This year’s BACP Private Practice conference was built around the value of arts and creativity, and the talk I gave was intended to give a flavour of what literature might do to assist the work of psychotherapeutic practice or, as I have myself experienced it, in the ordinary life of becoming a human being.
I’ll begin with the two problems mentioned in my title. The first is put into words by Dr Helen Stokes Lampard, Chair of The National Academy for Social Prescribing: ‘GPs see patients, many of whom are widowed, who have multiple health problems like diabetes, hypertension and depression, but often their main problem isn’t medical, [it’s that] they’re lonely. The guidelines say we should be talking to them about their weight, exercise and prescribing more medication. But really what these patients need is someone to listen to them and to find purpose in life.’1 Loneliness, social isolation and lack of purpose are life problems for many of us and the solution proposed by Dr Lampard sounds simple: ‘…what these patients really need is someone to listen to them and to find purpose in life’.1
The second problem is given voice by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion: ‘If a person cannot “think” with his thoughts, that is to say that he has thoughts but lacks the apparatus of “thinking” which enables him to use his thoughts, to think them as it were, then the personality is incapable of learning from experience. This failure is serious. Failure to eat, drink or breathe properly has disastrous consequences for life itself. Failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality.’2
There is a relationship between the two problems sketched above: they represent points on a continuum of human being, of human suffering. There is an everyday, widespread, social loneliness, which may include lack of human purpose for many. And, for some of us, there is a deeper problem, that ‘failure to learn from emotional experience’, which becomes what Bion calls ‘a disaster in the development of the personality’.2 They are connected, it seems to me, by Bion’s idea that we humans need to learn to ‘use’ our thoughts. We need, in other words, to develop the ability to consciously know what our lives mean.
I had the experience, but missed the meaning
Like many people who have had difficult childhoods, I am a person who might have struggled with learning to use emotional experience. And yet, though I bear the residual scars of my early life, I did not suffer a ‘disaster in the failure of personality’. There are many complex reasons for that: I have been able to build strong human relationships. I have had meaning of various sorts in my life. And I have had years of counselling, all of which have helped me. In addition, reading literature has given me a model of ‘learning from experience’ and thus I have avoided some of the likely problems that might otherwise have dogged me.
Next in this issue
I didn’t think of it as ‘troubled’ or ‘chaotic’ at the time: it was just our life. I ‘had the experience’, as the poet TS Eliot says, ‘but missed the meaning’.3
By the age of 15, I was truanting from school, taking drugs, finding dangerous people to hang out with. Though I didn’t know it, the potential ‘disaster’ in the development of personality was happening, and there was little to help me ‘learn from emotional experience’.2 I didn’t find that kind of ‘thinking’ in the pub world I inhabited with my mum, nor with the police who brought me back after I had run away, nor from teachers who gave me detentions for not doing my homework. Yet, even as I scorned those living the straight life of homework and parents with boundaries, I also knew, at some level, that the life we lived was damaging me: hence the many times I ran away.
School, with its various disciplines, did not appeal, but the library round the corner from our pub was open to all, gave me the freedom to choose whatever I wanted to read and offered me a home away from home where very different voices spoke to me; the voices of thoughtful adults, who were thinking about life and learning, as Bion might say, from emotional experience. As a teenager, I read – among many others – VS Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, John Wain, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett. From them, I learned that life was hard, adults were weirder and more broken than I had realised and, above all, that reading was a way of learning about reality. Nothing spoke to me more insistently than Samuel Beckett’s play, Happy Days.4
Winnie, up to her neck in a pile of sand, meditates on her life and her stuckness and imagines a future perfect that never arrives – ‘…this will have been a happy day’4 – and the sadness, the stuckness, the not-becomingness spoke to me. Running away, I carried my stolen copy of the play with me. That kind of connection was something I began to look for in my reading, and I found it in some unexpected places.
Later, after I’d left school, had a baby, been married and divorced and was, at the age of 21, at community college trying to do ‘A’ levels, I met what felt important information in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems, in Shakespeare’s King Lear. These didn’t offer biographical recognition, they weren’t like me, but they spoke to something in me, to something (in Bion’s language) that needed to be thought about. Eventually, I got to university and read English Literature, did a PhD and became a university teacher of literature, all the time looking for, or trying to build, ‘the apparatus of thinking’,2 a kind of consciousness that allowed me to think about my own life through the lives and languages of books, and especially through poetry.
I was to meet the same kind of consciousness in one of my evening classes at the university, when I had asked students – the usual mixed bunch of an adult education evening class – to bring in a poem they loved to share with others. A woman, who looked to me like the headmistress of a posh girls’ school, brought and read this poem, written in a lunatic asylum, by the 18th-century English poet, John Clare:5
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
This woman, in her twinset and tweed skirt, read the poem out to us, then told the class, ‘I was an alcoholic, in Australia. I lost everything – my family, the children, the farm – I was kicking around the streets of Melbourne for years… And I had this poem – on a piece of paper, in my pocket – and sometimes I would take it out and read it and think… Yes – I am…’
I saw that this woman had used that poem in the same way I had used Winnie’s thoughts in Happy Days. But virtually no one was teaching literature in this way.* I began to have a feeling that I wanted to do something about that.
Then, driving to work one day, passing through the highly impoverished north end of Mersyside, I had what might be called a kind of revelation. I was going into the university to teach Wordsworth. It was May. There were daffodils lining the path of a house near the lights at which I had stopped. I watched an older woman walk up the path to one of these ex-council houses, small, poorly built, with tiny gardens fronting the street. The door was opened by a young woman with a baby on her arm and as the baby saw what I assumed was his granny, he leaped for joy in his mother’s arms, and a line from Wordsworth flashed into my mind: ‘…while the sun shines warm,/And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm…’6
As the line flashed into my mind, I also thought: that baby, growing up here, will never read Wordsworth. He will never get from literature what I’ve got – this equipment for understanding myself. He won’t have the experience I’ve just had, of a line of poetry coming into his mind. Now, you might say, this is not such a great problem, and I agree, there are many worse. But it felt a massive blow at that moment as the lights changed and I drove off, thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’
Get into reading
What I did was start a project called ‘Get into Reading’, in a little local library just opposite those traffic lights. I sought out people who were not into reading, like Eric, who was literate, but said, ‘I’ve only ever read the stuff on the back of sauce bottles.’ Like Dom, a disabled single parent, who remarked, wonderingly, about our shared endeavour, ‘You need it, but you don’t know you need it.’ Like Stella, who told me after being a silent presence in the group for a year, ‘I read to my little boy now, just like you read to us…’ Because some of the group were not literate, I read aloud. That meant we had to read whole works, and so, unlike a book group, the reading experience was live and shared, taking place in the room, with everyone experiencing it in the same real time. There were eventually about 10 people in the group, recruited because they wanted to get into reading. But what I didn’t know was that almost every one of them lived with a physical or mental health condition. Over that first year, they began to tell me that reading together helped them, in some way, to ‘feel better’.7,8
From that first group, The Reader7 has grown and, pre-pandemic, our 1,000 volunteers were running about 800 groups each week, meeting, usually in community libraries, mental health inpatient and outpatient settings, care homes, prisons, probation hostels, addiction treatment centres. A trained Reader Leader organises the group, bringing with them a story or poem or perhaps a novel. The Reader Leader reads aloud, people listen and may take turns at the reading if they wish, and they talk about what is being read. That’s ‘Shared Reading’. Here’s GP, Dr Helen Willows: ‘The Reader’s approach has the power to transform the lives of the people that we see day after day at our surgery – those that are stuck, perhaps with low mood or who are socially isolated – these are the people for whom another tablet is not going to make a difference.
Dr Willows is a practitioner in Shropshire, and has been developing Shared Reading groups in her area because she says ‘…they make a difference’. But what difference? Yes, to Dr Stokes Lampard’s point, there are the important social connections. There is having a regular and always interesting thing to do each week. But under all that, I think we are back to Bion’s idea of an apparatus for thinking.
Here is Rose, living in a care home: ‘Most of the time we are lonely, but when you share in this group, it’s as if you are composing another world around you. You come out of here and you feel fulfilled, filled up. See – you’ve had a life where you haven’t always been happy, and you can’t really put it into words, it just stays there [points to head]. But talking about these poems, I think it helps. They’ve got a lot to say, these poems, about life as if that’s the way life’s got to be. It can’t be good for everybody. We hope it is, but it never is, is it?’
As Dr Willows says, no tablet can help Rose have this experience of finding meaning in thinking about her own life. The shared experience of reading offers Rose meaning, which she movingly recognises as useful in processing and organising thoughts of a tough life: ‘These poems mean something don’t they? They mean something because you can’t wait to hear them, read them and think about how it’s been a bit like the life we’ve had.’
Now that our world is learning to live with COVID-19, The Reader has many online Shared Reading groups, and some are starting up again in real life, too. If you are interested in joining a group, or undertaking Read to Lead training in order to build Shared Reading into your own practice, please do contact The Reader at thereader.org.uk.
* My husband, Philip Davis, and my teacher and later friend, Brian Nellist, were both teaching literature as personal illumination, as were a number of their students at Liverpool in the 1980 and 1990s. But it’s fair to say, their boat was very much voyaging against the tide of theory that dominated English studies from the 1970s onwards.
1 Campbell D. Loneliness as bad for health as long-term illness, says GPs’ chief. [Online.] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/12/loneliness-as-bad-for-health-as-long-term-illnesssays-gps-chief (accessed 26 October 2021).
2 Bion RW. Learning from experience. London: Routledge; 1984.
3 Eliot TS. Four quartets. London: Faber & Faber; 2001
4 Beckett S. Happy days. London: Faber & Faber; 2010.
5 Clare J. I am! [Online.] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43948/i-am (accessed 26 October 2021).
6 Wordsworth J. Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood. Michigan, MA:Franklin Classics; 2018.
7 The Reader. [Online.] https://www.thereader.org.uk/category/research/ (accessed 26 October 2021).
8 University of Liverpool. [Online.] https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/humanities-social-sciences-health-medicine-technology/reading-literature-and-society/publications/ (accessed 26 October 2021)