Sunday, September 15, 2013

Stop the play and save your life

Stop reading Liz Jones' diary!

For those who don't know, Liz Jones is a fashion columnist with a weekly confessional page at the back of the colour supplement of the UK's Mail on Sunday. Her life is the emotional equivalent of one of those slow-motion gorefest sequences in a Sam Peckinpah Western.

The dirty secret is that she wants it that way.

It'll go on as long as you are suckered into watching. You are part of it; you are complicit. Though your face is hidden in the dark beyond the footlights, the performance is for you. “You! Hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, - mon frère!” said T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, inviting you to share his nervous breakdown.

There's a parody of Eliot's drama-queen gloom somewhere in Richard Adams' rabbit-saga Watership Down, where one of the bunnies takes on the manner of a prophet and foresees inevitable disaster - I can't track it down quickly but it's there, I promise you. Adams' book started (like some other great children's stories) as a series of adventures told to his children as he drove his car, and, sane and sensible man that he is (he lives yet, praise the Lord), he wanted to give them a positive outlook and so mocked the wrong-headed negativity of the doomster. Similarly, H.G. Wells' Mr Polly discovers:

"... when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you - you can change it."

To break through the paper walls, the first thing you have to change is you. Easy to say, so hard to do. But until you start using your egg tooth to peck at your shell, it doesn't matter what's going on outside, for the inside will always be the same.

One reason it's so difficult is that what you think of as your essential self is a pattern that's wrapped around your innermost consciousness, and even though it may keep on driving you towards unhappy results, you're afraid to get rid of it because it kids you that to lose part of your identity is to die. So it redirects you to externalities - once I'm rich/thin/famous it'll all be OK. And off you and I go into displacement activities, acquiring skills, knowledge, possessions, money, status etc; and somehow it's never enough. Because however wonderful the car, if the person behind the wheel is self-destructive he's going to wrap it round a tree.

No wonder childhood is so important. "You belong, you are loved, you're going to be just fine": that's what we need to hear. First train up the driver.

Eliot's French quotation is from Baudelaire, whose decadent poem makes Boredom the chief devil. But from what I've seen in life, and in what I do as a teacher of "special needs" children, that's not the driver. It's anger: anger at being cheated emotionally, leading to a lifelong desire for self-justification and revenge. It's a Ring Cycle, though in real life the ring is forged not because love was renounced but because it was withheld. The pattern is set, and unless it's broken it will lead not just to slow-burning personal tragedy but to Götterdämmerung.

Which is where we, the audience, come in. I once took part in an amateur dramatic production which, owing to publicity failings, got just two people on the auditorium seats. When they left at the interval, the show stopped (I was for carrying on, out of sheer stubbornness). Every actor knows that even if the public doesn't clap or cheer, they're participating; it's a dialogue with their energies. "Waves of love", the old variety performer would say as he got his applause, giving it back with outspread arms. So we're partly responsible for the performance.

Which is the central insight of Eric Berne's book "Games People Play" (may it never go out of print). You don't have to get into Transactional Analysis and the Child/Adult/Parent diagrams that echo Freud's Id, Ego and Superego. Man is greater than anything than comes out of him, goes the ancient Chinese saying, and such is our wish not to be imprisoned that if there was a perfect answer to anything I'd be looking for a second option.

The main observation in Berne - the thing you can take away with you and apply elsewhere - is that we write scripts. These have a part for the author, but parts for others, too, and the writer tries to recruit actors for the drama. The "play" itself has an agenda, like feelgood or downer films: the conclusion is that the principal is right, attractive etc. But he or she must be seen as such by others, without any essential change in the star of the show (because change is death). And so the play is good for an indefinite number of performances, like The Mousetrap, so long as the audience keeps the secret.

All the plays have at their core the principle that inner change must not be allowed to happen. The useless offerings pile up at the altar as, one after another, the bit players come in and perform their parts, some of them ending themslves discomfited, wounded. Over the past few months we've read how Jones has taken up with an old musician she call the RS (Rock Star) and once she's got him to declare his love and admit his vulnerabilities, she's rejecting him in various ways, including taking up with another person she had a crush on when she was young. It's compelling reading, but the reason why that is so for us - for me - is worrying.

Berne says, spot the script and ruin the punchline. Don't act Part B to Part A. Break the pattern. It needs to be more than that, of course. That will save you, the secondary actor, from an emotional mugging, but the scriptwriter still needs what we all need and should have had from the start: unqualified love.

Not love flavoured with pity - Jones wrote some time ago about having no cash and was highly embarrassed when loads of readers sent in bits of money from their own much more constrained budgets. Not love based on shared weaknesses, or common elements of unfortunate past life histories. That's why it's so hard to be a therapist - so many traps to fall into.

The hope is that if you don't play along, you make little breaks in the shell that the occupant can widen and climb through. The children that I see come to us very anxious, angry, disruptive and full of defiance and resentment. We try (and don't always succeed, because we're human) not to react to them as other people have before; to accept them while addressing their toxic behaviour patterns; and gradually, most calm down a bit and begin to respond. It doesn't happen all in one go, and there are backward as well as forward steps; but you can't give up. Essentially, though we have to follow the godawful National Curriculum and its bureaucratic assessment and recording procedures, this isn't about education in the academic sense; it's about an opportunity to heal.

And no, I'm not saint or angel. It's damn tiring and I'm not sure how much more of it I can do. Remember that as in psychology, many working in special needs education came to it as catchers in the rye who first needed saving themselves. You have to be careful not to work off your own neuroses onto others - and who is completely free?

We can't directly help Liz Jones. The audience is not a personal friend. But we can perpetuate her difficulties, by rewarding this weekly display. I choose not to be complicit any longer; I still get the paper, but I'm not reading the column. I hope someone throws her a lifebuoy, and that she chooses to reach out for it.

Same for you, same for me. Go save your life.

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A K Haart said...

Good stuff, although I'd never heard of Liz Jones.

After an admittedly quick glance, her column reads like fiction to me.

"It's damn tiring and I'm not sure how much more of it I can do."

Maybe an excessively rule-bound environment is tiring for those who know things could be different. I certainly found it so in an entirely different field.

Sackerson said...

You're right, the rule stuff is as wearing as the children's behaviour. Perceptive as always.