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Why I called my sister Harry, by Michael O'Shea

David Preece | 01.03.2008

Review by David Preece. Book published 2007, Trafford Publishing.

Why I called my sister Harry. CoverMichael O'Shea's lifetime struggle with his speech could be all of our stammering stories. The similarities are numerous and I found myself nodding with agreement at the predicaments and frustrations he experiences throughout the book.

In simple and effective prose, he begins with his early childhood years of the 1950's on the south coast of Ireland; evoking an idyllic setting and a loving family background.

The 'trigger' for his dormant stammer manifests itself within weeks of starting convent education, aged four, when a savage beating (punishment for running away from school), so hurts and distresses him that he doesn't speak for three months. From then on Michael has a stammer, but blame is not laid at the convent door. Rather, he uses the incident to explain the impact it is to have on his life.

To his great credit he gets on with that life, one full of happy family incidents and joyous boyhood adventures with his friends. At his later schools he shows an aptitude for practical subjects, especially woodwork. A talent for several sports is also evident.

All the while, though, the stammer is increasing its 'vice-like grip' in every area of Michael's life. A stark example is vividly recalled when he is unable to maintain eye contact in struggling to answer a question put by his primary school headmaster. "I said look at me and spit it out!". Michael can't and is beaten on both hands with a measuring stick inlaid with brass ferals. The pain and humiliation is complete and he carries a mark on his hand to this day.

Different teachers help Michael and are more understanding, as are other people who he encounters. One is Sister Monica, a Kilkenny speech therapist who he holds in high regard during the three year period of their meetings; the only person, at this stage, who looked beyond the physical stammer to ask "how I felt inside".

By now Michael's prowess at running persuades national team selectors to offer the prospect of an American athletic scholarship. He knows he can't take this step though, "who would speak for me in America?.....I felt sick to my stomach". He fakes poor performances, misses training and the chance is gone.

His interest in carpentry is deepening, however, and summer jobs increase his expertise. After doing well in his final school year, despite the trauma of oral exams, the summer break beckons and he meets (another) Monica for the first time. "I didn't realise it at the time, but I had met my soul mate".

The financial restraints of a five year apprenticeship don't curb Michael's ambition and in time he starts his own company. Now married, and later to be the father of two boys, life is good. Monica is unconsciously his 'voice' during this period dealing with the telephone calls, attending parent evenings at school and many other speaking situations that Michael freely acknowledges he ducked out of. Our life partners play a much under-valued role in our lives and in the Help Section of the book Monica's observations are moving and uplifting on this issue.

Michael does, though, attempt to seek help for his stammer and, after unsuccessfully experimenting with hypnotists, faith healers and others, he discovers the McGuire Programme.

A friend has taken the course and Michael, impressed by his improvement, decides, forty years on from the onset of his own stammer, to have one last chance to confront the problem. It proves a revelation. His improvement using the costal breathing technique as the main plank of the treatment is almost immediate and the comradeship and encouragement from fellow course members and McGuire staff almost overwhelms him. The four day course is over too soon but, with contact support details in place, Michael returns home a new man.

That initial course was in 1999 and he has maintained the improvement in his speech, taken further courses and become an instructor and later staff trainer for McGuire.

This Programme has attracted some criticism over the years but Michael - and many others - are surely examples of how successful it can be for some. He knows that it won't work for everyone, but encourages us all to confront our demons and seek help from the variety of courses and individuals who can bring about good results in our search for improvement.

Several luminaries of the stammering fraternity give fulsome praise to Michael in the opening pages. I can only add my congratulations on a truly absorbing life story - one which I'm sure many people who stammer, and those who care for their welfare, will greatly benefit from.

This is an extended version of the review in the Spring 2008 'Speaking Out', page 18