An Actress Who Thought She Was a Nitwit Identifies Her Problem: Dyslexia

updated 08/31/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/31/1981 01:00AM

Dyslexia, a neurological disorder that can cripple a person's ability to read, spell or even speak correctly, is among the most anguishing of learning disabilities. An estimated 25 million Americans—three times as many men as women—are dyslexic. As children, many of them suffer cruel schoolyard taunts and are mistakenly thought to be "back' ward" or even retarded. Yet President Woodrow Wilson, sculptor Auguste Rodin, inventor Thomas Edison and athlete Bruce Jenner have succeeded in spite of their learning difficulties. Indeed, Albert Einstein's mastery of reading at age 9 may have been his first great intellectual feat Like them, actress Susan Hampshire has struggled all her life to overcome her handicap. A three-time Emmy winner, Hampshire lives in London with her second husband, theater impresario Eddie Kulukundis, and son Christopher (from her first marriage, to French director Pierre Granier-Deferre). Hampshire, who is in her early 40s, will publish this fall a book about her ongoing battle with dyslexia. She discussed the subject with PEOPLE'S Fred Hauptfuhrer.

Growing up, I didn't know I was dyslexic. At that time it certainly wasn't much talked about in England. It wasn't until years later that I discovered an explanation for my problem. I was starting out as an actress in London and had failed what now seems like a thousand auditions. One day I found myself pouring out my heart to a stagehand. I told him that tryouts were almost impossible for me as I couldn't see the words or make sense of a part when sight-reading. I don't remember the man's name, but he gave me the first glimmer of hope in my working life. He told me that the name for this difficulty was "word blindness." That little phrase changed my life. I thought, "Susan, all you've got to tell people is, 'I suffer from word blindness.' "

Looking back, I realize my mother, June, also was dyslexic. It is sometimes hereditary. She would scramble names when reading them. Patricia Beckwith would come out Batric Peckwith. She died never admitting she had the disorder. She and my father, who was a chemical company executive, were separated before I was born, and she raised me and my two older sisters and brother in London. When I was about 5 she started a private school there, primarily to instruct me herself. It must have been largely a gut reaction on her part, the product of a strong and very shrewd maternal instinct. Her decision not to send me to school in the ordinary way was, quite literally, my salvation.

I didn't seem to absorb anything to do with letters. She would teach me "cat." I would write it, and two seconds later I couldn't remember the word. Like many dyslexics my attention span was short. Halfway through a conversation I would forget what I was saying. What dyslexia really seems to be is an evaporating memory. At that time they thought I was either lazy or very backward. If someone wrote "b," I would see "d." Although no one acknowledged that I had a problem, I could tell from the age of 7 that my family was worried about me. At night I would lie awake and listen to my sisters and mother talking. I heard the words "retarded" and "mental." "Could they be discussing me?" I wondered.

It must have disturbed me because I often woke up sweating. Sleeplessness and bed-wetting are fairly common with dyslexic children. My distress was mild in comparison. I didn't have screaming fits or tantrums. But then, thanks to my mother, I wasn't struggling to survive in a class of 30. We had one teacher for every five pupils. The other children seldom laughed at me when I made what appeared to be stupid mistakes. Or if they did, they were told to stop. It was this cushioning that made my life bearable up to the time I quit school. In the real world, my reading and spelling problems would have overshadowed my life. Many dyslexic children withdraw or act up out of frustration.

I was lucky in another way, too. My mother encouraged my drawing—the only subject I passed—and piano playing. She had been a dancer with the D'Oyly Carte Opera, and she constantly told me I shone in dancing. She insisted on giving me lessons every day from the age of 3, thus helping to train my brain through movement, giving me good physical coordination and eliminating any clumsiness. Probably without dyslexia, and the special training I received because of it, I wouldn't have become an actress at all.

In my school years I found alternative means of survival. Making friends with the cleverest children in the class was one way. When I was invited to tea by a friend, I was so pleasant to the parents, so well-behaved that when the time came for homework, my friends would willingly allow me to copy from them. In exchange I would give them little presents bought with money I pilfered from my mother's purse. This need to give, for fear of otherwise not being tolerated, has remained with me. I desperately wanted to be liked, and I assumed that no one could like someone so "stupid."

I consider Shakespeare a joy now, but in my mother's classroom it was a torture. When I had to stand up to read his plays, I could not see, understand or say more than one word in five. When my friends giggled, my only comfort was to think, "One day they'll respect me. One day I'll be famous."

I left school when I was 15 because there was no point continuing. I never passed a written exam. At 16 I was hired as assistant stage manager at the Roof Garden Theatre in Bognor Regis, a seaside resort near Portsmouth. I also got to do small parts. I had assumed that performers only had to act, not read. The necessity of earning a living forced me to memorize scripts, and now I do it without any trouble by using symbols to help me remember certain words. I never went to drama school. I couldn't have competed. Students go home and read a play or two at night and come back with a fairly good idea of it. Well, I might be three, four nights or even a week reading one. And unless I've learned the part beforehand, the first week of rehearsal is unbearable for me and for the other actors. They wonder, "What's wrong with this girl? Is she drunk, on drugs, or what?" Now I tell the director about my problem as soon as I arrive and never go in cold. Nobody has the time to indulge me, so it's made me more tenacious.

Christopher's father was the first person who really helped me professionally. In 1965, when we were filming Paris in August, which Pierre was directing, he told me that in his opinion, I was a very intelligent woman. Up until then I had thought of myself as a nitwit. To a certain extent, I suppose I still do.

Aside from the price I have paid as an actress, dyslexia also affects my daily life in many ways. I misspell all the time, use the wrong words and sometimes have to ask strangers to read things for me. I hardly ever read my son a bedtime story, so Christopher has missed out on that important 10 minutes of intimacy before sleep. Now that he's older, I can't help him much with his homework. Dyslexia even affects my cooking. I misread recipes and instead of putting a dish in the oven for three-quarters of an hour, I bake it for three to four hours. People who are close to dyslexics have to be patient.

Nothing has ever been done about my problem as far as remedial help. Any improvement has come with my own tricks. I was not diagnosed as dyslexic until about 10 years ago. My son's pediatrician happened to be on a committee trying to get the disorder recognized by the medical profession. He asked me to take some tests after I told him that I wasn't particularly good at reading or writing. Otherwise, I would have gone on simply calling my problem "word blindness."

I do plan to begin weekly classes next month at the Dyslexia Institute here. To read with ease, instead of fighting to read, would be wonderful. Every child should be screened at the age of 5, or maybe 3. Then those with the disorder can be helped. The first advice I'd give to other dyslexics is, always give yourself more time for everything. Second, never work too long a span. Third, always use books with large print so you don't find it difficult to read. And never be ashamed to say, "I'm afraid I can't read this form. I am dyslexic."

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