This Healing Life

My chair was about six feet from Anna Freud‘s couch. My first client, a 15 year old girl, came into the room. I suggested that she might either tell me about a recent dream or simply what was on her mind. I said that she should try to talk to me quite openly, letting go, if at all possible, of the usual censorship we impose on our everyday conversations. She started to tell me what was on her mind.

The scene should shift back now to a hillside outside Bath in 1979. The indefatigable and ingenious Natural Theatre of Bath was providing roadside entertainment for cyclists on a gruelling tour of the hills surrounding the city. The tour was organised by Bike Events, who were later to run the London to Brighton Bike Ride. As participants sweated the slopes they would encounter curious and diverting vignettes concocted by performers from the Naturals. I was asked to don a dark suit and sit at the top of a particularly grim hill beside a chaise longue. The chaise was concealed by hospital screens and I was assisted by a cheerful actress posing as a nurse. Each time a deeply exhausted cyclist crested the hill I would invite them to lie on the chaise for a psychoanalytic session.

A typical exchange ran like this:
Analyst: Just tell me the first thing that comes into your mind.
Cyclist: Puff puff puff.
Analyst: Why do you think you are puffing?
Cyclist: Because…I’m…bloody…knackered.
Analyst: Does this remind you of experiences you may have had earlier in your life?
Cyclist: Yes. The last time I was knackered.
Analyst: Do you think there is any significance in your use of the word ‘knackered’?

And so on. Good clean fun.

The scene now runs forward to Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, London. It is early September, 2008. The School of Life has had the street closed off in order to hold its Open Day. Sophie Howarth, tireless and ingenious Director of the School, has asked me to be a ‘street shrink’, based on my having told her about the Bath gig all those years ago.

She has secured a handsome red velvet chaise longue, beside which I placed an armchair. The deal is to sit in the street and ask passersby if they would like a ten minute psychoanalytic session.

A ticketing scheme has been worked out and analysands are invited to drop a quid in a tin if they want to. Eager not to be mistaken for a qualified therapist I had prepared a laminated card bearing the following information:

‘Dream interpretation and other psychiatric processes are tools used in certain psychological therapies. Therapists who use these methods in their work have usually received an appropriate training. I have received no training in any form of psychological therapy. I am not qualified to practice as a therapist nor do I wish to dispense any form of therapy. I will not, in the course of our conversation, suggest a course of action or give advice on how to act or what to do.’

“Clear enough,” I thought. As the street began to fill with potential clients I settled into my chair beneath a pleasant tree. A few feet away sat other School of Life personnel, handing out brochures and giving information on courses. They told everyone who approached them that the street shrink had left the building and was therefore available.

I had imagined that despite the orthodoxy suggested by the chaise longue the general outsideness of the setup might constitute a clue as to the degree of playfulness to be anticipated in any transactions that might ensue. I had no clear idea what that playfulness might involve but, as a street performer of some experience, I felt confident that an appropriate mode would pop up.

I saw twentythree clients in succession, for between 10 and 20 minutes each, with no breaks. At times it rained and we either whipped out the brollies or went inside. With one exception (a proper shrink!), every single client, despite reading the disclaimer as soon as they sat down, proceeded to disclose material of a personal nature that they considered to be problematic in some way. Some of the material was selected for its lightness – anxieties related to everyday decisions that the client would probably resolve without too much difficulty. Much of the material was of another order altogether. A failure to make friends, a fracturing relationship, a nervous skin condition, phobias, a philandering parent, life after rehab, an ill-advised affair with a dangerous person.

After the first two encounters I realised that there would be no playfulness that afternoon. Rather than think up amusing ripostes I had to buckle down, listen very carefully and, drawing on a fascination with psychoanalysis acquired in my mid-teens and subsequently reinforced with a lifetime’s reading, attempt to offer thoughtful responses. On three occasions clients furnished narratives that demanded rather more than I could offer. Feeling that the fundamental fraudulence of my position simply outweighed the permission given, I suggested that the client might wish to consult, in confidence, the School of Life’s own psychotherapist, a fully qualified professional.

After several hours the last ticket-holder had been seen and I took my leave. I felt entirely confused.

A few weeks later I received a call from Sophie Howarth. She put me on to Julian Rothenstein of the Redstone Press, who was launching his new book ‘Psychogames’ at the Freud Museum that evening. Would I do my shrink thing at the launch? But of course. A few hours later, having brushed my suit, I was down in Maresfield Gardens, Swiss Cottage, hoisting a white wine in a marquee in Freud’s back garden as the guests began to arrive. Julian had shown me round the rooms in the Museum so that we could select a suitably quiet space. I felt that this time we should strive for a modicum of privacy – we would sit in a room with the door open so that people could peek in. The laminated disclaimer would be pinned to the door.

I won’t pretend that we didn’t joke about using Freud’s couch, despite its being roped off from the public. We moved on, however, to Anna Freud’s consulting room and found it a more accommodating space. The couch – more of a divan, in fact – was along one wall and Anna Freud’s chair was nearby. Julian thought that the chair would come in handy until we noticed the cord strung between its arms, proclaiming its inviolability. We procured two less hallowed chairs and set them up at one end of Anna’s room.

I saw thirteen clients – including two sets of couples – in two hours. This time round I assumed that nobody would take me unseriously so, after ensuring that the client had read the disclaimer, I asked them “Are you okay with that?” When the client, invariably, assented I said “But that needn’t stop us from having an interesting conversation.” I felt pleased that I had come up with this formulation – I wasn’t some party entertainer with diplomas in charlatanry, I was a person with whom you could have interesting conversations. But hey – that’s enough about me!

Among the female clients were dreamers about friendships with women, losing teeth and cafes in disorder. I saw a young couple, two very young sisters, a young man in love and a novelist of my acquaintance who guffawed “You’re David Gale! You’re not a shrink!” I could only agree. The clients, however, seemed quite prepared to ignore such details as the absence of training and, as I had hoped, we had some extremely interesting conversations.