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November 25, 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 Eight: "Insightful Cleaners, Small Puppies, and learning to say 'No'" (Click for Programme)

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. The 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 I understand that for this program you are going to take us through three case studies relating to Fraser House.

LS Yes. This first one illustrates the therapy role that the cleaners took at Fraser House

Recall that all staff attended Big Group, including the cleaners. Some of the cleaners became very insightful therapists, as the 'onlooker seeing most of the game'.

On one occasion mentioned by Neville a cleaner spotted that a catatonic women had drawn a beautiful horse in a moment of lucidity.

The cleaner mentioned the catatonic's drawing skills of this women during the Big Group and suggested that a drawing pad and coloured pencil-set be left beside her so that she may be prompted to stay lucid longer. This was done and the catatonic patient did start to draw.

To encourage her further, the cleaner also suggested and it was implemented that a full painting kit was arranged to be placed beside her.

After a time a set of poster colours in pots were set up as well, and a nearby wall was designated by a sign that read mentioning the person's name and underneath it 'mural space'. In the end this patient came out of her catatonia and painted beautiful big murals over a section of the Unit.

At one stage she was running out of walls to paint and this coincided with word being received on the grapevine that a fund cutting inspection team would arrive that might recommend closing the Unit if it was deemed too alternative.

After discussion in Big Group about this impending inspection it was agreed that everyone would help in painting over the murals and returning the unit to white.

When the inspectors arrived they found all the staff in their white uniforms in a white unit – and the inspectors saw little that was out of the ordinary and okayed the Unit.

When the inspectors left, the mural painting resumed, and after a time this 'catatonic artist' was able to return to living in society.

DC This is another case of what you are calling – 'using the free energy' – this women was obviously very passionate about art – she had energy available for this even though she was generally catatonic

LS Yes, that's a good observation and it's an example of letting the natural unfolding context inform you on what to do next – just like Neville's father did on the farm. They needed to look normal to the inspectors and they needed new white mural spaces for the artist - so they used this as a community challenge and the whole community participated in painting the place white.

DC It also seems to me to be an example of how everything is inter-connected and inter-dependent. 'Painting the Unit' would have become 'a theme that was conducive to coherence' that you spoke about previously

LS Exactly! This brings us to the next case which is also about having the context as a guide to action.

Once Fraser House was under way Neville put out a call to asylums throughout New South Wales that he would accept any and all aboriginal people that they had. This offer was taken up and eventually around 50 Aboriginal people and Islanders were transferred to Fraser House.

Apart from a few that needed full time care because of associated medical conditions, all of these Aboriginal and Islander people passed through Fraser House and were returned to their respective communities.

Staffers that I interviewed, as well as media reports confirmed that these indigenous patients blended into and participated in every aspect of the Fraser House healing milieu.

For example a Daily Mirror Newspaper in April 1962 quotes Neville as saying – and I quote:

Aborigines mix freely with white patients in a special unit at the North Ryde Psychiatric Clinic. It is the first time in NSW that Aborigines have been accepted with equality in a psychiatric unit. They share the same wards and have the same privileges as white patients. (End of quote).

As an example of an asylum back ward Aboriginal individual, Neville described the case of an isolate micro-encephalic Aboriginal person (a person born with a very small brain) who presented with few skills. He had the body of a twelve year old though he was an adult.

He had no capacity for speech and would make aversive noises, for example, snarling and screeching. As well, he would get angry and bite.

Within the Unit, at Neville's instigation, this person was related to as if he was a 'lovable little puppy dog'. This was very respectfully done and matched his optimal functioning.

After this he soon socialised, became friendly, contented and easily fitted in to Fraser House society.

Neville described his cries as:

Soon becoming harmonious and naturally expressive of mood - typically, contentment and happiness, compared to the prior screeching. He had probably moved close to the optimum functioning of his mindbody. Thereafter, he was attached to various factions and he was able to move back out into the community in a care-house and fit in with the house life as a normal micro-encephalic person rather than a dysfunctional abnormal one.

Neville was fascinated that this person adjusted so well to social life and his change was a convincer to Neville that emotional freeing up is the core of all therapy. To quote Neville, 'With no frontal cortex to speak of, how else could he have changed?'

DC Again, I can see that this is another example of Neville sensing the context of this person and being guide by context.

LS Yes! That's right! It was tuning into exactly what would this person really want in their life and how would they like to be related to.

The next case will introduce the concept of work as therapy.

This case study comes from discussions I had with Neville during 1992 and further discussions in 1998

You'll recall that the patients got permission to set up and run a canteen that sold a range of items and also supplied drinks and food for suppers between big and small groups.

The proceeds of this canteen were used to buy and run a little red bus that was owned by the patients as a collective.

The canteen committee was set up as part of a number of committees under the re-socialising program.

As an example of governance therapy in action, a person who had been elected to work in the canteen wanted to resign because some patients were asking him to break rules and he could not say 'no'. At the same time he would get very disturbed and angry.

The consensus in the group discussion about this was that it was very much in his interest to learn to say 'no' without becoming disturbed. It was in his interest to stay working in the canteen and face this problem.

He did stay on. He worked through this issue in group discussions and in his canteen work experience till it was resolved.

In a similar vane, an embezzler was knowingly elected to the Canteen Committee and, true to form, embezzled money. His actions and their consequences for everyone provided a potent context for change-work during both Big Group and Small Groups.

Matters to do with the canteen were a constant generator of extreme emotional passion in Big Group. It was well known that this continual therapeutic struggle among canteen workers was also the source of funding for the patients' domiciliary and other outreach-work which patients and outpatients were committed to, and highly valued.

DC I find it interesting that they would put a known kleptomaniac in charge of money

LS A standard practice at Fraser House was that all jobs would be assigned to patients who could not do them – with adequate support – so that they could learn to do them. As I said, the mess that this created was very therapeutic.

DC Well in this program we have had examples of the Catatonic, the Micro-encephalic Aboriginal person and two people having strife in the canteen, the person who could not say 'no' and the kleptomaniac.

We have also had an opportunity to see examples of the inter-connectedness of the Fraser House way.

We mentioned the potent significance of context, the use of free energy, and everything about the place was reinforcing people's return to functional living.

Les, what have you got for us next time?

LS In the next program I will talk about a case showing Neville's process and the Fraser House model in superb action

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

Listen To Programme Nine: 'The Nurturing Mother'

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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