A Mouse in the Corner: Reflections Upon Listening To a 1966 Audio Recording of Charles Van Riper and Joseph G. Sheehan Informally Discussing Stuttering

cooper.gif About the presenter: Eugene B. Cooper is a Professor and Chair Emeritus of University of Alabama Department of Communicative Disorders and Distinguished Professor Nova Southeastern University Programs in Speech Language Pathology. Cooper is a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and received the Honors of the association. He and his wife Crystal are the authors of over 150 publications primarily in the area of fluency and professional issues.

A mouse in the corner: Reflections upon listening to a 1966 audio recording of Charles Van Riper and Joseph G. Sheehan informally discussing stuttering

by Eugene Cooper
from Florida, USA

It was my good fortune to know personally both Charles Gage Van Riper and Joseph Green Sheehen, "giants in stuttering." I first became aware of their work in the early 1950s as a student in the discipline at the State University of New York at Geneseo and subsequently at Penn State. I first met them on a personal basis in the mid-1960s and maintained an on again/off again personal relationship with each to the ends of their lives.

cvr.gif Charles Van Riper was born in Champion, Mich., December 1, 1905. He earned a B.A., Univ. Michigan, Master's Degree at the University of Michigan, specializing in Olde English Literature and Elizabethan Ballads; and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Iowa, He was a Member, Amer. Speech and Hearing Assoc. (Fellow, 1933; Associate Editor, 1939; Councilor, 1950-52). In 1936 he established one of the nation's first speech clinics at Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, which he directed until 1967 when he was appointed Distinguished University Professor, a position he held until his retirement in 1976. He died September 25, 1994.

sheehan.gifJoseph Green Sheehan was born May 27, 1918, Battle Creek, Michigan. Sheehan "overcame a severe stuttering handicap," and "was a noted authority on speech." He was an educator, clinical psychologist and author. He established the Psychology Speech Clinic at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1949 and directed it until the time of his death, which occurred on November 14, 1983, in Santa Monica, California. (Contemporary Authors, volume III, p. 439)

Listen to the conversation between CVR and JGS - recorded November 20, 1966.

It was fun for me to listen to their sparring with one another once again after all these years. The recording is, indeed, "vintage Van and Joe bantering." I am taking the liberty of referring to these distinguished and revered gentleman using the names I used once we became acquaintances. I mean only to convey the affection and admiration I came to feel for both of them.

The discussion that we hear in this recording was made at the annual meeting of the Council of Adult Stutterers held on October 20, 1966 - at a time when both were making significant contributions to our thinking about stuttering through their numerous publications, lectures, and workshops. Here we hear "experts," one the senior mentor (Van) and one the precocious former student/client (Joe) refer to the hot stuttering issues of the day. Their different styles become immediately apparent - Van with his never ending storytelling and unquenchable proclivity of finding earthy and delightful metaphors for almost everything and Joe's rapid fire wit coupled with an articulate and cutting undercurrent of acerbic and quotable observations. Their lifelong friendship is clearly evident in this recording that illustrates beautifully the love-hate relationships so many of us hold with our significant others. What a joy it is to listen to them verbally and affectionately jostle each other in this recording. I think all who knew them would agree that both had a sardonic sense of humor that prevented them from sounding pompous or being blindly committed to their speculations.

Van's life-long eclectic approach to thinking about the etiological bases of stuttering is clearly evident as is Joe's commitment to relying heavily on learning models to explain and to question the dynamics of stuttering. We hear Van repeatedly refer to the probability of underlying neurological/organic factors and Joe's repeated references to the approach/avoidance conflict theory upon which he based much of his thinking with respect to the etiology and to the treatment of stuttering. References to the "vicious cycle of stuttering" and to the "iceberg" analogy for describing the surface and the underlying components of stuttering are reminders of conceptualizations that have had a major impact on how we have approached the treatment of stuttering during the past fifty years.

At this period in their lives, Van was nearing the completion of "The Nature of Stuttering," and "The Treatment of Stuttering" - two publications that have served as a base for most, if not all, that has followed in the field of stuttering since that time. Joe had just begun reporting his studies indicating the extent and the significance of the prevalence of "spontaneous recovery" from stuttering. He refers to these findings in this recording.

I find it interesting to note that this discussion between Van and Joe took place the same year (1966) that the Vocational Rehabilitation Administration sponsored "International Seminar in Stuttering and Behavior Therapy" that took place in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. This, for me, and many others, was the event that signaled what soon was to become an on-slaught by our behaviorally oriented colleagues as they pronounced and promulgated the cure of stuttering through the use of operant conditioning procedures. I recall vividly Joe being the lead dissenter during the intense and frequently heated discussions at that conference as to the reliance solely on conditioning procedures to solve the problem of stuttering..

For the next decade he and Van were key leaders in reminding us all that the problem of stuttering is not a one-dimensional behavioral disorder subject to resolve through simplistic conditioning procedures, but a multidimensional disorder composed of affective and cognitive components as well as behavioral components. The discussion we are here privileged to listen in on between Van and Joe confirms the fact that they had a comprehensive understanding of the nature of stuttering and a realistic view as to the complexity of its treatment. Their observations are as pertinent today as they were nearly forty years ago.

As this recording demonstrates, Van and Joe were among those early leaders in popularizing the concept that one of the primary goals in the treatment process should be to assist those who stutter to "give up" their attempts to avoid stuttering. Learning to "let go," as Van would say, or, as Joe would put it, increase their "approach" attitudes, feelings, and behaviors and decrease their "avoidance" responses. Note that the National Stuttering Association's newsletter is entitled "Letting Go." Obviously the concept has proven meaningful to the community of those who stutter.

The recording concludes with Van and Joe inviting Bill Wensley, their former client who was to become their lifelong friend, to join them in the discussion. I found it interesting that he reminded both Van and Joe that they had taught him, in the final analysis, that he "...represented far more than merely a person who stutters." Rather, that he is a person who happens to stutter. The recording ended there. I think it was a good place to stop.

I thank Lee Reeves who made this recording available to the 2004 International Stuttering Online Conference and for the invitation enabling me to listen again to the two men who I admired so much and who were so kind to me as I began my career. I have so many fond, and in many cases enlightening, memories of my interactions with Van and Joe that I would love to share, but then, I know there are hundreds of others who feel the same way. I enjoyed playing the role of the proverbial "mouse in the corner."

Note: Should you wish to read the author's tribute to Dr. Sheehan following his death, see: Cooper, E.B. (1986). Joseph G. Sheehan's contributions: An eagle soars. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 11, 175-182 or listen to a recording of the tribute online on the Voices: Past and Present section of the Stuttering Home Page.