Friday, December 3, 2010

Families and Children: Part 1

It's not hard to see that as the numbers of people asking for therapy accumulated, among them would be parents of children struggling with their family's problems. The answer to the needs of almost anyone coming along at that point seemed to be to put them into a house group, to surround them with others for support. Unfortunately there wasn't enough good judgement shown about who would and who would not be ready for such an experience, who would and who would not be able to handle it in a manner conducive to good outcomes for themselves and those with whom they lived. House group and milieu life was simply not a productive experience for some people. They tended either to act out in ways that could not then be boundaried, or, they were so overwhelmed by the emotional life of the group that they could not access their own thoughts or feelings. As this was true of individuals, so it was true with families. Some undoubtedly benefitted from the practical help and support of the members of their milieu or of those living with them. Others did not.

The impetus for the development of house groups formed around individual families would have come from Lea. No initiatives were developed without her spear-heading energy and interest. But the project was too broad, too ambitious given the level of understanding and therapeutic skills available. Lea considered herself to be a specialist in the area of children and families though this was not the reality. She had been unable to resolve her own disturbances with respect to her family of origin and with her own family. One of the women close to her through most of the 1960s said, "Earlier she was helping people but then her own disturbance came to the surface. In order to continue to help people she had to look into herself and do her own work. Instead she kept on taking on more and more distractions." Taking on the enormous job of working with and supervising the care and mental health of such a huge and complex situation was one more of the "distractions" that Lea embraced as she moved away from going deeper into her own troubles and those of her original clients.

Doing this work stirred even more of Lea's own troubles, making objectivity impossible. Another woman close to her recalled, "Pressure from her work with the families on Brunswick brought up a lot of her own personal difficulties, reminding her of bad times in her own early years. During a marathon in the city with the Brunswick groups Lea called me during a lunch break and asked me to come and give her a massage. When I saw her I was appalled because she was in no shape to be working with anyone. She was a woman in a large emotional pressure cooker and she had to deal with issues similar to her own with these families. I remember thinking that she was so personally involved in what was happening with them that she had entirely lost objectivity. I asked her to talk to me but she didn't really do so."

I have written earlier about the way that Lea presented her own family of origin and her relationships with her children in glowing terms. She had to maintain that fiction, even to herself. She believed that her instincts were right and were to be followed with respect to the needs of children and their parents. But in fact she acted in ways that sometimes had the effect of significantly damaging those whom she wished to help. Her certainty about decisions swayed others and brought them along with her in arrangements which in truth interfered with some of the families in harmful ways. There was a prototype. Lea would speak about how she had rescued a young boy from a terrible family. She would detail the visits that she made to the family and the arrangements that she made to take the child out of his situation. In fact over time that child lived in several family situations, suffering from these dislocations. Seeing this intervention as a success she was open to other situations presented to her that would indicate that, significantly, the mother was not up to the job of caring for and protecting her children. Lea's solution was cavalier. Give the child to another woman who could manage.

In early 1967 a young couple was visited by Lea's daughter. She noticed that their infant had an ear infection and suggested that they take her to the hospital for treatment. The father of the child recalls, "The next day in my group much was made of this. It was said that we had no idea how to care for her and that we could put her in danger without even knowing what we were doing. I had already been told many times that I hated women and that I was jealous because the baby interfered with my relationship with my wife. An older woman in the group offered to take the baby for awhile. When the child was about 10 months old she was brought to the Therafields farm to see if she and my wife could bond. This didn't happen and another woman eventually adopted her." The mother of the child was suffering from a profound depression which within the limits of therapy as practiced by Lea in those days, was not treatable. Another practicioner might have dealt quite differently with this situation, recommending forms of medication, then available, for the mother and getting supports for the father, who in fact had good nurturing skills, to be active in the care of the child. To Lea, however, it was all about the mother, the woman. This situation had very painful consequences for all concerned: for the child who had three different sets of parents within the first year of her life; for the parents of the child who drifted apart in their grief and unhappiness; and, for the adoptive mother, who struggled for years to help her troubled child.

During the life of the Brunswick milieu several children were removed from their mothers and placed in other situations. In one case the mother simply left the home and the father found other women within the group to help him with his children. Another father had left his wife and children around 1969 under the influence of talk about paranoid partners. A few years later his wife who was caring for their three children was judged a poor mother by her therapist. The children were taken from her and placed in a home in the milieu with the father and his new partner. Another boy whose troubled mother was similarly judged unfit was taken by a couple and raised as their own.

One young woman who moved over to the milieu in order to live with and support the children recalled, "In the house where I lived all of the people there were good with kids so I learned a lot. It was solid and wholesome. But I saw bad things happening with other families. I made myself a promise that I would never have a child in a house group setting. Families are pretty fragile in general unless you have a strong, loving, extended family. Living as we did right with the families their problems were readily apparant. If people were too quick to point these out, the parents could only be made to feel guilty. Anyone may not be the best parent or be doing the best job but the bottom line is that kids would rather have their own parents with them. Instead of supporting people with their problems, there was a lot of criticism, a looking for perfection where it couldn't exist."

A woman who moved into the Brunswick milieu in 1971 remembers that, "All of the action then was oriented to building the Willow so we didn't have many groups. The milieu focussed around the the families and the children who lived there and I was involved with them. The families lived in a fish bowl in that setting and were greatly interfered with. Some parents had problems but to my knowledge there was never any outright abuse. If it was judged that a mother, for example, was not sufficiently present to her child emotionally, that could be seen as sufficient cause to find another parent for him or her. It was said that that woman should not have had children." This happened to one family in the following manner. The relationship between the parents was coming apart and the mother was deeply shaken. Her therapist believed that she was not able to provide emotionally for her children because of that and other troubles. The woman was convinced to leave the family and to stay at the farm for a time, accompanied by her therapist.

Speaking of this situation in the seminar, Lea decided spontaneously that one of the learning therapists would be very good with children. A report had been circulated that another one of the fathers had hit his son, so she designated the learner as the new therapist in charge of that child. Saying that he ought to work with more than one child, she assigned him the younger of the two boys whose mother had just been taken away. The boys were separated, the older one moving in with another family who had a daughter of similar age. The younger boy was moved over to the house group where his new "therapist" lived and was cared for by a succession of well-meaning volunteers. This was originally intended as a temporary measure but it went on indefinitely. Later the boy lived for a number of years with a couple. The scars of his removal from his formerly intact family at such a young age remain with him to this day. A woman involved in the boy's life from that day (and remains an important friend to him) remembers that the learner who was assigned this role, "was a decent person but he had no training or experience with children, yet he was suddenly his therapist. People were brought in from all over the community to take care of the child. I went over a couple of nights a week to put him to bed. He was only four years old then and didn't know any of us. It was so destructive. His parents just vanished. His father was so angry with everyone that he disappeard from the boy's life at that point. Children were seen as disposable. It was all Lea's decision."

Looking back on this period this woman is appalled by the things that happened. She realizes that she went along with Lea's decisions, doing her best to be helpful in any situation despite an inner sense of discomfort with what she saw around her. "I don't ever remember having doubts about Lea. If I did I certainly buried them. I had lots of doubts about myself. I always thought there was something wrong with me, that I couldn't fit in though I tried harder and harder. I bought the whole myth but I felt terribly at odds with the world." Another woman who worked closely with Lea and who was called upon to implement or to defend decisions that Lea made says that if she had doubts about any decision, "I would feel that she was right and I was wrong. I had no confidence at all. That was the tragedy of my therapy with her. She was not able to give me any confidence in myself and I think that unconsciously she deliberately did that to keep people dependent on her. She brought me to a certain point but then wouldn't go any further. She wouldn't set a person free."

It was within the context of Lea's "work" and methods with families in the Brunswick milieu and elsewhere that the school developed. So many parents and their therapists and helpers were in various ways held in thrall to Lea's imprimatur, to the by-then infamous "Lea says!" that the gradual manoeuvring of Malcolm to seize total control over the children was but of a piece with directions long in motion.

In my next blog I will write of Lea's increasing obsession with the fates of mothers and children.


  1. striking that no one left comments on this one. As someone who could well be one of the three kids referred to here, my guess is that addressing the extensive damage done to families by Lea AND by the therapists who participated and supported in the divisions of mothers from families & children from parents is still too difficult. Lots of those therapists still practicing today yes?

  2. As a child that had my mother taken from me and my siblings, I have great anger and grief. I'm still processing everything, all these decades later. I have just come across this blog, so just processing everything. Children seen as disposable, mothers forced to leave their children, children raised by strangers. The scars are deep and I doubt I will ever recover. Clare