Friday, November 9, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 20 - Extreme Ghostwriting II

There was the intellectual appeal. It would have been a breeze for me if everything this man who became a cult leader said was stupid.

And it would have been a breeze if I had not felt grateful to him for his help, if I had not in certain times of personal crisis attempted to rely on Robin to the point of clinging. And if he had not done certain very useful things, such as helping me to understand group dynamics, which was something I needed for what had become my life’s work.

With some brilliance Robin followed an influential family systems school of therapy started by a man, since deceased, whom family therapists now read when in training – Murray Bowen, who had worked hard to differentiate himself from his own family (which operated a funeral home in Pennsylvania). Differentiation was the important concept – finding out and becoming who you really are, not what a family says you are. It involved keeping up carefully limited contact with that family to as to be able to work on differentiation.

To do this, according to Bowen, you have to figure out what is really wanted for you in your family. You need to unravel the family’s overall theme, for instance, “nothing good can come of anything.” You must understand that part and also understand the very fixed-in-place roles your family system imposes on each family member – good person or bad person or lost person or caretaker person or shifting combinations of these and quite a few other stock characters. This went way beyond those simple pop psychology systems that give you only three or four set choices for a role.

Then, once you determine the operating principle of your family system, and determine what is supposed to be your role in it, then Robin had an answer that went well beyond anything Bowen came up with – Robin's answer being what seemed to me the real stroke of brilliance. Intellectual brilliance. Pastoral nurture too, I thought back then, when Robin seemed to me a caring and caretaking person.

Now for the most grandiose brilliant-seeming part. Once you have figured out the family system and your ordained role in it, then you move on to what Robin called “interventions.” This he touted as his own contribution to the world of therapy. In a Robin intervention, you tell people in the family exactly what they think they want to hear from you – never such things as that you are happy or fulfilled in work or art or love or that your life is unfolding in wonderful ways. Instead you must say, whether you believe it or not, things that fit with the very worst that they may think of you or want for you - such things as that you are hopelessly confused and worthless and morally reprehensible – give them what they want, no matter how cruel and nonsensical it sounds. And by telling them what they want to hear you have achieved the worthy end of putting the shit back where it belongs, which is not with you but with them. You get them to say what they have kept hidden. And what you yourself may on some level have come to believe. And then you can leave your role and live truly as yourself.

It should have been a warning that he was messing with language as it is commonly used. Words get their meanings from how they are employed. The editors of dictionaries read everything they can get their hands on to see how words are being used by writers. At the time Robin put forth his theory, the generally accepted meaning of “an intervention” had become the act of confronting another person with the fact that that person suffers from an affliction, usually an addiction, and needs help. An intervention in this sense means cofrontation to get that person out of denial. Robin, however, meant “an intervention” as a cunning act designed to elicit information from the person who is the object of that act – the ends justifying the lies and even cruelty that are essential to the means.

Language aside, what he put forth might still have continued to make a good deal of sense to me – if only he had stopped there. But then he went way too far and began to dictate the exact words he expected people to use.

And anyway, in the end I really learned nothing I did not know already. I learned nothing important by Robin-instigated baiting of my brother and others (both parents were dead by then) to say what they really thought. Sometimes the responses I got would be unintentionally funny, sometimes quite horrible. But nothing really new to me, for by the time I met Robin I had few illusions about why I had carefully and consciously left home young. And, moreover, at that point I had been going through a long and intense search for my most true stories – for what had happened way back in time and why and how it affected me in the present as well. Probably the most enlightening part came through writing, real writing that had no input from Robin, in which I sought to recreate the scenes of the past – in other words, real writing, the sort that rises to the level of art. Also of great use to me was telling stories from the past in a group - not a group run by Robin - of people angry about the past and determined to live full lives, and of further great use was literally stepping into settings from the past, including trips into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the physical setting for my family’s most important longings. In addition, for limited but useful periods I had worked with a therapist who was ready to accompany me on the parts of this voyage that involved mental probing and feeling, an empathetic therapist who did not try to take the journey over. And sometimes I learned the most by being alert in even the briefest of intimate relationships in the present to how in these relationships I could be in thrall to dark matters from the deep past.

But if in Robin's method for cracking open family systems I learned nothing big that I did not know, there were still some intriguing surprises – as in my brother, hearing my fake confessions, suggesting I leave everything I loved in my life, including my home and my work and my studies, and send my cat Gracie to the SPCA (he said shelters do not kill cats) so that not even Gracie the cat could keep me from leaving. He also advised me to stay away any girlfriend who was not, he said, too old for sex. And he thought I should move to some very cheap place in the south (he sent me a guide to such places), but be ready to come north to look after aging and dying relatives.This was fascinating, and it did pinpoint matters of use and concern to me - and my fake confessions seemed to make my brother furious. But this version of what family members thought should be my fate was not news to me. And I wondered if my brother’s reaction would have been different if my "interventions" had not been so complete and so fake – if my brother had not trusted me, and I had not entrapped him in the manner of an overzealous cop. And maybe,I thought later, the information I was getting was sometimes as unreliable as information interrogators get when using torture.

Still, even if nothing really new, the information I was getting this way was interesting enough, and maybe enlightening enough, for me to keep on with Robin. And then one day I realized that I was letting him direct me much as he had directed his unusually dependent clients – most of whom had not left home as I had with good reason when young, and had not, before Robin, gone through anything like what I had gone through much later in deeply examining their lives and their family legacy and their past and present relationships.

And at a crucial point that almost slipped by unnoticed by me I found myself doing what all of his other clients were doing and I thought I would never do. I began letting him dictate to me, word by word, and have me read it back to make certain my dictation was accurate, word for word the intervention version of my story that I would then put in the mail to my brother.

Ghost writing as perversity. Robin would sometimes hint that the version he dictated was what the client really believed deep down but could not see, and so should be freed from. Sometimes he had it right. Sometimes, too, there was clever irony in these dictated stories, and grim humor in the hurt they could do to the person receiving the stories. And I did get emotionally entangled in this interventions, which was an indication I had not resolved thes matters fully. But as he heard the words he dictated read back to him there would be a knowing and satisfied smile on his round face. It haunts me still.

I came to believe that what Robin was really after was the thing that writers and other artists, and all people everywhere, should realize promotes the death of something sacred – someone else defining a person’s memory, someone else dictating, literally or subtly, a version of a person’s own story.


Anonymous said...


What horrific stories! Yikes! I feel the narrator's vulnerabilty and too the increasing awareness that truly does bring him freedom from a very unaware state of affairs on the part of the therapist. I appreciate the strong clarity of these last two pieces that both reveal danger and courageous self liberation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Fred, for this. I have had a very complicated relationship with my (extremely large) family of origin & have received tremendous help through ACOA. I find it absolutely fascinating that you found a therapist (?), Robin, who invented such a convoluted way to understand what that family of origin really believes. I doubt that I could ever have ventured into such dangerous territory, but find it so, so fascinating to read about your account. Thank you so much for your courage. I have discovered your writing at a pivotal point in my relationship with my family & you are giving me so much comfort and strength. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am so grateful that I discovered your blog. I can't get enough of your stories! So helpful!