Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Spirit of the Community

I have many difficulties with Grant's chapter on the Heart and Spirit of the Community. General statements are made about how people felt and why they did things as if they are feeling and acting as groups rather than as individuals. For example, the "counter-culture" crowd comes across as a unified movement that is inspired by and in turn lifts the heart and soul of Lea, discouraged by the dour "50s crowd." The real divisions, I would contend, were within individuals themselves, rather than from demographic to demographic. As with most activities that we undertake motivations were tremendously mixed.

People entered therapy not to take on the land and the environment but because of perceived troubles in their own emotional/psychological beings. The existence of the farm and of the work projects was for some a major bonus. The possibility of meeting and working with other, like-minded, like-valued people in a broader social context could be an amazing, transforming experience. The degree to which this happened, however, was dependent upon the individual's own inner stability, the quality of the therapy he or she was receiving, and the timing of the introduction to the expanded scene. There were other variables involved, not just within the individual but also related to the stage of development of the "community" and often the degree of pressures brought to bear on people to participate. "This will be good for you," often was the velvet glove around the iron fist of, "Your help is needed and if you don't help out we won't see you as one of us."

Many issues are raised in this chapter: administration and finances; the progress of involvement in the "community" by the individual client; the centrality of the farm; Lea's interests in healthy food because of her diabetes; "work therapy;" "beliefs of the members of the commune;" anti-intellectualism; families in the milieu; private schooling; sexual relationships; and, an idea that Grant refers to often: the European branch of psychoanalysis that framed itself as a charismatic movement with a core thrust to community and social revolution. Each of these areas requires considerable space for reflection. I want here to look at Grant's view of Lea adhering to "the European school of psychoanalysis" which espoused the necessity of community life and action for the fulness of mental health. I am at a loss to understand these references.

The Europeans of whom Lea spoke most often were Freud, Klein, and Reich. Each had his or her own followers and detracters. A "school" of thought was built around the theory and practice of each. Their adherents rivalled one another and other sub-groupings for pride of place in the pantheon of psychoanalytic greats. The gossip and in-fighting within that rarified air was as intense as in any professional arena. To my knowledge (though I would be happy to be contradicted) none established or advocated a community based on psychoanalytic principles or as an outgrowth and extension of therapeutic resolution. In the 1960s Lea would speak of the proper care of one's home as a sign and necessity of good mental health. How can you deal with interior clutter and confusion if your external world is like that?, she seemed to say. This orientation came across clearly in her stewardship of the early house groups. In the early 1970s Lea extended this view to encompass the properties in the country. I think that it is true that she both encouraged and harnessed the enthusiasm of many of the newer members for the environment, putting their energies to work in developing those properties. I don't believe, however, that this direction was to realize a North American resonance of European ideals and practice.

Lea got into this sector by starting a small practice with individual people. It allowed her to do work that interested her a lot more than real estate and it provided a good income for her family. It gradually developed into the somewhat diverse milieu that she had shaped when the Catholic group came along. By then she had individual clients (patients), some smaller standard groups and a couple of house groups. All of this was manageable for the committed, hard working person that she was. During this early formative period Lea did not espouse a communal philosophy. She made clear to her clients that the goal was for them to do their therapy work and then to get on with their lives. If they ran into trouble later they could always come back for more help but therapy ought not to become a substitute for real life. This approach changed over time as Lea became more involved and invested (as did we right along with her) in the proliferation of house groups and learning groups.

As Lea drew back from the nitty-gritty of daily slog in the therapeutic trenches, she developed terminology and concepts to frame her view of what she and Therafields were all about. But theory is another double-edged sword. You find a box and then try to squeeze everything into it. Some things simply won't fit, so like the heels and toes of Cinderella's less charming step-sisters, they are squeezed, distorted, or simply lopped off.
The house group idea was indeed a special innovation of Lea's own. It gave a grounded environment for many who had been living relatively impoverished lives more or less on their own in a large city.

I myself, like many of my contemporaries found the house group milieu lived as Lea originally set it up, safe and nourishing. But living that way provided the seed of the ultimate extension of therapy into a way of life rather than simply a passage into a fuller life of one's own. Most of us found ourselves for the first time ever living closely with other people with whom we could share deeply not just our troubles but also our interests and joys. Possibilities abounded for lasting friendships and for mating. How was one to leave such a life behind? And so we stayed on, moving with the stream of events as they unfolded over the years, not fully understanding, any more than Lea herself understood fully, the multiplicity of desires and needs that both kept us there and that propelled us along the paths that Therafields eventually took.

I think that it was an unfortunate development that Lea tried to turn what had been a helpful innovation into her special claim to fame. There was some "deeper work" occurring in some house groups from time to time but they were never, before or after her declaration of them as "Threshold psychotherapy," the primary site of therapy. I don't know that they could have been even had there been sufficient resources to focus the work there. They had been intended to function as supportive families while each member persued therapy elsewhere -- in individual or standard group sessions. Trying to bring all of it together was too confounding, too layered; it was asking too much of people to develop friends and lovers and at the same time to explore raw feelings left over from childhood through these relationships.

We gained in diverse ways from being there but we also remained in a kind of warp, staying adolescent, children to Lea's momma. Lea gained many things as well but some of these were not good for her. The position that she carved out for herself gave her a power that was ultimately destructive to the very principles that she had prided herself on in her early years as a therapist. "Secondary gains" became not a danger to be avoided but a way of life not only for herself but for those closest to her, the "family" whom she had so wanted to redeem.

1 comment:

  1. The point you raise about the goal of doing deep therapeutic work in a housegroup as being too complicated really rings true for me. There was (toward 1975/76) a home for some of us that did not function as a housegroup. We only lived together as tenants who more or less got along but we didn't have house group sessions. It was the best co-living situation I had found in ten years. People were kind and respected each other because if they didn't behave decently they would have been required to leave. We all felt safe. No one was afraid of being ostrazised for not feeling like talking one day. Deep friendships were allowed to form and we learned to feel genuine love and compassion for each other because we were made to treat each other with respect. Our only connection was that we were all doing individual therapy at our own pace.