As the Middle East enters an age of revolutions, Britain, by contrast, finds herself governed by a familiar breed, new packaging notwithstanding. Ex-public schoolboys, whom we seem strangely content to elect, massively represent the current cabinet.

It is as if, despite the odd historical hiccough, we take for granted that our leaders should be drawn from a recognisable elite: those who bear the accent and demeanour of the privately educated. The majority of them have boarded at our famous public schools and embody a recognisable veneer of confidence, linked with the ability to suggest sincerity while disregarding feelings and bullying each other at work.1 These are as fundaments of a kind of politics that we have come to expect and seem loath to change.

Bestselling author John Le Carré, who joined MI6 via Sherborne, Oxford and teaching at Eton, knows the shadow side of our political life well. Since coming in from the cold, Le Carré has spent a long working life documenting a similar story in his novels: how the English ex-boarder becomes the perfect spy, committing lonely acts of loyalty and betrayal. Between the lines his fiction shows how public school men develop an unconsciously defensive personality which equips them with the political and diplomatic skills of wilful duplicity, even as these hinder them in domestic life. Here is his anti-hero Tim from Our Game: ‘In the world where Larry and I did our growing up it would be quite wrong to presume that, merely because the right hand is bestowing consolation, the left hand is not considering covert action of its own.’2

For all those in public life who seem to reap the advantage of this privileged education there are countless others who suffer a kind of displacement in domestic, non-institutional life. They find authenticity and intimate relationships quite beyond them, and their suffering goes unacknowledged. Boarding children, despite their prestigious schools, have to grow up amongst their peers and never really come home again.3

The dissociative, defensively organised personality structure typical of the ex-boarder, which I have named the ‘strategic survival personality’, is developed as a protective mantle, under duress, often in the very first moments of the child having to survive alone at boarding school.4 Over time it tends to crystallise into masochism, pathological rebellion or grandiosity – or a combination of all three – as well as intimacy avoidance.5 It is very hard to shed.

A uniquely British institution

Having spent more than two decades studying and working therapeutically with ex-boarders, and being one myself, I am unfortunately no longer astonished how resistant our nation is to acknowledging the problems inevitably associated with this uniquely British habit of sending children away from home to be brought up in residential institutions. To imagine that they will turn out fully-fledged human beings without any psychological harm, able to function within loving families that they themselves barely experienced, manifestly denies logic. Yet, as a nation we seem reluctant to recognise, let alone shed, this addiction.

Furthermore, surprisingly few in the therapy profession have named its ills. In January, however, the renowned psychotherapist and writer Andrew Samuels, while undergoing personal reflections on his own boarding school experience sparked by the Clifton murder, spoke out on his website video blog: ‘If you have a cabinet, and a judiciary, and a financial sector, and a military sector (and the Church of England) dominated by people who went through these bizarre hyper-ritualised, rather sadistic institutions in their formative years then you cannot possibly have the healthiest society.’6 He ends his ‘rant’: ‘I hope by talking about this here I’ll get some benefit from it.’

Samuels is right to imply that the problems of boarding are both political and personal. Leading radical journalist George Monbiot has written stridently about how ‘Britain’s most overt form of child abuse is mysteriously ignored’: ‘This practice [boarding school] offends no fewer than 11 articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Britain signed in 1991. Yet it attracts scarcely a murmur of concern.’7 The problem is that in Britain these things are very difficult to talk about indeed.

Why should this be the case?

Partly this is due to our society’s long-held tendency to normalise private boarding as a token of class, but, crucially, it stems from one of the most common features I have noted in my study of the psychology of ex-boarders – a vicious double bind. Both as children and adults they are subject to an internal shaming linked to the costly privilege and consequent expectation of success which such an expensive education represents, and they frequently begin to doubt themselves, self-negate or fall silent. For example, halfway through his piece – even though it is for The Guardian – Monbiot gets cold feet: ‘I hope this doesn’t sound like special pleading from a poor little no-longer-rich boy.’

Le Carré, too, seems to struggle with some of the more subtle psychological dilemmas arising out of recognising the problem and at the same time finding himself a product of it: ‘So like all good hypocrites I’ve sent my sons to public school. But I just wish it wasn’t there,’ he told The Guardian in 1993.8 Last year on his website he apologised for his reclusiveness: ‘Some of you may wonder why I am reluctant to submit to interviews on television, radio and in the press. The answer is that nothing I write is authentic. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks. Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.’9

Boarding on the couch

But why should the world of therapy, in which what happens to children is of paramount interest, equally find this issue hard to engage with? I would like to explore some possible answers to this question. The first answer is the most basic: it would seem that all too frequently therapists just miss it. In a new paper, my colleague, the Jungian analyst Joy Schaverien, who has written extensively on the subject, cites examples of influential British psychoanalysts Wilfred Bion and Patrick Casement, recalling how in their many years of daily analysis the subject never came up.10 It was the same for me in my own more humanistic-orientated therapy.

Nor is this in itself terribly surprising, considering that the boarding school survivor self, the strategic survival personality, is by definition a ‘psyche on the run’, dedicated to avoid detection. Interestingly, a significant number of boarding school survivor clients report dreams where they are about to be caught, or have just escaped, or have just been unmasked. The major defence for these clients is not repression but splitting while functioning – suffering and lonely, but at the same time investing in the maintenance of a socially acceptable exterior, because of the double bind alluded to above. The therapist tends to bite the bait, and all too often the client disappears when the current crisis that led them into therapy in the first place is over.

My second reason is that I think therapists frequently normalise the issue of boarding, and sometimes defend against it themselves. Schaverien suggests: ‘The full traumatic impact of early boarding sometimes remains hidden in psychotherapy. This is curious, as in my practice, as well as those of some of my colleagues, a high percentage of people presenting for psychotherapy attended these schools. It is possible that analysts and psychotherapists take this damage for granted, as a sort of by-product of a system of privilege in education, which is so familiar that it hardly merits comment. The boarding school child, as we have already seen, learns not to complain.’

It should be said that both psychotherapy and private education are activities that belong mostly to similar social class groupings. Class is another virtually taboo subject in therapy anyway, and has its own durable influence. Foreign observers of the British scene have consistently suggested that our renowned civil freedom is built upon our ingrained obedience to the class system.11 Schaverian continues: ‘One of the advantages of private boarding school education is that it equips the ex-boarder with a confident presentation that commands respect; this is recognised in British society at a subliminal level. If the psychotherapist was not private boarding school educated, it is possible that an unconscious deference may get in the way of challenging the powerful defence.’

If therapists are not in awe of the client they may nevertheless be defending their own stance. Having given many talks on the psychology of boarding, I recall how resistant some therapists have been to the issue. On examination, it has often turned out that the person in question seemed either afraid to go near their own disowned boarding child, or that they had sent their own real children away to school and were afraid of being blamed. Similarly, a colleague who had completed the first postgraduate training for ex-boarder therapists which Joy Schaverien and I ran in 2006, later reported a tense resistance to the subject from some of his colleagues on a well-known supervisor’s training.

My third answer is that therapists need support with this difficult issue and have not yet had specific training in recognising or working with the syndrome. Without the right information they might not realise why it may be difficult to keep the ex-boarder client in therapy. To be fair, the strategic survival personality can be an extremely competent, if brittle mask for the split-off child – as long as it lasts. Problems only emerge in later life, and, if they present for therapy, ex-boarders are extremely difficult clients to work with because of this. Slippery fish to us therapists, they are often hidden from their own selves, as Schaverien implies: ‘The wounded and vulnerable part of the self remains hidden, safely encapsulated, where its truth is concealed from conscious awareness.’12

Where the strategic survival personality is at its limits is in intimate relationships, and it is there that the problems most often turn up. I see three major reasons for this: first, that the disowned self is projected onto the partner, who ‘becomes’ the vulnerable and therefore bad child – and ends up with the lonely feelings. Secondly, the rejecting and abandoning mother is likewise projected onto the partner. Lastly, the over-masculinised institutional education in which both boys and girls are raised results in unconscious misogyny. The boarder is, as it were, stranded in a masculine world which is perversely one that has also hurt him. Andrew Samuels spoke about it thus: ‘The conception of masculinity that is on sale in these prep schools and boarding schools is an incredibly damaging one. It is actually insulting to men because it is so limiting. It leads to all sorts of trouble in families subsequently. It was nothing short of psychic murder that whole groups, whole generations of British males and some females were sent into boarding schools.’

In the case of the male ex-boarder (whom for the sake of space I will confine myself to considering here), the fear of women may be doubly masked by idealisation or over-sexualising.13 The therapist will have to get almost as close as a partner to work with such issues, which is where I want to turn to next.

Loving a boarding school survivor

If ex-boarders have mastered the art of splitting, then most likely it is only in the close proximity of an intimate relationship that the other side of the split can be felt. All too often the spouse ends up carrying and feeling, by means of projective identification, the unwanted parts: the hated, dependent, messy, innocent, vulnerable child, that could never be allowed to be seen at boarding school. The therapist who comes really close may feel them too. For this reason, an analytically oriented therapist on the look out for countertransference may be best placed to react to what can hardly be commented on.

I am not saying that psychoanalytic therapy is the only avenue, but that with this client group the evasions to intimacy will not be picked up by a therapist based in a counselling theory that does not encompass strong negative transferences. The first way that this is likely to appear is when the client seems to be ridiculing or having contempt for the therapist and perhaps sabotaging the contract. In such a way the therapist identifies with the disowned not-good-enough child, which may be the latter’s only hope of being noticed.

Equally uncomfortable, but at the other end of the spectrum, the therapist may end up becoming the abandoning parent, or bad object. The genuinely neglected but disowned child inside the adult will be looking out for any masochistic evidence that he is not cared for, thereby proving the existence of the bad object. This is a very rigid and difficult defence to work with, to say nothing of having to live with it! Here is the Kleinian analyst, Thomas Ogden, describing – in a different context (unless it was one in which the boarding element had not yet been exposed, which is not impossible) – how the conceptual switching from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ breast operates: ‘In the paranoid-schizoid mode of generating experience, each time a good object is disappointing, it is no longer experienced as a good object – nor even as a disappointing good object – but as the discovery of a bad object in what had been masquerading as a good one. Instead of the experience of ambivalence, there is the experience of unmasking the truth.’14

There is a further reason why the therapist will inevitably experience the fall from good to bad object, from saviour to persecutor. This is because the therapist’s major job is to discover, analyse and challenge the client’s strategic survival personality. Even if he says he wants to change, he will experience this as asking him to stop living his life through it and to abandon the little one’s chief invention – his survival style. Be it charming, passive, or innocently hostile, it has worked well enough for him until now, so he will have to resist this attack on his survival, and the therapist will have to deal with the negative transference. The therapist may rightly frame the therapeutic journey as a groundbreaking step away from survival towards living, but the client does not know anything other than survival, and to him it will feel like attempted annihilation. He will most likely retaliate, probably by withdrawing, or other means of passive aggression.15

This is very deep and challenging work. Humanistic practitioners are often excellent at empathising with the story of what happened at school, if it emerges. But the most pertinent work is tracking how the client survived and how he keeps surviving – maladaptively now, in totally different circumstances. This will be resisted because it includes acknowledging behaviours in the present and within the therapy, and risking being in consequent free-fall without them. If the therapist cannot bear the negative transference and does not know how to survive it, let alone read the information therein, the client will leave, and the job won’t be done. When we train humanistic-orientated therapists to work with ex-boarders much of the work is about learning to bear the negative transference, to trust the countertransference, to make unfamiliar interpretations rather than ask the normal questions, and to meet the masochism head on. For example, it may mean developing the courage to say, ‘You tell this story, but I feel nothing.’

The psychodynamically oriented therapist, whilst generally better placed to deal with transference, is also challenged by this work, and must learn about the double binds, especially those that arise out of the shame of privilege. She must have an understanding of puberty dynamics (for in boarding school this occurs in an institutional hothouse) and sexuality that goes beyond a simple attachment model or a complex object relations one, which can be a challenge for classically trained analysts. Working with a regression to puberty requires different techniques, for puberty is a later development, and one that is often ignored in psychotherapy trainings. For the ex-boarder, these are areas in which ‘normal’ issues of rebellion can get stranded. Besides, unresolved developmental issues of puberty/adolescence frequently have a major impact on intimate relationships – treating them as early dyadic problems just won’t do.

Finally, this leads me back to the male boarder’s loss of ‘the feminine’ and his understandably unrealistic notion of women. His difficulty in trusting people will no doubt arise in the therapy, especially if the therapist is female. Le Carré, in his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, A Perfect Spy, tells how he dealt with the loss of his mother while he was at prep school: ‘Her demise entrenched him as a self-reliant person, confirming in him his knowledge that women were fickle and liable to sudden disappearances.’16

Many boarders grow up feeling their parents are strangers, unable to rely on anyone but themselves. They want desperately to be loved but cannot surrender to trust and perversely end up embodying the self-reliance that the public schools promote above all things. Game, set and match to the boarding habit, and hence why it seems so indestructible. But bad news for relationships and families. Even those who know they were hurt by it may unconsciously become players of a game of one, threatened rather than made safe by the beckoning of intimacy – safe only in the arms of the strategic survival personality.

The radical caricaturist Brick recently published an implicitly autobiographical full-length cartoon book Depresso. This exceptional work charts his hero Tom Freeman’s descent into a lengthy depression, in which his avoidant, repressed, sexualising behaviours – hilariously and poignantly illustrated – are eventually unmasked as a lifetime’s struggle with having been dumped at public school, aged eight. Tom is a classic boarding school survivor rebel type, who only just glimpses how his inability to deal with emotions and intimate attachments drives his partner to despair.

How can the survivor ditch his life raft and learn to trust again? ‘One mortal wounding is enough in a lifetime,’ Tom rationalises; and who can blame him? This is exactly the curse the ex-boarder brings to a life-partner and the challenge he presents a therapist.

Nick Duffell boarded both in Europe and in England and taught for two years at a boarding school in India. In 1990 he began running workshops for Boarding School Survivors, as he provocatively named ex-boarders, and the programme continues. He is the author of widely acclaimed The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System, which, through a review in the BMJ, introduced the topic to GPs. Nick has consulted on boarding issues to the Royal College of Nursing, a House of Commons Select Committee and to the Australian Boarding Colloquium.

Nick Duffell and Joy Schaverien are planning talks, CPD workshops and postgraduate training for psychotherapy with ex-boarders.

The watchdog organisation Boarding Concern is a resource for parents, educators, therapists and ex-boarders. It hosts an annual conference in London and puts out regular newsletters.


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