Answering the Call of Stuttering: The Story of the Making of Voice in Exile

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, National Stuttering Association

It 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.

After 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.

At 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 my heart.

Inspired 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.

As 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.

After 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.

After 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. The 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.

After 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 of it.

Weeks 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.

When 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.

I 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.

After 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.

Later 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.

Feeling 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.

My 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.

*Originally Published in Letting Go: The Monthly Publication of the National Stuttering Association, May/June, 1-10, 2002