Monday, November 29, 2010

The School: Part 3

In the summer of 1977 Therafields celebrated a fifteenth anniversary with a gala weekend at the farm and a booklet of short essays about its various aspects. The originating date was taken from the 1962 formation of the first house group, five years before the purchase of the farm and the naming of that property Therafields. One set of essays is entitled 'Education.' Sharon Healy contributed a piece outlining the history of the school from the summer of 1973. Another parent who was very involved in this process also wrote of her experiences. The third piece was written by Josie. None of these essays reflect the struggle that had already occured, placing the care and responsibility for the children soley in the hands of Malcolm. Reading them now one is taken back to those days of naivete and group self-deception. Like all of the pieces in the booklet they are determinedly up-beat, positive promotions for the values and activities of Therafields. But in the light of what came to pass the ironies inherent to the essays are both staggering and painful. In her essay Josie states: "Not until Malcolm Hindley-Smith got involved in the education of our children did I start to feel secure about things. I knew the welfare of the child would be his main concern. This has proved true. He has in no way countenanced the oppression of children....Since Malcolm has taken over the reins of what has been called the KA school, my own anxieties have largely come to rest. Spared conflict with parents and helpers in the running of the school, he is confident to function freely on his own intuitions, which focus completely on the welfare of the child."

The problem with freeing Malcolm to follow his own intuitions with respect to the children was that it was precisely at that time that Malcolm was losing his grip. A strong person in charge of a school for kids can do wonderful things for them, as witnessed in A.S. Neil's Summerhill school. But Neil was grounded and emotionally healthy in ways that Malcolm simply was not. At the beginning of his involvement with the school Malcolm had been all energy, passion, and innovation. But by 1977 he was obviously "languishing," as Lea put it. And it was at that moment when he most decisively took the reins with the children, marginalizing and stigmatizing anyone attempting to intervene. Malcolm had many hatreds and took no care to shield the kids from them. On the contrary he encouraged them to share his feelings. He hated Therafields, his mother, his sister, people who were a part of Therafields, and significantly, the children's own parents. Over the next several years Malcolm arranged that more of the children essentially became residents at 59 Admiral, living with him in a progressively warped universe.

The following is an exerpt from my interview with one of the girls who was in the school from 1973-1980. She was nine or ten when the school moved back to the city.

"We didn't have any classes. We played and went bug hunting in the yard. We were made to learn Elton John's song 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart'. We had to recite it and sing it. That was weird. We had exercise time. People would be rotated through to lead the exercises in the back yard. You would stand up at the front and lead. On the first floor was a library where Malcolm had all the Ladybug books. You could go there and read if you wanted to but there was never any structure. We just went there and hung out. There must have been some things that he told us to do but I don't remember any.

"Sometimes we had to get together in the big room in the basement. If someone was mad at their parents (which I think was not us being mad at our parents but Malcolm telling us that we were), he would put pillows on the floor and say, 'Just imagine that is your parents there on the floor.' He would totally work people up into a head space. I remember him doing that with one of the girls, getting her so upset, crying, and jumping up and down on the pillows, and saying, 'I hate you.' He stirred that up in everyone. It was very conflicting because you felt like you had to keep him happy which we all seemed to want to do. To make him happy we had to totally dislike our parents. If we didn't, we were in the wrong and he would manipulate everything we did or said to make us not want to be at home. We had to keep secrets all the time about anything we were doing at the school because if our parents knew stuff, we would have broken the trust with Malcolm. He would say,'Your parents might take you out of the school.' They wouldn't understand and they were bad anyway. So we would just go home, eat dinner, go out to play, go to bed, get up and do it all over again. It was a split life. There was a room on the third floor at 59 that we could use to stay over on the weekends when we wanted. He had us do his laundry, shovel his walk, rake the leave and do everything around the house.

"Malcolm wasn't always around. Sometimes he would go out with the two older girls and do things and we would just be there by ourselves. We were put into groups. At one point I was with three other kids about my age which was cool. We would go back and forth between the back yards on Admiral and Brunswick. I don't know who was in charge of us. We were left to our own devices a lot of the time. Later he changed the groups and put me in one with four young girls. I was eleven then and they were about four or five. He told me that I was in charge and that I had to teach them. I remember thinking, 'Teach them what? Who'se teaching me?' I was so nervous about everything I did. I knew that Malcolm would be told everything and I was so afraid of getting in trouble.

"Malcolm would pick on different people to get mad at. He would rotate it. He would pick on the boys for certain things. He would pick on me by saying that I had no opinions on anything. Once on Canada Day we were all going to stay over and watch the fireworks. Then he told me that I couldn't stay. I was devastated. He dragged out a table and said that I could only stay if I stood on the table and told people two opinions. I made up a couple of things so he let me stay. I thought, 'What was the point of that?' Then I had to go to his study every week and tell him three opinions. After a few weeks he let it go. Then he got onto someone else. He went through all of us. He would pick something for a few weeks and get on to you about it and totally intimidate you. I was very afraid of him. He was weird and he was manipulating us all. He would scare us but we also wanted to please him to stay in his good books. You wanted him to invite you ino the coach house or give you some special task because you would feel relieved. Malcolm thinks I'm OK so I'm OK.

"You never knew if it would be a good day or a bad day. You never knew if he would be happy with you or your group. To clean his car was a big favour, like a huge reward for good behaviour. He would chose you and you would feel so great. Then he would chose someone else and you would think, 'Oh, what's wrong? He doesn't think I'm good enough now.' You never really knew where you stood. I remember we'd be playing in the back yard and he'd come down the back stairs at 59 and my heart would just stop. You'd never know what mood he would be in and if he was going to pick on you. When one of the kids was picked on there was nothing we could do. Our friendships were quite strong and we all felt the same things though we would never say so. No matter who was picked on we felt badly for that kid and we knew that the others felt badly for us when it happened to us. But if we said anything to support the one being picked on, we were accused of being bad too, so we had to just sit there and watch.

"At the school we had fun but we had to grow up fast also. We learned to be careful, how to watch our backs, how to suss out a situation before we said anything or before we chose which way to go on an issue. Because if we went the wrong way, forget it. No wonder he thought I had no opinions. I had to figure out what my opinion should be before I said anything. I was very stressed being in charge of the education of the little kids. I was in charge but I wasn't told what to do. I felt that it was another way that he set me up to get me in trouble so he could get rid of me."

"When one of the boys was taken out of the school in 1980 Malcolm told us that his parents had kidnapped him. I remember thinking at the time that I wished that my parents would take me out, but I would never admit that. I would go back and forth between: I hate my parents, and, no, I don't. He's telling me that I do. This is my group and my friends and we're all supposed to be together. He built up the thing with this boy who had left, telling us how bad his parents were and how bad our parents were. He would say things like: 'You have to be careful with your parents. You can stay here. This place is safe.' All of us were staying at the school to be safe from our parents who might want to take us away from his safe place. It was all mind stuff. Finally though, someone told my parents that I couldn't go to high school without a grade eight diploma -- thank you whoever told them that -- so I went to a regular school that fall. I had to put a face on it that it was terrible leaving the school but part of me was so relieved that didn't have to have all of that pressure from Malcolm and the weird scary feeling one always had. You never knew when he was going to like you or hate you or make you feel like shit. If you were really in favour he would let you come into the coach house and rub his feet. Man, did he ever have us -- unbelievable! I had to pretend to be upset when my parents first told me I was leaving the school. When I left though Malcolm told me that I couldn`t play with the other kids any more. I was devastated by that.

"It was awful at the other school for the first year. I had never sat at a desk nor done regular school work. It was really hard. I was OK with math because Sharon had taught us the times tables and some other basic things. Later we had learned the binary system and some computer stuff. But everything else was really hard, especially spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The socialization stuff was really hard too. I came from a place where we just hung out and played. Suddenly there was the whole thing of what group you belonged to, the regular social pressures of kids. I just didn't know how to do it. The next two years were really growing up years for me. Once during that time one of the girls snuck out of 59 and came to see me. That was the best day of the whole year. Malcolm had told her not to see me, that it wasn't safe because my parents had me now. Years later one of the other girls told me about Malcolm having sex with her and a couple of the others and the kind of pressure she had felt to please him and make him happy. She said she was glad that I had left because as soon as one of the girls developed he would begin to move in on them. I didn't tell my parents any of the things that had happened at the school, because we had been taught that our parents were bad and that they wouldn't understand how great it was at the school. We felt in some way that Malcolm was going to protect us from them.

"Looking back I can see that my parents withdrew me for other reasons than the grade eight diploma issue. My dad was good friends with the other two families who withdrew their kids from the school that summer and so he knew a lot of what was going on. As I got older I asked myself why no one did anything. Didn't people think that it was weird that we were all staying at 59? People were probably intimidated because Malcolm was Lea's son and so he was protected. But how could people send their kids off to a place where we learned nothing and spent our time taking care of Malcolm? Malcolm seemed to know when different parents were having personal problems and he'd tell us about them. Also he had a way of building us up and then shooting us down so that we would do anything to please him. Once he told me that the school was for gifted kids and that as I wasn't gifted, I'd have to leave. He had me tested by Tom O and I guess the results were OK because I was allowed to stay.

"I didn't stay in close touch with any of the other kids after I left though I did see one or two of them now and again. Those who stayed longer than I did weren't able to stay close with each other either because when Malcom went to trial, some testified against him and some for him on the stand. That put big wedges between them. By grade ten I had adjusted but I think I may be the only one who went to a regular school after KA. Those kids had a hard time once it ended. I think that it really affected some of them badly, that they came away feeling very badly about themselves. It's amazing that one person could have such an effect on us, to be able to make us want to please him, and to do whatever he wanted. I don't know if he planned all of that. It was so sick: building you up and then cutting you down and then making you feel so special that you would do anything for him. It was very special to be called into the coach house. He'd put his feet on your legs and say, 'You can rub my feet.' I remember thinking, 'Boy, this is big.' Now I think it was disgusting. Yes, master, it is an honour for me to rub your feet.

Anyone who was in a learning group, a parents' group, or who supported the school, or who was in any manner an integrated part of Therafields during the 1970s and early 1980s will recognize the patterns that emerge in this girl's statement. In the 1970s Lea gradually became more closed to outside influences and less able to bear with dissention. She began to distinguish between those whom she could trust to support her and those who were against her. She used her considerable influence with people to get her own way and to set agendas, even to framing what was to be seen as truth. Like Malcolm with the children she could raise people up and cut them down in progressively more arbitrary ways. As Malcolm withdrew from any intervening forces his power over the children increased but so did the depth of his disturbance. Ultimately I think that Malcolm was acting out some version of his own childhood terrors, making himself into both the scary monster and the one who would be the Pied Piper, the one to protect and rescue the lost children from their evil parents.

In my next blog I will give the account of another girl who was a part of the school from 1975-80. During her tenure there she gradually picked up the practical running of the school as Malcolm disappeared more into a darkening place of his own.


  1. I didn't have children at that time but was a single adult who had looked after many of the children who later went to the KA school and were thereinafter out of my care. We were asked to make a monthly donation to families with kids in the school. For me it was very hard. I had very mixed feelings. I didn't trust Malcolm but I trusted Sharon. The 1977 party at the farm was a total disaster for me. Looking around at all those happy, adjusted faces I felt like such a fraud because I didn't know what there was to be so happy about. I certainly didn't think that all was right with the world, but I seemed to be a party of one. I was always in conflict with Lee's unquestioned authority but never felt I had the ear of anyone in a position to do anything. I felt I had to hide my "negative feelings" because they didn't reflect the "positive vibe". I wish I'd have had more courage. But everyone else I wanted to belong and to be loved by those I cared about.

  2. One of my sharpest memories of being at the Therafields farm was the day Lea led a discussion with members of CAG, the Brusnwick folks and other "senior" therapists. We non-invitees were very curious about what was going on because it was murmured that the school and the care of the children was to be discussed.

    I remember the attendees flooding out of the group room where the meeting was held and spreading out amongst the rest of us with great excitement. It had been DECIDED in the meeting that the community was to be asked to support the children in the school by sponsoring their tuition and expenses.

    Parents were immediately fanning out to approach people to step up and sponsor their child. How could people refuse? People who were struggling to meet their own therapy fee obligations were suddenly writing an extra monthly cheque to keep little Billy or young Sally supported in the school. For some economically struggling parents this was a big boost.

    However, I don't think that was the main purpose. In my view, the real objective was to further weaken parents' sense of responsibility for their kids and further separate the parents from the school. The corollary objective was to ensure the revenues needed to support the school and ultimately Malcolm himself.

    I resisted and felt I was able to support my child in the school with the income I was making. I was criticized for all the usual reasons-paranoia, defensiveness, letting my neurosis blind me to the benefits of the community, etc. etc. Finally I relented and begged a friend to become a sponsor. How I regret that decision.

  3. I remember having to sing "Don't go breaking my heart" on the stage at the farm. It was a very strange experience as a young girl. The first inkling I had that things were weird was when Malcolm took me to the school house up at the farm to talk with me about math because I was "scared" of math. I was about 9 years old and I have no idea what he said I only remember that he held my hand and I felt very nervous and awkward. A sign of things to come that I missed. But I was only 9!