When Charles VanRiper gave me his autobiography, he granted me permission to share portions of it with my students and with others who stuttered. He asked only that I not reveal the names of living persons. I have always honored this request. I have been told that the desire to spare the feelings and memories of individuals mentioned in the autobiography is the reason it has not been published. I’m not sure I understand this reasoning since editors can always delete passages or change names, and while incidents in the memoir could be considered scandalous by early 20th century standards, they would scarce raise an eyebrow today.
The following excerpt describes the young Charles VanRiper’s experience at the Bogue Institute in Indianapolis. In case readers believe that the “treatment” described herein is a thing of the distant past, I would add that in 1980, when I came to Dallas, I encountered a number of stutterers who described a very similar “money-back” guarantied treatment being offered here. None of them succeeded in completing a six-month required “silent” period, so they didn’t get their money back.
|Albert and Charles VanRiper|
FROM THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF CHARLES VANRIPER
. . . .two weeks later I was in Bogue’s office for a very brief interview during which he gave me a written guarantee of a cure or your money back providing you follow THE METHOD. That sounded fair enough until I learned that the first step in the method was not to stutter. “Stuttering is prohibited,” the manual said. “If you do happen to stutter, you must pay the penalty which is to go on silence for a period to be determined by your instructor or to perform the designated amount of intensive practice.” I was also told that I must go on complete silence for the entire first week except when performing the class exercises or be sent home while forfeiting the tuition. I couldn’t object because the period of silence began as of that very moment. If I had something urgent to say to anyone I must write it down. Bogue summoned a young man to take me and my bag to the dormitory.
The Bogue Institute was housed in a very large and old mansion with a staircase separating the male and female quarters. A large dormitory filled with double decked beds, tables and chairs were empty when I arrived but my guide told me all the students were attending classes in the Bogue Gymnasium a block up the street but would be arriving soon for lunch which was held in the basement dining room. He gave me a pad and pencil and repeated Bogue’s admonition not to say a word until the week of silence was up.
I discovered that I was a day late in arriving and that there were two groups of stutterers, those, like me, who were just beginners with their pads and pencils, and those who had reenrolled after taking the treatment during the previous term. The beginners were mute but they wrote a lot to each other; the advanced students could speak but they had to write out everything before they said it and when they did speak it was in slow syllables, each accompanied by either a wide swing of the arm or by pinching their thumbs and forefingers. Eerie! Some of them sang what they wanted to say and evidently that was all right provided they didn’t stutter when they sang. I sure felt lost in a foreign land.
About four o’clock that afternoon several of the advanced stutterers were selected to present samples of their fluency under different conditions of stress. First they read a series of individual words, then phrases, then sentences in unison, then solo. Next they named objects, then answered questions with first one-word responses, then in sentences. This was done solo, and Madame Olga led us in applause for each successful achievement. Then she doled out chits, red, white or blue cards as a reward. The red cards entitled the possessor to an extra helping of any food at meal time; the white cards were permission to free time and to leave the premises for half an hour accompanied by another stutterer with the same card. The blue cards meant that you could leave the institute alone for two hours. All of us were imprisoned there except for our classes in the gym and since the food in the dining hall was not only sparse but poor, these tokens had some real value. After having eaten hominy and cabbage and spaghetti for days in a row, the urge to get out if only long enough to buy and ice cream cone or a hamburger, was very strong.
The afternoon session ended at five o’clock but not until we heard a stranger give a testimonial about how he’d been cured at the Bogue Institute. Full of praise for Mr. Bogue and THE METHOD, his speech was very fluent but it sounded memorized and a bit phony. Some of my fellow stutterers suspected he was a normal speaker who had been paid to give that speech and the suspicion was enhanced when Madam Olga refused to let us ask him any questions. Then we got on our knees for another prayer and marched back to our dormitory. After a miserable supper whose only grace was a piece of white bread with apple butter, we went upstairs to practice some of those same exercises or write notes to each other until the lights went out at nine o’clock. It was hard to get to sleep because of the insufferable heat, almost as bad as it was in the gym. That year some of the sidewalks in Indianapolis heaved and broke in the heat. But by mentally hiking over some of the forest trails up at my cabin I finally conked out.
The next morning after a breakfast of sloppy oatmeal with blue milk and little sugar plus a hunk of corn bread we marched back to the gym. Madam Olga whipped us into shape in a hurry, then her assistant led us in vigorous calisthenics as we vocalized the vowels in time with the major movements. Commanded to sit down on the floor, we then heard The Morning Report. Every morning on our way to breakfast we had to drop a slip of paper into a box by the dining room door. On that slip we were either to write “Nothing” or report any instance of stuttering we had heard or any infraction of the rules together with the name of the culprit. Madam Olga told us that we weren’t snitching when we did this but actually helping that guilty stutterer.
The Morning Report provided the opportunity for Madam Olga to dish out the appropriate punishments. “Paul Peterson!” she would roar. “You stuttered twice last night on the way to supper. You are hereby denied supper tonight and no longer may speak by merely pinching your fingers. You must use the whole arm swing for three days?” Madam Olga enjoyed the Morning Report. One of the beginners was sentenced to four additional days of silence for failing to spend the required hour of practice the night before. She had some mercy on a little Korean boy who had been accused of praying aloud in Korean and merely gave him a reprimand. Sent to Bogue by his father, and official in the government there, poor Kim’s understanding of English was almost as poor as his fluency, and I think Madam Olga knew it.
Much of the morning’s activities followed the same pattern as that of the afternoon before, though there were some variations. We had to practice breathing exercises while marching; we used Indian clubs rather than dumbbells as we said our vowels. The only new exercises were using pantomimic speech in which we repeated the Madame’s sentences silently with exaggerated mouth movements and a “thinking exercise” in which we had to try to imagine ourselves saying fluently the bits of conversation she verbalized, and repeated twice. Oh yes, during our relaxation periods lying on the floor we had to keep a constant flow of random vocalization going, playing with our mouths and tongues but never saying any real words. I recall getting stuck a few times doing this but fortunately no one noticed. Too much masking noise.
After my week of silence was up I could throw away my pad and pencil during our few off hours. It was a tremendous relief, but having to swing my arm for every syllable almost drove me crazy at first. Once when someone short-sheeted my bed, I called him a son of a bitch without swinging my arms and got penalized, but generally, yes, almost all the time, I followed THE METHOD. After two weeks I recognized that for the first time in my life I had gone many days without stuttering. I didn’t dare hope, but all the nonsense seemed to be having some effect. So I did my utmost to profit from the training and by the fourth week was even earning red, white and blue cards. Once on a Saturday afternoon, having my blue card, I walked downtown to the Circle at the center of the city, but my time was short and I needed to call a cab to get back. Stopping a passerby, a women, I asked her where I could find a cab stand, first using my finger pinching inside my pant picket, and then when it didn’t help, my full arm swing to get out each measured syllable. She thought I was insane and began screaming. Whereupon a policeman came to her rescue, took me to the police station, and I had a terrible time trying to explain. I tried to pinch my fingers but they wouldn’t close. I began an armswing but my arm seemed frozen like my vocal cords and it stayed there in the air refusing to come down. I think they were ready to haul me away to some psychiatric hospital when another policeman, who knew of the Bogue Institute intervened, called a cab, and sent me back.
That experienced devastated me. Remembering it vividly, I suffer all over again. I knew very clearly that all those hours of practicing those silly exercises hadn’t had one bit of effect on my stuttering. Sure they had helped me gain some carefully contrived fluency under favorable conditions but they hadn’t attacked the stuttering at all. It still lay there as powerful as it had always been. My remaining weeks were very unhappy ones. I went through the motions, bore the heat and the bad food, and dreamed of escaping into the forest.
Before I left I did try to get my money back from Benjamin Bogue and certainly my stuttering was sufficient to validate the guarantee but all he offered was to let me take another seven weeks term for four hundred dollars more. At the railroad station, buying my return ticket to Champion, I found my finger pinching and arm swinging of no avail so just stuttered my way through the situation with my struggling and head jerks. When my father met me at the depot, I again tried to use THE METHOD, with only partial success, but enough of the arm swing occurred so his face sure fell in disgust. I spent the rest of the summer, only a few weeks, up in our cabin nursing my wounds. Only toward the end of my stay there did I get just a bit of the peace that the forest had always given.