If Your Mockingbird Won’t Sing

by Ruth Mead

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        I had a major stuttering problem until I was 33 years old.  I did not have one of those “cute little stutters.”  I stuttered violently. During those years the main thing I learned in speech therapy went something like this:  “If you work hard enough to develop speech controls, you can improve.” Developing controls meant planning how to say words before I spoke, when and how deeply to breathe, scanning ahead, switching words and talking to the rhythm of a metronome.  I was so adept at control mechanisms; I could create them in my sleep.

I wasn’t able to provide adequate pushback to their philosophy because my own reasoning was a rehash of what I’d been taught.  I edited my speech constantly and believed “my conscious mind is in control of speech” and the more panicky version of that theory:  “if I don’t work hard at various controls, I will suffer the ultimate catastrophic failure:  not being able to force a single word out of my mouth.”

I was paying the price, even then, of preferring the voice of authority to my own observations, one observation being that people who stuttered were the only people I knew who constantly thought about the mechanics of speech, leading me to conclude that stutterers insert a conscious element into speech that served as resistance to flow.

Like most people who stutter, my stuttering was situational.  I could speak perfectly well when reading aloud to myself (no one within hearing distance).  The flow was there.  However, as soon as an adult entered the room, the flow stopped, as I thought of each word I said as well as how to say each word.  Stuttering seemed to take on all the properties of a full-blown performance anxiety: the more I wanted to perform well, the more I stuttered and the more I tried to control my performance, the more stuck I became.

I vaguely knew there were two systems in the brain and that the possibility of conflict is endless between the intuitive “experiencing” System-1: the subliminal brain which is spontaneous and automatic, taking care of endeavors such as speaking and breathing without thought or effort.  And the theoretical “remembering” System-2: which exerts conscious control over the world around it, often acting in ways destructive to the best interests of natural spontaneous System-1. (THINKING, FAST AND SLOW by Daniel Kahneman).

Speech is flow, and timing between these Systems is so crucial to fluency that even one attempt to control my stutter was enough resistance to interrupt that flow. When resistance moved out of the way, flow happened.

This belief that I had to control the mechanics of speech seemed to trigger the conscious part of my brain (System-2) signaling it to do something it was never meant to do: edit the production of speech.  We know the brain automates speech, freeing the mind from monitoring what we say. When motion signals move to the motor system without interference from the conscious mind, speech becomes automatic.

I lost this spontaneous automatic aspect of speech when I tried to control speech.

My stuttering disappeared a long time before I knew exactly why, even though I had written reams of observations during the time my stuttering went away.  Later, when I read John Harrison’s REDEFINING STUTTERING I felt I had at last come home.  Harrison confirmed my own discoveries: in general, that the conscious mind, because of its inability to think of more than 1, 2 or at the most 3 things at a time, is clearly unable to do the incredible multi-tasking necessary to perform the astounding complexities of speech.  And to expect the conscious mind to do what it has no ability to do, can, and frequently does, create a state of panic.

           “Ironically blocking happens because of over-control” Harrison writes.  And Barbara Dahm, a speech therapist from Israel, concurs: “I stand in disagreement with my colleagues who argue that stuttering happens because of lack of control. They say that head jerks, facial grimaces, repetitions and laryngeal blocks are signs of a lack of control, but this is an illusion. The fact is that speaking is an automatic system in the brain. Neurologists say this, psycho-linguistic experts say this. The time has come for us to tell this to people who stutter.”

As I saw that recovery would only be found in allowing speech to function spontaneously and automatically, I was still unable to let go of old patterns. Trying to speak naturally is still trying and trying is a major form of control.    It was as if I said:  “I’m not going to let my conscious mind control my speech any longer so I will work very hard at not working hard.” I couldn’t break through. I had a long legacy of angst from years of feeling “stuck” when I stuttered.  This inability to move forward was just too hard.

When I was most afraid of losing the hard-won-ground I had gained in the “spontaneous department”, my temptation was to turn back to conscious System-2 and whine: “This control-free way is too hard and scary!  I miss my old control mechanisms!”

One day I looked at my motivation for giving up control.  I was trying to stop controlling speech so I could stop stuttering.  This means I was not giving up control at all. I was simply trying not to stutter.  My friend, Sophie Sacca said “I know I must relinquish control over my speech completely if fluency results, but if my motivation is to speak smoothly, then I find myself back trying to gain control over speech again.”

Stuttering was still part of my remembered voice, and memory is hard to overcome.  Finally I was able to stop controlling speech because I saw automated speech as one of nature’s gifts, nothing I could earn or work for.  I could either take it and say “thank you” or keep on working, wrenchingly trying to manufacture something already “there.”

I also realized that most problems are rooted in this control issue, a systemic problem in which System 2 clings to the illusion it is in control and ruins our performance in sports or speech or even playing a piano.


        Powerful metaphors make the invisible visible (picture electricity as water running through a pipe.)  There was one metaphor that gave me a leg-up in seeing what was going on with both writing and verbal blocks.

The unconscious, as we know, speaks the language of symbol and metaphor. Just as “Speech is a River” went to work underground, undoing the illusion that I had to manufacture each word I spoke and each breath I took, the mockingbird metaphor that came to me destroyed the illusion that my mind was capable of controlling the mechanics of speech.

This new metaphor began with something that wouldn’t let go:  a silly little song I had played for children on my violin.  You probably know it:

“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.

Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

And if that mockingbird won’t sing,

Momma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.”

Finally, I wrote “If your mockingbird won’t sing” in my notebook and simply waited to see if anything else wanted to be written.

A few minutes later: “This is about a mockingbird, not any old mockingbird, but what I believe to be my mockingbird…and apparently it won’t sing.” Furthermore, my stuttering problem may involve more than the fact I can’t speak fluently.  It may also involve a relationship between my mockingbird (my creative mind, or System 1) and me (my controlling mind…System 2…who discovers her mockingbird won’t sing and appoints herself as Bird Trainer whose job is to make her mockingbird perform.)

It was as if I had no understanding that birds sing bird songs because they are birds, not because they are taught to sing or choose to sing.  So I appointed myself “Bird Trainer”, as if my mockingbird didn’t know how to sing.   This meant I must teach my mockingbird to sing.  I command my bird:  “Perform!  Sing!  I demand that you sing!” (and then smugly think “There! Now my mockingbird will sing!”)

But my mockingbird just sat in his cage and gawked at me.  And now my demands get a bit abusive.  I go “Listen, Bud, you owe me a song or two.  What is wrong with you?  Have you got a rock in your craw or WHAT?”

And then I turn to threats:  “Listen, I know you can sing if you want to sing. Well, listen good…you better start wanting to sing if you know what’s good for you.”

But still my mockingbird won’t sing.

This ticks me off. This bird is NOT going to get to me.  It may be true that I can’t teach my bird to sing but a specialist surely can!

So I take my mockingbird to the most experienced specialist I can find.  I drive home alone.   I’m so relieved. The specialist wouldn’t charge so much money if he didn’t know how to teach my bird to perform, would he?  Of course not!  So I am happy and relieved. This is my answer.

A few days later the specialist calls me: “Your bird is cured!  I put him in a room by himself and he sang so beautifully.”    And I say “Wow, cool, that’s great.  I’ll be right over.”

The specialist has made a diploma ready for framing for my mockingbird, attesting to his cure.

This calls for a celebration.  I cook a special dinner for the family and light the candles.  I tie a big yellow ribbon on the birdcage, put the cage right by the table, and feed my bird his favorite nuts and fruit.

Dinner is over.  Now for the magical moment. We wait expectantly for the mockingbird to perform. (Oh no!  Not this again!) “Please!  We are waiting.  We want to hear you sing,” we plead.

My child, disappointed and sad, says “Poor widdle bird feels ‘scairt’”.  And I agree.  “That’s it!!  That’s the problem!!  My bird is afraid to sing.  Why didn’t I think of this before?  This bird needs a counselor to help him face his performance fear.”

I take my bird to a counselor.  She listens to me, then shakes her head sadly. She cannot help my mockingbird.  “Mockingbirds have no fear,” she tells me, therefore I can’t cure your mockingbird’s fears.”

“Then what is wrong?” I plead.

Caged mockingbirds don’t sing.  Release your mockingbird,” she urged.  “He has a song of his own.”

We drive home, my mockingbird and me.   I am angry at the Counselor.  She doesn’t know how much my bird needs me.  If it weren’t for me, what would my poor mockingbird do?

But I am desperate.  I take the cage inside my house. I sit beside my mockingbird, my head in my hands.   All day long I think about my bird that can’t sing songs to me.  In spite of all my efforts, I can’t make my mockingbird perform.

There’s only one thing to do.

I carry the cage of my mockingbird into the balmy summer evening and open his door. I cry as my beautiful mockingbird flies free.  I watch him soar into the sky.   Soon darkness falls and the moon rises in the sky.    Thick clouds cover the moon for a time.  I shiver all over, worrying about my mockingbird in the darkness, all alone.  I go back into my house and stand alone at the open door.

Wait!   What do I hear?  I rush through the open door, into the night air, running on tiptoe.  High above, on the tallest branch of the sycamore tree, I see the shadow of a bird in the moonlight, white slashes on the wings of my mockingbird.  When the full moon bursts through the clouds, I hear a melodic love song, the plaintive soulful nighttime song of my mockingbird.


Contributed By: Ruth Mead, USA