I Swore an Oath Unto a Birch Tree

by Charles Van Riper

(The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Dr. Charles Van Riper to the Council of Adult Stutterers in Washington, D.C., in 1979. It was printed in To Say What is Ours: The Best of 13 Years of Letting GO, and is reproduced below with the permission of John Van Riper, son of Charles Van Riper).

I never saw my soul. I never really learned how to relax or to speak without stuttering. So, I decided finally that the only thing to do was to stutter away. Let her go, Gallagher! And not to stutter abnormally. Why need we struggle? Why need we tip-toe through the eggs of life, hoping we won't smash one? I believe it was Walt Whitman who said: "Sound your barbaric yelp over the land!" I've been speaking nonsense for years.

And people listen. And I've made a living out of a tangled tongue! And a crooked mouth!

And, I feel so fraudulent almost all of the time, including the present, that I'm sorry that I probably have very little to give you, sirs, in your serious sort of quest. But, I honor any group of stutterers who have for-gathered together in the search of their own immortal destiny. And I would expect that they exploit each other every time they get a chance to talk to a captive audience, at least once to the sons-of-guns who won't interrupt them. At least the other stutterers have at least that kindness in most instances, because you certainly haven't interrupted me. I appreciate that very much, thank you.

But, fellow frivolity aside - and I don't know why it should ever be put aside because it's a short life - you don't need a long face. Stuttering is not the world's worst of all curses. It is miserable, and I suffered long and hard from it, but, I think about ninety-nine and one nine-tenths percent of the problem is in the way you respond to the thing! That little tiny sticking is not anything that a human being can't bear. IF you start struggling with it or running away from it, it becomes a hoop-snake and the more you flee from a hoop-snake the more that hoop-snake chases you. You' ve got to go chase it a little and then it heads over hills and far away.

If you do meet together, you must not get too serious. There ought to be some gaiety to existence; there's enough morbidity anyway. Most stutterers I have known have been paralyzed, have amplified their misery to a degree that I think is morbid. You ought to do a lot for "Stutterers Anonymous" all over the world. Oh, there are things that ought to be done!! We take care of the mentally retarded with funds and fumes and publicity galore. There are organizations to help everybody except those who are with us still - the stutterers!

Maybe we need an organization. I myself am a maverick at heart, I fear. I walk by my wild lone like that wolf of Kipling's, I fear. So, I'm not the man to talk to. I'm not a joiner. I've never belonged to the Masons or the Knights of Columbus or to anything else. In fact, I was kicked out of the Boy Scouts!

So, I'm probably a very unfortunate choice as the speaker for the evening. However, if you can do something, you will be my companion in an age-old quest because, I , too, am dedicated, in my own motley way, to solving the problem of stuttering.

Long ago, when I was a youth in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I swore an oath unto a birch tree. I stutterered badly as I swore that oath. I remember it well. It was a sapling then, and I said: "Someday I shall c-c-c-c-cur I shall c-c-c-c-c-ah um I shall c-c-c-..." I couldn't think of any synonym for cure, so, finally, I said, "...cure stuttering." I've gone back to that birch tree almost every day, every year of my life since that time. Now that birch tree is about as large around as I am, and it's also beginning to die a little at the top. I've got to confess that I still have not fulfilled my oath. I've helped many stutterers, even cured a few adults. We have been able to prevent the major portion of children from having to suffer the agonies that are real, despite my levity. . . . We can help the adults, the majority of them. They can speak easily and fluently. They may still stutter a little. Even Gary Moore did, he said, when he didn't have the applause of the crowd.

At least we are on the quest. We will follow the 'will-o-the-wisp over the moors'. You too, in your own way as I in mine, will have to hunt for the end of this age-old curse. It does not seem as if it will be able to resist us long. Sometimes I'm close! I've had a hold of the tail-feathers. Then, it has escaped me. Even now I think I'm close. I've been working primarily on a way of being able to teach our stutterers how to monitor their normal speech, how to use the free speech they already have and not just to cope with the moment of stuttering where I spent too long at work. I think we have to learn how to feel our mouths in our free speech. Look at all of us! We have more free speech than we have stuttering, and it doesn't do us a bloody bit of good! That seems crazy. We ought to use this.

Webweaver Judy Kuster
Copyright 1996, 1997
Added May 7, 1997