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October 22, 2020


"SPOTLIGHT ON...ARCHIVES AND ORAL HISTORY"

3. Moments that changed me


Archivist and Oral Historian Craig Fees discusses moments of personal and professional change working in the therapeutic community sector

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Back in 1988 I was asked to do a bit of thinking by the Planned Environment Therapy Trust which contributed to their decision to set about creating an Archive and Study Centre devoted to that broad area of experience delineated in a general sort of way by the term "therapeutic community", and by a whole range of other terms as well – "planned environment therapy", of course, a term coined before the 1939-45 War; "milieu therapy", which achieved the meaning we have for it now more or less about the same time; and a whole rolling parade of terms in the area of education, none of which seems to sit very comfortably for very long – "progressive", "alternative", "democratic" – and none apparently happy in this day and age to sit comfortably with the term "therapeutic". Maxwell Jones, at the end of his life, had set aside the term "therapeutic community" in favour of "open systems", and was excited by the idea of open systems in education as well as in prisons, and psychiatric facilities, and institutions of public life and problem-solving more generally.

The Planned Environment Therapy Trust decided to embark on the creation of an Archive and Study Centre devoted to this whole field of human enterprise in 1989, the first and still the only one in the world; and asked me to take on the role which I then filled for the next 16 years, of taking something which didn\'t exist and shouldn\'t exist and shepherding it through various levels of improbability, and past various disasters and catastrophes in the external environment, to a point where that kind of maternal preoccupation with its survival and growth, that 24/7 devotion to the exclusion often of one\'s own best interests, and certainly that of one\'s family – was no longer financially viable for the Trust, which had suffered along with the global charity world dependent on investment income – a 1/3 drop in the value of its investments which came along like a shock wave in the wake of 9/11. "Terrorism caused me to lose my job," read the headlines; but of course it's never that simple.

Those sixteen years, as anyone who has ever been seduced by the sirens singing in Narcissus's pool of maternal preoccupation knows, were ones of profound personal growth and learning. I brought a number of things to it. A fresh PhD. in folklife studies, having studied the heck out of a nearby Cotswold town over a century of radical change from the 1860\'s to about 1980. I knew and had used archives of all shapes and sizes from the extraordinary William Andrews Clark oasis of a research library in the middle of Los Angeles, to the King\'s College Modern Archives in Cambridge University, reached through corridors of Medieval and Victorian smells and stonework, to the amazingly comprehensive and underused BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham, to the massively comfortable Harry Ransom Research Centre in Austin, Texas, to too many more to enumerate, although it would be a pleasure to do so. I also brought tried and tested disregard for what was in my own best interests, certainly from a financial point of view, having spent five years as a residential volunteer in a therapeutic community for children while carrying out research for my PhD., and what turned into another five years as a part-time paid member of the therapeutic team while writing up, collapsing, and then saying "Yes, I\'d love to help build an Archive. What do we have? One collection, well, that can live in my bedroom. A few books? Those can come in too, we\'ll fill the room with file cabinets and shelving, use the bed as a workspace, stop the cat from walking over pre-war photographs and dumping its gifts of dead moles among the correspondence, and get on with the task of establishing a professional information service for the field and the community at large. I paid for a trip over to Nova Scotia to meet Maxwell Jones and sell the idea of the Archive and Study Centre to him, I used a honeymoon trip home to California to pick up some private letters of David Wills from a Quaker retirement home in the wine country, and in the pre-Internet world of bookshelves and stores bought books, everywhere I went. I bought the Archive\'s copy of Howard Jones\' classic "Reluctant Rebels" about a school in Cheshire from a brownstone-style bookstore from what I remember as the middle of a largely socially devastated area of Oakland, California. My wife Fiona found our copy of the priceless 1946 Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic written by the therapeutic team at Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital in a secondhand bookshop in Oxford, among the ephemera, priced at 50p – well less than a dollar. It was all I could do to keep from talking the man at the till into charging me a proper price for the thing. A bookstore in Phoenix yielded a pristine copy of Ahrenfeldt\'s major study of British military psychiatry during the war at something ridiculous like a dollar. I used to call Richard Booth\'s Secondhand Bookstore in Hay-on-Wye in advance, and go over and buy a hundred books at a time at discount. The 1845 to 1919 Journal of Prison Discipline, which is really a journal of prison reform , with a surprisingly contemporary tone. William Caudill\'s book on the Psychiatric Hospital as a Small Society – or comunidad terapeutica, in the Spanish translation – was in a random box of tedious text books from America up by the children\'s section, and eminently disregardable. Only being obsessive found it there.

It was a time, in other words, of huge adventures and discoveries. But in this, certain moments stick out. Coming from therapeutic community work with children and young people, and hugely ignorant of anything else, the moment when interviewing Stuart Whiteley in 1990, that when he talked about therapeutic communities for adults, he was talking about a community in which the patients were resident; the patients lived in the community, but the staff went home. That was a shock and a novelty. Part of the principle in the therapeutic community in which I had lived and worked was that it was, genuinely, your home; and you shared it, and your life, for the time they were there, with the children. Your life was an integral part of the therapeutic environment. In retrospect it was a mind-blowing realisation, and I\'ve had to overcome considerable resistance to seeing therapeutic communities in which staff go home as real therapeutic communities at all. Although it does explain the use of that term "residents".

But the moment of change I\'m recording here came about because of one of those people who had been \'resident\', albeit as a soldier, at Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, and one or two conventional places after the war. The staff, of course, although they did not live on the wards at Northfield, lived within the grounds; as Maxwell Jones did in much of his career.

\* Several weeks ago, when I introduced myself to a senior figure in the field, saying we\'d met at the Planned Environment Therapy Trust\'s Archive and Study Centre, he said "Ah yes, you showed me around the strong rooms. It was like a mausoleum."

The rows on rows of grey or cream colored archival boxes, each individually labelled – over 200 separate collections, not counting books and recordings - must seem like boxes of the dead to an outsider; rank on rank of death, enlivened here and there by oversize collages of photographs, or silver tins of film. And if you look closely you will see variations in box size and style – low and flat for photographic slides; chunky and square for gramophone records, in their special foil-lined protective sleeves (which, of course, you can\'t see); light manila video-boxes, made of a special archival board of buffered paper, with a thin water-impermeable membrane, and a layer of activated charcoal to absorb and neutralise the gases which cause decay and which deteriorating materials give off. Open a drawer of the plan chest and out bursts paintings of harbours and people painted in a psychiatrist\'s sunny Mediterranean run-up to the Second World War, while the therapeutic community she was supervising built futures in English mud; or paintings on large sheets of sugar paper by children, each named and dated and sometimes with comments by the art therapist, some of whose own paintings we have. Those children\'s paintings I saved from the incinerator of a community for children, and kept in black plastic bags in my bedroom long before the Archive and Study Centre came along. Or open this box and find a whistle that probably blew to call unemployed Welsh miners to tea at a Depression-era holiday camp; or the heavy bell that called patients in from the fields of a psychiatric hospital in the days when they engaged in agriculture. Or photographs – children or adults at play, in canoes, a cathedral behind them. Or open this box – out spills a tormented life, pages and pages of early abuse and failure; but you work through the file and something happens to them over the course of their time in a community for children. Here are files so raw with pain and conflict, and the ceaseless effort to match a child\'s desolation with hope and therapeutic ingenuity, that they practically bleed and laugh in your hands. Hundreds of boxes. Thousands of boxes. Thousands of files. Each numbered. Each listed and catalogued, and each list and catalogue computerised. Each a record of lives, lived intensely, sometimes well.

Archivists, when people think of them at all, are like greyer versions of librarians, tidying their mausolea; dealing with dry and dusty things, like the piles of autumn leaves off endless winter trees. Some months ago, now, I received a phone call, from the head of another therapeutic community for children about to close. Given our finances in the Archive and Study Centre, which are not unlike those of charity archives as a whole, I was working alone; the only employee in the building, and no researcher that day. We had a straightforward, professional conversation: The records they had and their order and condition; the conditions and contract of transfer to the Archive; the various laws and regulations which apply to the retention and management of looked-after children\'s records; taking the archival view, looking back on our present from a hundred years from now, and asking "What would they wish we had saved, and what accompanying questions should I ask." All of that, not without the appropriate expressions of support and regret. A professional discussion, and then, after I\'d hung up, and on the way to the next task, I found myself hunkered down on the floor of the User\'s Room, crying. There are times when you are grateful for the lack of resources, and the consequent privacy.

The recording I\'m about to play came from an interview with Mr. R. E. Curtis, a veteran of the North Africa campaign in World War II, and a survivor of a prison camp in Northern Italy which was designed to destroy the men who were sent there. He was one of a number of people who got in touch with the BBC in 1994, when, stimulated by Dr. Tom Harrison, Radio 4 put together a programme on Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, called "War in the Head". It was aired on August 17^th^ 1994; and in the lickety-split of media production, there was not enough time or budget before and after to interview everyone who got in touch. Tom was working on his book "Advancing on a Different Front: Bion, Rickman, Foulkes and the Northfield Experiments", later published by Jessica Kingsley, and the Archive gave its support by recording and transcribing a set of interviews. A wonderful couple in Dundee who had broken Hospital rules by courting and marrying across lines – he a patient, she a telephonist (who had, before going to Northfield, been buried alive by a V-2 explosion, near her friend who was killed). A former officer in Essex, who had been a patient at Northfield, but had also worked with the originators of the WOSBs before going across on D-Day into a hail of experiences which I could not begin to imagine, and which led to Northfield. A sergeant in the Midlands, to whom I went without any contextual information; who had been a Prisoner of War and been through a horrific death march of P.O.W.\'s across Europe. I assumed he had been a patient at Northfield, but gradually dawned that he had been on the staff. A couple of local girls who had gone to the dances and socials held with patients at Northfield; one of them later becoming a marriage guidance counsellor.

Mr. Curtis himself made contact with the BBC in the wake of the radio program, because he did not feel it did Northfield justice. He lived in Cornwall, in a ground-floor flat off a busy road, and had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals after the war until he himself decided enough was enough when told by a psychiatrist that he never would escape the mental hospital system. He\'d had a broken childhood; enlisted; was sent to North Africa; and in his very first engagement there, was captured. The clip I\'m about to play begins after a captured British officer has been sent by the Germans to tell the small group still fighting to surrender, and had been sent on his way. The scene he paints is like something out of Bosch; a pig with part of its head blown off still alive and running through a mine field; an Arab and his sheep crossing through the edge of the battlefield as if it was something they did every day.

It was an immensely difficult interview in many ways, which began itself before I turned on the tape recorder, as soon as I entered the room. It was a hot day, and the windows and back door were open. Mr. Curtis smoked, and sat, and stood, and moved about the room, so – with the traffic noise in the background as well - the recording itself is a technically interesting one. This clip marks a moment of transition, both, I think, for Mr. Curtis and for me. I will talk a bit more about that after I\'ve played it. It lasts about five minutes.

Plays the clip

It was following this interview and Mr. Curtis\'s courage and vulnerability that I realised it was time for the Archive and Study Centre to have a proper Copyright and release form, the contract which tells us how and where people are prepared to have their interviews used, with what restrictions or – in the case of very sensitive material – what period of time we should hold it before we make it available to anyone else. I worked with Mr. Curtis on this, and he worked with me until we reached the cover letter and contract basically as we have it now. I then kept in sporadic contact until a letter came back, saying that he was no longer at that address. And that was it. Until sometime later a phone call from his daughter, unfortunately when I was not there, and not giving a phone number or contact details, to say that her father had died; but to say, too, that he had gone from Cornwall back home to Hampshire, had been welcomed by his regimental association, and had spent a very happy final year. I believed then – but how can you prove or disprove these things – that the interview, and the moment above in particular, played a role in the transition that enabled him to go home to Hampshire. It certainly created a change in me.


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