July 22, 2011

The King’s Speech: A Portrayal of Childhood Trauma as a Cause of Stuttering

The King’s Speech, winner of four Academy Awards this year, including best film, impressed me for many reasons. It’s my kind of character-driven film, with a straightforward plot and no dizzying special effects or sex scenes thrown in to spice it up. The story line is simple: the plight of King George VI of Britain, a severe stutterer, and his struggle overcome his affliction.  
The King’s Speech is not the first film of this genre to win wide acclaim, or best picture. Rain Man (1988) did much to make the public aware of the plight of the autistic and A Beautiful Mind (2001) portrayed the painful struggle of a paranoid schizophrenic. A theme in all three films, one that resonates with audiences, is the suffering caused by disorders that defy medical understanding and the attempts we make to help those so afflicted.
The outcome of the film is fairly predictable. King George demonstrates remarkable determination and does get the best of his speech impediment. However, it’s how this was achieved that I found most interesting. Lionel Logue, an “unqualified” speech therapist with an unorthodox approach, proves successful where others have failed. The audience roots for the King to bring his stammer under control, and for Lionel to succeed in treating his difficult celebrity patient, but there is another important element that resonates with audiences. 
Viewers empathize with King George because they understand, at a deep level, that his stuttering is a physical disorder rooted in an abusive childhood. We learn that as a very young boy he suffered severe traumas. His nanny withheld food from him, and pinched him to make him cry before greeting his parents, so his parents would grow to dislike him. He was forced to wear iron leg braces several hours a day as a treatment for his bowlegs. Furthermore, as he was left handed, he was forced to use his right hand and punished when he used his left. 
Current View on Stuttering

Today, the prevailing theory on stuttering is that it has no link, whatsoever, to emotional or physical traumas experienced in early childhood. This view has been expressed by organizations such as the nonprofit Stuttering Foundation, which states: “Children and adults who stutter are no more likely to have psychological or emotional problems than children and adults who do not. There is no reason to believe that emotional trauma causes stuttering.” 
Thus, a major theme in the film, that King George’s stuttering was related to the trauma of having his handedness switched, and that Lionel Logue accepted this as a well-established fact, is considered by today’s medical establishment as pure fiction. Yet the audience of The King’s Speech immediately understands, and is willing to accept, that the King’s stuttering is related--in some way--to his traumatic childhood. They are also willing to accept that his stuttering can be helped by an unconventional therapy, one that takes into account an emotional component, along with the physical manifestations of the disorder. 
What the audience of The King’s Speech understands, at a gut-level, and what they are willing to accept as true, is correct in my experience. Stuttering does have an emotional basis. I have treated a number of individuals with speech impediments with psychiatric orgone therapy, including many stutterers. Almost all have shown significant improvement and the majority have had their voice completely restored. This is so despite an ever-increasing trend in medicine to discount clinical experience in favor of “evidence-based medicine.” Today, a therapy is considered acceptable only if it can be backed up with references that have been published. These must have appeared in peer-reviewed medical literature, supported by randomized, placebo controlled, double-blind studies that have yielded statistically valid outcomes. 
Now that genetic explanations are replacing external causative factors, with the body being viewed as nothing more than a complex machine, the continued mechanization of medicine is inevitable. Given the shift away from recognizing the value of a physician’s personal experience with patients, it is unfortunate that unorthodox treatments are unlikely to be explored, let alone ever accepted.

Wilhelm Reich, M.D.
How traumatic childhood events produce changes in the body is one of Wilhelm Reich’s pivotal discoveries. What he found is that specific areas of the body contract in an attempt to handle emotional shocks. These areas of holding, that he called armoring, all too often become chronic and remain for life--unless they are removed with therapy. Understanding the process by which armoring forms, and how it can be eliminated, allows sense to be made of the relationship between the mind and the body. Thanks to Reich’s discovery, this often mystified connection has been made comprehensible. 
Central to Reich’s theory is that the traumas of childhood remain locked away in the body as armoring. They are out of conscious awareness. The function of these bodily contractions is to prevent painful emotions associated with past events from reemerging into consciousness. Unfortunately, that there is an unconscious and that there are forces at work to keep it concealed, is not really much accepted. In spite of an enormous amount of evidence, most people still believe that if an event, or an emotion, cannot be consciously recalled, it cannot possibly have produced a lasting effect. This is not true. The emotional shocks and suffering of childhood are never truly forgotten. To quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
What we know from Reich is that stuttering is an affliction affecting two discrete areas, the jaw and throat, or as Reich called these areas, the oral and cervical segments. Both are associated with speech production. Reich explains in Children of the Future that: “Stammering and stuttering are direct expressions of armored jaw and throat muscles.” He goes on to say: “Later on, once the stuttering is established, shame, feelings of inferiority and apprehension are added and aggravate the symptoms, making it chronic. But the core is simple acute armoring of the muscle group which is used in speech. Thus the core of stammering and stuttering is of a physiological, bioenergetic nature; it has been brought about by an emotional upheaval and is maintained by emotional complications.”
As an orgone therapist, the method I employ in treating speech disfluencies differs markedly from traditional speech therapy. It is not possible to fully explain my method here, but I can say that it involves breathing, emotional release in a safe environment, and some direct work on armoring, principally in the jaw and neck. It is quite different (but also not entirely unlike) Lionel Logue’s technique! Indeed, I was amazed to see a film that introduced--and did it so well--some of the very methods orgone therapists employ to loosen jaw and throat armor. Logue had the King shake his head, loosen his tongue and jaw, move his shoulders, swing his arms about, and breathe deeply. He also encouraged him to shout out and curse.
The film’s most memorable scenes are those in which King George is releasing his pent-up emotions in Logue’s office, as part of the therapy. I believe these scenes are so striking not just because King George was acting in ways that are out of character for a monarch, but because people know, from their own experience, that emotional and physical release are cathartic. 
The King’s Speech has many elements that resonate with audiences. One that bears final note is that Logue, a speech therapist without official qualifications, practicing an unconventional therapy, is successful where accepted techniques have failed. His antiestablishment approach had the audience rooting for him to prevail even though the “experts” said he couldn’t. This aspect of the plot fits well with the public’s growing interest in alternative treatments such as acupuncture, homeopathic remedies, vitamins and other supplements, organic foods, and a host of natural approaches that continue to gain ground. 
I have written three case studies of patients with speech disorders treated with psychiatric orgone therapy. They are: Stuttering, A Case of Spastic Dysphonia, and Treatment of a Stuttering Child

1 comment:

Neil Schierholz PsyD said...

Excellent! I'm so happy to read your take on the movie "The King's Speech." As I watched the movie it was also evident to me that the interventions were quite congruent with Reich's theory and practice. Thank you for this insightful piece.

Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

One of Wilhelm Reich’s most important and lasting contributions is a unique treatment for emotional disorders called psychiatric orgone therapy. Reich began as a psychoanalyst and was a member of Freud’s inner circle, but moved away from Freud’s method of free association when he developed a more effective verbal approach he called character analysis. Later he came to recognize the existence of a specific biologic energy in living organisms that he called “orgone,” which was coined from the word “organism.” With this discovery Reich was able to combine his verbal method with a technique that could normalize a person’s energy. The result was an entirely new approach to treating emotional disorders that he named orgone therapy.

Reich’s work with patients convinced him the disturbance in an individual’s energy state is caused by contractions in the body, especially in the musculature. He called these contractions “armor,” and established that they begin to develop in infancy as a way to block out emotionally painful events.

Past traumatic experiences are locked in the body--and they remain throughout life. How this happens is not fully understood, but there is no question that anxiety, anger and sadness, as well as the other upsetting feelings and emotions from childhood are not forgotten. Armor not only holds the disturbing past, causing it to remain alive but out of consciousness awareness, but it also affects how one feels and functions. Because living a natural healthy life depends upon whether a person’s energy flows freely or is blocked, the aim of psychiatric orgone therapy is to free up energy by breaking down armor. As these areas of holding dissolve, patients release their long buried feelings and emotions in the safety of the therapist’s office. They most usually surface spontaneously with the specific method Reich innovated, without the need of urging or any intervention on the part of the treating psychiatrist. However, occasionally, pressure needs to be applied to spastic muscles, or other techniques used to normalize the body. Because this treatment combines a verbal approach with a physical technique, it addresses both the mind and the body to bring about profound changes in how one thinks, feels and functions.

Today almost all people seeking treatment from a psychiatrist are given medications to reduce their symptoms. However, with psychiatric orgone therapy it is usual that patients, over time, find themselves able to wean themselves off medication and function without pharmacologic treatment. Reich’s therapy is unique in that it not only relieves distressing symptoms, but also does much more. It enables individuals to expand and feel pleasure, and better enjoy the many satisfactions life has to offer.

There are people who claim to practice some form of “Reichian” or “orgone” therapy, even though they have had no formal training in medicine or psychology. Often the techniques used by these self-proclaimed therapists have little or nothing to do with the very specific methods Reich developed and taught. The value of such therapies is questionable and may even harm those who get involved in them.

Qualified psychiatric orgone therapists have extensive training. They are physicians who have gone on to specialize in psychiatry and then in the very unique subspecialty of orgone therapy. They practice in much the same way as Reich did more than a half century ago. Ph.D. Psychologists who have had proper training can practice a form of orgone therapy safely and effectively. However, it is crucial they have supervision by a qualified psychiatric orgone therapist.