As a therapist who sees people who have been to boarding school it really helped me to see some of the subtle difficulties in working with these clients - the stronghold that the Strategic Survival Personality has become, the difficulty in admitting vulnerability of any kind.
This is a must-read for any and every therapist who has worked, is working or may work with clients in connection with Boarding School – which is almost inevitable, even if unaware of the connection. But the style, approach and content reaches far beyond this readership – anyone who has any experience of and/or interest in the phenomenon of Boarding as a practice dating back over centuries and still ‘alive and kicking’ today, will find this a compelling read.
The layout, in clear sections and headings, makes for accessible reading. Which is important since much of the material may be emotive for many readers, therapists, their clients and others.
Below are some examples of content: p 21: how the strength of attachment to the ‘Strategic Survival Personality’, and the reluctance to let go affects the therapy as well as familial relationship.
p 37: highly relevant references to the psychiatrist Rivers, well portrayed in Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy. p 38-40: reference to ‘amputation’ of feelings and how the void is filled by each child p 40: how all relationships can be strategic p 51: how it’s easier for the therapist to be with a client’s vulnerable side than darker side p 63: how clients come to therapy to look at everything-but-boarding issues and how vital it is for the therapist to keep boarding in awareness, Later chapters on i trauma and ii sexual abuse, are clear, scientific and without technical jargon. p 153: reference to Roberto Assagioli’s work in recognising the ‘will not to change’ p 186: how therapists need persistence and resilience And, to enrich the text are numerous contributions from many sources.
Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege is essential reading for the Unmaking of Them course. It details the journey for the therapist and client through the Recognition, Acceptance and Change process - from survival to living. It follows the course closely but with more background material and enlightening examples from practice. It’s a ‘handbook’ to go back to regularly. The book is extremely well written, easy to understand, and well structured so that the therapist can adapt its step by step approach to the needs of their client. The beginning of chapters contains a short summary of the topics covered for ease of access to the information you may need. The end of the chapters contains exercises to use with the client relevant to that stage of therapy. These are well worth typing out and storing for future use. The many short case studies help the therapist to understand the thinking of the client- especially important for those who didn’t go to boarding school. Sprinkled throughout the book are the words ‘In our experience …’ and what follows is a nugget of valuable insight from the authors’ many years of experience in practice. This grounds the information in the book in the reality of practice. Additionally, the book does contain references to the theories relating to boarding school experiences and to therapeutic approaches , such as, Objects Relations Theory - when children remain loyal to ‘bad’ objects, on the premise of ‘the devil you know’, and ‘The Pump’ – an adaptation of Maslow’s hierarchy of need illustrating psychic development. There is a very clear exposition in the book of where therapy with an ex-boarder differs from therapy with non-boarders. They emphasise the importance of recognising the difference between repression and dissociation and how to recognise dissociation - when normal therapeutic interventions are not working. For therapists used to working with the inner child, the authors point out that the inner child is not always available to ex-boarders because they have had to cut off spontaneity, vulnerability and most things childlike in order to survive. Particularly useful are the points where the authors indicate what emotions to expect when the ex-boarder starts to integrate the dissociated parts of their brain/psyche. The section on neuroscience looks at how the advent of new technology, the MRI scanner, which now provides evidence confirming some of the theories and processes used in therapy. Trauma, for example, results in excess production of adrenalin, affecting the complicated memory processes of the brain. Non-scientists will have to read this section a few times for it to sink in! The authors recommend that the therapist takes on a mothering supportive role and that the therapists’ job is not to miss clues given by the clients and to do their best to prevent them from leaving therapy before they have got to the point of living rather than just surviving. They emphasise that for clients who have been abused in any way, the therapist needs to assure them that trust doesn’t always lead to abuse, in the same way that not all women are people who will ‘abandon’ them. In the sexual development of young people in the boarding school environment, the absence of the parents means that young people don’t have the experience of parents ‘mirroring’ their sexuality. I must admit at this point I was a bit lost. I didn’t fully understand this, maybe I didn’t experience ‘mirroring’ as a teenager, and it would have been useful to have some examples to illustrate the concept. The authors explore the impact of boarding school on girls and ask how could an education designed to produce military officers for the empire be anyway appropriate for girls. They illustrate the ‘wounding’ of the identity of girls in the patriarchal institution. Such an environment can produce misogyny even in the adult female ex-boarders. (On a personal note, this explained to me why a member of our book club was so condemning of the author of an autobiography who had been badly treated. Her attitude was, ‘she shouldn’t have been be such a wimp – she should have just got on with things’) The focus in therapy is dealing with a Strategic Survival Personality which has become dysfunctional in adult life. The authors use a great metaphor to describe this process; it is integrating the Strategic Survival Personality as a member of the orchestra rather than allowing it to be the conductor. As a lover of metaphors this one really nailed it for me. Similarly, there is a great description of the ex -boarder in therapy - “the ex-boarder’s Strategic Survival Personality is a slippery fish that flaps wildly for breath on the deck of the therapist’s boat.” Forgiveness of parents is discussed at the end of the book. I found this an odd religious reference, especially as the meaning of forgiveness is highly disputable – do you love the person anyway despite what they’ve done, or do you just let the whole anger and upset go because it only damages you? I think the book would have benefitted from a deeper discussion of what’s involved in the forgiveness process and maybe called it something less with less religious connotations, such as ‘letting go’ or ‘coming to terms with what your parents did’. This book was very clearly written and easily understandable for people from therapy backgrounds other than psychotherapy. It will be worth coming back to time and time again. For myself as a non-boarder therapist, I was reassured that one of the benefits is that I won’t be tempted to collude with the normalisation of the process of trauma. Certainly not; even coming from a deprived, emotionally abused, single parent, council house, background, the trauma for ex-boarders still moves me to tears.