October 2010

How can any of us be sure? 

What bowels would not be angered

by what cannot be explained.

There may be no red flags, but you’re

drowning In unpredictable pain. 


Just remember, life is a terminal illness 

and Medicine an inexact  science;

 an exercise in probability. 

In shadow and with occult blood,

the assassin flatters to deceive


So what’s the worst?  The surgeon,

Green in mask and gown,  

punctuates your abdomen,    

creates a semicolon, but don’t fret,

it’s not yet a full stop.

Henry James leaves his stories open to his readers interpretations.  That is the source of their intrigue.  The ‘Turn of the Screw’ is his most famous and most chilling novel,  but why?  Is it because it explores, albeit obliquely,  that most horrific of topics, the loss of innocence.    

The governess is both an unreliable and uninformed narrator and as such gives the tale its edgy somewhat hysterical character.   She has been employed by their uncle to look after Flora and Miles’, in effect to become their parent.  We assume their real parents have died.  On the day of her departure for Bly, the large country house, where they live, she is given a letter saying that Miles has been expelled from school for some undisclosed misdemeanour. 

She meets the children and is instantly charmed.  They are polite, intelligent and kind, but there is something a little too knowing about them.  She leans from the housekeeper,  Miss Grose, that both Miss Jessel, her predecessor and Peter Quint the butler, died shortly after leaving Bly,  but she sees what Miss Grose identifies as apparitions of them in the grounds and the house.  Jessel and Quint  seem to have some malign hold over the children, and the governess fears for their safety.  What on earth has been going on?  There are dark hints of sexual abuse.  The apparitions increase and the children appear to collude in the deception but by the end we begin to wonder whether they are just creations of the governess’s overheated imagination.  Flora is taken away for her own safety by Miss Grose.  Miles remains with the governess but dies in her arms while she is trying to prevent him from looking at Quint.

The Victorians were very interested in ghosts and long exposures required to take contemporary  photographic images reated ‘evidence’ of all kinds of ephemera and phantasms; lost objects.  The children, we assume, had already experienced loss, first of their parents, then of their uncle and the servants he employed to look after them.  The governess, we learn,  has also experienced loss and perhaps her neediness creates strong attachments first with the absent uncle and with the children,  but does she also create ghosts?  Are not only Peter Quint and Miss Jessel but also Ms Grose and even the children projections of her fearful imagination? 

If what happens cannot be processed (with the aid of a parental figure), then they become very frightening.  Is this fear what the governess experiences and transfers to the children?   Benjamin  Britten, who wrote an opera of the same name, had a deep empathy with the character, Miles.  He was sent away by his beloved mother to boarding school where he was abused.  But did he later abuse his choir boys, as suggested by Alan Bennett’s new play, A Habit of Art? 

The richness of James’s story lies in the gaps, which create space for the authors interpretations.  There are links with mourning and melancholia, for example.  Mourning is a process of working through memories until they wear away, but in melancholia, the aggrieved identifies with the lost object (the ghost) and blames himself.  ‘The shadow of the object falls on the ego’.  The tendency for the melancholic to identify with the person who has let them down is known in psychoanalytical terminology as projective identification.  This process defends against the realities of separation by assuming the absent identity; in other words, becoming the ghost.  We sense the horror of this in the two innocents. 

 Melancholia may be thought of as a condition of too much empathy, too much forgiveness.  It’s a disease of therapists; too much ruth; ruthful instead of ruthless.   The one who is lost remains as a ghost inside us and because we can’t evict them, we have to suffer.  Natasha Kampusch was kidnapped as a child and held in a cellar for 8 years but felt protective towards her kidnapper and guilty about escaping and telling.  Children often think its their fault when parents split up.  Lovers frequently blame themselves when they are rejected because they can’t bear to lose their beloved.

Ghosts in the Nursery was an event organised by the Harry Guntrip Psychotherapy Trust on October 9th to coincide with a performance of Britten’s ‘A Turn of the Screw’ by Opera North.               

Coming down this morning, I saw

in the bone white dish,

a cargo of garlic;

ten bruise-pink cloves

in a nest  of papery skins,

like dormant commas

awaiting the next sentence.


The station clock was at quarter to ten.

I’m going to plant them, you said.

‘They need to catch the first frost, and perhaps,     

 next year,

we’ll cook together.’


I rarely watch television.  Most of it is rubbish; idiotic game shows, predictable soaps, tedious news commentary and mind numbing adverts.  But ‘The Song of Lunch’,  the dramatisation of Christopher Reid’s narrative, superbly performed by Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson,  was something different.   

Shocking, intense and bleak, the poem is a minutely observed encounter between two middle-aged one-time lovers.  She is bright, kind and sensitive, but she can afford to be.  She has moved on, married a successful author, she has made something of her life.  He has not.  In the fifteen years since they last met, his soul has been corroded by disappointment and bitterness.  He remembers their affair with a desperate longing, but he is too vulnerable to show it.  Instead he affects a vacant sarcasm, pretends he doesn’t care and gets drunk.  He can’t bear to engage with the ghost.  She understands and reaches out to help him and there is a moment when you imagine they will leave and go to bed. No, that would be too much to bear.  He looks away, stares at the waitress’s bottom and drinks more wine.  He tries to pour some for her but she places her hand over her glass.  

You wonder why he wrote suggesting they meet for lunch, why she accepted, why they met here of all places.  Was it just that he wanted to rekindle a spark of life in the ashes of his existence, to rediscover the meaning he had lost?   Did she want to witness his capitulation, his final degradation? 

He gets up to go to the toilet but falls asleep on the roof.  She pays and goes.  But later as he leaves the empty restaurant, he sees a tired old man eating alone in the corner.   Massimo, the owner, one-time life and soul of an everlasting party, promoter of dreams, is now just a grey shadow. 

The Song of Lunch was broadcast on BBC 2 at 9pm on October 8th.

You’re driving me mad, I’m going crazy, I’m losing my mind, he’s just daft, it just doesn’t make sense!  How many times a day do you hear such sentiments?  How often do you express them yourself?   Our lives are so complex, so pressurised that we have to work very hard to keep things together.  And yet, we don’t see too many overtly mad people these days; most are medicated; a few locked up in institutions.  But we can all show pockets of paranoia when our buttons are pressed.   We can all go mad, especially if deprived of social contact and support.  There is, however, a distinction between being mad and going mad and some people are just nearer the edge than others.      

The medical term for madness is psychosis, which essentially implies having beliefs, attitudes and behaviour that are antithetic to social convention.  Psychosis is not the only category of mental illness; there is also neurosis.  The old adage captures the distinction nicely.  A neurotic thinks that 2 and 2 equals 4 and is worried about it.  A psychotic just knows that 2 and 2 equals five.  So neurosis is a disturbance of doubt while psychosis is a condition of certainty and conviction.  They are styles of being, different but not immiscible.   Although people may try to evade the torment of neurosis by developing  delusions , they can still be tortured by convictions  of victimisation, devastated by fears of fragmentation.  Life for somebody who is psychotic, can literally be hell!  Even when things are calm, there is no peace from their internal thoughts and voices.  No wonder so many people who have a psychotic breakdown, chose to end their own lives. 

The problem is not so much how we can distinguish between neurosis and psychosis but how we can we distinguish each from so called ‘normality’.   ‘Normal’ is a social construct, defined by reference to the culture a person comes from.  The Christian notion of God, his reincarnation as Jesus Christ, the virgin birth and the resurrection, is considered quite normal in the United States of America and much of the western world.  But as Richard Dawkins has emphasised, what is God but a massive delusion?   The only reason a religious conviction is not  considered mad is that the same delusion is shared by others.  Falling in love is another delusion that is widely encouraged by society even though it has such massive potential to shatter a person’s private web of meaning.   

Psychosis is a distortion of meaning and as such,  a logical consequence of being human.  We can all go a bit mad at times.  Human beings are creatures of meaning, compelled to find reasons for their existance and what happens.  They have a big brains that can see into the future, and a deep seated fear of what might exist in that void.  They have the imagination to invent stories and can be both comforted or tortured by the delusions they create. 

Meaning develops  through relationship with others, initially our mother, father, brothers, sisters, grandparents and later, a wider circle of family and friends , teachers, mentors, books and television.  It is conditioned by society, represents society and maintains us within that society.   Therefore, if we regard psychosis as an alternative or distorted state of meaning, it is a social disease.   It stands to reason that those who grow up isolated, conditioned by  perceptions that are incompletely normalised by others, develop their own fragile belief structure  that can set them apart from others.  Alone in a black and white world, where people are either idealised or denigrated, they can tend to be suspicious and blame others.   All the good stuff is located in themselves while the bad stuff is projected out though the opposite may attain.  

But there are shades of isolation. People who live on the cognitive borders of society are able to function quite normally for much of the time, but may exhibit uncompromising and paranoid ways of thinking when their meaning is challenged.  Mental illness might be regarded as a defence against the loss of meaning induced by change.     

As  creatures whose identity is created from meaning, we are all vulnerable to change.   Any of us can be overwhelmed and devastated by an event that is completely outside our experience,  and most of us, especially the more solitary, adopt strategies to prevent the devastation caused by a breakdown of meaning.  Some may assume an idealised persona, a special identity that offers a role and purpose.  This may be reinforced by special musical, literary or artistic talents perfected through the years of isolation.   Others may mould themselves to their environment, sensing what others want and adapting to it. Women are said to be better at this, readily adapting their personality to the needs of a new partner.  And finally some keep it all together by encapsulating themselves in an all consuming interest, an obession for work, a dedication, a faith.   

We can see examples of such behaviours in our colleagues, friends, family and in ourselves, but some people are more fragile, more susceptible to change and more clearly defended against it.  But fragility is no reason for segregation.  Society needs to achieve a democratisation of belief and thought.  People with conviction and creativity can be exciting and inspiring.  Most effective politicians have some spark of madness in them.  They can be dangerous unless reined in by their civil servants.  Society advances, not by the most stable, healthy members of society, but by those independent thinkers,  who may at times be considered mad by their colleagues.  Darwin, Einstein, Newton, and many of the great writers, artists and composers have all been considered mad at times.   Ignaz Semelweis, whose hygeinic principles saved the lives of millions of women from puerperal fever, spent much of his life incarcerated in mental institutions.

Some of the ideas in this article were inspired by a talk on psychotherapy and the psychoses given by Darian Leader at the Biennial Conference of the Hallam Institute of Psychotherapy on October 2nd.