Catherine Jackson: You’ve published a book on grief, and another about how people cope with major transformations in their lives – why did you choose family as the focus of your third book, Every Family Has a Story?
Julia Samuel: In 30 years, there has never been a client through my door who hasn’t talked about their family, whether it’s their family of origin or the family they have now. I wasn’t trained as a systemic therapist – I don’t think I was even aware it existed when I was training – but I do think families are the bedrock of our lives. We need our team. We need our people beside us. We are innately social animals. We need our ‘tribe’. Families really matter. Some of us make our family from our friends and the people we care about, if our family of origin can’t provide that close network of strong, loving relationships. Of course, when ‘family’ goes wrong, the suffering is immense.
I think therapists are understanding more and more the importance of context. Thirty years ago, therapy was about the individual and their relationship with the therapist. Now we understand much more how systems of inequality, racial prejudice, all the cultural, financial and societal contexts have a huge impact on our mental health and ability to deal with adversity. When people come to therapy, they bring their family with them – metaphorically but also physically in the case of the people I describe in the book.
The Anna Freud Centre now has a family school where the caregivers come to the school with the child, so they can learn from observing the therapist and teachers. Then, when their child comes home, the caregivers have the coping mechanisms to manage their behaviours. They find the children have better outcomes if the family is involved in this way.
CJ: But, as you say, families are also the place where the deepest and most lasting harm can be done. You write very honestly about your own family – your parents, grandparents and also you as a parent. And you also write very powerfully about compassion, curiosity and encouragement to explore families of origin, and that is what you hope to offer readers from reading this book. I’ll quote it, because you say it much better than I can:
‘Learning about other people’s families has helped me process my relationship with my own – those stacked behind and ahead of me. I see my grandparents and parents with more compassion. It hasn’t removed my sense of responsibility when I think of the errors I made with my own children, but perhaps it has softened my guilt. It has meant I have had important conversations, and learnt surprising truths, good and bad. Despite significant unknowns that have emerged, I stand on firmer ground and feel more confident as to who I am. Which is strangely paradoxical. The exploration and openness matter just as much as the results.’
JS: Yes, I made lots of mistakes as a parent and as a child. I have to be responsible for the mis-steps I made and the hurts and things I got wrong. I have to recognise that we are all flawed and not attack and blame myself for them. Writing the book changed my relationship with my parents. I became much less judgmental. I could really get it that they were holding a lot of trauma. But they did not have a clue – they wouldn’t even have known the word in the context we apply it today. And they did the best they could. By the time she was 25, my mother had been bereaved of her father, mother, sister and brother, and my dad, too, his father and brother both died when he was still very young. And yet they never talked about them. There were these black-and-white photographs all around the house, and I knew their names but nothing about them.
It wasn’t just them, of course; it was that whole generation. The attitude was very much that what you don’t think about isn’t going to hurt you. But for me, what I didn’t hear and didn’t see gave me a curiosity to know more.
CJ: I thought also that what you write about intergenerational trauma is very clear, and how you explain what is often not fully understood about how psychic harm can be passed down the generations.
JS: I think there are two routes. One is behavioural – when there is a trauma in one generation and the pain isn’t dealt with, that avoidance is then passed down to the next generation and the next until someone is prepared to feel the pain. Often the coping mechanisms that people develop do them and subsequent generations much greater harm than the trauma itself. So much of addiction is about trauma that isn’t processed and is used
to anaesthetise the pain.
Then there is the research into epigenetics and the work of people like Rachel Yehuda, about epigenetics and levels of cortisol in the womb and how our threat system is wired in utero if our mother is subjected to or has unprocessed trauma.
CJ: How do you work with that as a therapist?
JS: I use EMDR as an evidence-based treatment for trauma. But also, our brains have huge neuroplasticity. We are wired to adapt and change. It is the rigidity of our resistance to change that is the block. We have the capacity to deal with these inherited difficulties. The first step is obviously awareness, and that is what I hope for with this new book. Many clients walk through the door feeling incredibly anxious and thinking there is something wrong with them. What I want is for people to look up and out across the multiple generations, to look at their mum and dad, their grandparents – what did they experience that they never voiced? I want people to understand this isn’t all about them – it doesn’t necessarily start with you. I want people not to self-attack but to be curious about how it happened that they are where they are.
CJ: Are we all haplessly doomed to have our ways of relating laid down in the womb and our early years by our experience of being parented? How come a person like Archie in your book can be born of and raised by a mother who clearly had unprocessed trauma and would probably be labelled with narcissistic personality disorder, and yet transform himself into a very rounded and emotionally resilient partner and father. How do they do that?
JS: There is a whole part that is genetic. At birth, we have a genetic blueprint for personality, IQ and athleticism, which gives us a propensity that is then developed or diminished depending on the environment we are born into and grow up in. Some people are born with a greater capacity to overcome adversities. And then again, we have this benefit of neuroplasticity. Archie had a mother with narcissistic personality disorder, and he learned and repeated her behaviours as he grew up into adulthood, but he wanted to change, and he had a very good therapist, so he was able to replace his mother’s template with that of his therapist. People have this spellbinding curative capacity to change the lens through which they see themselves and the world, and to operate in the world differently. That doesn’t mean they are over the difficulty that they had. Archie never got over that his mum wasn’t the mum he would have chosen. People often think that therapy enables people to get over whatever is wrong in their life or how they are in the world. Therapy can’t fix the past but it can give you the capacity to deal with the past so you don’t act it out in your own life and on other people, so you can live a very fulfilling life despite your very difficult past.
CJ: Another downside of the family that you explore is that it can be quite a restrictive institution. The family gets put before the individual. I was fascinated by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, the Berger women, in your book – their family coherence and solidarity rested entirely on avoidance – ‘looking away’ from sensitive and upsetting topics. There’s an unspoken sidestepping so as not to rock the family boat, so that each generation of women follows the same well-trodden path laid down by their Jewish faith. You write warmly of them, but is it the case that the family can be both nurturing and protective, but the price is individual freedom to choose your own ways?
JS: The Berger family spanned Kati, who survived the Holocaust and Auschwitz, her daughter Anna, her daughter Rebecca, her daughter Dina and little Leah, just a few months old. I think their history had taught the Berger family that safety and being together was more than compensation for the loss of individual choice and freedom, and the fact that they could make that choice. They were a happy family. From the outside, I found it inspiring. I could see the power and inner strength of it, but imagining myself in it, I would be completely suffocated by the rigid rules and obligations of their faith and the way they lived.
From their perspective, it was clear to me that they were wondering, without being at all condescending, ‘Why wouldn’t you want this?’
CJ: You also, in other chapters, discuss the pain of letting go of the next generation and being able to allow the children to find their own selves. How does the family allow its next generation to find their own way without destroying ‘the family’ – its traditions, values and so forth? Is there a recipe for that?
JS: That very much links to This Too Shall Pass, my second book – we as parents of children who have grown into adulthood need to allow ourselves to feel the pain of that transition as they leave home and move away. As a parent, I wanted my children to grow up and go off and find their own partners and create their own families, but at the same time I found it excruciatingly painful that I was no longer the centre of their worlds. They had a new centre, which was their partner and children. But I was part of that world too. As a parent to adult children, I don’t think I should impose my beliefs, assumptions and ways of being on them. You hope your children have your core values, but how they live them and what they do with those values has to be their choice – certainly for most Western people.
CJ: At the end of this latest book, you offer 12 ‘touchstones’ for the wellbeing of the family. Might you add, ‘Be true to your feelings’ to your 12 touchstones? Or, ‘Be honest’? Is honesty and speaking truth always the best policy?
JS: It’s true that you can only have trust if you have honesty, but I think often people can be overly honest. Sometimes it’s better not to spew out everything you have in your head. Whether you are a teenager or an adult, we have to recognise that, when we use words as weapons, they stay stuck in the other person’s body for the rest of their lives. You have to be honest generally about how you feel, but finding a way to manage your emotions to allow you to frame them and express them in the service of the relationship makes an enormous difference to how they are received.
CJ: Moving away from the book itself, a recent ‘Big issue’ article in Therapy Today explored the questions and tensions raised when therapists have a significant personal public, media and social media presence, and whether this damages the therapeutic relationship. I’d be interested in your views on this, as someone who is consistently in the public eye. Does your public profile enter the therapy room, and how do you manage the dynamics if a client raises it? Do you disclose much in or outside the therapy room?
JS: It’s a really complicated and important issue that we as professionals need to explore and have a much greater understanding of. It’s an issue I take to supervision a lot. I don’t have any easy answers. In terms of my public profile, I have had some clients who stopped coming because they found it difficult and confusing seeing me interacting with other people in media interviews or when they’ve watched me interviewing someone on Instagram Live. I am, as a rule, very boundaried about what I disclose – I disclose almost nothing about my home and private life, partly because I don’t want to, partly because I work best with clear boundaries and they’ve supported me in my relationship with clients, and partly to safeguard that precious space for my clients. But I am sure clients can read my personal reactions in my face. I think most clients are able to pick up the depth of your understanding in how you react to what they tell you and the language you use.
But I need to have a public profile to sell my books, and I want to sell my books because I believe they have valuable content that can help people, so I can square that ethically – I am using the media to expand my learning from the counselling room out into the world. But there is a grey area around being a therapist and having a public presence that I haven’t fully sorted yet. Maybe it is always going to be a bit messy.
CJ: Do you think some clients come with certain expectations of you because of your public profile?
JS: That’s definitely true, but I think that is true of every client coming to any therapist – the hope that this person is going to do something magical for them. It might be more intensified because they’ve read an interview, heard a podcast or read my books. We work with the distance between their projections and the reality of being in the room or on Zoom with me. You work with what they bring, name it, own it and don’t hide it.
CJ: It’s generally agreed, we have moved from an era of repression of public expression of emotion to what some might call ‘oversharing’. Do you see this greater willingness to share personal pain and tragedies in public as a good thing in terms of our mental health?
JS: I think the growing awareness and understanding of the harm of putting on a brave front and the benefits for mental health of being able to voice personal distress are really important. But there is a tremendous risk in what I term ‘promiscuous honesty’. I think what drives the trend is the hope that, by putting yourself out there on social media or in media interviews, you will be understood and heard and valued for what you bring. But it can make your suffering worse when you don’t get the response you hope for, or – worse – are subject to trolling and attack. That kind of response strikes at the very core of our identity. We are genetically programmed to need to be loved in all our different aspects, if only to stand out to attract a mate, but social media has a toxic interface with those innate human tendencies. You want to stand out and be loved and noticed, so you say very extreme things or expose yourself in very vulnerable ways, and that can have the reverse effect. It brings attack. I think there needs to be a whole new rule book about managing yourself online.
When people talk to me in therapy, I want them to be honest, to feel safe enough to show all of their vulnerability and their issues to me.
Influences and icons
CJ: Which counselling theorist has most influenced you?
JS: Like many therapists, I’m not fixed on one modality – I draw on a lot of different techniques and practices. But at my core I am person-centred. Carl Rogers is my man. I remember reading On Becoming a Person about half a dozen times in my first few years
of training, and how it really spoke to me – being seen as you are, with all your faults, and that we all have the potential to change; it’s innate within us and it will emerge, given the right therapeutic relationship.
CJ: What in particular did you learn in your training that you think was valuable to you in your work with clients?
JS: That innate drive to self-actualise in Rogerian theory and also, I think, the power of groups. The groupwork in the course really changed me. I think group therapy is more powerful in many ways than individual therapy. The theory is that the power of your experiences is multiplied by the number of people in the room, and I had really positive experiences of those groups – and also difficult ones, of course, but I look back on those days with an enormous amount of gratitude.
CJ: Who for you has been the most influential living person in the therapy world?
JS: Penny Daintry, who was one of my tutors at Metanoia. I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘I want to be able to do what you are doing. I want to have a bit of you.’ The way she held herself, the way she communicated, the way she held us all and could describe what was going on. She went on to be my supervisor for many years, and that mentoring and helping me believe in myself were absolutely fundamental to my being a therapist. The way she supported me and didn’t shame me when I made mistakes and allowed me to grow and have confidence in myself – it makes me cry even now just to think about it; it was absolutely transformative for me. I think her having confidence in me allowed me to have confidence in myself – and we all need someone like that in our lives.
CJ: You say in your new book, everyone needs a go-to person, and especially in childhood. I wondered when I read that, who was your childhood go-to person?
JS: My parents’ dogs – my parents always had dogs, all through my childhood. They were never in a bad mood, always pleased to see me, and very comforting. They let me cuddle and stroke them and they were very reliable and consistent.
CJ: And if you could choose any therapist from all the living practitioners in the world to be your therapist?
JS: I’d really like to be a client of Stephen Grosz, the author of The Examined Life. He has a sensitivity, pace, grace, curiosity and particular presence that I think would be incredibly curative and powerful.
CJ: What’s the most valuable lesson you have learned from your work with clients?
JS: For me it’s about being in a relationship of non-possessive love. It’s the best medicine. If I really feel someone minds about me, that helps me mind about myself and take care of myself, and vice versa. We have to learn these skills in order to work as therapists, but I think at the centre of the therapeutic relationship is heart, and the love we have for ourselves and our clients. I just wish I could find a less twee way of saying it.
CJ: Heart works for me! Thank you, Julia, for your time and honesty.