I made no choice about my therapist. My wife, who had helped me through a period of difficulty and felt that something more was needed, suggested a male therapist and named one. I had no thoughts or reservations about whether it should be a man or a woman. I had no inclination to make any choice myself, and no basis on which to make it. The idea of liking, or being suited, to the person in question seemed to me irrelevant. Much more difficult, for me, was the choice of being in therapy at all.
After eighteen months of therapy which I see as a cycle, possibly to be repeated, I suspect that I am in the majority over the question of choice. Circumstance generally decides. We are advised to go to an individual; unless there is a very negative reaction, we accept the authority of this. Furthermore, I have no feelings about the issue of gender. Without having any clear reason for the view, I think it would have been, and would be, the same with a woman. Perhaps what follows may in a sense constitute a reason for this judgment, in that the reception I got throughout was so professional that no gender significance ever emerged.
I have decidedly strong feelings that what went on was a ‘success’, and would return to the same therapist in the event of need, or if a breakdown occurred. I use the word clinically. I think that is what happened, or nearly happened, and I can foresee it happening again. I do not feel ‘cured’ of anything. What happened during the eighteen months was a series of self-discoveries, prompted or helped to the surface by the therapist concerned.
While the therapist came to know a great deal about me, I learned nothing about him. I liked him, but in a neutral, professional way. I breached the professionalism on my side by making him a couple of gifts. But they were, in a sense, germane to our consultations, and were partly given in that spirit.
It would therefore be sensible to indentify them as books I had written, and to explain that the problem which had brought me into therapy was a problem directly related to my professional life as a writer. I tried to explain this to him in terms which he would immediately grasp. I write, therefore I am. I offered this modification of the central principle of Descartes’ life – cogito, ergo sum – which of course he immediately grasped. But I then went on to make the point that, although we all write, and although writing is still the language of communication, second only to speech, what I was speaking of was something completely different.
Explaining this became difficult. What I was telling him about writing was part of an explanation of two sides of my personality, one the inner spirit, two the working man. If the love of one’s life is the exercise of the purpose of one’s life, and it goes wrong, then chaos indeed has come. This was how I felt when I sought help. After fourteen books, forty years of published work, I was confronted by professional, emotional, spiritual gridlock.
Firstly, there was the chaos in which the world of writing, publishing, literature, has found itself at the end of the millenium. Highly respected authors, with a string of successful works to their name, are being stopped in their tracks by publishers not even wanting to see what they will write, and in some cases refusing to take notice of what they have written.
Secondly, I was also confronted by another, perhaps more subtle under-mining of confidence: the partial breakdown of trust between myself and the newspaper I work for. This represented something akin to a new virus affecting one’s health, unpredictable, unforeseen, possibly untraceable.
Thirdly, there was a complication over identity. I was English, but living in Ireland. I had lived very publicly indeed as a writer. Over the 40 years, on the basis of a fairly careful calculation, I have published about five million words, and written a further two million. Since the average novel is about 100,000 words in length, that represents a huge output. It is hard to define, but at the centre of it, in terms of frequency, lay political journalism, a good deal of it controversial.
There were additional problems connected with these three blockages. If what we do is vocational in its intensity, and if the Cartesian concept is applied to it, we are seriously damaged when it goes wrong. We are probably damaged even when it does not go wrong. My belief in a modification of Descartes – scriptito ergo sum – creates anyway a form of schizophrenia in which the writer is divided from the man. and yet is the man. [Hence the idea of the inner spirit and the working man.]
The inner spirit is like the heart, pumping life and vigour into everything. The mere act of writing is like a heartbeat, steady and brave and reliable. The working man lives in response to that, urbane, energetic, confident, active, diverse. But he is also elusive; there is an element of camouflage in all that he does, a camouflage designed to protect that inner spirit.
The writing takes over the life. And all being well, this continues throughout the life. But if it goes wrong it is like a heart attack.
These confusions and doubts were brought into therapy and developed there in a series of invasions of the past. Central to the investigation was my lather, who had also been the subject of the four books which I hold most dear, a tetralogy of novels which fall into the category of bildungsroman. Thus, the inner spirit had fed on the past, and on the ‘working man’ concept, not just of myself when young, but also of my father. Exploring him, both in fiction, and in therapy, had been painful and was painful.
What I thought had been exorcised in fiction came back to haunt me in the present by creating a guilt, not about him, but about myself. I had used him as material. But I had also discarded him in my mind after the novels were finished. I had written him out of the ‘inner spirit’ and back into family history.
In the process I had not realised just how dependent I was on having him, or something parallel, to govern or dictate what I did. In reality I had created a substitute for my father, and this was the country in which I had decided to settle and write, all of forty-odd years ago. Ireland was humanised for me, and became the object of love, criticism, interest, questioning, identity. In a curious way, Ireland responded. Absurd though it may seem, the people manifested, in hundreds of different ways, a response to what I wrote on questions of politics, art, culture, writing, religion. And the response became inextricably linked to the Irishness of Ireland, and the Englishness of this commentator upon the country.
It took many different forms. Some of them were brutal and abusive in a racist way. Some were indulgent and patronising. Some were welcoming and sympathetic.
It became quite often difficult to extract the logic of a position adopted in writing critically, say, about a politician, from the illogical dimension of writing at all about a subject which in theory I might understand, but emotionally and nationalistically I was supposed to be unable to fathom. This perception of myself working within a potentially alien environment was endorsed on relatively few occasions. In the main, what I did was simply a professional task in journalism and recognised as such.
So was the problem me or Ireland? Even asking the question seems faintly ludicrous, or seemed so until I put it to my therapist who led me towards certain answers. The route he took was interesting. His analysis was based on a perception about the central importance of the relationship between myself and my father. What I saw as something which I had got out of my system with the writing of four novels which placed my father at the centre of the action was in fact still there. Only I had found an all-embracing substitute for this giant figure hovering over my childhood, and this substitute – which could not have been a person – was Ireland. I had created a ‘relationship’ – in the current, vogue sense of that word – only not with a person. Here was a territory inhabited by three-and-a-half million people that was standing in loco parentis and would do so for as long as it took.
Only Ireland had changed during those forty years, beyond recognition in many respects, becoming less benign, more divided, more anti-British, more republican. And the transformation was acute within the very profession I followed.
The gradual slip-stream which had aided my gentle rise into the field of political and cultural comment in the 1960s, became a stronger wind through the more controversial and troubled 1970s, and dragged me centre-stage with the force of a tempest tor a time in the 1980s and 1990s.
What troubled me, to the point of seeking professional help, was the realisation that I was contending with these uniquely oppressive forces, combined with the other difficulties outlined above. What resolved the trouble was a growing sense of the absurdity of this attitude within myself. There grew from that a capacity to laugh at myself and my dilemma, recognising that what I believed to be problems were really quite normal aspects of life, and that, for all the buffeting I felt the inner spirit had received, it was still performing its essential task. I was still writing. The heart attack had not taken place.
I was still delivering judgments in my newspaper on political issues. I was still publishing books. I was still hearing the mixed voices of Irish men and women, either telling me I was wrong or that I was right. And all of this was normal, not abnormal. It was what I had chosen. It was more right than wrong.
In general, I get on better with women than with men. If there had been a question of choice I would probably have opted for a woman therapist rather than a man. But the experience has changed that, making me realise how little of the gender question matters in the realm of ‘inner spirit’, working man’, or indeed in the field of creativity through writing, or confrontation through polemic.
Turning the idea completely round, and applying it to the therapist rather than to myself, its seems that the working therapist puts up a series of changing mirrors in which we, the clients, are made to see ourselves and persuaded to recognise ourselves when this becomes difficult, or even impossible. The therapist’s ‘inner spirit’ is palpably there in the degree of trust which is created, usually by a flawless reception of the client’s self-discovery.
I came away from each session exhilarated by this process. I found each time another aspect of myself, discovered another loophole in the texture of what protected me, and then repaired it, realising each time that there was more to discover. The coherence came from the therapist. It was drawn from what came from me. If there was human curiosity present it was muted.
Whether this might have been different with a woman, or indeed what might have been different, I think I have no way of knowing.