Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The School: Part 4

There are many things to consider when looking at what happened to the children who attended Malcolm's school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The events that unfolded at the school are undoubtedly the most abusive and painful experiences that occured under the Therafields umbrella, precisely because they were experienced by children who had a right to protection and proper care. In examining the legacy of Therafields this chapter must be faced squarely as its most heinous and shameful. We cannot simply say, "Many good things happened in Therafields and many gained from being a part of it." This is true and those things need also to be documented and acclaimed. But like most "family" histories there are other threads that are ignored at one's peril. What went on at the school cannot be seen as something that happened 'over there.' Rather it was a central facet of the dynamics put in place well before its formation when Lea's focus shifted from the provision of psychotherapy to the care and fostering of her family and her lover, Visvaldis. So many distortions of original ideals and purposes had to be swallowed and acquiesced in by so many of us to allow what came to be. Issues of individual and collective responsibility need to be faced, not in order to focus blame, but in order to more deeply understand our own fallability.

The full horror of what had been happening at the school only emerged into general consciousness in 1984 when Malcolm was arrested and convicted of being sexually involved with two of the under-aged girls. Malcolm cleverly had engaged a woman lawyer to defend himself, giving the appearance of shock and innocence. His claim was that the accusations were fabricated by people from his mother's cult, determined to destroy him. A further plank of his defense was, through his lawyer, to claim that girls like to fantasize about romantic and sexual adventures and that their statements were a simple reflection of this tendency. The judge found against him, however, stating that the young women were very trustworthy witnesses. He stated, moreover, that Malcolm had clearly alienated the children from their families, perversely taking control of their lives. Malcolm was sentenced to four years in prison but served only a portion of that amount in a medium security facility. Those brave young women who spoke out, stopping his reign of terror must live all of their lives with the memories of what was done to them. Others, like the other girl whose experience I detailed in the previous blog suffered in other ways. There are many stories from the school cannot be told out of concern for the privacy of the (former) children themselves. The following exerpt is from my interview with a second girl who was with the school from the time that it moved to the farm in 1975 until the summer of 1980. She reinforces some of the statements made by other student, and adds further commentary of her own.

"A lot of the structure of the school collapsed or at least changed after Sharon left. She had groups of kids for different things. Then it became stupid school stuff -- the blue group, the peach group, and so on, but really based around the good kids and the bad kids. It was totally judgemental. There were only five of us older kids so it was more fluid with us. After Sharon left we didn't really have classes. Some kids would show up at certain times at 59 but it became less and less like that. The weird thing is that after a while Malcolm was never there. He would be in the coach house. The five of us had different responsibilities but
it was mainly one other girl and me. She and I ran the school.

"There were three women who came to be with us. I made up the schedule for them. When one would arrive I'd sit with her for a bit, then send her to the kitchen to make tea. These three were the only parents that Malcolm allowed to be around. None of them was very secure about her position there or about how Malcolm felt about her. I'd sometimes have them crying on my shoulder. Malcolm didn't want anyone there who was more certain of herself.

I'd bring the kids in and get them settled. I collected all the fees and paid all the bills. Malcolm would come in every now and then and ask how things were going. He was obsessed with cleanliness. The place was beautiful and immaculate but he insisted on ridiculous cleaning schedules. There were cleaning shifts that all the children had to participate in. I don't remember learning anything, at least in any formal way. There was no instruction. We had these lady bug books. We'd get everyone to chart their progress through them. Malcolm would come in sometimes and say -- what's going on in here? Other times he'd be in a different mood and say, 'Let's play this fun game.' He would then talk to the kids about Einstein or something, but in the day to day running of the school, he had nothing to do with it.

"Malcolm didn't want any of the other parents involved and he was very good at manipulating things to ensure that that is how it was. His big thing was to say that kids are weird when their parents are around. He would say that it was disruptive to the learning process. I can't imagine what all the parents were thinking about that. It wasn't cheap to send your kid there. I was responsible for the finances so I know. There were 3 or 4 terms a year and it was about $3000/term. I would go to the bank with all the cheques. I had signing authority. The bank clerks were very nice but they were curious. Here I was about 13 then and going to the bank in the middle of the day when I should have been in school. They had no idea what was going on.

"I was intimidated by Malcolm in those days; all of us were. He could come in in any kind of mood and he could be irrational. He would totally freak out about things, for example, if there was dust on the bannister. When I look back on it now I can see that he was just losing it. It's hard to lay blame on anyone for the things that went on then, but people's ability to blindly follow is staggering. It's clear to me and I'm sure it was to others that he was falling apart in some way. I don't know what he would have had to do for people to admit it. It was the mythology about the Hindley-Smiths that made him. People just would not see what was there. It's doubly ironic because he hated his mother and what she stood for and he hated the fact that people considered him a part of her group. It's so weird that anyone would entrust kids to him. I don't know how Lea Hindley Smith and her son became so venerated. In some ways Malcolm had a clear view of what was happening in Therafields but he wasn't able to escape it and he lived off the fruits of it. He did see all of the hypocrisy, all the syncophantic behaviour, the cultic personality, and how damaging all of it was.

"My understanding is that in the beginning Lea and the others were fundamentally kind and good and well-meaning, pretty much like with any religion. But then the cultic stuff happens and absolute power does corrupt absolutely. And there's the lemming thing as well. I think that Malcolm was just falling apart, especially after he started living at the coach house. It's unfortunate that he isolated himself because if he had been around other adults, he might have gotten help. But the problem was that everyone was so easily led and intimidated by him. For years he had no contact with adults and he lost it. He had very weird mood swings. I don't know what was going on in his head. Definitely he either thought you were the best thing in the world or else he lost it with you. There seemed to be no external reasons for his reactions. It was completely arbitrary. The sad thing is that he could be so great with the kids, so brilliant and so able to inspire.

"But there clearly was abuse in a lot of areas. He was messed up and he was abusive in many ways. When you have someone that messed up and they have absolute power over a bunch of kids, it's not good. I still wonder what people were thinking. Aside from the possibility that he might come on to young girls, did it not occur to people that it wasn't a good thing for adolescent girls to be out of touch with women from whom they could learn? Malcolm did do horrible things. Quite a few people though made him the focus for their hatred without examining their own stupidity and blindness. It was abdicating their own responsibilities. I don't mean by this to absolve Malcolm of guilt. He did what he did and he has to live with that.

"I left the school in 1980 but went back the next year for a bit. They had moved by then to Davenport Road. I would go over and help with the Montessori stuff with the younger kids. I would arrive, do my thing, and leave. I also helped with teaching swimming but I didn't have much to do with Malcolm then. He seemed worse to me by then, more out of it. I think that he kept away from me because I had a different life then and his moods were no longer the be-all and end-all of my life. The kids were still into the heavy cleaning schedule. He was still obsessed by it and would freak out over uncleanliness as before. After awhile I stopped going all together, not because of Malcolm, but because of the other kids. I think that they resented the fact that I wasn't any longer in their enslaved position.

"I think that some of the kids were really damaged by the way that they were treated. But it wasn't just Malcolm who was hard on us. Certain children were isolated, consistently singled out as bad. That definitely came from Malcolm but also from other people. I'm thinking about things that went on in the Kendal back yard. Things would be said, like: 'Watch out for that kid or that group of kids. They're bad.' Other kids were seen as perfect. It was bad for all of the kids. I hope that the ones who were given those labels have been able to shake them."

It's clear that children who passed through the school under those conditions of oppression: taught little other than to be wary of their parents and of Malcolm, utterly dependent upon Malcolm's whims and moods, and made to feel that they were inherently bad or found wanting in some profound manner, could not escape unscathed. In the microcosm of the school there are threads and outcomes of directions that Lea was taking as early as the late 1960s in her obsession with the evils in society at large and the necessity of intervening in the lives of families and of children in ways that ultimately brought suffering to many.

I want to invite readers to leave comments about this or any of the other posts. I would appreciate feedback, whether or not it is in agreement with the ideas and information I am putting forth, or whether it introduces other pieces that I have ommitted or been unaware of. Thank you for your interest.


  1. Ah Brenda, how hard it must have been to have carried all this around in your consciousness after you did the interviews. I'm glad for you you've found a vehicle for communicating this to the rest of us. I was never an insider though many times I longed to be, could never trust Lea or Josie but kept striving to, always seeing my distrust and their contempt for me as further proof of my own innate badness and worthlessness. I came into Therafields already afflicted by PTSD and DID from horrific abuse at the hands of my family and church. Knowing now the extent of the abuse those children suffered at the hands of people I strove mightily to be accepted by is almost more than I can bear. Knowing my son was in that school consigned to a group called the Doomsday Duds until pulled out by his adoptive parents is agony. I'm eternally grateful to them for standing up to Malcolm and Lea for him. He has a good life now - marriage to an exceptional woman, two bright and happy kids, a career as a self-employed website designer. Slowly we have found ways to be in each other's lives, for which I thank the Universe every day. I found a gifted therapist in Boston with whom I have worked since 1993, slowly uncovering the horrors buried deep in my subconscious, integrating the personalities that helped me cope, developing the knowledge that I can love and am lovable. I read Grant's book and was angry because I felt it left out so much - maybe not fair to Grant. June then told me about your blog and it has set me off on another round of uncovering and freeing myself. Thank you!

  2. "His big thing was to say that kids are weird when their parents are around. He would say that it was disruptive to the learning process. I can't imagine what all the parents were thinking about that. It wasn't cheap to send your kid there."

    She would have needed to attend some of the "parents groups" to get an inkling of some of the anguish that was being felt but barely expressed out of fear and pressure to conform. You feared for your child but it was always because of your own neuroses and paranoia. When you were told that it was in your child's best interests to be a resident student and not live with you it was very difficult to question that because they already had the child and you were left sitting there pondering your neurosis and shortcomings.

    It is ironic that at the time we thought that there was some coordination between the "senior" therapists, the parents group and Malcolm. From what I am reading here that was clearly not the case. We gave authority to the parents group and to the pronouncements of the "therapists" leading it that was totally unwarranted.

    In hindsight it is difficult to remember that many of us thought the "senior" therapists and Lea were bona fide psychotherapists and knew what they were doing. The more I read here the more I recognize how untrue that is and how much I let myself be misled.

    It comes down to the fact that I am responsible for what happened to my child in that situation because I was unable to stand up and say "No! We are not going to do this." The fact that I feared for my child's welfare in the situation if I took action is no excuse for me not taking action.

    The fear for my child's welfare should have been my only consideration. My standing in the community and how I was perceived by the "leadership" was irrelevant, but I was unable to see that very clearly at the time.

  3. Reading these posts is a very otherworldly experience for me. I think I have cut out this part of my life and it has become unreal. So much of what was said by the two women in this and the previous post about their experience with Malcolm echo's my experience. I was terrified of Malcolm. I never knew what mood he was in and whether I would be in his favour or worthless. I too was trained to believe that I had no opinions, no self, that without him I was just an empty shell. I lived in CONSTANT dread of what would happen next. I suppose that is what made me a good target for him. And I can tell you that I live with this dread to this day.

    From the writing that I have found about Therafields and the school (Mainly in Goodbrant's book and this blog) I get the sense that no one really knows what happened to us, Malcolm's victims, at the school. My childhood and adolescence was stolen from me. I lived in hell (if you could call it living) and I carry the scars and always will. What is important to me is that society understand what is possible when we don't step back and ask ourselves "does the current circumstance feel right to me?". When we blindly look to others for the actions we should take, when we view a person as some sort of all knowing untouchable sentient being we are in trouble. Nobody is God.

    Malcolm is a very sick man and was protected by a very sick community. We can only go forward and the Therafields "experiment" can only serve as a warning to future generations. If something good is to come out of this, for me, it would be an increased awareness in society of the myriad of ways that very sick people can fill their warped desires, damaging and destroying lives in the process, and an increased vigilance by parents and communities towards their internal true north, towards the small voice that says "something is wrong here" and then the courage to follow that up with action. To say "No my teenage daughter may not rub your feet, clean your car and stay over night at your home".

    One of my biggest regrets when I look back at the years of abuse I endured is that I never said NO! I never opened my mouth and said "This is NOT happening, this STOPS NOW". Well I was a terrified young girl then. But I am no longer, I do have a voice and I hope to use it to save others from the irreplaceable loss I have suffered.

    1. I am truly sorry about the way that you and the other kids were left to Malcolm's devices. If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know. Brenda.

  4. Thank you Brenda. Having a forum to talk about this is a gift. What I want is to be whole and that is not possible when we cut out parts of our lives. Through this experience I suppose I have become stronger and know that I am a survivor. I have built a good life and I continually strive to use my experiences as an opportunity for growth!