I am not very good at the nasties by which I mean – I see them, I acknowledge them, in my limited way, I understand where they occur but I do not seek them out. I do not want to sit and watch how horrible people can be, even if it is only a re-enactment. And I remember interviewing a fine writer after he had just spent a couple of years in daily research into the story and ramifications of a serial killer. He was emotionally exhausted and, after an hour with him, I was too. What can you do ?
You can be a witness. This is quite different from being an ambulance driver or a specialist in mental health, a police officer or a prison visitor. To be a witness is to be willing to see what is there and sometimes hearing is as shocking as seeing. A police officer who was present at the beginning of the Moors Murders hearings said “People threw up”. We all interpret differently, we have different machinery to bring to bear, different life experience, different understanding, different vocabulary. And it causes us discomfort not to say pain that however we may feel, we can’t do much.
Of course there is an immediate recoil in the form of “Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that!” which runs parallel with the car crash life often is. Some of us have an even more violent reaction, almost a primitive fear that trouble is catching.
Very often, when I was looking at what a caller or correspondent thought was the problem, we’d have to go back into the history of a family or a relationship. Sometime this was relatively straight forward. Because I had positive experiences with my own psychotherapy, I know you work with the person in front of you, their parents and their parents again. Familial history and influence are fascinating. Though often there is something small and painful, ready to wrench your psychological ankle on the tortuous footpath out of the dilemma. And sometimes your caller or your correspondent just doesn’t want to go there. And you, the adviser, can’t make them.
Then there is the very primitive and powerful business of denial. People think that if they shut the horrors out, that will be it. In my experience, bad stuff often slides under the door you have just so firmly slammed like the plagues of Egypt in Dreamworks’ 1998 story of Moses (The Prince of Egypt) – like smoke, an intangible miasma of misery, tainting everything.
People think if they work hard enough, save enough, have enough fun, do enough good, they will outstrip the hound of heaven. Believe me, it’s a pious hope. Sooner or later, that dog wins. He carries the bone of your problem in his teeth.
It’s never been necessary for me to look for problems. They came to me. I had my own and I was interested in other people’s. I saw how people handled them, obviously very differently, one person from another. I met people who had worked them through or put them in a particular place in their lives so they could go on. I met people who kept them central in their lives because they couldn’t think what else to do and didn’t understand either, that this was the rock on which other things foundered.
I have just read The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere – the title is an old name for Satan – and I found it difficult because it is a printed nasty. But it taught me something and my father long ago instilled into me that nothing was wasted if you learned by it. It is remarkable for its lack of psychological jargon. The book isn’t new and even 20 years ago, you might have expected certain kinds of explanation but they just aren’t there. What is there is a picture of the duality of religious belief – and this is pretty current as the world is full of all kinds of violence in the name of somebody’s God. What I am left with – and it unsettled me – is the idea that without certain kinds of psychic manure, faith wouldn’t flourish.