Sunday, October 17, 2010

Promises That Can And Can't Be Kept: Grant Goodbrand's Therafields

Grant Goodbrand's Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune (ECW Press, 2010), the story of one of the largest and influential therapeutic communes during the sixties and seventies, is an absorbing, insightful and contemplative study of the failure of good intentions. Therafields, an experimental psychotherapeutic collective was formed by British-born lay therapist, Lea Hindley-Smith, in the mid-sixties. The commune was part of that period’s utopian spirit to create an alternate society which, by the end of the '70s, came apart in division, death and suicide. “The experiment had ended in tragedies and bitter animosity, traumatically turning friend against friend in ruptures that never healed,” Goodbrand writes. Therafields might have been sparked by an egalitarian impulse, but it was one that was undone by false expectations, fantasies, idolatry and promises that couldn’t be kept. In Therafields, though, Grant Goodbrand keeps his own promise by trying to heal the breach in that history.

“At the age of fourteen I read that only the self-examined life was worth living,” he writes in the introduction. You could say that Therafields is something of a testament to that view. Goodbrand combines memoir, social history and the psychotherapist’s favourite tool of analysis, in order to tell the story of how Lea Hindley-Smith’s attempt to use the healing powers of psychoanalysis to create the foundation for social change came apart at the seams. Goodbrand, who was one of the first therapists trained by Lea, begins his story with the early years of Lea Hindley-Smith in England. Right away, we see how the seeds of Therafields’ undoing truly began with her damaged childhood and a loveless marriage that overshadowed her ambitions. 

By the time she began doing therapy in Toronto in the early sixties, Lea had already created an eclectic fusion of Freud, the radical body-work of Wilhelm Reich — plus the incisive style of Robert Lindner (The Fifty-Minute Hour), who “held that the potential for evolutionary change within human beings was dependent on a rebellious instinct,” — to provide a therapeutic model that was less theoretical than it was flexible to the needs of the individual. She soon started attracting a number of nuns and priests who were influenced by reform at the Vatican in 1962. “Pope John XXII set an agenda in which the 2,500 bishops could debate, disagree and then eventually make decisions,” Goodbrand explains. “In short, he effectively relinquished some of his absolute power to the collective.” This enabled Lea to treat and eventually train this clergy into a group of psychotherapists who could then treat others.

But since the sixties counter-culture was also on the horizon, other idealists were drawn to Lea with the hope of creating new models of living — one of those idealists was Canadian poet bp Nichol, who along with Lea's son Rob, shored up the communal aspirations. By the time houses were being purchased in Toronto’s Annex, a farm in Mono Mills, office buildings and a beach house in Florida, Therafields had grown into a living experiment where, at its height, 900 people were involved in creating a therapeutic community.

In the book, Goodbrand traces the rival streams of thought that would ultimately clash: The religious group, who simply wanted to do individual therapy; and the younger secular folks, who wanted to start a new social revolution. Grant suggests that the ultimate failure of Therafields was both a combination of the unresolved tension between these two groups plus the economic changes in the seventies which inspired more self-interest than collective dreaming. But the story of Lea also suggests another aspect. Due to her illness (Lea suffered from diabetes for many years) and a grandiloquence that lead to unchecked veneration, Therafields always suffered from a false perception of utopia. Instead of creating a community that integrated itself into the world, Therafields separated itself from the world by creating an umbrella that protected people from the neurosis of everyday life. The only trouble was: the neurosis of everyday life quickly bled into this insulated community and dramatically contributed to its demise. That isolation grew out from Lea's personality, as we come to learn towards the end, when we discover that she wasn't entirely who she claimed to be.

Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune is a pretty sobering read that presents all sides fairly and gives room to all voices. But that is also part of the book’s sole, yet honest, flaw. By becoming largely an observer who creates room for the divisive and inspiring voices to have their say, Grant becomes more of a witness than a participant. Outside of a funny and revealing anecdote about when he first enters a therapy house in crisis, I missed hearing more of how he was affected by the Therafields experience and what it did to his life. The subjective voice of Therafields appears to belong to bp Nichol, whose epic poem The Martyrology lovingly and wistfully traces the arc of the book’s narrative.

Poet bp Nichol
Back in 1974, I was a nineteen-year-old kid fresh out of high school in Oshawa, Ontario when I first heard of Therafields. Although I’d been living on my own for the previous two years, supporting myself with part-time jobs and student welfare, I felt lost without any sense of what I wanted to do with my life. With the help of one of my high school teachers, I came to meet Grant Goodbrand, who brought me into Therafields. For the next five years, I took part in talk psychotherapy with a terrific therapist who Grant had recommended. I also did dynamic psychodrama in group therapy, engaged in work therapy by helping build the properties that would house Therafields, and I lived in one of those properties in what was called House Group Therapy. All told, the experience quite literally saved my life and I gained many friends who remain so to this day. 

The Therafields experience was perhaps more enriching for me than it was for some others because I never really bought into the alternate community dream. (I did, though, enjoy many of the people I met who shared it.) But I wanted to find my own way to live in the world, not create an alternate reality that would help me feel safer from it. For me, therapy provided only a mirror for self-reflection. The society outside was where I did the real therapeutic work as I learned to live with its joys and frustrations. Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune is an important and honest history of a promise that couldn't be kept. It not only does justice to the true spirit of that promise, Grant Goodbrand also bravely honors its failings.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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