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October 30, 2020


A series of programmes about Fraser House, a total therapeutic community in 1960s Australia, featuring David Cruise and Dr. Les Spencer, a behavioural scientist and sociologist in Melbourne, Australia.


Programme Five: Going Berserk"

David Cruise [DC] I am David Cruise in Melbourne Australia for Radio TC International. 'Fraser House' is a series of Programs about Dr Neville Yeomans – the founder of the Fraser House psychiatric Therapeutic Community in Australia. This extraordinary unit ran from 1959 to 1968 and was responsible for introducing many psychosocial innovations into Australian society. This series introduces doctoral research into Neville Yeomans' work by Les Spencer a behavioural scientist and clinical sociologist. I have Les with me in the studio.

Les Spencer [LS] Hi David

DC Les, you said last time that in this program listeners would hear how Neville prepared the unit for his absence overseas for nine months.

LS Yes I have called this Case Study – 'Going Berserk' – which is what Neville did. I have synthesised this case study from discussions with Neville over a number of years as well as with other staff members. And. I also cross-confirmed their stories with archival material.

Now, Neville spoke to me a number of times of four major themes stirring emotions – and these being gain, loss, threat and frustration. Neville would expressly make strategic use of incidents with a high probability of heightened emotional arousal associated with these four themes within Big Group and then create shifts in emotion.

What follows is an example of how Neville intentionally heightened the group's emotional arousal during a Big Group meeting.

Now Neville spoke about a key point in the life of Fraser House; that on one occasion after Fraser House had been going for around three years, and as soon as Big Group started, Neville said, 'I went berserk'. And he was quite a character when he was talking about this.

All present thought Neville was having a mental breakdown. Neville going berserk is really something to see! He's quite - or, he was quite a passionate character.

Now at first, Neville was just screaming and yelling and not really making much sense at all to anyone, but stirring them up. Then he conveyed that he was sick of everything, and this raised everyone's emotions. So threat was a dominant theme.

After a short time the nub of Neville's outburst was revealed to the group. Neville was going on extended leave and the Health Department had not arranged a replacement psychiatrist. This was a very serious matter, because Neville's file note at the time about going berserk in Big Group' said in part:

With my impending holiday today I allowed my aggressive frustration full play in the community meeting this morning. The meeting began by John asking me if I was really going on holidays, and I said I was even if the bloody place fell down. I then berated the Division and the fact that a certain doctor (mentioned by name in the report) or some other Doctor should have been here at least two weeks ago.

And then the report continues:

I took a most regressed and childish aggressive view against the department and in support of the head of North Ryde Hospital where Fraser House was on the grounds, and in support of my own efforts, pointing out that both of us were placed in a situation of letting them down because of the department's incompetence.

Now the head of the hospital was very supportive of Neville and Fraser House throughout, actually.

Now, to better understand what Neville did in big group where he went berserk, I'll talk for a moment about Neville's fathers work in sustainable Agriculture, because that really is the clue to understanding it.

Neville's father had identified the existence of what he called Keypoints in landscape. The contour line through the Keypoint is called the Keyline and also has quite important system properties. The Keypoint has a number of properties that can be used in the design and use of land. The Keypoint is where all the essential features of the landscape merge and concentrate - and reveal, for those with eyes to see, the information distributed in the total system. Now this I'll talk about in a later program

Neville recognised that Keypoints occur in many contexts - and I am suggesting that Neville's outburst made the Keypoint, 'I am leaving and there is no replacement'. Big consequences! This Keypoint was at the junction of every aspect of the Fraser House social topography, or landscape. This Keypoint also condensed all of the information distributed in the Fraser House Social System. Through this Keypoint ran the Keyline. In this context the Keyline becomes the theme(s) for discussion. 'Themes as Keypoints' was an important concept. Themes were used that were conducive to coherence amongst the people; all of the people in the group.

Big and Small Groups had a themes-based open agenda. In the Big Group 'Going Berserk' context, the Unit would have been without a doctor and psychiatrist. Some replacement was coming in two or three weeks, but in the meantime, they were 'on their own'.

Even when the replacement got there, he or she would have no experience or pre-briefing from Neville on 'the Fraser House way'.

There was the major uncertainty of what changes a new psychiatrist would make in Neville's absence.

Neville was scheduled to be away for up to nine months. Neville's behaviour and this news of no replacement being available heightened emotional arousal to fever pitch in everyone - a combination of anger, rejection, abandonment, confusion, anxiety, panic, frustration and fear.

Neville then suddenly switches themes and slams the Health Department as the 'culprit'.

Both patients and staff's emotions were, by this shift in thematic focus, directed into anger at the Department.

Then Neville refocused theme and thinking again to 'everyone taking responsibility for Fraser House and each other'. Again, patient and staff emotions were directed into this new theme – of 'self-help and mutual-help'; another mixture of emotional energy - panic, concern, uncertainty, questions of being up to the task, to name a few.

Then Neville shifted theme yet again and drew everyone's attention to the suicidal nature of one of the patients present in the room, and laid it on the line that this person's wellbeing - his very life - was in everyone's hands.

This was yet the next shift in emotional focus. Here the focus was on gain in the face of loss and threat, and how to get gain safely. Neville's big picture thematic meta-interaction with staff and patients was all about engendering communal cooperation towards safety and gain in the face of danger and loss.

Neville's constant changing of the group's thematic focus during this 'going berserk' episode was an example of using Cultural Keypoints, and Keylines or themes of discussion.

Within Big Groups Neville used provocation and crowd contagion as change processes. Neville used emotional upheaval, crowd synchrony and contagion in the context of energising emergent self-organising properties in the inter-mix of psycho-social and psycho-biological systems in all present. He was really mixing the juices.

Neville arranged for eight separate people's reports – and this is an example of Neville's meticulous attention to detail and he's strategic-ness - eight separate people's reports of Big Group meeting where he went berserk were all placed in the archives, in his own personal archives in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Just as a side note, the degree of unpopularity of Fraser House is indicated by its total absence of any records in the health department about Fraser House – nothing.

Now every one of these eight reports in the archives from other staff members similarly confirmed that Neville had intentionally mobilized and used group energy, emotional energy towards group cohesiveness in caring for itself - and that this shifting around of emotional contagion was a crucial aspect of the Unit functioning extremely well during the ensuing nine months while Neville was on his (working) holiday.

To go into the records, one staff member's report of the above incident ends with,

'This story has no ending because we still continue to function as a unit'

.Another staff member wrote a file note saying:

I have no vivid recollections of the first week of Dr. Yeomans absence except that the nursing staff occasionally seemed surprised that the ward was still running and that we were able to get through staff meetings without Dr. Neville Yeomans'.

Warwick Bruen, another staffer that I interviewed also recalled Neville's behaviour in going berserk in Big Group and collaborated what I have just been saying.

Neville's placing of eight separate staff member's reports along with his own report of the 'going berserk' incident and all of its sequelae for me and others to find in his archives is another example of Neville, being 'the researcher strategist par excellence'. I suspect that he did this expressly for the likes of me to find them all nearly forty years on! That's how strategic he was.

As an indication of the efficacy of using high expressed emotion in major crises as a Keypoint for key lines of thematic action for system change, Phil Chilmaid another staffer I interviewed mentioned one Fraser House research project that demonstrated that there was a constant pattern of significant 'breakthroughs' that tended to follow about six to seven days after some major crisis in Fraser House.

DC This case has given some insights into how Neville worked. Strategically shifting states one after the other, the use of crowd contagion and the link between theme and Keypoint. This is another example of having themes that engage everyone and that are conducive to coherence.

LS Yes I sense that if you listen to this series of programs a few times you will start to get a sense that this is all very fractal and holographic. Many things are happening simultaneously during Fraser House processes and you will start to see patterns - and connecting patterns - and linkings everywhere. Writing up the research was like doing very fine weaving.

DC Les, what have you got for us next time?

LS In the next program I will give two potent cases that illustrate how Neville worked in therapeutic contexts

DC Thanks Les.

You can find Les' Cultural Keyline thesis on Fraser House on the Internet at www.laceweb.org.au

I am David Cruise for Radio TC International and my Guest today has been Les Spencer from Melbourne Australia

Programme Six: Neville Yeomans Therapeutic Process

Read the Script

Essential reading:

Dr. Les Spencer (2005), CULTURAL KEYLINE - The Life Work of Dr. Neville Yeomans, PhD. Thesis, School of Social Work and Community Welfare, James Cook University (Australia)

Email comments and questions to Les Spencer, for incorporation into later programmes: lspencre@alphalink.com.au

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