By Silvia Baba Neal
Last minute tweaks to my conference paper takes me past midnight. I add a quote from Laurie Stone “perhaps every story worth telling . . . is a dare, a kind of pornography, composed of whatever we think we’re not supposed to say, for fear of being drummed out, found out, pointed out”. I’m doing a talk on the erotic and not in a theoretical way, but in a way that is owned and personal. Frankly, I’m terrified. At 3.45 am, as I ponder what to wear, I realise that I’ll never be dressed enough.
Once you’ve opened the door to invite others into the intimacy of a therapeutic dialogue, it’s hard not to feel a little naked. So it doesn’t really matter what I choose, but my vanity demands that at least I look presentable enough to make the occurrence of erotic transference plausible. But not too sexy that it would seem bidden. Oh, what it is to pace back and forth within the narrow confines of a space drawn especially for women – one wall labelled “the Madonna” and the other “the Temptress”.
For me, a good cure for performance anxiety is getting a hug. That’s the best thing about these TA conferences – getting to greet and kiss and hug colleagues I have grown fond of over the years. These people make me feel that community is a secure net always there catch me.
Steve Chapman and Charlotte Sills present the first keynote. Charlotte has a graceful way of stepping into the limelight, but she still gets nervous! Hence she brought her written notes as a sort of transitional object, and she drops them to the floor with great comic timing one by one, as she moves through her speech She invites us consider that in order to truly embrace research and new theory we need to be willing to let go of what we think we know and be willing to embrace uncertainty. She then hands over Steve Chapman, whose motto is ‘playful with not knowing’.
Steve introduces a very simple model – a triangle and the corners are labelled “Let go”, “Pay attention” and “Use everything”. “First let go of your pre-existing ideas of what a research conference keynote should be”, he encourages us, “then pay attention to what occurs, and lastly, use everything that is offered.” He invites us into an exercise in which we explore the delicate edge between influencing the world and being influenced by it. I very quickly reacquaint myself with my deep aversion at letting the world influence me. I know this because, as we are invited to mill around the room and stop as a group “when it feels right”, or start moving again, also as a group, I have an urge to do the exact opposite of what everyone else is doing. Soon Steve has us synchronise our moves with complete strangers. We are all swaying side-to side. I’m thinking – these inbuilt mirroring and mimicking mechanisms shouldn’t be tampered with. Moving in synchrony is the very fabric of falling in love or falling into the stupor of cultish adoration. Here I am dancing with Tom, who is elevating his arms and I imagine them as clouds, so I find myself twirling underneath as if I’m dancing in the rain. How is this any less exploitative than the coupling rituals of “Love island” my mind berates, but my body rides the rising tide of sensuality all the same. I’ve been hacked. I find myself in Steve’s story about the guy who was famous for loving dragons until the day that the queen of dragons knocks on his door and he runs away, terrified. The queen learns that he didn’t love dragons after all, but merely the idea of dragons.
I imagine that, like myself, most of the presenters at this conference want to infect their audience with their enthusiasm for research and theory. In her workshop on the Parent interview Carole Shadbolt tells us a riveting story of unacknowledged inter-generational trauma. This is a story of possession, the client’s Parent Ego State emerging in the room, as a separate identity. We get goose-bumps and we think about how we ourselves are possessed by stories untold, unspoken. I follow Carole into her story, told with emotion, a story about how she dared to follow her instinct to provide a sort of witnessing. I am grateful that she is sharing this tenderness, this love. We are invited to think of ourselves as witness, to reflect on those traumas of war unspoken
I am reminded of a trip to the Ardennes, and remember a poem I wrote in La Roche, a site of conflict during WWII.
The snow in La Roche
Tastes of lead
It falls in chunks
The size of shredded paper planes
Six men meet
At the corner of the red house
With stone angels
A short squint in the blizzard
To read allegiance in the shape of a hat
And duty on lapels
For good and bad are camouflaged
In similar shades of green
Men sent to play at survival
With mess-tins and half fork/half spoons
They plunge at each other
Incredulous and relieved
To find someone on their side
So far from home
At the junction where death meets victory
At the corner of the red house
With angels of stone
… are these my words or are the restless ghosts of those passed speaking through me?
I later attend Heather Fowlie’s workshop on Ego States. Heather has spent the past three years thinking about the multiplicity of models and she invites us to reflect with her on what it means to work with all of these differences. Some of us value the diversity, the conceptual flexibility it allows – finding different uses for the functional, second-order or integrated model. Some, those who have to teach, struggle to explain to their students why we don’t have a unified model. Over the next day or so I begin to notice the familiar stacked circles on lapels and hanging on silver chains. This is clearly not just a metaphor, a clinical tool, it is a symbol of belonging to a community, a brand. My sense is that Berne, and his contemporaries were freer to play, unencumbered by these considerations. The metaphor was just a piece of play-dough that could be moulded and changed. Would Berne agree with this statement?
I watch Suzie Orbach in conversation with Carole Shadbolt – a beautiful woman, who speaks her mind, a self-defined “rebel”. During the Gala Dinner I get to sit at an all-European table. Where I hear of a time when the European TA community was much smaller, and where training to be a CTA was no easy feat. A French therapist tells the story of how he had to arrange to meet his supervisor in airports! This was because there were so few transactional analysts available in Europe in the late 70s.
Day two of the conference brings onstage Mick Cooper, a therapist and researcher whose work I respect deeply. Mick has a surprising depth of knowledge of TA, which is remarkable, because, as a promoter of pluralism in psychotherapy presumably he has to be reasonably fluent in anything from CAT to CBT to psychoanalysis. Mick talks about Buber’s concept of directionality and shows how all therapies have a significant contribution to make at each stage of the process of moving into the world. He generously agrees to speak to me for 15 minutes for the IARTA website, although he has double-booked himself to another conference. I find in him a gentle self-effacing man, someone who clearly wears his authority and prominence quite lightly.
I risk another experiential workshop – this time on co-creativity. I meet Tom again, whose hands had danced like clouds. I realise he is a Canadian therapist, joined at conference by his fiercely intelligent girlfriend, a neurologist and semi-professional musician. We do a different dance, one that I am more comfortable with – an intellectual dance. The neurologist, a self-confessed interloper at the conference, asks the best critical questions: why are there so many variations on TA methodology, and if we are co-creating therapy should we split the fees, and also is the therapist’s regression in the room ever ethical? I am taken back to Mick’s concept of conflicting directions – moving too far in the direction of “safety”, by dwelling on rules and contracts will we restrict our movement into the direction of “play”. And the other way around. We want to “play” and yet we live in a cultural context where it’s always safety first. That’s a tricky paradox to negotiate. The Canadians seem to have got the balance just right.