Produced by Jonathan Skurnik and Jeff Shames
(Mint Leaf Productions, New York)
Reviewed by Marty Jezer

Dr. Wendell Johnson's theory that stuttering is in the eyes and ears of the beholder; that is, the excitable and disapproving way that some parents react to normal developmental stuttering may cause their child to become a chronic stutterer has (thankfully) been discredited. But, in calling attention to the role that parents do play in the development of their child's stuttering, Johnson did a great service. Yes! There is an organic neurological component to stuttering, but the way parents react to their child's stuttering does influence the way that the stuttering will develop.

Jeff Shames’ new documentary, Spit It Out (made in collaboration with filmmaker Jonathan Skurnik), focuses on the role a dysfunctional parent, in this instance Jeff's father, plays on his child's stuttering.

Though the film starts with Jeff, in imitation of Demosthenes, the ancient Greek stutterer (and philosopher), stuffing his mouth with pebbles and reciting a poem into the sound of the roaring sea, the film does not have much to say about stuttering therapy. In fact, grimacing as he spits the last of the pebbles out, Jeff mutters, “I’d rather stutter.” Self-acceptance, not searching for a cure, is the sub-text of Shames’ autobiographical movie.

Shames is a life-long stutterer who found his voice – his voice, not his fluency – in stuttering support group organizations: the National Stuttering Association, Speak Easy, and Friends: The Association For Young People Who Stutter. It reflects the support group insight that self-acceptance should be the goal of most – that is, all but the youngest, who benefit from early intervention – people who stutter. Self-acceptance, if I can speak here for Shames, is the belief that there is no shame in stuttering.

As Jeff's own life experience indicates, self-acceptance undermines the fear of stuttering in public. Indeed, the confidence that one can lead a productive life even with a stutter can result, as it does in Shames’ case, in improved if not 100% fluency. In lessening the stress that surrounds the challenge of speaking with a stutter, it actually relaxes one's speaking mechanism and reduces the tension of speech and the actual level of disfluent talking.

In addition to describing the self-help movement and delving into the problems with his father and the dynamics of his family, the film touches upon issues of growing up; the challenges stutterers have with jobs, stuttering in the movies, bullying, marital relationships, and substance abuse. It also includes an un-integrated section featuring Mel Tillis, the famous country singer who stutters.

Jeff's mother, interviewed in the film, stuttered as a child but claims to have outgrown it in college. With Jeff's father, a perfectionist who wants to ignore rather than treat it, she is part of a conspiracy of silence. Jeff's speech is never talked about in the home until Jeff himself questions his mother about it while filming this movie.

The footage of a conference of Friends is especially interesting. It shows a pre-teen stutterer making fun of another child who stutters. Ouch! It is painful to watch. Jeff's on-screen handling of this problem does not definitively resolve it, but it raises an important issue: how do therapists handle children who are made fun of because of their stuttering? In raising this difficult subject, the film will inspire, I am sure, some useful in-class and over-coffee discussion

Shames’ exploration of his relationship with his wife, performing artist Elisa DiCarlo, is intimate and thorough, perhaps more so than necessary. Some viewers may find it embarrassing for its psychological intimacy not all of which has to do with stuttering. But how does a significant other deal with his or her spouse's disfluency? Ms. DiCarlo is frank and forthright. At first she felt useful speaking for Jeff in public situations, she acknowledges. Ultimately, however, she got tired of being his ambassador to the world and had the honesty and intelligence to challenge Jeff to speak for himself. Together the couple raise topics that students of speech pathology may be surprised to learn have something to do with stuttering.

But the main character in Jeff's film is his father, a verbally abusive, mean spirited and arrogant man, according to the video testimony of Jeff's siblings and his mother who says that “on our wedding night I knew I made a mistake. He was impossible.”

Jeff's father adored him as a child but had a hard time expressing it. Initially he thinks he and Jeff together can fix the problem. When the “problem” proves unsolvable, his father becomes frustrated, impatient and angry, and blames Jeff for continuing to stutter. The footage about Jeff and his father is blunt, painful and honest. “He drove away everyone in his life, everyone,” Jeff says of his father. Their last meeting was at a Mets game, baseball being one of the few subjects on which they could communicate. At a restaurant after the game, Jeff's father picks a fight and when Jeff refuses to engage him in battle, walks out.

Food for discussion: How do parents affect the speech of a child who does not live up to their expectations, who are more cruel than insightful in dealing with the child's stuttering problems?

People who stutter have issues that are affected by their stuttering, as well as problems that exist on their own, independent of stuttering. For students of speech language pathology, the film is an excellent exploration of the life of a stutterer. As speech therapists, they will have to deal with the issues that Shames focuses on: in his life and with his camera. These issues are in addition to those therapists deal with of fractured disfluent speech. On a cinematic level, one could criticize the film for not cinematically integrating the problems that it bravely brings up; many of the issues are left dangling. But in raising the issues with a blunt artistic honesty, Shames’ film spurs discussion. This makes it important and useful, especially for SLP students who do not have the opportunity to meet many stutterers in everyday life beyond the few they meet in clinical settings.

—Marty Jezer was a newspaper columnist and the author of Stuttering: A Life Bound Up in Words as well as books on American history and biographies of Rachel Carson and Abbie Hoffman. In 1999, he was the National Stuttering Association's Member of the Year. He died during the past summer; he will be greatly missed by the stuttering community and many others.