He said he thought the pendulum will swing back toward the counseling and psychotherapeutic approach once the contemporary enthusiasm for programmed behavior modification techniques has faded. Joe believed that any mechanistic 'fluency shaping' procedures, while frequently producing immediate increases in apparent fluency, are basically suppressive in nature and are doomed to ultimate failure in the absence of thorough attitudinal change by the stutterer. Any remaining vestiges of fear of stuttering and consequent avoidance drives are, as Joe eloquently expressed in a 1982 presentation at Northern Illinois University, an "invitation to relapse."
Joe and I got together many times over the years, usually at ASHA conventions, with occasional letters and phone calls. It was always enjoyable to exchange views with him and to bat around ideas on stuttering. We also exchanged an astronomical number of usually atrocious puns. In the department we was hard to top. On some occasions his wife Vivian had to suffer through the puns. Vivian, whom I first met in 1947, has long been a highly successful speech pathologist in her own right. It should be mentioned that their daughter Mimi has also entered the same profession - and I'm certain that Joe would insist there was no hereditary factor involved in Mimi's choice!
Joe Sheehan paid his dues and made his mark. He was a dynamic personality who had strong convictions and was never loath to express them. He seldom if ever backed down in an argument. It is my opinion that his assertiveness was due in large part to his own self-therapy which always stressed the nonavoidant attitude. He practiced what he preached, and it paid off handsomely. Anyone who has definite convictions and is not afraid to express them will inevitably attract both supporters and opponents. Whatever one feels about Joe Sheehan, it is an unquestionable fact that he made highly significant contributions to the theory and treatment of stuttering. I am sure that many former stutterers can attest to that.
He will not soon be forgotten.