Sunday, November 14, 2010

Later House Groups

Writing about Lea and Therafields is like trying to encompass every dimension of a hologram at the same moment. There are simply so many variables, so many contradictory but nonetheless true things happening all at once. One might say, "This was going on," but almost immediately would have to qualify that statement with another: "AND, this was happening as well." This is how it was in Therafields from its beginning. In my last blog I wrote about my own experience of house groups from 1966-1973. But that cursory review barely begins to reveal the lived complexity of the period. Volumes are needed to really excavate the way that we lived and the way that our lives intersected with the events that brought about the transformation of Lea's practice into what became Therafields. In this chapter I will look at some of the varied experiences of other people coming into house groups from about 1968-75. It can be seen that the nature of the house group experience changed from the earlier days when Lea was solidly in charge of them all. Many things influenced the nature of the changes and their effects on particular individuals.

The contained therapeutic milieu of Lea's practice was vitiated around 1968 when she ceased to have immediate connections with all of the players. Lea continued as a strongly central person in the community but no longer had the links with the several hundred people involved that her smaller, less complex practice had allowed. Someone coming into therapy would be assigned to a therapist or a team of therapists. She might then go into a standard group run by Lea but often taken by one of Lea's assistants. Moving into a house group she would have another therapist, or more likely, a pair of therapists who might or might not have clients of their own in the group. The work with her own therapist or team might emphasize one direction, the standard group therapist another, and the house group therapists a third. Also the various therapists with whom she was interacting could vary greatly in experience and sophistocation. With respect to both standard and house group experiences other variables that greatly affected the atmosphere and thus results were the size of the group and the consistency of the therapists. As one woman relates, her early Therafields house group experience was interesting but not necessarily therapeutic.

"In the spring of 1969 I moved into 32 Admiral Road. It was a double-edged experience. I found it wonderful but always felt an underlying fear. Things would happen that would scare me. When we met for house groups they were so large and unwieldy that they were not helpful. Some pressures were released but they were never actually therapeutic. I was living in a kind of circus atmosphere, always with a certain sense of dread. On the other hand I was fascinated with all that happened and loved the communal life. It was the late 1960s, early 1970s and this was the zeitgist. It was cool to live with so many interesting people and to get to know them well. I came into therapy needing help but I quickly pushed that away. That was easy to do with my first therapist -- to pretend that I wasn't troubled. I learned to cope and forgot that I needed therapy. The real attraction was the communal life, the farm, the social life, and never mind how fucked up I was."

The larger the house group the more would be going on internally. Some clients moving into a situation of that kind could manage it but others could not. It depended largely on the ego strength or the defenses of the individual at that period. A man who lived in 82 Admiral Road when it was a discrete house group, found it mostly helpful. He liked the care that people took of the place. He liked the traditional values espoused and also found:
"There was a great variety of people, professional and non-professional, but it didn't matter who you were or what you did. What was sought was who you really were inside. I liked that non-judgemental attitude."

Another who moved into 123-5 Walmer Road in 1970 told me of his struggles in that larger setting:
"It was a huge house group, about 25 people. We ate together every night at a huge table in the basement. I don't like large situations like that but I felt compelled to be there. A person was considered strange if he didn't eat with the group every night. It was pretty crazy. We had rotating therapists so there was no consistency. I think that generally things were out of control in the house groups at that time. There was so much violence and screaming."

During his stay at 123-5 it was decided that people in house groups should leave their standard groups and focus their therapy in their house groups. Decisions of this kind were made by Lea. They would be based on some ideas that she was working with at the time but would not necessarily be grounded in the reality of their effects. By this time she was simply too removed from the day-to-day experience of house group living in the extended Therafields milieu. Lea was talking in different contexts at that time about house groups, Theradrama, as her unique contribution to the evolution of psychotherapy. Out of those talks and perhaps from some practical reasons an edict came forth changing the nature of house group life as Lea had originally viewed it. This shift laid further pressures on the house group context:
"Before then a distinction had been made between standard groups and house groups. It was said that the deeper therapy took place in the standard groups and that house groups were to learn patterns and transferences that one should take to their deep group. It wasn't seen as therapy when we got together as a house group -- more just dealing with practical matters. Then that really changed when Lea decided that house groups were the places that the deeper therapy should be taking place. People left their standard groups but the house groups didn't get any better or safer. People would go wild and were encouraged to go wild. Dinner would stop and there would be a big group with someone pounding pillows in the living room."

With the focus on house groups as primary sites for therapy, the more contained context of a single house group of 12-15 people was more workable for most people, though the outcomes depended greatly on the capacity of each member to work emotionally there, as well as the skill and personal quality of the therapist. A man who moved into a smaller house group on Walmer Road around 1973 spoke of his experiences there:
"Those of us living there were quite similar in age and maturity. Most had their feet on the ground and had jobs but the therapy work that we did was quite raw. It was the first time I began to recognize my own resistance to changing. Jim was our therapist and he was excellent. He was dedicated and thorough. He had to open himself to be able to work so deeply with people. I felt very safe in that house group no matter what went on, mainly because of him and because of two of the other members with whom I had become close. The difficulties in any house group came from the people who were not willing to participate on an emotional level. They might want to control or avoid the group dynamic but they were not going to participate. I don't know why therapists put people like that into house groups."

In his next group house experience the larger venue was taken by a pair of therapists. There he believes that he grew more by becoming aware of the overall subtext of the house dynamics than by any direct therapeutic interventions. It can be seen from his remarks how the hierarchical atmosphere that had become more and more a feature of life throughout Therafields by the early 1970s affected the atmosphere of the house group.
"I couldn't get into the two therapists at all for the first year that I was there. I recognized her brilliance and his energy and dedication but I couldn't buy the routine. It was very strict -- my way or the highway. She was more in charge than her co-therapist: she was top level, at the right hand of Lea. Basically she wanted people to treat her as a queen and pay her the kind of homage paid to royalty. I grew a lot while there basically because I came to see both of them as just like us, people with faults. I was in the minority in the house though because most were big fans of theirs. I moved from being a child with few opinions to having opinions about everything that went on. It wasn't the place to speak of them though. The dynamic there was basically centered on the therapists. The whole thing helped me to understand the politics of how things worked. You see something going on but when you speak of it you are told that it is your own paranoia. Then you walk around feeling crazy. But if you can hold onto your awareness of what's happening you get to understand that there is a political hierarchy and a set of rules that are unstated."

Another fellow stressed the corrosive effects of the emphasis placed on confrontation in groups in the early 1970s. The nature of this approach pushed many people into their defenses or helped them to build new ones: "how to talk the talk." In the late 1960s a great deal had been made about the dangers, evils even of conformity, but whole new layers and forms of conformity were just a few years later taking hold. He recalls:
"What crept in was a certain sense that there was a way to be in the world and if you weren't that way there was something wrong with you and you'd better get your shit together fast or you were going to hear about it. People would go after one another in the groups. There was a high predominance of the super-ego. In my first house group on Walmer Road there were a number of real flag-wavers who shanghaied the group right away. There was lots of super-ego stuff and lots of pressure about work therapy. You had to be and to eat in a certain way -- the nutritional stuff. Eat this and wash it in this way. Everyone was terrified but trying to look like they had it together. I listened to all the stuff about food, for example, and thought, I'm going to starve here. It was all so precious and contrived."

This man says that he gained from the experience as the house group therapists did not discourage him from challenging what he called "the head boss and her acolytes dutifully following orders." In his next house group he found people more able to "drop the mask of being 'OK' and just be human with one another." His third experience, however, was in a larger setting; there he found more extreme examples of manipulation by the super-ego and of conformity to idealized notions of how one ought to be. In that setting he did not feel free to express his thoughts and feelings.
"There were about 40 people there and no real therapy ever seemed to happen. I thought that it was my problem because I just couldn't get it. There was a lot of super-ego again. A lot of the women seemed to me quite repressed and disturbed but not one particle of that came out in the groups. People seemed to be upset but I had no idea what they were doing with it. I didn't feel secure enough to deal directly with what I felt. The size of the group and the sense of myself as an outsider kept me from trying to address it. I was afraid of the male therapist and didn't trust the woman. She was much too concerned about herself as a guru. She was flippant in the groups; she didn't seem to take things seriously. I didn't think that the work in the groups was good. It always looked like something was happening but none of it sat right with me. There was a sense of people being overly self-assured as though we were living in a nirvana, and we weren't." After a year or so of frustration in this setting the man left despite a heavy effort of others to keep him there. He never regretted having left but found the process of doing so horrible.

The experiences of this group of people show some of the elements occuring in the Therafields milieu between about 1968-75. The initial fragmentation of house group responsibilty from Lea to a host of others left many groups in a state of confusion and even outright chaos. The size of the groups often militated against the necessary sense of contained safety needed for good therapy to occur. Also Lea's thrust toward confrontation in groups, at first with the Character Analysis Group but eventually extending down into the standard groups and house groups often led to a stifling dose of the super-ego and new forms of conformity. The decision in 1971 to move the main thrust of deeper therapy from standard to house groups in many instances merely increased the pressures experienced by people already overwhelmed by the intensity of their house group experiences.

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