ANSWERING THE CALL OF STUTTERING:
Back in the mid-8Os, I was invited to attend the premier of a 30-minute film on stuttering that was written, directed, and produced by Mark Allan Kaplan, a graduate student at the American Film Institute. It was a remarkable accomplishment in many ways, especially in how concisely it captured the essence of the stuttering experience. The fact that it was created by a student made it even more remarkable. Since then, Voice in Exile has had hundreds of screenings... on Cable Television, at National Stuttering Association chapters, and in schools across the country. No film better communicates to the non-stuttering world what many of us have gone through; and yet, the story is uplifting and transcendent.
John Harrison, Editor.
was the fall of 1979 and my junior year at the University of Southern
California. Professor Barbara
Myerhoff entered the classroom, and began to teach us about personal and social
anthropology, myths, and dreams. During
one of the classes, Professor Myerhoff introduced us to the world of the Shaman,
the indigenous holy person, or medicine man (or women). She explained to us that
the shaman was the “expert of the injured soul” who has been called on by
the spirits to heal themselves and others.
This call often came in the
form of a sickness that the shaman-elect
would have to cure themselves of with the aid of helping
spirits. Once they cured
themselves by traveling between the waking world and the world of the spirits,
they would have the ability to help others.
the lecture, Professor Myerhoff asked me to walk with her back to her office.
She said she was touched by my personal journal entries about my
stuttering. Her voice softened to almost a whisper as she told me that it was
believed that stuttering was one of the major afflictions that the spirits used
to call someone to the shaman’s path. Professor
Myerhoff smiled, and told me that after reading my personal writings, getting to
know me in person, and being deeply moved by my films, she believed I was being
called by spirit through my stuttering to heal myself and to help others.
first I was just sort of numb. I
thanked her for her insights as she went into her office.
I walked around campus for a while in a daze and ended up in the
courtyard of the Philosophy building. As
I stared into the bubbling water of the circular fountain in the center of the
gothic courtyard, my whole perception of my self began to shift.
I had always seen my stuttering as this horrible and crippling handicap.
Now, as I began to think of my stuttering as a challenge for change and
growth from some higher or deeper source, a heaviness seemed to lift from around
by my experiences with Professor Myerhoff and my exposure to shamanism, I began
to ask within for a direction or purpose. A while later, during a film project
evaluation, one of my film professors said that he believed my stuttering had
made me a great filmmaker. He explained that because words were so hard for me
that I had found a way of speaking visually with great depth and power. Looking
back at my life, I suddenly saw my creative endeavors into drawing, painting,
architecture, still photography, and film as part of a great archetypal quest to
communicate with others beyond the realm of the spoken word. Not long after this
encounter, I received the inspiration to create a dramatic film based on my own
experiences and perceptions as a stutterer.
The making of this film would be a vision quest into the depths of my own
psyche to uncover and share what it felt like to be a person who stutters.
I sensed that the process of making this film could be healing for myself
and for others, and a culmination of my creative quest to communicate.
I began to work on the story, the idea of creating a shamanic subplot emerged.
The story would be about a young stutterer who would face his fears with
the help of his grandfather, a retired anthropology professor specializing in
shamanism. His journey would
include the waking world, dreams, symbols, and archetypes.
graduating from USC, I attended the American Film Institute (AFI) to continue
developing my craft, and to supply a creative container for the making of this
film. One day the title for the film came to me in a dream. I saw myself on a
lone runway. I opened my mouth to scream, but there were steel bars in my mouth.
I woke up with the title:
Voice in Exile.
the first year at the AFI, I returned to my childhood home in Chicago, Illinois
and spent the summer writing the screenplay for
Voice in Exile.
familiar surroundings of my childhood aided in the unearthing of the emotional
and psychological memories needed for the story.
This entire process felt like a dream.
As I descended into the darkness of my unconscious, the world around me
seemed supportive and gentle. It felt as though the world was holding its breath
while I journeyed within. A black bird became the helping spirit in my story in
parallel with my seeing large black crows following me wherever I would go. They
seemed to be my helping spirits, both within my story and in my waking life,
telling me I was on the right track.
completing the first draft of the script I returned to school, and began the
process of making the film. I met
with the Los Angeles chapter of the National Stuttering Association to deepen my
research for the final draft of the script. This was my first group encounter
with fellow stutterers and as I became aware of our shared reality, I had a deep
sense of tribal homecoming. After completing the final script, we began
pre-production, which included casting the actors and preparing them for the
shoot. This was the beginning of my quest to train an actor to stutter. At first
it was merely a mechanical process, working on the physical process of
stuttering. Then came the journey into the psyche of the stutterers mind, my
mind. I learned so much about my self from this process that I am still in awe
later we began to shoot the film but the production process was fraught with
turbulence and confusion. Communication
problems arose at every turn. My
mind seemed to be waging a war within me – part of me wanted to share my
truths, and another part of me was terrified. Everyone who worked on the film
seemed to be caught in the energy of some form of communication challenge.
principal photography was finished, I was exhausted and burnt out.
I went up to San Francisco to work with my composer, and he suggested I
go to Esalen Institute in Big Sur for some rest. Driving down the California
coast was calming. I
drove along the winding road south of Big Sur looking for Esalen, hoping that it
would be before the spot where the coast road had been closed for the past year
because of storm damage. Up ahead,
I saw the signs announcing that the coast road was still closed.
I stopped at the roadblock, and asked a construction worker when the road
would be open. He smiled and said,
“Right now, you’re the first to get through.” He waved and the crew lifted
the barrier. As I drove past the construction site I couldn’t help feeling as
though I were being divinely guided.
drove for a while, and finally found Esalen. Driving down the steep incline into
the property, I felt an incredible sense of belonging.
Even though I had never been there before, it seemed deeply familiar,
like a long lost home. I went to the office and asked if they had any vacancies.
They told me that I was lucky because there was only one opening left.
checking in, I walked around the grounds in a daze, wondering what was happening
to me. I found my way to the dining
room, and sat at a small table by myself, eating my food, and surveying the
colorful crowd. A middle aged Native American woman approached and asked if she
could join me. I said sure. She smiled warmly and sat down.
Looking deeply into my eyes, she told me that she was a shaman and could
tell that I had just been through a very powerful creative experience that was
chaotic and painful. She continued,
saying that communication was the central theme. At this point, I could only stare in dismay.
The woman proceeded to tell me that the creative endeavor was successful,
despite the confusing nature of the experience. She told me I needed to
replenish my energy by resting my body, following my intuition, and doing only
what I felt like doing.
that evening I floated in the mineral baths under the stars wondering if I was
dreaming and if my journey to share the inner life of a stutterer would have
value. In the darkness beside me, a man and woman were having a conversation. The woman stuttered as she told the man “… if y-you
c-could o-o-only kn-now how it fffeels.” Tears came to my eyes as the hot
water penetrated my pores and her words cut through the darkness miraculously
answering my hearts question.
rested and renewed, I returned to Los Angeles and finished the film. We
premiered the film, and it was a great success. Stutterers and non-stutterers
said they were deeply moved. The studios called me for private screenings, power
lunches, and meetings. The film won many awards, and was shown at festivals
across the country. Amidst all this, I was asked to show the film and speak at a
national convention for the National Stuttering Association. As I stood before
the crowd of several hundred stutterers, I felt like the shaman who had gone on
a vision quest, and was now bringing it back to share with the tribe.
I was truly overwhelmed by the response. Stutterers, their spouses, and their families expressed their
gratitude for the healing the film brought into their lives.
vision quest was complete, yet it seemed as though my journey was just
beginning. I thought I would feel whole and healed, but I felt empty and naked.
All my fears were exposed to the light, the trappings of fame and fortune seemed
hollow, and the person I thought I was seemed like an illusion. I left Hollywood
in search of my self and to continue my quest to heal my stuttering. I traveled
to distant lands, explored the rituals and practices of many spiritual
traditions, and became a student of eastern and western psychology. I have lived
through many crises of the heart, the mind, and the spirit, as well as many
physical challenges including poor health, bankruptcy and near homelessness.
During this strange and wondrous adventure I have learned how to love and how to live more fully. With the completion of “Voice in Exile” my quest to communicate through other forms beyond the spoken word shifted to a quest to find my own voice and to help others find theirs. As I look back on my journey, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of both the blessings and challenges along the way, for they all conspired toward my growth. I have discovered that stuttering can be a call to awaken and to heal the self and others; I have discovered that for true healing to occur we must work on all levels of ourselves: Body, mind, heart and spirit; and I have discovered that the journey is all there is and it is endless.
Published in Letting Go: The Monthly Publication of the National Stuttering Association, May/June, 2002, 1-10.
VOICE IN EXILE is a motion picture production of
The American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film Studies
Distributed by Original Gravity
© American Film Institute