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October 22, 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 Nine: "The Nurturing Mother" (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. 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.

In this program you are talking about a case showing glimpses of Neville's process and the Fraser House model in action.

Les Spencer [LS] Yes David. This Case is called - The Nurturing Mother. A mother was serving twelve years for the murder of two of her three very young children. Right through the mother's prison term she had repeatedly stating that she was waiting for the day she gets out of jail to kill the remaining child who was a baby in someone else care at the time of the killings.

This remaining child had been looked after by foster parents for eleven years and was twelve years of age. When the mother was within a few months of release she was still threatening to kill the child.

There was a lot of pressure from the prison authorities on the Parliament of the day to pass special legislation to ensure this woman was never released. Prison governors and warders alike were concerned for the safety of this remaining child.

Upon learning of the fears about the mother and her pending release, Neville suggested to the authorities that the mother be allowed to request a transfer from prison to attend Fraser House on a voluntary basis and if she agreed, to grant her request.

In process of setting up this possibility, the foster parents of the surviving child, along with the child in question were invited by Neville to attend Fraser House Big and Small Group meetings for a number of months while the mother was still in prison.

Neville fully briefed the foster parents and child on Big and Small Group process so that they all knew what to expect.

The Foster parents and the child agreed to attend. There were other children present at Big Groups, as was the custom - up to eight families were in residence at any one time. As well, families and friends visitors included children. The safety of children and everyone was always of paramount concern. As for high expressed emotion and children, typically, in these families children already had been living with high expressed emotion from birth.

This attending of Big Group was for the foster parents and the child firstly, to decide whether to be present in Big Group if and when the mother arrived, and secondly, so that they could all get a sense of how Fraser House 'operated' on dysfunctionality, and thirdly, so that they could potentially - if the mother was released into Fraser House - have some clarity about where the mother was at.

The alternative was for the child and foster parents to live, knowing the mother was possibly to be released, and then at large, 'somewhere out there', and knowing she was still threatening to kill the child.

After regular attendance at Big and Small Groups, the foster parents and the daughter agreed to be present if and when the mother arrived at Fraser House. Given the circumstances, this says a something about Fraser House quite frankly.

Also saying something about Fraser House and the spirit of the times, it was agreed by the authorities that the mother be given an ultimatum - 'be escorted from prison directly to Fraser House and admit yourself voluntarily or we will pass legislation to keep you in prison indefinitely'; so she accepted the Fraser House alternative. The foster parents and child agreed to leave it up to Neville firstly to get a feel for the mother's state of mind, and secondly, as to whether or not to introduce them to the mother, and when.

That the child and Foster parents were attending Fraser House groups, wanted the mother at Fraser House, and that the three of them would be there when the mother arrived was made known to the various interested parties determining the mother's release.

However, the maternal mother was given no information of the intention to have her daughter and the foster parents present on the day she arrived. When the mother was ushered into Fraser House she had little idea where she was or what sort of place Fraser House was - all she knew was that it was a psychiatric hospital where she would have a better chance of release compared to staying in prison where she was facing the possibility of an indefinite prison term.

The members of the small assessment group who interviewed the mother upon her arrival were all patients who had killed or seriously injured members of their own families – again, it takes one to know one.

As per the current practice at the time, this assessment was by members of the Admitting Committee and made up of patients, and was a regular feature of Fraser House. They did not declare they were patients, and that they had all murdered or had seriously injured their family members.

The maternal mother had had no information at all about her sole surviving daughter for the eleven years she had been in jail. She had no knowledge of her daughter's current whereabouts and that she would potentially meet her daughter in a Big Group setting.

The maternal mother was left in the care of a staff member while the assessment group briefly gave their initial assessment of her state to the waiting Big Group. The mother was then taken down the short (soundproof) passageway and into this rather small room crammed to capacity. Around 180 people were in two tight circles and all eyes were on the mother. She was totally unprepared for this. So she searched the room for familiar faces and found the members of the Assessment Group. She was directed to a spare chair and hardly noticed that she was sitting between two very powerfully built men. With their casual clothes, she had no way of knowing they were nurses who had been placed either side of her to prevent her reaching and harming her daughter. Beside one of the men was a female nurse. Unknown to the mother these three were on constant alert to stop her approaching her daughter.

Directly opposite less than three steps away sat her daughter flanked by her foster parents, who in turn were flanked by people also on constant preparedness to move together and forward to block the mother being able to reach the daughter.

Neville spoke up and asked members of the Assessment Group in turn to give the newcomer their backgrounds. Each spoke briefly of assaulting/killing members of their families. After the overwhelming confusion and emotional flooding of this introduction to Fraser House Big Group, Neville caught the mother's attention and said words rather quickly and matter of factly to the effect, 'and....by the way....over there is your daughter... mentioning her name.'

Already in overload from the weird context, this sudden potent unexpected revelation put the mother into massive overload.

The mother now had the opportunity to have a shot at killing her daughter in front of the group. This had been her fantasy obsession for eleven years and here was her daughter in the flesh in front of her - just a few steps away!

After a very short time in the room the mother suddenly made a dash towards the girl and the male nurses on razor alert for just such an occurrence, grabbed the mother. She immediately went into an almighty struggle with super-human emotional energy.

The female nurse grabbed the mother's hair and pulled this to restrain the mother from her attempts at biting bits off the two male nurses' heads and shoulders. There were others prepared on either side of the foster parents and child (in the middle) that headed towards the mother blocking her path to the foster family. When she was restrained the meeting resumed.

After a time when she had calmed a little, the restraining hands left her. She made a couple of other dashes and the same process returned her to her chair. The mother, daughter and foster parents were the group focus for the balance of the hour. The mother was probed relentlessly to determine where she was at.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, altered Fraser House routines. The Big Group meeting always lasted sixty minutes - exactly. The four key people in this case, sometimes separately, sometimes in different combinations attended the regular and special small groups that occurred throughout the day. They were again the focus of these groups.

The maternal mother was not left alone with the daughter. All four participated in the evening Big Group. It emerged that at the time of committing the offences until she arrived in Big Group, the mother had had a delusional belief that all her children had a disease that would blind them. This delusional belief was unravelled and completely dispensed with.

After everything that had happened that day, at the end of the evening Big, Small and special Group meetings there was consensus among everyone present, including the daughter and her foster parents, that the mother was now 'safe'.

She had had an absolutely sustained nourishing and corrective emotional experience throughout the whole day. Neville had plotted and planned for Fraser House to be at its healing best. The whole community had been in large part focused on this challenge for weeks.

The maternal mother and the daughter stayed together alone in a bedroom that night! Alone.

The following day a staff member wanted to know who the wonderful new nurturer was, and where was the new 'murderess'; and it was pointed out that the 'nurturer' and the 'murderess' was 'one and the same person'. And Neville describes having an overwhelming love for this mother during the whole hour of Big Group, during the balance of the day and thereafter.

DC What an extraordinary case study 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 Ten: 'Fraser House - A Model for the World'

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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