Three people whom I know well went to boarding school. None of them has much positive to say about the experience. It’s no surprise then really that I should be drawn to a book on the subject. It was far more rewarding than I thought it would be though.
Reading Boarding School Syndrome by Joy Schaverian was like coming home in terms of my sense of vocation at least.
Psychology is close to home. Clinical Psychology is my foster home. Only purely therapeutic psychology is my real home. I left it because I had to if I was to be able to work with experiencers of psychosis independently of psychiatry in the NHS. So, I ended up boarding all my professional life in an institution that allowed me to live as close to my vocation as it was possible for me to get.
How did that happen?
As I came to the end of my degree course I had to begin considering my next step. Emotionally, I was clear. I passionately wanted to become a psychotherapist. I wasn’t sure what kind of psychotherapist I wanted to become, but was swinging between two options: Existential Psychotherapy or Psychosynthesis.
I decided to consult with my tutor. I explained my dilemma and also added that ultimately I wanted to work in the NHS not in private practice. I was stunned by the advice I got.
She said, ‘If you go into the NHS as a psychotherapist you will have to work under the direction of a psychiatrist.’
My extreme scepticism about the medical model made this option completely unacceptable.
‘What should I do then if I want to work within the NHS?’
‘I think the best option,’ she said, ‘is to become a clinical psychologist.’
I went off in a state of frustration and shock to explore this idea. In the end I went with it, thinking that when I’d got my clinical qualification I could always do my psychotherapy training. For reasons I explain elsewhere this never worked out.
It’s ironic then that a Jungian text on boarding schools should have reminded me now so movingly of what I had had to leave behind all those years ago.
This will be a very personal review therefore of what more objectively speaking is an extremely important book in terms of what it says about our society, as well as about the lives of those who have suffered from its collective blindness, as it consigns its children to a childhood of bereavement and virtual imprisonment in the illusory hope of giving them a ‘good education,’ a positive start in life and a leg up the competitive ladder.
All the way through this book I was moved to discover echoes of my own or my clients’ experiences in life.
One of the first examples that I came across was on page 50:
Those whose experience of boarding schools was traumatic may not take their own stories seriously; even as adults they may disregard their own suffering. As children there were no words to articulate the abuses they suffered and they were unable to tell their parents. There was no adult witness to confirm that the treatment they received was wrong.… A child usually assumes his or her experience to be the norm, especially when it was shared with others who took their suffering with apparent stoicism and without complaint. Therefore, it is often difficult for the adults in psychotherapy to recognise that the treatment they received was wrong. This may also explain why parents, themselves ex-borders, may not have ‘known’ what their children where enduring.
This reminded me strongly of Laura’s experience, a lady I worked with for a number of years. Her diagnosis was endogenous depression (ie deep sadness with no obvious cause).
She initially had no sense that life had given her any reason to be depressed. She was an articulate lady who gave clear descriptions of her history, which included a basically contented childhood, and of her current feelings, which were often suicidal, though she did not understand why.
However, some part of her mind knew perfectly well where the problem really lay and recognized its exact nature. This awareness broke through in the metaphorical form of her dreams, a psychotic experience we all share at night whether we remember them or not.
One day, she spoke of a recurrent dream she was having. With variations, it was of being in a room with Hitler’s SS. They wanted information from her and were preparing to torture her. Before the torture could begin she invariably woke in terror. Following the model I used for my own dreams I asked her to give me a full description of every aspect of her situation in the dream. She described not only the people, but also the size and shape of the room and the kind of furniture that was in it.
Naturally, we focused at first on the people, but, apart from the obvious link of her having been brought up in the aftermath of World War Two, there were no links with the SS officers who were threatening her. The room did not trigger any useful insights either. We were beginning to wonder whether this was simply a childhood nightmare of the war come back to haunt her, when I asked about her associations to the furniture. We were both instantly shocked by her first answer. It was exactly the same as the furniture in the kitchen of the house in which she had grown up.
It would not be right for me to go into any detail about where this led. I imagine everyone can see that the picture she had persuaded herself was real, of a contented childhood, was very wide of the mark. That she had no vivid memory of any one dramatically traumatic incident was because there were none to remember: her whole childhood, as we then gradually came to understand it, had been a subtle form of emotional starvation and neglect successfully disguised for her at least as normal parenting.
Over a series of chapters Schaverian gives a detailed description of her work with a man she calls Theo, not his real name. Her description of his struggle highlights amongst other things some aspects of the nature of this difficulty (page 81):
It is common for those who have suffered trauma to disbelieve the extent of their own suffering and so it may be difficult for the analyst to believe it. Moreover, the client may feel culpable and so responsible for the abuse. Theo seemed to recognise my compassion for his suffering and gradually some compassion for his own anguish emerged.… He gradually came to accept that these really were abuses and they should never have happened.
Another echo in the text was closer to home. In the previous session he had described a particularly traumatic incident in which the boys in the dormitory could hear a seriously injured man crying for help in the courtyard below, but were too afraid to move or call for help for fear of the beating that might follow if they did. He came to the next session (page 55):
I acknowledged the previous session and how dreadful was the incident with the kitchen staff that he had described. He appeared shocked that I remembered it and reacted physically. It was as if I had physically hit him with something terrifying. Perhaps this is because he had reverted to the way he had survived in the past by repressing and so forgetting the traumatic experiences.
This was just one of many of occasions that he was unable to remember, without prompting, having already disclosed a traumatic experience.
I will move onto where this leads next time.