The Oscar winning film, “The King’s Speech,” has brought national attention to stuttering — the handicap that King George VI of England suffered in the 1940’s. He wasn’t the only famous stutterer. Consider actors James Earl Jones and Marilyn Monroe, performers Carly Simon and Mel Tillis, writer John Updike and even Winston Churchill.
Annie Glenn, wife of astronaut and former Sen. John Glenn, now 91, has spent a lifetime working to overcome her stutter. A political spouse is expected to be an asset to a candidate’s career. Traditionally, if the spouse was handicapped, he or she could be a liability. But the wife of one time presidential hopeful John Glenn has a handicap that interfered with her ability to speak out on issues and often caused her to be misunderstood. That’s why a quarter of a century ago when few talked about stuttering, she went public and courageously spoke about her individual struggle. She granted her first interview on the subject to me in 1983 prior to Glenn’s unsuccessful presidential primary run.
If a heart surgeon gets detained in a meeting, a spouse can’t substitute in the operating room. If an attorney has two trials scheduled for the same day, a spouse cannot go argue the case. But politics is different. It’s one of the few professions where a candidate’s spouse is an acceptable surrogate. And if the spouse is a good speaker, knows the issues, has charm and exudes warmth, he or she can enhance his image.
Even when Jimmy Carter’s popularity waned, his wife Rosalynn was an asset. Before that, Jackie Kennedy contributed an ambiance of elegance to the White House, and Lady Bird Johnson was perceived as an active, energetic woman who helped beautify the nation’s capital. On the Republican side, Betty Ford was independent and outspoken, and Nancy Reagan brought glamour back to the White House. More recently, Hillary Clinton was a political partner to the president. The Bush women humanized their husbands in the public eye. Michelle Obama like previous first ladies commands media attention and has become a highly visible role model for American women.
Annie Glenn is one of the three million Americans and 68 million people worldwide who stutter. Born a stutterer, for years she has practiced her speech daily and is encouraged by slow but steady improvement. Once terrified of the telephone, she practiced by making three phone calls every morning. She called a department store and asked for a specific department, an airline and asked for a schedule, and a grocery store to ask if they carried a certain product.
“When you talk on the phone, you can’t see the reaction of the person on the other end—I could only think of all the horrible experiences I’ve had face to face,” said Annie, who has been laughed at, called mentally retarded and deaf and dumb because she could write but couldn’t speak. People ask her if she’s cold because her jaws jump up and down.
Sources say Rosalynn Carter objected to Sen. John Glenn as her husband’s vice presidential running mate in 1976 because of Annie’s speech impediment. The Glenns don’t deny that. When Vice President Lyndon Johnson requested a network hook-up at the Glenn home in Ohio during the first space shot in 1962, then astronaut Glenn called the vice president to refuse for fear that Annie would be misunderstood by the public, as stutterers so often are. The same year she declined to speak on a Bob Hope TV special with the other astronaut’s wives. There have been many times in Annie’s 68-year marriage to her childhood sweetheart that she has been called upon to share the microphone and the limelight. Until the early 80’s, the mere thought of it paralyzed her.
Annie and John Glenn grew up in New Concord, Ohio, a small town that offered comfort and protection to Annie, who stuttered 85 percent of the time. “When I opened my mouth to say a word that began with an a, e, i, o or u, my mouth would open, but no sound would come out,” explained Annie. “To carry on a conversation was work. In New Concord, they just ignored it and accepted my way of speaking.”
When Glenn was in the Marine Corps, and they moved from city to city, her stuttering became a greater disability. “I just couldn’t talk,” she said. Yet, Annie Glenn wasn’t shy. In each city, she would find a job playing the organ at a nearby church. And she would sing. Interestingly all stutterers can sing because that uses a different part of the brain.
Traditional speech therapy proved unsuccessful. Before she underwent a form of intensive, live-in treatment at the Communications Research Institute at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., first in 1972 and again in 1978, Annie couldn’t call the doctor if one of her children was sick, and couldn’t order dinner from a menu in a restaurant, much less talk to the press or make a campaign speech. She once worked as a secretary, did typing and shorthand but couldn’t answer the phone.
She was one of the first hundred students to complete Hollins’ three-week, 11-hour-a-day program. At Hollins, Annie began by pronouncing one-syllable words very slowly at the rate of two seconds per syllable, timing herself with a stop watch. She observed how the words were formed in her throat, mouth and jaw. She also learned how to breathe with an open throat, taking deep breaths.
“Coming back to the outside life the second time was a much bigger improvement over the first time,” says Annie. “My friends would cry. They couldn’t believe the change.”
She practiced regularly: with her monitor (a microphone which she talked into equipped with a green light that goes on if she stuttered); over her telephone with her speech therapist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Annie gave her first speech at a Memorial Day service in Ohio in 1977 and later accompanied by her speech therapist, filled in for her husband speaking around the country. “It’s a real phenomenon to observe her,” her therapist told me at the time. “Not long ago, she didn’t use the telephone and was virtually non-communicative verbally. Usually with stress and fatigue, speech fluency deteriorates. Instead, she’s turning the other way.”
Although many stutterers outgrow the affliction by the time they reach their teen-age years, Annie’s father, a dentist, also stuttered throughout his adult life. The Glenn’s daughter, Lyn, stuttered as a child but outgrew it, and their son, David, never stuttered.
Today, Annie makes a point of speaking slowly. She concentrates on speaking with an open throat rather than a tight one. She still stutters and has difficulty with m’s and n’s, f’s and th’s, and s’s and st’s. She was able to give campaign speeches with her husband as well as on his behalf. But even during the hectic pace of the campaign, Annie couldn’t forget. A sign next to her telephone at home read: “Take a full breath, relax your throat, keep the sound moving.” That’s how she learned to say the words “astronaut” and “senator.”
Like Annie Glenn, David Seidler, the writer of “The King’s Speech” was also a stutterer. He was fascinated by the innovative methods used by King George’s speech therapist. The success of the film is one more step forward in overcoming the public stigma attached to disabilities.