CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 21 . . . . June 8, 2007
Unspeakable is a film born out of frustration. The idea for the film comes to filmmaker, and stutterer, John Paskievich, following several press interviews for his previous films in which his stuttering makes it nearly impossible to discuss his films and during which his interviewers repeatedly try to get him to start over. Paskievich questions the stigma attached to stuttering at a time when other afflictions, such as obesity and physical handicaps, are becoming increasingly visible in the media. What if he were to conduct an interview on television and be allowed to stutter? It would put him at ease and, therefore, decrease his stuttering, which, in turn, would put the interviewer at ease, and, lastly, it would expose viewers to a part of the human condition with which they might not be familiar. It would be a win-win situation, he argues, but, in the end, concedes, "Alas, that is not the way of TV."
Unspeakable takes an inside and personal look at stuttering. Paskievich, who doesn't stutter when reading prepared texts and is, therefore, able to narrate his own film, begins by explaining that speech is one of the main things that distinguish animals from humans and that a stutterer’s frustrating inability to communicate adequately can "diminish" him as a human being.
In his quest to help both the viewer and himself understand and accept his affliction, the filmmaker embarks on a journey into the world of stuttering. He begins research on the Internet, and his first stop takes him to Nashville to attend a National Stuttering Association convention. The motto of the NSA is: "If you stutter you're not alone." Indeed, stutterers are in good company. Even though they make up only one percent of the population, they feature some of the most prominent names of history, including Winston Churchill, King George VI, the Roman Emperor Claudius and scientist Isaac Newton.
Paskievich's next step is to begin a course of extensive self-therapy that examines both possible causes and cures for his affliction. Like the great Greek orator, Demosthenes (another stutterer), Paskievich tries the unconventional method of stuffing pebbles in his mouth while, at the same time, projecting his voice over the roar of ocean waves. While that may have worked for the famous Greek, it doesn't do much for Paskievich.
There is no cure for stuttering, Paskievich explains, because there is no known cause. However, there are a number of existing speech therapies, and, during the course of the film, Paskievich is determined to try them all. He tries Fluency Shaping which entails the re-learning of basic speech patterns by enunciating every word with deliberate slowness and precision. Then he attempts Stuttering Modification, which encourages the stutterer to freely reveal his stuttering and then modify it. This form of therapy is often hard to watch, as it requires that Paskievich embrace his stuttering and begin by "advertising and exposing that thing which has filled my life with so much fear, shame and self-loathing."
Paskievich changes his personalized license plate to read Stutter, and he takes on the admirable task of standing in a busy city area, asking complete strangers for directions. Watching the reactions of others, as Paskievich struggles to ask his questions, gives us the most poignant moments of the film. There is a teenage girl who can't help but laugh when he starts to speak, a man who asks him whether he's trying to be funny and others who make a beeline for the opposite direction as soon as he opens his mouth. More than anything else that Paskievich says and does, these painfully honest reactions offer the most revealing glimpse of what it is like to walk in his shoes.
As Paskievich embraces therapy after therapy, including alternative ones, like chanting, Paskievich also interviews a host of other stutterers, including children and teenagers, most of whom would prefer their affliction went away rather than embrace it. Paskievich's own acceptance comes slowly and reluctantly, and he seems to waiver between searching for a cure and wanting society's acceptance. At one point during his therapy, he watches a video of himself stuttering, and, in spite of the Stuttering Modification therapy, he is bothered by the effect the tape has on him, saying, "I hate to see myself stutter. It's like watching myself devolve to the level of a chimpanzee."
Because stutterers don't stutter when they sing, whisper or speak in chorus, one of the most promising "cures" appears to be a wearable earpiece developed by US scientist Dr. Joe Kalinowski. The earpiece produces delayed auditory feedback in the stutterer's ear, making it seem like they are speaking in a chorus. Paskievich tries this too, and, when he wears it, his stuttering disappears. He likes the device, yet, just as the film seems to be on the verge of a happy ending, Paskievich's next interview with a young stutterer reveals that for some the device loses its effect after time and they go back to stuttering. Whether or not that is the case for Paskievich, himself, we don't find out.
Paskievich reminds us again that there is no cure for stuttering and that the results of the therapies available are as varied as the therapies themselves. Some stutterers are "cured" following certain speech therapies; others aren't. Paskievich's own speech improves after his self-therapy, but his stuttering is not cured, and he makes peace with that fact, realizing that, while he can't control the reactions of his listeners, he can control his own.
Anyone who has ever had to step outside his or her comfort zones in order to overcome a fear will be able to relate to Paskievich's brave experiment. And, in the end, when he says, "I just want to be the guy on the radio who stutters," we want him there just as much.
Monika Grossenbacher, a Language and Literature major from the University of Toronto, lives and works in Toronto, ON.
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