Thursday, November 11, 2010

House Groups

For healthy emotional development a baby/kid/adolescent needs a proper "container." The parents, family, community, and the larger society must have enough stability and resources to nurture the child and to make him or her feel safe. If there is negligence, abuse, or chaos at any stage the kid is thrown out of childhood prematurely. In order to survive she must adapt to the adverse circumstances in which she finds herself. These adaptations are often successful for physical or psychological survival but they can also profoundly limit her full potential as a mature individual. Working one's way back through traumas and adaptations to original potential is the process of therapy. For it to be successful the same principle of containment is essential. The therapist and the therapeutic milieu, if the therapist is using modalities like groups, must be stable and resourceful. In the therapeutic "world" created by Lea in the 1950s. early 1960s, there was a clear sense of containment. Forms changed as Lea began more groups, then more house groups, but that "universe" stayed contained until about 1968. By containment in this context I am referring to the fact that Lea was pretty much on top of everything that was happening.

She had begun by working with a few individuals. As she took on more people she formed a group to see them together. Next came her early house groups, more standard groups, then even more house groups. Until the summer of 1966 this had almost all been within her own bailiwick. Tom O was seeing some people as was one other woman, but essentially it was all Lea. I have written earlier about the effect for some clients of working with one of her new learners from Hypno I but being in one of her standard groups. This dicotomy diluted the sense of containment with its potential for a split transference, but in general did not destroy it. Most of us were in or went into one of Lea's house groups about that time, further inserting us into a sphere dominated by her over-view.

In my first house group, the third floor of 32 Admiral, there was a palpable sense of containment by Lea. Almost half of the 12 residents were long-term clients of hers. In their individual sessions with her, she would check on how things were progressing on our floor. We met with her every Sunday morning in her living room at 59, to hash out any glitches and basically to focus on having a wholesome experience of living together. The more "senior" residents, Tom McNeil, Bernice, Allison, Don Denovan, and Mike Mohan, shared considerable respect and affection for Lea and a real sense of responsibility for those of us newer in therapy. They were like older siblings who encouraged us and helped us in any way that they could. But there was no sense of anyone being above the others. It was simply, as Lea spoke of it and intended, like a family. I felt very secure in that living situation and really very happy. Like in Grant's description of an early house group of his, at 32 there were always people around to talk with, to share experiences and troubles with. We had fun, listening and dancing to music, going to foreign films at the Cinemalumiere on College St, and wandering around Yorkville, then at its hippy best. Tom and Bernice had friends living on the 1st and 2nd floors of 32 and they would come up to socialize. In the weekly groups with Lea I felt completely free to speak of any issue that arose. As we were only 12, I found this context less intimidating than the Tuesday-Friday group in which I continued for the next couple of years. Its numbers fluctuated but there were usually about 25 at any given time.

I continued living in house groups until 1975 when Philip, Jim, Maurice and I moved into 87 Bedford Road but in none did I experience the safety and quality of life that I had had at 32. I understand the difference in terms of my analogy with a "container." In the fall of 1967 Lea founded her second learning group, Hypno II. The "senior" members from ours and the other two floors joined. Early in 1968 they moved across the road to 55 Admiral to live with others from their group and people much newer in therapy moved in. Chaos ensued. At the very moment that Lea was relinquishing work with house groups like ours, we lost the stabilizing "older siblings" on whom we had relied. In their places came neophytes who had little experience of therapy or of Lea. With Lea no longer available it is possible that there were some house group meetings but I have no memory of any. What I do remember is the sense of overwhelming confusion and a lack of safety throughout the building.

In the shuffle I was moved to the basement to share a room with a newcomer, a woman who soon showed signs of deep disturbance. I awoke one night to find her wandering about the building in her nightgown, carrying a lit candle. Shortly thereafter she became frankly psychotic and was admitted to the Clarke Institute. Those of us living in the basement remained connected to the third floor, having our meals there, and so on. One of the young men upstairs would drink heavily, then awaken people to talk with him or to fight with him, depending upon his mood. A girl who had moved to the third floor the previous winter, attached herself to one of the new men because she felt safe with him. She would spend hours lying about in his room. All kinds of silly things were happening. Some people got an idea that they had been too repressed and they decided to express irritations physically. Tantrums led to broken crockery and dinner on the floor. A man on the first floor whose tendency to bully others had been kept in check now outrightly intimidated people throughout the building. None of this would have occured when Lea had "contained" the house groups. She would have been informed immediately if disturbing or stupid things were happening and they would have quickly been dealt with -- not harshly, but with an effort to understand what was being enacted, to assert the importance of decent living conditions, and to find out what the disrupting individual needed.

About a year later in May, 1969 I moved across the street to 55 Admiral to live with other members of CAG. As I have written in a previous blog, the CAG group was not exactly a haven of safety or healthy containment. Lea held that when a person entered a learning group his or her primary therapy should basically be finished. Once again great in theory, but in the lived reality I would say that none of us, Lea included, had sufficiently resolved our deepest troubles. At 55 we had few house groups. DJ would come over from time to time and meet with us in the basement common room. A few times we had joint groups with 59 Admiral next door. On the whole though, as it had been for the previous year at 32, it was a case of getting along as well as one could in the circumstances. For me, for many if not most, that meant finding places of safety, reverting to patterns one had adopted in one`s family to survive.

In March, 1970 all of CAG moved over to 121, 123-5, and 70 Walmer Road forming the CAG mileu. In this constellation one was to move about the three houses, interacting with other group member. Most CAG members were seeing clients by then so rooms were set up as bed-sits. In the basement of 123-5 was a huge common room and kitchen, shared by about 25 people. Others from 121 and 70 Walmer also gathered there. Upstairs, the "adult" work with clients; downstairs, a cachaphony of less-than-adult feelings and interchange. Again, few house groups and no one with a grasp of the over-all dynamics. In September we all moved again, this time back to 82, 105, and 98 Admiral Road. The milieu remained there in very much the same condition until 1973 when members dispersed into a variety of living situations.

When I spoke with others about living in group houses in the early and mid-1970s, I was given quite a variety of responses. I will convey some of these in my next blog.

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