Saturday, 18 June 2011

Belated Bloomsday / Drinking in Dingle

Unusually for me, I’m starting this without any idea of what I’m going to write about. There are around half a dozen themes for posts rattling around in my head – all I have to do is just write them but, for some reason or another (perhaps just sheer intellectual laziness), I don’t seem to want to work on any of them right now. So I’m following the idea that, if you don’t know what you want to write about, just start writing and the theme will come.

Stream of consciousness? I’m not sure. I have the suspicion that much of what passes for stream of consciousness in literature is in fact carefully crafted artefact, particularly if it’s any good. And following that line of thinking I arrive, perhaps inevitably, at the master of stream of consciousness, James Joyce.

Not surprising really, for last Thursday, June 16, was Bloomsday, the day Joyce made immortal in his masterpiece, Ulysses. On June 16, 1904, he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. In the book, the doings, thoughts and interactions of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedelus, Bloom’s wife, Molly, and various others on that same day in Dublin are described and the result is what is possibly the greatest book to be published in English in the 20th Century.

Shall I write of Joyce? I hesitate to; so much has been written about him by so many learned people, so many analyses, theories, controversies, paeans of richly deserved praise. Someone who could write so well that it leaves me literally speechless and at the same time makes me want to throw away my netbook in frustration.

Looking out the window I see that there’s a rain shower with a strong wind obscuring the view from my kitchen over Wuppertal to the north … there’s a memory tilt and …

Christ there’s nothing as miserable as a storm coming in from the Atlantic when you’re on the West Cork coast the wind trashing the waves of a sea not snotgreen but certainly scrotumtightening up on the hard fangy rocks and unforgiving cliffs this is the middle of June and there’s supposed to be sunshine and the desirable sights of bottoms bounding and breasts bobbing in bikinis and instead the wind whipping the cold cutting rain as stinging as the crack of a Christian Brother’s leather so that you run through a thousand shades of grey towards the redeeming promise of a pub door …

Finnegan’s Wake, to be frank, defeats me. It’s Joyce gone uberJoyce, hyperJoyce, possibly even completely fallen into the schizophrenic psychotic state Jung strongly suspected he was prone to; though Beckett and others believed in the project and hundreds of literary academics still earn their money by analysing and writing about it. Sometimes I think Joyce is sitting on a celestial cloud, getting royally pissed on some heavenly liquor and laughing his head off at all of them.

But Ulysses is a different matter; a declaration of frustrated, furious love for his native dear, dirty Dublin, a picture of Ireland and his own youthful life there over a hundred years ago which, in a marvellous, epic portrayal of all sorts of particular things, on all sorts of levels, knitted together with such profligate genius, becomes an incomparable hymn to the magnificence of the human condition in all its mundane weakness and soaring beauty. Leafing through Ulysses makes me drunk on language, intoxicated by words and the power they have.

… the fuggy muggy malty woolly welcoming smell of spilt beer and drying overcoats and whiskey and tobacco smoke encloses you like a warm blanket or a woman’s embrace as the door whacks shut behind you your gaze moving searching over the patrons clumping around the tables standing at the bar the buzz of conversations combining with the carrier-wave of traditional music tumbling from the sound-system and you see a face you recognise at a table under a window where the rain is pouring pearly down the panes and a hand rises inviting waving beckoning to you …

And there is a personal theme which I share with the master; for I too, through personal history and complex circumstance, am an Irishman living abroad, in Europe. Joyce worked out his Irishness, his love of and frustration with that particular essential element of his identity, in his writing – perhaps never reaching any resolving catharsis but enriching the world of literature with his search for it. I have been more fortunate. I grew up in an Ireland (for all its limitations) more open, less asphyxiating than that which Joyce experienced, his feelings perhaps best described in the despairing, “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” I have found more personally satisfying exorcisms for my own particular demons and my Irishness sits lightly and, in the main, happily on me, both when I visit my native land and in my adopted German home.

I look at the pint of Guinness on the table in front of me. It stands there; patient, promising, prim as a pious priest in a freshly ironed soutane, his Roman collar gleaming white above his rounded black shoulders. When I touch it the glass is slightly slippery, my fingers leaving blacker ovals in the faint condensation mist the warmer moist air has frosted on the glass of cooler liquid. Grasping it again, I raise the glass to my companions, who have also raised theirs.
The word is murmured by all participating in the holy ritual; worshippers in the Church of Saint Arthur.
Introibo ad altare Dei.
The sweet sour hoppy taste of the cool liquid spreads through my mouth flowing down my gullet cascading splashing into my stomach where it pools in that dark almost silent cave the juices mingling the alcohol moving into my bloodstream racing through my whole body heart feet balls brain joining the music and hum of conversation and conviviality and synaptic snapping at the release of necromantic neurotransmitters to make the magic of this epiphanous sacrament extend a golden glow over the afternoon …

“I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click.”

“When money's tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran.
When all you have is a heap of debt
A pint of plain is your only man.
When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan.
When hunger grows as your meals are rare
A pint of plain is your only man.”

The author of the poem, the writer Brian O’Nolan (Flann O’Brien) – whose genius I have already celebrated here – was one of the initiators in 1954 (along with, among others, the poet, Patrick Kavanagh) of the practice of celebrating Bloomsday by repeating the “odyssey” of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedelus through Dublin. In true Joycean fashion and worthy of the best episodes of the novel, the pilgrimage ended well short of its planned conclusion in the Bailey pub in central Dublin, dissolving in drink and dispute. Nowadays Dublin is full of guided tours of inebriated Americans, guide-book-toting Germans and picture-snapping Japanese all following sanitised versions of the route and events in the book. Inevitable, I suppose, in our culture.

…I can feel her knee and thigh against mine as we are pushed together by the crowd on the bank beneath the pub window where the drops are now sparkling in the light of the low evening sun come out finally from the retreating clouds glinting diamond in my fleeting eyes as I turn my head towards her again and again and our glances catch and there is a sense of promise in her eyes and her slightly open inviting lips and I know that she is feeling my body just as I am feeling hers and I hopefully imagine the spirit of Molly Bloom descending on her in tongues of flaming desire …

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Pictures retrieved from:

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Summer of '81

1981 was a year in which open season seemed to have been declared on celebrities. It had, in fact, started on December 8 of the previous year when Mark David Chapman decided for some mad reasons, logical only to himself, that he had to kill John Lennon. In January Protestant gunmen serious injured Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the fiery Catholic Northern Ireland politician who, as the youngest ever Westminster MP (elected at the age of twenty-one), had livened up the British parliamentary scene by turning up in a miniskirt, punching Reginald Maudling, the Conservative Home Secretary, in the mouth and giving birth to a child without bothering to get married.

In March John Hinckley Jr. shot the newly elected U.S. President Reagan and two months later Mehmet Ali Ağca had a go at the pope. At the end of May, the Bangladeshi president Ziaur Rahman was assassinated and October, dissident Egyptian army members killed president Anwar Sadat.

Although I registered all of these events at the time, the one that had the biggest significance for me was, of course, the death of Lennon, closely followed by another death in May, that of Bob Marley. When I think back now on that year, and particularly that summer, the strains of No Woman, No Cry are always there in the background.

The summer of 1981 was one of adventure for me, one I’ve described to myself in retrospect as The Great European Tour. I’d been in the Dominican Order for four years and had spent the last two years at University studying history and philosophy. I was twenty one years old and deeply uncertain about my future within the Church. So I decided, with the agreement of my student master at the time, to take an informal summer off to see if I could find some clarity.

It started with a month doing a volunteer work camp in Amsterdam. The basic idea of the work camp movement in Europe involved spending a couple of weeks working on some kind of social project for your board and keep. The project I’d found in Amsterdam was a pretty left-wing one, involving the renovation of a social centre for Moroccan guest workers and asylum seekers, which had been trashed a few months earlier by agents of the Moroccan secret police. We were housed in a building which belonged to some student organisation beside the Vondelpark.

The organisers of the whole thing were a very earnest, politically engaged Dutch couple who were, I think, somewhat disappointed at the level of commitment of the participants. We were around twenty young people from eleven different countries and most of us regarded the whole thing primarily as an excellent opportunity to spend a month in summer in Amsterdam with other young people who were also interested in spending a month in summer in Amsterdam. We had nothing against doing a bit of work every day (from Monday to Friday) but our enthusiasm for things like workshops to raise our political consciousness and discuss the exploitation of the working class by international capitalism and fascist police states was, to say the least, lukewarm. Our lack of enthusiasm was abetted by some of the Moroccans we were working with, who were more than ready to show us the town and help us have a good time. After the first few workshops had been basically sabotaged by people passing around joints and turning the music up louder, the idea was quietly abandoned.

There were some exceptions. A German medical student who was both pretty but also pretty idealistically intense. Then there were the two Czech girls, who kept very much to themselves and didn’t speak much of anybody else’s language anyway. In the course of the month we discovered that they were actually both married factory workers and stalwart party members who had been given the trip to the west – along with international student cards – as some kind of reward for party fidelity and being heroes of production or something like that. Their conversation was generally limited to phrases like, “You must come to visit socialistic countries,” and I think they were actually scared of and shocked by the laid-back attitudes of the majority.

That laid-back attitude manifested itself within a couple of days in a dispute about our working times. There was a minority who wanted to start early and finish early. Then there was the majority who wanted to start much later and finish early. We solved that by compromising on a two-shift solution – I was a firm member of the group which tended to turn up for work around eleven in the morning.

We’d found other avenues of interest, a major one being the legendary Melkweg [Milky Way] beside the Leidseplein. It was a pretty relaxed place; live music, a market, a hash shop, a theatre, a tea-room, a cinema. It was there, one evening a couple of weeks after I’d arrived in Amsterdam, that I realised that you couldn’t always easily get away from the wider world. I was waiting for the Cocteau Twins to perform when a couple sat down beside me and I heard the harsh twang of Northern Ireland accents. It wasn’t that I felt at all homesick; still I was happy to hear voices from home. The guy went off to get drinks and I engaged the girl in conversation. Her boyfriend soon returned.

“Hey, Johnny, this fella here’s from Dublin!”

He looked at me disapprovingly, his mouth forming a thin line. He reached out his hand to his girlfriend and nodded sharply.

“C’mon,” he said, pulling her to her feet. She looked back to me apologetically as they disappeared into the crowd.

Northern Ireland was very tense that summer; it was the height of the H-block hunger strikes. The IRA prisoner, Bobby Sands had died in May, five more were already dead at this stage, but compromise wasn’t part of Margaret Thatcher’s vocabulary. Johnny and his girlfriend were obviously Protestants and he wanted nothing to do with anyone from the Republic of Ireland.

The work-camp finished at the end of July but my tour was only starting. I had an InterRail ticket, valid for the month of August, which gave me unlimited rail travel throughout the continent and so I joined that great horde of young people with backpacks from all over the world who were exploring Europe. I’d planned it so that I had a number of destinations which I could aim for where there were people I knew where I could spend a day or two, have a shower and sleep in a bed before moving on to the next destination.

The Lofotens
I visited Denmark. There was a girl there I’d got to know on the work-camp. We’d had a holiday affair in Amsterdam which had been very pleasant, but both of us had had our reasons for not taking it too seriously. There was an Irish Dominican priest doing summer work in a parish in Bodø, in the north of Norway and so I took the long train journey to cross the Arctic Circle, just too late for the complete midnight sun (though it never got dark). The two of us visited the Lofoten islands for a few days, where all the young Catholics – not very many! – in Northern Norway were gathered. Years later, I heard that he was under investigation in a child-abuse case; he disappeared, his clothes were found later on a beach.

And I visited my cousins in Brussels. My uncle had moved there as a civil servant, nearly ten years earlier when Ireland had joined the European Community and I hadn’t seen any of them since we were all children. My cousin Gerry took me under his wing, showing me the city. We took to each other immediately and it was a marvellous weekend.

But that connection to reality, to the wider world, was there all the time, though I didn’t realise it. On June 5 1981, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that five homosexual men in Los Angeles had a rare form of pneumonia seen only in patients with weakened immune systems, the first reported cases of AIDS. Gerry was gay – as he told me during that visit – and had, that summer, just returned from a couple of years in New York, where he had been studying. In all likelihood he had contracted the virus there which would kill him little more than a decade later.

I was in France when I finally ran out of money. I hadn’t had much to begin with, but I hadn’t needed that much; my concept to save costs by taking long train-journeys at night, arriving at a different destination every day had been working fairly well. Frequently the carriages seemed full of young travellers; contacts and conversations were easily made. Sometimes I spent a day or two with a number of others, travelling together, exploring a town or city before going our separate ways. Occasionally I played guitar on the street to earn my lunch – I remember Oslo was very good in that regard. But the competition among buskers on the Paris metro was tough and my InterRail ticket was only valid for a few more days anyway. I spent my last night in France sleeping rough in the Gare Saint Lazare before taking a train to the Normandy coast to get the boat back to Ireland.

I still have many wonderful memories of that summer. Picnics and kisses and dope and live music in the Vondelpark. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Sitting in the wild beauty of the Lofoten islands, watching the sun just dip under the Northern horizon for half an hour around midnight. Discussing philosophy with Gerry in a Brussels bar. The great Gothic cathedral in Rouen. James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I read on dozens of trains.

As to whether I should leave the Dominican Order; that was a decision I deferred. I was still unsure. I had another year to go to my degree and my final vows were not yet due, I told myself. There was still enough time to go on thinking about it. Everything’s gonna be all right, everything’s gonna be all right. Bob Marley’s words were ubiquitous that summer and, with the invulnerability of youth, I still believed them. That the man singing them was dead at the age of thirty six wasn’t relevant.

“In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means.
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
                                               Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill (1946)


Pictures retrieved from

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Caring for Very Sick Children

Though we knew that it was always possible that it would happen … no, given the almost complete certainty that it would happen some time in the near future, the news that Fatima had died still shocked most of us. The monitor screeched an alarm at 5.00 a.m. – it could no longer find a pulse. My colleague raced to her bed, called the emergency services and started the usual measures to try to revive her. To no avail. Fatima’s heart had stopped beating while she was asleep, three weeks after her second birthday.

Her prognosis had always been bad. Sickly since birth, the doctors had diagnosed a genetic defect which led to a progressive form of severe muscular dystrophy. She quickly had to be placed on a respirator, as her diaphragm and thoracic muscles were too weak to support her breathing adequately. The longer she lived, the more her muscle mass simply disappeared, leaving her arms and legs thin and stick like. She could hardly move at all, though she was working on grasping things – and getting better at it.

She had a great sense of fun –for mentally her development was normal – and a wonderful sunny smile, accented by two of the biggest, shiniest eyes I have ever seen, that could break your heart. In the end, it was her own heart that broke; the breakdown of muscle tissue wrongly coded by her DNA working through to the inevitable end.

So I’m here working an unplanned night shift again; the colleague whose watch it happened on last night has been given tonight off. That’s all right; it’s one of the things that teams are for. We’re engaged in building up a new team at the moment, to service a new concept our firm is working on; a small group of four children in a special unit with facilities for mothers/parents to live-in with them – a preparation for a possible return to the home environment.

All of these children are extremely ill and we are aware that any of them could die at any time. Yet it’s still a major trauma for everyone when that actually happens. We started this project in January and Fatima is the first child we’ve lost. Of the four, we knew, theoretically at least, that she was the one with the worst prognosis and that there was practically no chance that she would live for much longer. But we have experienced once more today that there’s a major difference between what you know theoretically and what you experience practically.

Thankfully, the work has its positive aspects as well. Take Jenny, for example. Last autumn, shortly before her third birthday, something happened. What it was exactly, the doctors still aren’t sure. Firstly she became deaf. Then, within the space of a few weeks, she became desperately weak, so weak that she could no longer walk, her autonomous breathing reaction disappeared and she developed an almost complete facial paralysis. Something had gone seriously wrong in her brain – to be precise, in her brain stem – but they still don’t know exactly what.

In hospital, the doctors installed a feeding tube, a tracheotomy tube and put her on a respirator. Slowly her condition stabilised and she was released into our care in January, accompanied by her mother. Since then, she’s been recovering.

The big problems – the deafness, the facial paralysis and the breathing difficulties – are still there. But they’re starting to look manageable now, for Jenny has recovered her strength. Where she had to be carried a couple of months ago, she’s now running around – still attached through the tracheotomy tube and two thick corrugated plastic hoses to her respirator. Generally that’s being carried by one of us, who she can keep well occupied chasing after her.

She has been developing a means of communicating with her environment, involving quite a complex combination of gestures and shrugs. She has a Bobby-car with a trailer and when her respirator is loaded onto the trailer she’s basically independent (at least until the battery runs down) and takes off on occasions on exploratory expeditions through the care centre to visit various friends she has made. Recently she has been trying to discover how fast she can make the damned thing go (and institutions have the advantage over normal households of long corridors) and is even experimenting on maximising her speed around corners.

Jenny, as you will be gathering by now, is quite a determined young lady. That determination is one of her greatest assets at the moment. Indeed, it is priceless because it is underpinning her basic picture of herself as a normal little girl – one with particular, special problems to be dealt with, to be sure, but one also who is quite certain that she will deal with them.

And, if everything goes right, she will be able to live a fairly normal life. She may remain deaf but that’s something she’ll be able to deal with, with the right training. She may need the respirator, but probably not all the time – already she’s disconnecting herself from it for short periods, testing and training her own residues of breathing ability. Realistically, a long-term goal is to have her only needing it while she sleeps. Her facial paralysis means that she can’t use her face to show emotion – she can’t smile, for example – so she has a permanent serious-surprised expression, but when those interacting with her know this and adjust to it (something that takes a bit of practice) they realise that she is actually a lively kid with a well-developed sense of fun.

Or whatever struck in her brain last year may strike again; leaving her with new handicaps, or even killing her …

What happened to Fatima was a reminder to us that the children we are caring for are very ill and that the chances that any of them can quickly turn critical and even die are continually there. And that it’s advisable never to forget that.

So I’m thinking about the continual tightrope walk that nursing chronically very sick children entails. Theoretically, to do your job properly and to be able to continue to do it well, you know that you have to keep a certain amount of professional distance, otherwise you’re not going to be able to stand it. But children have a way of undermining that distance, instinctively throwing out nets festooned with lots of clever, sharp hooks which snag in your heart and make you into a willing captive. And you can’t afford to really resist them, because the only basis on which you can build a real relationship to these little people is genuine empathy and, yes, love.

Therefore, there’s only one thing you can do; carry on squaring the circle. Realistically, it’s probably not the sort of work most of us can do full-time indefinitely.

Not without an awful lot of support, help, encouragement and continual self-reflection anyway. Which is why I’ve decided to start training next year as a clinical supervisor. It will qualify me to continue to make a contribution in this whole area, while at the same time opening new personal and professional perspectives. And while the training is going on (and probably for some time afterwards, at least part-time), I’ll be continuing to work in this area – I’ve still got to pay the bills and get through life. At fifty plus, I anticipate it being a bit of a challenge, but I’m confident enough of my ability to rise to it.

And if I need any inspiration, I need look no farther than Jenny. Now there’s someone really rising to a challenge …


Pictures retrieved from:

Friday, 3 June 2011

Where The Wild Things Are

"Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared."

Maurice Sendak published his children’s book Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 and the book quickly became a classic. The book tells the story of Max, the little boy who misbehaves, is sent to bed without supper and makes a magical journey from his room to the island where the Wild Things live, before eventually returning home to discover that his supper is, in fact, waiting for him … still warm.

Forty-eight pages, mostly wonderful pictures - the written story contains only twelve sentences in all – and a tale which has captivated millions of three to seven year olds since it was first published. My daughters were fascinated by the story when they were small and my grandson, the four-year-old representative of a new generation, loves it too.

One of Sendak’s great strengths is that he deals with themes which are very real for small children; in this case, the consequences of misbehaviour and the fears which arise when you are alone and those you love (and who love you) aren’t available for comfort and security – the monsters who lurk in the dark. His treatment of these subjects means that the story is immediately accessible to small children – he is describing their actual world and, by naming and pictorially describing things openly, giving them mechanisms to help them cope with them.

Many of Sendak’s books, including Where the Wild Things Are, have been criticised for dealing with themes which are not suitable for small children. In the Night Kitchen (1970), which features a little boy prancing around naked, is still challenged and even banned in a number of public libraries in the United States. The critics, in my view, simply miss the point; children live full lives in our societies, are confronted with all sorts of things we might not wish them to be confronted with and, by refusing to discuss issues with them and give them channels to help them approach difficult themes and develop healthy strategies for dealing with them, we are not doing them any favours. On the other hand, to be completely fair, Sendak has generally reacted very sensitively to criticism and has, in some cases, exaggerated the extent and amount of opposition his books have in fact encountered – his comments on Bruno Bettelheim, regarding Where the Wild Things Are are one example of this. 

It was of course inevitable that the idea of filming such a popular classic should quickly come up. In the early eighties, Disney did some serious work on the idea but in the end it came to nothing and Sendak’s classic was spared the kiss of kitch which would have inevitably accompanied the project – though, to be fair, the Disney tendency to over-sweeten the pudding has never bothered children. Instead Universal Studios, in cooperation with Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, gave the project to director Spike Jonze, who, in close cooperation with Sendak, finished the film for release two years ago.

A week or so ago, my grandson was visiting me for a couple of days and we stopped by at our local electrical market. Looking over the DVDs on sale, I spotted Where the Wild Things Are and he agreed enthusiastically to my suggestion that we buy it.

That evening we watched the film. It received the ultimate accolade from Ryan who, when it was over, promptly announced that he wanted to watch it again. And, thinking about it, I realised that I did too; though my reasons were probably very different to his.

I was fascinated by the community of monsters, the Wild Things, their personalities and interaction with each other. Jonze and Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), who wrote the screenplay together, have produced characters which work for both children and adults because they are so real, so normal and, at the same time never lose that dangerous violent unpredictability which makes them what they ultimately are – scary monsters. Thinking about this, it struck me that this is the way the world of adults must often appear to small children; big people, who are incredibly powerful and are always doing completely unpredictable, sometimes scary things and why, therefore, those adults whom you love and who love you and whose love is consistent and sure are so important and necessary in your life – even when they’re angry at you.

For an adult, of course, the attraction is somewhat different. Carol, Douglas, Judith, Ira, Alexander, Bernard and K.W. are a group of insecure, neurotic, very human monsters with complex personalities, problems, visions, relationships and group dynamics and issues which, I suspect, are familiar to most of us. The arrival of Max on their island acts as a catalyst to bring a lot of things into the open, maybe clarify some things somewhat before his departure leaves them with some problems clearer, some, perhaps, on the way to resolution, others basically as they were. Just like real life.

But personally, the behaviour and interaction of the Wild Things made me think of a particular period of my life and some of what I experienced then. Thirteen years ago, for all sorts of complex reasons I won’t go into here, I had a pretty comprehensive nervous breakdown. Part of the long process of recovery I went through involved spending a number of months in full-time residential therapy. It was therapy with a strong emphasis on group work and it meant that, in a relatively short time, you got to know a number of other people very well indeed, discovering things about them (as they discovered things about you) that even those closest to them had never known.

We were a motley crew; suffering from all sorts of problems like borderline syndromes, through bi-polar disorders, addiction issues and depression, to people whose life-stories and personality structures had landed them in individual psychological cul-de-sacs – or various mixtures of such problems. In many cases of what we call “mental illness,” the label isn’t so important anyway; as a therapist once remarked to me, “in our area the therapy often comes first, the diagnosis comes at the end.”

Many people, particularly those going through crises, have difficulties with group therapy. You think that you have such massive troubles of your own, that the last you want to do is to waste your time listening to the problems of others or, even worse perhaps, laying out your own horrible private stories in front of others. But if you’re able to open yourself up to it, you start to realise that this isn’t what it’s really about at all. Firstly, listening to the others telling their stories, you realise that while all stories are unique they are all very similar. You start to understand how others got into the mess they’re in, to see possible solutions and strategies for them … and then you start to realise that some of these solutions and strategies might just be applicable to you as well. Secondly, experiencing the interaction in the group – an interaction which goes on after the “official” sessions with the therapist are over, in many ways dominating your whole life during the therapy period – you start to see the way people act and react to each other (in many cases continuing the problematic patterns they have described in their stories) and, if you’re lucky, start to observe and reflect on your own behaviour (and patterns) within the overall group dynamic.

It helped me at any rate, though it didn’t work for everyone. There were some participants whose disorders could really only be handled with medication – though many of them also found the insights into their own situations which emerged through the discussions and interaction immensely helpful. There were others who just weren’t capable of climbing out of their own boxes and so basically continued to bang their heads against the same, largely self-constructed walls. And, just as I was coming to the end of my stay there, there was one participant … at this stage friend would be a better word to use … who finally succumbed to the limited, closed logic-loop of his subjective suffering and took his own life.

It’s a long time ago now and my life has moved on since then, generally in much more positive directions. But I still retain some friendships – one a very deep one – which were made in that strange, difficult, intense time. And one very basic realisation; that if you find yourself getting into a situation regarding important personal situations in life where you can only see two alternatives, black or white, all or nothing, then it’s high time you called “stop” and looked at things again. For, though decisions always have to be made and it is usually better to decide yourself rather than have decisions made for you, there are nearly always far more alternatives available to you than you can see at first glance.

And so, watching the clumsy, complicated relationships between the Wild Things last weekend, the things half-spoken, the issues not resolved, their behavioural patterns being repeated even when they were obviously dysfunctional, my thoughts returned to that group I was part of, all those years ago. The “monsters” in the film are thrown together by the fact that they find themselves together on a distant island; we were thrown together by our shared inability to carry on the way we had been going. When Max sails back home, leaving them behind on their island, we know that things will go on much the way they have been before he arrived. But we also know that they will go on, because – in their own neurotic, wounded, dysfunctional ways – the Wild Things do understand and care for each other. It’s not certain of course; Carol may go into another uncontrolled rage and kill one of the others, possibly Judith after she has provoked him once too often, or Douglas or Alexander because they are simply unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe K.W., who understands him very well, will be able to avert disaster (once again).

Nothing is certain or perfect anyway, and it can be dangerous to lose oneself in the pursuit of total solutions. The suicide of my friend Jens had a lot to do with that kind of fallacy. Often the way forward is to accept that there are many partial solutions for seemingly intractable problems, that ever more alternatives start to become available once you get yourself (re)started on the adventure of life. That you sometimes just have to hope and put a bit of trust in yourself and others. The way, in the end, that Max can go back to his mother because, deeper than anything else, he knows that she loves him.

And that she would never really send him hungry to bed …


Many thanks to Pagan Sphinx, who gave me the link to Slate Magazine which provided the real impetus for this post. J

Pictures retrieved from:


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