Spit it Out, an award-winning documentary codirected by Jeff Shames and Jonathan Skurnik, follows the poignant journey of Jeff Shames in his efforts to find self-acceptance as a stutterer.
In one of the delightful opening scenes, Shames is attending a workshop at a conference held by Friends, a support organization for children who stutter and their families. The children are outdoors ready with their speech monsters in hand, an art exercise depicting their struggles with stuttering. “We need to show them who is the boss of our talking!” says the group leader. “Put your speech monster inside the rocket!” The kids crumple up their speech monsters, dump them into a rocket, and blast it off into space, giving back the power to the children.
This scene captures the spirit of the film, which seeks to reclaim and destigmatize stuttering, “I think for children, it can be frustrating to not be able to talk the way other children talk. I think sessions such as this one at Friends lets the child know that they are still able to communicate, even with a stutter, and it teaches them to put the problem outside themselves,” says Shames.
James Earl Jones, John Stossel, and King George IV all stuttered, but the film takes efforts to note that media portrayals of stuttering have long depicted it as a dark part of the soul, a result of inner angst or the butt of jokes. As Shames notes, “Disability is often applied by society without the input of the person; the issue is not just how I stutter, but also how the outside world –the assumptions and judgments that are made about me…When I got more support, I measured my speech blocks, and they were not as much as I thought. It took away that layer of shame.”
Part documentary and part personal memoir, Shames also narrates the complicated family context he grew up in –a strained relationship with his father who was rejecting of his stuttering and a mother who stuttered in childhood but later outgrew it, never having spoken to Shames about her experience until the making of the film. The film also notes Shames’ turn to addiction as a way to cope with his feelings.
Avoidance and silence were also ways Shames initially managed his challenges. In the film, viewers meet Shames’ wife, artist Elisa DeCarlo, who supported him early in their marriage by speaking or answering the phone for him. “It got old,” she said in one interview, and with her encouragement Shames sought help. He joined the National Stuttering Association, sought treatment with Gestalt therapists for marriage counseling, and joined a theater group for people who stutter. In a fun twist, Shames meets Mel Tillis, a country western star known for his stuttering.
These encounters of support and validation allowed Shames to learn of all the different ways people stutter and helped him to feel less different and less need to be fixed. “Before I got support, I would feel ashamed when I made phone calls and the person would hang up on me. At some point a switch turned on in me, and then I learned to call the person back and start the call telling the listener that I am a person who stutters.”
Shames advises anyone who may have speech issues to get support. “Find people who have the same issues as you, give it time, learn about self-care and rest. There may be grieving involved, but do what can you do with what you have. Also, there are other ways of communicating— eye contact, writing, whatever tools are out there to supplement speech.”
Shames found peace with stuttering as an intrinsic part of who he is and how he knows himself. "I used to feel that people did not know who I was because I could not tell them my thoughts, but even with speech issues you are still who you are. I wouldn’t be me if I did not stutter. When I am approaching a difficult sound, I may still get anxious, but I have learned I can say it my way. It’s still frustrating, but it’s not a big deal anymore; it doesn’t matter, and it did matter for so long.”