psychology


PROD-The-Child-In-TimeBBC 1 have recently broadcast a production of the play based on Ian McEwen’s ‘The Child in Time’ with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role. It was not an easy viewing. There can be few people, who could not identify with the panic of losing a toddler in the supermarket. One minute, Kate is there and playing happily, then she just disappears. Stephen runs round the store calling her name, he asks everybody, ‘have you seen a little girl in a yellow coat’. Nobody has. Then he has to go home and tell his wife, Julie, what has happened. She is angry, distraught. She blames him. They are incapable of comforting each other.

How can a marriage survive something like this? She moves out and lives by herself in Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast. He carries on; always looking for his daughter, never giving up hope. On one occasion, he visits Julie and on the way home calls at The Bell Inn. Looking through a window, he sees a young woman he recognises and smiles at him. She smiles back. When he tells his mother about it, she says, ‘Yes, I was there thirty years ago and so were you. I had just discovered I was pregnant with you’.

Stephen writes childrens’ books and, sponsored by his publisher and close friend, Charles, he sits on government committees discussing childrens’ literacy.  In a strange, somewhat disjointed development, Charles goes mad. He gives up his job, moves to the country and reverts to being a little boy, playing in the woods, climbing trees, building dens, only returning home when his wife rings the bell for mealtimes. Stephen tries to understand him, but ultimately loses patience. Confronted with the inanity of his behaviour, Charles cannot hold it all together and hangs himself in the woods.

Later, after Charles’ funeral, Stephen is at home asleep. He has unwrapped an intercom system and left one phone on Kate’s bed and taken the other to bed with him. He is awakened by Kate’s voice telling him that she is with mummy. The the phone rings to say that Julie is in labour.  He arrives in the hospital just in time for the birth of his baby boy. it feels as if this will heal all their pain.

McEwen writes harrowing psychological novels. At one level, we identify with the plight of this young couple. The book came out twenty years before Madeleine McCann went missing in Spain. Unless the author is a psychic, he could not known how much that   very public abduction gripped the nation for many weeks and months.  Madeleine McCann is still frozen in time.  She has never been found.

How heartbreaking to lose a child. Even if you find them years later, they are no longer the same person. A missing child never grows up.  Such extreme grief is a form of madness. Stephen catches glimpses of Kate; he hears her voice. Once, he is so convinced that he has seen his daughter that he goes into a school and kneels by the desk of a little girl who looks like her, only to be kindly convinced that there is no way she is Kate.

Maybe McEwen is playing with the idea of reality and madness. Did the child ever exist except in Stephen’s imagination? Did he and Julie both want a baby so much that his mind hallucinated Kate and her devastating disappearance?   Is that why the police were not more involved and why nobody in the store remembered seeing Kate?  Did Stephen really have a flashback of seeing his mother through the window of The Bell Inn?

Was Charles’ attempt to recapture his lost childhood in the woods a literary device, a metaphor for recapturing a lost or absent childhood. Stephen is, after all, a writer of children’s fiction. It’s his stock in trade? But why was the prime minister involved and the Child Education Committee? Was that also a device to underscore the emotional significance of childhood, so often ignored by tests and grades devised by educationalists?

We might suspect all of those, but the author cannot possibly comment.  McEwen’s skill as a writer lies in stimulating his readers’ imagination, not in providing the right answers.

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Desperate Dan

At a recent conference, entitled ‘Men on the Couch’, which took place on the top floor of Foyle’s book store in Charing Cross Road, the Israeli psychoanalyst, Eyal Rozmarin, a somewhat intense, bald headed young man with a light beard, answered this with a story.

A mother had taken her young son, aged about 4 or 5 to a park to ride his bike. There she met a friend and chatted, while her little boy cycled round and round in ever decreasing circles. Inevitably he crashed and fell off, scraping his knees. He seemed a little shocked and was clearly in pain, but he did not cry. His mother looked round, told him to be careful, and got on with her conversation. Her son, his knee bleeding, looked at his mother, but not getting anything more in return, got back on his bike and cycled away, much more slowly. He had learnt what it was to be a man. Real men don’t cry.

War and Masculinity

Being brought up shortly after the Second World War, I can relate to that narrative. My father had been badly injured during the war, but we were always told how brave he was. As his boys, we had to be brave. The same message was repeated during my ‘all-boys’ public school. We couldn’t allow ourselves to show any vulnerability; this would just attract bullying. We had to tough it out.

In 1915, the same year he wrote Mourning and Melancholia, Freud penned his ‘Thoughts for the times on war and death‘. Europe was obsessed with nationhood and militarism. A mechanised arms race was heading to oblivion, tearing apart the idea of a more cosmopolitan identity. Although Freud wrote that war was a primitive regression to violence, he was nevertheless impressed by duty and bravery. These were the demands made by society to men. Men had to do or die. Women had to bear the anxiety.

Strangely, for somebody who understood human frailty, Freud does not identify with the danger and terror experienced by his sons, who were in the army.  Instead, he  proselytises that ‘the full meaning of life is to be found, not in anxious attachment, but heroism, glory and the risk of death’. Freud is with Siegfried. So is Tolstoy: in War and Peace, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky declares he would give up all attachments to wife and family for one moment of glory.

I have known rock climbers claim that life is more exciting and more meaningful when they are in most danger. Nevertheless, glory on the battlefield, can seem a narcissistic delusion that justifies sadomasochism. Dying is no longer threatening, it is seductive.

The idea of glory permeates the bedrock of our culture. It is there in all Abrahamic religions. Samson was raised to save the state of Israel. God sacrificed his only begotten son to die in order to save mankind. Glory justifies the fanaticism of Isis, the rhetoric of Donald Trump, the provocation of Kim Jong Un. But what is glory but a kind of homo-ecstatic drive?

My friend Maurice embodies the same male archetype. He shows the same compulsion in fighting for justice as he does in flying alone around the world in a 70 year old light aircraft. Is he mad? Yes, in a sense he is; there is a delusional grandiosity in it all, a quest for fame and glory, but also, like all action heroes, a desire to risk all to right a perceived wrong.

The emotionally unavailable father

The roots of ‘masculinity’ are thought to reside in our earliest relationships. As Donald Winnicott famously declared, ‘there is no such thing as a baby’, there is just the relationship between the mother and her infant. Mother is the complete life support system, supplying warmth, nourishment, protection, shelter and love. With fathers entry into this maternal dyad, there is a split, a conflict between desire for all the comfort and safety that mother provides and a prohibition of that desire. Much is repudiated and foreclosed with the arrival of the archetypical father, but what emerges is gender identity. Boys identify with the masculine element; they learn what it is to be male, to subsume one’s needs and desires into a cause. In previous generations, boys were meant to be boys and learn to serve in harm’s way. Losing a son at war was the ultimate sacrifice a family could make.

The archetypical father is proud and ambitious, but cannot show his feelings. His sons grow up without their father’s love. In the Old Testament, Isaac could not oppose his father, the only way he could show his love was to be sacrificed. The consequence of failing to live up to the notion of manhood is shame. The boy who fails to show courage in the face of adversity and danger is not living up to the ideas of manhood and is shamed in the eyes of himself and others. But he is in a bind. Either he gives way to desire and fear and is weakened by it. Or he goes for glory and either dies or never quite makes it. Shame is an inevitable consequence of this notion of manhood.

A changing world

The world has moved on. Gender roles and identities are much more fluid. There is no reason why women cannot identify with manliness, especially if they were brought up to be self sufficient and resilient. Last weekend, I sat opposite two women at breakfast in 22 York Street. They were both in their late fifties or early sixties. One was an adviser to NATO and had been a pilot in the US Air Force, the other had served in a parachute regiment and was now an instructor/mentor to the military in Europe. The each told stories of their fathers exploits during and after the D day landings and had been brought up admiring their father but not able to gain their love. They both embodied a masculine idea of bravery. These days, they might complain that they were born the wrong gender, but they each explained that after they had demonstrated that they could do the job just as well as a man, they were accepted as part of the fighting team and their biological gender was irrelevant.

The military metaphor no longer seems appropriate. The male stereotype is a generalisation, that seems too heavily influenced by the wars of previous generations and the idealisation of an emotionally absent father. Although gender dimorphism have been demonstrated in the organisation of the brain and the behaviour of infants, and sex hormones have a major influence on behaviour in adolescence and beyond, this basic biological predisposition is overlain with many layers of identification and meaning. Conflict, competition, ritual, routine, rigidity and justice may well seem more engrained in the male psyche, but they do not define masculinity. Many women show the same attributes, while some men can be just as adaptable, caring and understanding as women. 30% of psychotherapists are men.

Masculinity under threat

If we can believe what we are told in the media, the idea of masculinity is under threat. Traditional roles, not only in the workplace but also as husbands and fathers are being questioned. Men are no longer necessarily figures of respect and fear. Although women have not yet achieved parity in many occupations and professions and are still more involved in childrearing and housekeeping, enormous changes in family dynamics have taken place over the last 50 years. Housework, cooking and the rearing of children are more shared than they ever used to be. Father isn’t always the one who goes out to work while mother stays at home. Both parents tend to be in employment, leaving their children to feel like emotional orphans during the week. But at weekends or holidays, both may play an equal role in the care of their children. There may be little separation of roles. Father may be present but not visible or separate. This may make it difficult for children to know how to be. Who are their mentors? Who can they identify with? What is their notion of being a man or a woman?

Within the last few years, an increasing number of young people are declaring themselves neither boys nor girls, not even gay or Lesbian but transgender or non-binary or just ‘queer’. What does this mean? How has it come about? Is it a product of single parent families and the absence of a father figure? Or is it more subtle than that? Is there no such thing as a man any more? If both parents are absent for much of the time and both equally involved when they are present, is it any wonder that many young people grow up with a degree of gender ambivalence that may be all too readily influenced by cultural icons and celebrities.

Nevertheless, basic differences still exist. We only have to observe the ways men talk to each other compared with the ways women communicate. Men still tend to be competitive, they test each other out before admitting them to their tribe or club. Women are more inclined to a one to one sharing of confidences. Men and women support each other in different ways. The testosterone-fuelled urgency of aggression and desire means that shame probably features more prominently in men than women. After all, the nature of the sexual act means that it is men who ‘do things’ to women, who play a more passive role. Men are still expected to be stronger than women. They are expected to accept ‘sledging’ or ‘banter’ from other men and give as good as they get, even if it might become physical. Many women want their men to be strong, but at the same time berate them for not having feelings. Men may sometimes feel they can’t do right for doing wrong, and may wish to avoid the interdependency of attachment. The rise of feminism may well have felt threatening, even castrating for many men.

Impacts on a future society

Have the changes in gender politics that have occurred over the last 50 years produced a society that is more tolerant and understanding, but at the same time one that is weaker, less secure and decisive? Does this only apply to white middle classes? If so, has it led to more divisions in society? How will this impact on the next generation? Will the circumstances of our precarious global existence plunge us once again into a militaristic model of existence, rekindling the notion of manliness?

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Cardiff Crown Courts are contained within an imposing Edwardian building in Cathays Park just an arrow’s flight away from the ancient picture-book keep of Cardiff Castle on top of its mound and surrounded by a moat. From the flagpole sporting a red dragon, I could look over the Principality Stadium, that just a few years ago, replaced the pride of Cardiff Arms Park to the hills and valleys of Rhonda and up to the Brecon Beacons. I was in Wales and it felt like a different country.

Maurice, aviator, adventurer and my old Taunton School friend and climbing buddy, stood accused of breaking a restraining order and was worried. ‘I am facing five years!’, he reminded me.

Maurice parked his van and mobile bedroom in a space in front of the building, not bothering to pay. ‘Why should I worry about a parking fine if they are going to lock me up?’ Leaving me to get his bag of documents through the security check, he stomped off up the steps. ‘I don’t want you to be seen with me. Just follow some way behind like an Arab wife!’ I trudged down municipal corridors occasionally overtaken by barristers and other court officials, who passed in a swish of gowns though doors held open for them. It reminded me of being back at school.

Court number 9 seemed a little cramped. Behind a long raised bench beneath the Coat of Arms sat her honour, the judge. She wore a black gown with red and blue flashings and a token wig that barely covered her hair, which was pulled back in a pony tail. The wig must have been itchy because she kept grimacing and dislodging it to scratch her head. Beneath her in the well of the courtroom sat the clerk of the court, a somewhat dishevelled and overweight youngish woman, who wrapped herself in her gown and sat throughout, gurning at her computer screen. In front and facing her were the benches for the prosecuting counsel and the defence counsel and their assistants. The jury sat in two rows behind elevated benches to the left. The press bench faced them on the far right and contained one intense-looking scribbler.  Maurice sat in the elevated dock to the left at the back of the court almost in touching distance of the jury. He was dressed smartly in a light green hacking jacket, red corduroy trousers and a yellow shirt set off by his red blood-sports bow tie.  He had shaved and cut his hair for the occasion. I and three other supporters sat at the same level to the right.

The judge had not long been appointed. If she was expecting an easy case, she was soon to be disabused. First, Maurice’s defending counsel strode into the court minus his wig and gown and asked to see her in Chambers, where he explained that Maurice would be defending himself. It is Maurice’s 13th appearance; the courtroom is his theatre and he usually excels – so why spoil a winning combination? Next, Maurice made an application for disclosure of medical records, which was ruled irrelevant and refused together with three further applications for witnesses including the psychiatrist who had falsely diagnosed brain damage. At that, Maurice asked for the case to be transferred to Bristol, where he felt he would get a fairer hearing. This was also refused. Finally, Maurice objected to one of the jurors, who was a doctor and may have known the psychiatrist. Another refusal. Things were not going well, but Maurice was not overly surprised or upset.

At length, the jury was sworn in, the judge explaining that their role was to judge the facts of the case while she was there to judge according to the law. The prosecution case was seemingly very straightforward. A restraining order had been issued to prevent Maurice from harassing the aforementioned forensic psychiatrist for falsifying medical records and the chief officer of the South Wales Police for wrongful arrest and imprisonment. His crime was, as I understand it,’threatening behaviour with an offensive weapon – ‘the machine gun case’. Maurice had purchased a vintage WW1 biplane with a machine gun mounted on the fuselage. He had removed the gun from the aircraft and posted an image on Facebook brandishing the weapon and threatening the South Wales Police. The gun was decommissioned; its barrel was blocked, and Maurice had posted the image as a prank. That, however, did not stop the police from storming his house and arresting him in front of his 10 year old daughter, whom they threatened to take into care to protect her from her dangerous father. A mutual antipathy between Maurice and that police force had smouldered for many years. No doubt they were waiting for an excuse to ‘nail him’.

At the subsequent trial, and largely on the evidence of the forensic psychiatrist, Maurice was assigned MAPPA (multi agency public protection arrangement) level 3, by which he was deemed at serious risk of harming the public and threatened to be confined in Ashworth high security psychiatric hospital, where the moors murderer, Ian Brady, was incarcerated. That was in 2009. He was eventually locked up in Cardiff and then Swansea prisons before being finally set free in 2015.

Maurice claims that he has been the victim of police harassment over many years. He considers his imprisonment and the designation that he was a serious risk to the public a gross miscarriage of justice, as a result of which he lost his ability to practice as a vet, his pilots licence, his marriage and any contact with his youngest daughter. He suspects that the forensic psychiatrist was ‘blackmailed’ by the police into writing the damning report that wrecked his life. As a result, he harbours a considerable grievance against the police and the psychiatrist and continues to fight to bring his persecutors to justice.

Breaching the restraining order was perhaps the only means he had of getting his grievances heard and publicised to a wider audience. Apart from the technicalities of whether or not he was properly issued with a restraining order, Maurice’s case is that he had reasonable justification in order to expose criminal activity on the part of the police and the psychiatrist. In other words, ‘they stitched him up’. In that respect, the context of why and how the order was issued in the first place is critically important, but the judge and the prosecution clearly wanted to tackle the simple issue of whether or not Maurice had broken the restraining order.

The prosecuting counsel called just three witnesses, the police officer who took screen shots of the ‘Wanted, dead or alive’ posters on Maurice’s website and Facebook pages, the officer who arrested Maurice after he had taken a video of himself in the foyer of Cardiff police station, and the officer who interviewed Maurice. In a display of cross examination, worthy of Horace Rumpole, Maurice confused the police officers and managed to get the judge to quash the Facebook evidence on the grounds that it was taken out of context.

His supporters were excited. It had been a good day for Maurice. Meirion said that he had not had such a good time in court for years and Terry commented, ‘You’ve got some bollocks, Maurice!’ The man, himself, was in good spirits and looking forward to a drink when he dropped me back at the railway station to get the train to Sheffield.

The trial dragged on for another three days. Maurice was prevented from calling any witnesses, but he was able to explain the background that led to the issue of a restraining order. Nevertheless, the outcome was always inevitable.  Guided by the judge to focus on the recent events of the case, the jury found him guilty of breaking the restraining order. Sentencing will take place on the 12th of November after Maurice has been assessed by a psychiatrist, which is ironic seeing that it was the psychiatric report that instigated all of this. He is now preparing his appeal.

This week on the Hoaxted Website, I had sight of the psychiatric report, which contains many unsubstantiated assertions that should never stand up in a court of law.

The clinical picture is of a man who has always had minor cognitive difficulties (poor writing and spelling). He developed a personality characterised by narcissism (an abnormal sense of entitlement), grandiosity (believing that normal rules do not apply to him) and paranoia (believing he is the victim of persecution). He also shows evidence of poor judgement, impulsivity and a willingness to hold himself hostage by way of hunger strike in an attempt to manipulate his environment. While these personality characteristics have undoubtedly overshadowed his life and probably had a negative effect on his family and social functioning, they appear to have been reasonably stable throughout his life. However, Maurice and the evidence both suggest that over the past two years, his functioning has deteriorated and his beliefs have become more intense and overwhelming and at some times but not others are clearly abnormal. Maurice now shows clear evidence of some degree of neuro-cognitive damage (brain damage), probably as a result of normal ageing, previous heavy alcohol misuse and deceleration following plane crashes. The specific area of brain damage affects his ability to monitor and control his behaviour, decreases self awareness, judgement and decision making abilities and have compounded his paranoid beliefs to the extent that when subjected to further stress, his beliefs intensify to the extent that for periods they have a quality of a paranoid delusional disorder (mental illness characterised by fixed false beliefs unamenable to reason and of a paranoid nature).’

‘Risk is always difficult to quantify especially in highly complex cases such as this and it is also impossible to consider Maurice’s risk in isolation from those he encourages to act on his behalf. The risk of him continuing with his action against South Wales Police and acting in a way he feels justified to act to achieve his needs is high, though whether Maurice would himself he involved in interpersonal violence is less, it cannot be discounted nor can the risk that others may act violently with his encouragement.’

The conclusion that Maurice has brain damage was based on MRI evidence of a localised lack of perfusion in the right frontal lobe possibly caused by a brain tumour. This abnormality was no longer present when the scan was repeated. Brain scans are notoriously difficult to interpret and I am reminded that after trauma and during intense emotion the right frontal lobe can go off-line while victims may behave irrationally. In other words, it is likely that appearances of hypo-perfusion might come and go.

Furthermore, the report states he has a paranoid delusional disorder – in lay terms, mad and irrational – and hints that he may have had this tendency for many years. I have known Maurice for more than 50 years during which he has tackled extreme climbs in North Wales, canoed across the channel in a severe gale, flew to Australia single-handed in his veteran piper cub and then continued round the world, ditching in the Caribbean and subsequently landing outside President Bush’s ranch to thank him for being rescued by the American coastguard, and finally last year crash landed in Southern Sudan during a civil war. While Maurice’s exploits show an impulsive nature and an extreme degree of self belief, they are not the actions of a madman. On the contrary, the fact that he has survived against enormous odds must denote an amazing amount of sanity and sangfroid. Our friend, Jack, who also climbed with Maurice in North Wales said he was a man living at the wrong time and that if his own life was in danger, he would want Maurice with him.

Delusions, by definition, do not conform to reality, but whose reality? Are Maurice’s beliefs delusional or is it possible that he has at times been victimised by the South Wales police force?’. If a person inhabits an environment that is so persecutory he is always having to look over his shoulder, paranoid beliefs may seem quite rational. They might, however, seem mad in a world (and a courtroom) that is justified by the law.

In time, the constant struggle to survive in a persecutory world might cause anybody to question their sense of reality. Maurice has spent a large part of the last few years incarcerated, during which he has been abused, beaten up and disbelieved. This must constitute severe trauma, which would test the beliefs of the sanest of people.

The psychiatric report concludes that there is a high risk of him continuing with his action against South Wales Police and acting in a way he feels justified to act to achieve his needs. It is in the nature of the man. Maurice is fighter and the more access to medical records and court records is prevented, the more he will persist in publicising his grievance in order to obtain justice. Perhaps the court should allow him the freedom to bring his case against South Wales Police to a satisfactory conclusion, but I doubt they will want to take that risk.

isis-flag They are described as mad, mentally disturbed, confused, radicalised by fanatics, escapists from domestic trauma. This may not be necessarily so. The State, which was broadcast on Channel 4 last weekend, shows the Brits who travel to Syria to fight for the self styled Islamic State to be highly committed young men and women looking for a sense of meaning and adventure in their lives. Peter Kosminski’s documentary pulls no punches. The men, called the brothers, are told they are not expected to live for more than a year and they will die martyrs to the cause and live forever in heaven. Some are suicide bombers, but if it is Allah’s will, they go willingly to their death.

There is such a strange logic to their fight. As one instructor explains, they are not expected to win, but their actions will bring about the involvement and ultimate destruction of America and all it stands for and ensure that the purity of Islam will prevail. The brutality and violence are a means to an end. It is not always clear who is fighting who and for what. Shia commit atrocities on the Sunni, the Sunni retaliate. Meanwhile Assad’s forces and the Russians are bombing the cities, and terrorist attacks occur every week in the name of Isis throughout the western world. The women are not really expected to do anything except become brides to the brothers and support their fight. In essence, they succumb to state approved rape and prostitution. It is brutal, violent and chaotic.

But what is it that would make a middle class young person living a safe life in Britain want to risk their lives to fight for a cause they don’t understand. Do they crave adventure and glory? Do they want to become heroes? Is it a reaction to what they see as the meaninglessness and decadence of our western way of life? Do they feel victimised by their family or community and seek revenge? Is this the vanguard of a global revolution not unlike past insurrections in France and Russia, but mirroring other anti-establishment movements like Brexit or Trump? Or are they fighting their own internal psychological battle to self discovery? Does identification with Islamic State provides a fixed reference point in a confusing and insecure world, where little seems to matter? Kosminski leaves us with a lot of possibilities but no certainty.

A hundred years ago, millions of young men went cheerfully to France to fight another confusing war under appalling conditions. And even when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered on the Somme, at Ypres. Mons, Amiens and Passchendale, they still kept going back. Maybe they were too traumatised and fearful to do otherwise. I remember my father telling me that when he was training to be a fighter pilot, only 1 in 9 would survive. Nobody pulled out. Some twenty five years later, when the Cuba missile cruise brought the threat of global conflict to our consciousness, I and most of my friends said that if war broke out, we would volunteer to fight. It was only Tim who said he would buy a gun and shoot himself and his family. We were appalled, but with the benefit of hindsight, he demonstrated a grim sense of maturity and wisdom that the rest of us had yet to attain.

There is a difference between the global conflicts of the last century and the confused mission of Isis. Our parents and grandparents were fighting for their country. Lord Kitchener bristled his moustache and pointed his finger, ‘Your country needs you!’ and most obeyed without question. Later it became something more. As a fighting unit, facing imminent death every day, they could not let their mates down. Exhausted and traumatised, they needed certainties; orders they could not question. Tennyson captured the mood when writing about another war: ‘Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’ But when survivors talked or wrote about their experience, they often declared that it was the time of their lives. They had never felt more alive as when they were near death.

Fifty years on, an unprecedented period of peace and stability is being threatened again by conflict. It seems like a ‘lost generation’ of young people with diminishing prospects, brought up on adventure films and virtual war games, are looking for a sense of mission. The Islamic State might fill the gap. The danger and rigid discipline are all part of the attraction. They are a band of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ united by a collective delusion, not unlike the crusades of old or the jingoism of the Great War when the enemy was the embodiment of decadence and evil and their martyrdom would change the world. They are going for glory. They do not think of dying, only surviving; if not on earth, in heaven.

It is not my intention or wish to condone what is happening in Syria. I am writing this to try to understand the mindset of those who are fighting. We have to try to make sense of the unthinkable if we are ever to resolve it. Kosminski’s powerful documentary portrays a state which was once fuelled by idealism, but is now controlled for fear. The torture, summary executions, rapes and murders are as bad as the worst excesses of the Nazis or the Russian occupation of Berlin. Have the perpetrators have become so conditioned by what they have witnessed that they have no conscience? Have they become so traumatised, they have dissociated emotionally from the reality of what they are doing. Are they so fearful, that they have to be brutal to survive? Or is it just that they see the enemy as inhuman, an object that must be destroyed? Perhaps, all are correct, but who is the enemy and who isn’t?

War traumatises and dehumanises all those caught up in it. And British soldiers are not excluded. During the worst atrocities of the Peninsular Campaign, which Wellington was powerless to prevent, he said of his troops, ‘I don’t know what the enemy think of them, but by God, they terrify me!’ And we are still only just learning of what went on in the detention centres in Iraq or in Northern Ireland.

One of the most chilling sequences of Kosminski’s documentary was when Shakira, the young doctor, sees 10 year olds being taught to stab a fresh corpse, hung up for their instruction, while her son, Isaac, and his friends play football with the severed head. Even the Hitler youth was not as brutal. When, Shakira tries to remonstrate, Isaac  accuses her of embarrassing him and goes back to his mates. It is only too easy to lose all sense of decency while those around you have lost theirs.

At that moment, she decides to escape. It seems surprisingly easy, but when she arrives back in UK, the choice was either being separated from her son and going to prison for years or agreeing to spy on her her own community.

While most reviewers praised the film, Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail penned a hard hitting attack on as portraying his film as a pure poison, a work of fiction and like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s, and 61 year old film maker, Kosminski, as a Oxbridge educated media luvvie, who was neither a veteran of Syria, nor had conducted a research mission to Raqqa or Aleppo. Stevens is also hardly a reliable witness, being best known for his biography of Kenneth Williams and his book on comedy scriptwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Stevens. Jihadist recruits would have known what they were letting themselves in for. Not so, they were attracted by the idea and would not necessarily believe the evidence until they saw it for themselves, by which time, they were either dead or too far in to return. Stevens would dismiss jihadists as incomprehensibly evil or mad. This happens in every conflict, but it doesn’t get us anywhere except more slaughter and more terror.

Kosminski has made a brave attempt to get into the minds of the jihadists to understand their mission, their rejection of liberal democracy, and ultimately their fear and emotional dissociation. Violence breeds more violence. If we cannot try to understand it, we can only retaliate and escalate the cycle of retribution, as would be revolutionaries are driven underground to launch ever more frequent attacks on the complacent and decadent. To my mind, this documentary was so much more terrifying because the atrocities were conducted by recognisable human beings.

The state was screened on Channel 4. It was punctuated every ten minutes by advertisements that were so crass, they underscored what is deplorable about western consumerism and why people might want out.

troubled bodiesIt seems that in much of the ‘anglo-saxon’ world, we have lost the facility of bodily communication we enjoyed in childhood. Children don’t seem to play together as much as they did, people tend to work alone. Has our society become so densely populated that we no longer know each other well enough to risk bodily communication. People crowd together on the ‘tube’, their bodies not quite touching, but they don’t communicate. Their eyes look at their mobile phones or stare into space, their expressions neutral or defensive. And if they inadvertently touch, they immediately apologise.

We are living in a narcissistic age. Perhaps in reaction to population density, people are focussed on personal achievement, being special in a crowded world. They advertise ourselves on social media. They desperately seek connection but at the same time, fear it. With an educational system geared towards self actuation; being or working together can be difficult.

One of the hardest problems is how to connect with people of different genders, ages, classes, races, languages. How can we bridge the gap between men and women when men are so often seen as aggressors and women victims? How can we learn to understand people of alternative gender identities? How can we connect with people of different races in a time of racial abuse and terrorist attacks? How can people bridge the inequalities of class and education? These are the existential problems of our time; the pain and the tragedy. It can be so difficult to negotiate connection.

Perhaps it is not surprising that bodies are so diverse and unstable. We not only have a range of unexplained bodily illnesses and a variety of gender identities, we have a surfeit of obese bodies that seem to express need and anorexic bodies that defend against intrusion, and assert self sufficiency. Food has become a challenge to the postmodern body

The feminist psychoanalyst, Susie Orbach, claims that girls grow up ashamed of their own body, perhaps mirroring their mothers obsessions with dieting. She describes girl’s bodies are provisional; they use gyms, diets and plastic surgery to reshape an unsatisfactory body, and clothes, hair styles, make-up and jewellery to refashion it. Their bodies are commodities to be exploited by the food industry, cosmetics industry, clothes industry and plastic surgery. Consumers from a very young age, they are driven to achieve that perfect body. The body, in turn, has become objectified and politicised; it does not so much express a sense of self; only an impression of the prevailing culture. There is a dissociation between being a body and having a body.

bodylanguageWhen we engage with somebody, we tend to see it as a relationship between two minds, but it is also a relationship between two bodies. We pick up what the other is feeling and vice versa; we tune into subliminal signals, like their facial expression, rate of breathing, involuntary movements, colour of the skin, sweating and even their bowel sounds. We respond to changes in posture, nuances of gesture. We can even tell whether a smile is genuine or not or whether sympathy is heartfelt. A lexicon of feeling is revealed on our faces and acted out in our bodies. In my callow youth, I thought I could ‘read whether a girl liked me by the colour of their ears – but I often got it very wrong.

These bodily signals are unconscious. We don’t think about them; they just happen. There is a direct line from the emotional brain to the body. Shame, desire, guilt, sadness, fear, anger, boredom, tiredness are all expressed in our face and the rest of our body. Without saying anything, we can feel whether we like or dislike somebody, whether we can trust them or not, whether we ‘fancy’ or desire them, whether we fear them and whether they irritate us.

And the feeling’s mutual. If we connect with someone, we tend to match our communications through mutual eye contact and facial expression (smiling, laughing, concern, sympathy, anger, fear, desire). We learn how to defuse anger or calm anxiety with a glance and a relaxed posture. Even when we cannot see our companion’s face, we can demonstrate the nature of our connection through our bodies. People who are attuned to each other unconsciously mimic each others posture and gestures, walk in step, and can match each others actions and movements like cooks, team mates, dancing partners or lovers. And as our bodies tune in to each other, so nervous synapses in our brain form, disconnect and re-form, changing our bodily repertoire moment by moment.

An intertwining of personal histories.

We start to learn how to be in infancy, a process of imprinting that utilises mirror neurones, special neurones that encode the expressions and actions of others and can reproduce them. Interactive regulation becomes auto regulation – the way a person is treated as a child becomes how they respond to cues and treat themselves and others as an adult. Transactional Analysis claims that patterns of relating are learnt, initially from our parents and close relatives, then from friends, teachers, people we admire and intimate partners. Like permanent memory traces or engrams, they encode how we interact with others and in different situations.

Emotions are exhibited through our bodies and only later expressed in language. We only have to glance at someone across a crowded room to know whether it feels safe to talk to them. Usually we can find the right words to express what we feel, but in some situations there is a dissociation between the two. Politicians can talk the talk, but the mismatch between what they say and their facial expression may tell us we cannot trust them.

A Quiet Revolution

There is a quiet revolution taking place in psychotherapy – a movement from mind to body. Recent insights from neuroscience have shown how often life trauma, which few of us escape, may be expressed through the bodily symptoms but not acknowledged in conscious thought. Research has also demonstrated how communication can take place between human brains without language.

Psychoanalysis was always about the relationship between the mind and the body. Freud claimed that things that cannot be thought about may be expressed through the body, though more recently body mind psychotherapists, such as Susie Orbach, tend to consider that trauma is expressed in the body before it can be brought to mind and thought about. The body can, in many different ways, influence the mind.

Psychotherapy, the listening cure, has for too long been caught up in its own arcane language and abstinent attitude. Yet many studies have shown that effectiveness is based, not so much on what the therapist says, but more on the feeling relationship that is established between the therapist and the client. The therapist is not just ‘the brain box in the corner’, observing, judging, interpreting. Talking can sometimes get in the way and may even re-traumatise. We are all influenced by the emotional state of others. Intuition, our proprioceptive and visceral consciousness, is our sixth sense. Therapists need to engage with their body as well as their mind; they have to be aware of their own gut feelings so they can discern what is created with their client.

People who have been traumatised often don’t know and can’t talk about what has happened to them. There is often a disconnect between mind and body. A person may say one thing while their body expresses another, though it is the always the body that ‘tells the truth’. Thus the feeling of what happened can only be accessed and resolved by observing and working though the body.

Body based therapies are more spontaneous than reflective. Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a talking therapy that does not so much explore the narrative of past events but observes the changes that take place in their client’s body and uses those to draw attention to what is happening now and how to control them. These include changes in facial expression, posture, involuntary movements and even intestinal squeaks and growls.

This needs to be done with great sensitivity since if a client gets too close to the reality of what happened, it may traumatise them all over again, making them panic or shut down. So the therapist monitors the level of arousal in the clients body using their own intuition and works just inside the window of tolerance. If it looks like their client is becoming agitated, they will pause the discussion and use deep breathing or yoga to bring the mind back on line. If, on the other hand, their client begins to shut down and dissociate, they will bring them back into the window of tolerance by getting them to stand up, stamp their feet or move around.

The acceptance of mindfulness meditation, sensorimotor psychotherapy, eye movement desensitisation and reprogramming (EMDR) and emotional freedom technique (EFT) has prompted a rapprochement between talking cures and a range of body based complimentary therapies. Many holistic therapies can be helpful in modulating levels of arousal to where clients can think with safety, reduce symptoms and build a trusting connection. Some such as Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi can change mental attitudes. Some postures and movements are assertive and can empower a patient. Others encourage openness and relaxation. The feeling of being held during therapeutic massage can be so comforting and containing. Reflexology or foot massage has the same effect. But patients may find their own activities, hobbies and pastimes, which ground them, and help them cope better. These might include, running, swimming, yoga, breathing exercises, music, art or cooking. We all need space to unwind and think.

Nevertheless, if patients want to bring about a more fundamental change in their pre-morbid character, then an integrated body mind therapy, that encourages ‘enactment’, the playing out of a particular engrained patterns of behaviour on the stage of the consulting room may create a space in the present that where the behaviour can be questioned and changed.

As I have explained in previous posts, trauma shuts down the thinking and reasoning part of the brain and expresses what happens in the body as actions, disabilities and symptoms. These effects may not be accessed either by medicine or traditional mind based psychotherapies but are available to novel techniques that utilise bodily communication.

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