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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 Seven: "The Stabbing the Wall Message" (Click for Programme)

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 are going to relate a case study of events that unfolded in an upstairs dormitory at Fraser House?

LS Yes. This case is called - or I call it, 'The Stabbing the Wall Message' – and it certainly reveals a lot about the way Neville worked.

One of the protocols at Fraser House was for a staff member to never take unilateral action if an incident happened. The rule was get as many staff and patients as available involved as quickly as possible and practical. In the early Sixties, Neville was called from his office to a crisis in an upstairs dorm in Fraser House. Neville was called on this occasion though the process was not based on calling the boss or based upon seniority. Now perhaps you can picture this in your minds eye – Neville's rushing up the stairs, and then, there's a crowd outside the door of the room – Neville rushes into the dormitory. What's before him? He sees an outpatient wife who had no authority to be in Fraser House outside of big and small groups – and she had no authority especially to be in the upstairs dorm – and he sees that she is pleading with her husband – a patient - with a sort of 'caring concern' to calm down. Now Neville sees that the husband has his back to the wife. He is facing the corner and he is stabbing the wall with a large knife - which he shouldn't have had by the way– and he is yelling – I am going to kill her, with enormous emotion - referring to the wife. On either side of the husband are staff with knockout injections ready to jab him – some sort of powerful narcotic. The staff yell to Neville – the two on either side of the husband, 'Do we jab him!' Even in these dramatic contexts, consistent with protocols, staff sought confirmation from others for action, if possible – so that's why they asked 'Do we jab him!' Neville sized up the situation in a flash. Now to pause for a moment – that is the context – I invite you to have a think now – what would you do? Husband highly aroused, has knife, stabbing wall, yelling he's going to kill his wife. The placating wife right behind him. The staff poised to inject him with the narcotic. What would you personally do?

DCThat's something to think about – whatever I did would have to be quick

LS Something that I found out that everyone I talked to about Neville said - he was lighting fast and way ahead of everybody. Back in the upstairs room now – the staff had yelled, 'Do we jab him'. Do you know what Neville's reply was? 'Jab the wife!' Jab the wife. Neville was guided by the free energy in the system. The husband had his back to the wife. He was stabbing the wall, not the wife. What's the message in that? Neville sensed that the wife was the dysfunctional 'driver' of the husband's behaviour. Neville intervened so that he became the 'context driver' in the situation. When Neville yelled out 'Jab the Wife' – what happened was that the husband froze. The two staff were confused - as his response was completely unexpected. And Immediately Neville said 'Jab the wife', what happed was that the wife turned in an absolute blinding rage and screaming obscenity at Neville – in so doing revealing a side of herself that she had never revealed at Fraser House before. So as not to have her provoke the husband to actually harm her, Neville immediately yelled again, 'Jab the Wife!' Now a staff member did jab the wife while the other one stayed ready to jab the husband - and she collapsed unconscious immediately. The husband, who had not turned round, immediately put the knife down and started sobbing and stammering that she was goading him to sneak out of Fraser House and to do more house robberies. Now to give context the husband had arrived as a patient at Fraser House some weeks before from Sydney's Long Bay Jail where he was a frequent inmate on robbery charges. On his last offence the husband had uncharacteristically harmed an elderly couple who surprised him during the robbery. It was for this reason that the authorities suggested he be transferred to Fraser House for the last months of his term. It turned out that the demanding wife had been the catalyst for all his crime. Only the husband and wife knew this was the case. After being in Fraser House he wanted to break free of this cycle, though he loved his wife. Neville described this man as 'obsessed' with his wife and 'addicted to what was for him really toxic' - and he also could not tell anyone that she was the relentless driver of his criminality.

Now it was this double bind - that he could not betray his wife and that this was for him un-discussable - that Neville spotted when he entered the room.

Till now, the patient had never found his voice to say anything about the wife.

And Neville spotted the metaphorical message contained in the stabbing of the wall.

It meant 'someone shut my wife up'.

From this frame of meaning Neville could sense that stabbing the wall was functional in the context.

Neville supported this functionality as 'free energy' in the dysfunctional husband-wife relation. We talked about this in the previous program – about supporting the functional aspects of things in context. So even stabbing the wall was functional

Also the wife responded with venom and this was good in context – was actually good - because her response was to be for the first time honest in revealing her true nature – to everyone present. This was also functional in the context – in confirming to Neville that his reading of the context was correct. In being honest she was tapping into her own 'free energy' – perhaps for the first time in ages.

As the wife she was signed on as an outpatient, so that Neville had every right to administer drugs to her. After the narcotic injection she slept for some time and then slipped off sheepishly. The next day she was back and she fronted Big Group and one of the Small Groups and her dysfunctional behaviour was stopped in its tracks.

All of what had happened in that upstairs dorm had happened extremely quickly. States can change very quickly. Learning can take place very quickly. Neville had acted in the upstairs dorm with high-speed precision.

Neville reframed the contextfor each of the four in the upstairs dorm by yelling, 'Jab the wife'. By saying these three words twice Neville created a context where major change occurred that also had ripple-on effects.

Neville's response, 'Jab the wife' had a very different effect on each person present. It increased the arousal in the Wife, decreased the arousal in the husband and had the staffers go into curious confusion, which is typically an ideal learning state - curious confusion.

Neville, in repeating the command, 'Jab the Wife' interrupted the staff members' state and got action, reinforced the husband's less aroused state, and removed the wife from the context.

Once the wife had revealed her true role, Neville had to ensure that she was 'removed' quickly in case the husband did turn and hurt her given that the un-discussable had now been revealed.

With her removed and her role in his criminality out in the open he immediately found his voice. That which was un-discussable was now discussable

Neville could affect everyone differently and appropriately because he continually attended to the unfolding context as an inter-dependent, inter-related, interconnected living system. Neville looked for the free energy.

DC I sense that a typical mainstream system response would have been to see the husband as 'the problem' and that this 'problem' had to be 'eliminated' (rather than resolved). The husband would have been jabbed as a matter of course, the wife would have been sent home and nothing in the husband-wife dynamic would have changed.

LS Yes! The husband would have been put in the 'difficult case' basket while the wife as 'unknown source of dysfunction' would have actually sustained his dis-integration.

And note how what happened upstairs becomes a learning experience for the whole of the Fraser House community

DC What happened in the upstairs dormitory and their relationship being one of the themes at Big Group the next day.

LS Yes! That's right. And that's where all of these issues were resolved. Her relationship with him was resolved - the pressure for criminality, all resolved. If you have listened to previous programs you'll be able to recognise the co-presence of many concepts and process in this case that we have just gone through.

DC Use the free energy.

LS Yes! And respond to the context specific functional bits of behaviour.

DC Use themes conducive to coherence.

LS Yes, recognise and use the Keypoint

DC Shifting emotional states.

LS And notice again how everything is woven together and ecologically tight

DC Les this brings us to a close. What will you be discussing in the next Program

LS I will be discussing three further case studies. One illustrates the therapeutic prowess of a cleaner. Then there is another example of being guided by the context and the third one demonstrates work as therapy

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

I am David Cruise in Melbourne Australia for Radio TC International.

Listen To Programme Eight: 'Insightful Cleaners, Small Puppies, and learning to say 'No'

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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