Alison Hunter in conversation with Sarah Kay

On July 13th  2011, I interviewed Alison at Amethyst, the psychotherapy centre, which is tucked away on a hill looking out over the Shannon at Killaloe. It was a beautiful summer’s day, we had the door open out on to a flowering meadow, wind chimes were gently jingling and Victor, one of the Tonkinese cats was curled up on my lap, purring. Opposite me sat Alison, dressed in her amethyst colours; lovely purples and with the famous amethyst pendant, ‘the eye of the sea’ around her neck. This beautiful stone came from the Ural Mountains in Georgia and was supposedly from the Russian crown jewels and brought to England by White Russians in 1917. Alison’s father gave it to her mother as a 20th wedding anniversary present.

Sarah: Alison you are in your 80th year with your 80th birthday coming up on March 9, 2012 so I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect back on your life and your psychotherapy journey.

Alison: Well of course my journey began with my conception and I have come to believe over the years that actually we choose our parents, so there was a reason I chose the parents I did. I learnt that I was really wanted. My mother always said that the day I was born was the happiest day of her life but it was also a day that nearly killed me. This was not her fault, nor mine. Unfortunately the midwife was too frightened to call the obstetrician and my father after he came home from work called the obstetrician and I was eventually born at home with the obstetrician’s help. That set my personality pattern for life because I was always confused as a child. I was always contrary. My father used to say I would be asked to do something and I would do the opposite so that in actual fact, if they wanted me to do something they would say the opposite.

Sarah: How did your birth make you contrary?

Alison: I only discovered and became really sure about this about five years ago that I actually had nearly died of asphyxiation because I was induced. In those days my mother took something (not sure what) at 9 in the morning and I should have been born around 12 o’clock and I wasn’t and my experience was like being shoved like a tube of toothpaste up against this hard wall. For years I would talk about being up against a brick wall and it was like being shoved and shoved and shoved and shoved. Using baby logic it was as if she was trying to kill me. As I say my father arrived home from work and the midwife had been told to call the obstetrician if there were difficulties. She obviously just let my mother go on with me being slammed against the pelvic bone and my mother became totally exhausted. My father phoned the obstetrician who came straight away from a dinner he was attending and quite gently just moved my head and I got out. But if I hadn’t got out then I probably would have died from asphyxiation but this caused me problems for years, for while my head told me my parents loved me, my being said ‘no’ because my mother tried to kill me. So there was always this difficulty.

Sarah: An ambivalence?

Alison: Yes, this great ambivalence. I was never popular as a child. I was always on the sidelines, always the last to get picked on a team. I enjoyed boarding school enormously because that meant I was away from my mother. She was actually a very good mother although I experienced her as being too protective so it was a joy to get away from her to the school where there rules. The great thing about rules is that if you keep them your life’s okay, so I didn’t go outside the boundaries, I was never naughty and because there were rules it meant I could play the games and I was always included in things because everyone had to be included. When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. In those days there were three options: you could be a secretary, or nurse or teacher or possibly you might go to university. I knew my parents couldn’t afford university, I didn’t want to be a teacher, didn’t want to do a secretarial course and there was no way I was going to be a nurse either.

Sarah: These were the only options for women in those days.

Alison: Absolutely. My mother was a very forward-looking person. I was very anti her but she did amazing things as a woman that other people wouldn’t have done which I didn’t really appreciate while growing up. We had this car accident when I was about four coming home from a party. An oil truck lost control of its steering coming down hill and slammed into the driver’s door of our car. My mother was wearing a pompom hat, which saved her life, but she got a fracture of her atlas and this gave her headaches for years afterwards. I had no sympathy for her then because I didn’t know what was going on but she put up with a lot and was determined to do the best for her kids. We were in the States for two years during the war and for me that was fairyland. For my mother it was hell.

Sarah: Why was it hell for her?

Alison: She was homesick and she lived in a little room the size of a box room and she wasn’t all that well during that time but she made sure that John (my brother) and I went to good schools and she fought for us. I only appreciated all of this when I later read letters she had written to my father. I got all these letters after my father’s death and they were such an eye opener. My mother was like a mother wolf protecting her cubs and I didn’t always appreciate it.

Sarah: Why was the States such a fairyland for you?

Alison: It was wonderful. All the English kids were treated as if we were really special and we did all kinds of things we would never have done at home. We stayed in amazing places. We had a wonderful summer holiday in Cape Cod. We had a little shack which was hell for my mother but for me and my brother it was fantastic: the tide came in and out and you could run around with no shoes on in the sand and the rivers. We had two amazing Christmases there before we came home in 1942 because my mother was so homesick. We returned in a convoy across the North Atlantic and I think a couple of the boats in our convoy were torpedoed. The boat we travelled over in was actually torpedoed after it left England to go back to the States and the boat we originally went out to Canada in was also torpedoed on one of its journeys so it was a dangerous time.

Sarah: It sounds like you had a taste of freedom over in the States.

Alison: Oh absolutely yes. Talking of freedom, I want to talk about this whole question of choice and responsibility because I believe that everything that happens to us in life is the result of our choice, which can be an unconscious as well as a conscious one. I suppose I could say I didn’t choose the kind of birth I had and neither did my mother but at some level both of us allowed this to happen and therefore there is an element of choice when we allow things to happen. My mother chose to put herself completely into the hands of the midwife and who can blame her. She had had a terrible time with my brother and my father was determined she wasn’t going to have such a bad time with the next one so he went to the best obstetrician in London and the near death experience was a result of that. So the next choice was what was I going to do when I left school? The school was chosen because my mother lived in Sherborne and had been in at the very beginning of this Sherborne School for Girls when it had grown from being a little kindergarten at the top of the hill and she had been at the same school. I was thrilled and loved it there but I did feel the poor relation, as there were all these kids whose parents could afford ponies and things like that.

I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do. Just as I left school we had to move house. An uncle who lived with us died and my mother had a breakdown and had to go to hospital. My father moved us to a flat in London which was terrible but he said he would pay for me to do a six month course somewhere and I eventually found a course in horse management which I was thrilled about as I always loved horses, even though we never had them and I had only ever mucked out a few stables and rode occasionally. This was a character forming experience going to what used to be a riding Academy, run by an old cavalry major near Waltham Cross and some of the things I learnt there are still imprinted on my life. ‘Think big and your deeds will grow, think small and you’ll fall behind.’ ‘Think that you can and you will, it’s all in the state of your mind.’ Many old Victorian sayings were up all over the place and they got engrained in me and obviously became affirmations though I didn’t realize at the time that there was such a thing as an affirmation. The Victorians did live their lives by these affirmations and it helped them. I was there for nine months and got my qualifications. We were taught to be perfectionists in the horse world because we were told you will never be able to keep these standards up anywhere else but at least you know them. I went and helped a friend look after some ponies for a while and then went and looked after some Anglo Arabs and it was great out in the country and I loved it. This was where the next stage of my life really began. I got a little Corgi scooter and I used to go everywhere on it. One day I was coming home round a bend and this farmer had got a new tractor in 1952 and I was mesmerized by this tractor and drove straight on into the rear wheel of a coal lorry, which was coming in the other direction. I came to on the side or the road and I had a cut on my head and concussion, was taken to hospital and stayed there for one night and insisted on going straight back to work. I had my own mind in those days as well. Maybe my life wouldn’t have turned out the way it has if I HAD gone away for a few weeks, but I chose to stay. Then, of course, I got prosecuted for not driving with due care and attention. This horrified me and three months later I was in court and my employer paid the fine, which was five pounds then, but for me to break the law was absolutely terrible.

I went on working during the summer but gradually found I couldn’t work in the sun so I used to take the horses into the shade. Polio was around in the local town and I was nowhere near the town. Then one day I got this awful headache and I just sat out in the garden all day. The next day I was supposed to go to a show and couldn’t go and went to bed instead. During that day I went down to the bathroom and I couldn’t get up again. I managed to crawl back to bed. By the time they got back I couldn’t move my legs. I got to hospital where it was discovered I had got polio and fortunately the virus stopped half way up my spine so my arms and my chest were never affected. I got taken to an isolation hospital and for the first time in many years I wanted my mother. She could come and stand on a soapbox outside the window and look in. The guy next door to me died. After three weeks I was then taken to an orthopedic ward in St. Bartholomew’s, which had been evacuated out to St. Albans. My mother’s brother was a GP with a high-grade practice in London and he got me in and got what he reckoned was the best surgeon. This hospital was wonderful and for the first time I really felt looked after and that nobody was going to kill me (this with over 50 years hindsight!). My mother had looked after me really well but it was the psychological thing in my subconscious, which was there all the time with me with my mother. Although I needed her there was this baby logic around this traumatic birth which was somewhere in my being.

Then I was moved to the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital which was in these rows of Nissan huts and there I remember the first thing the surgeon said to the sister (in those days they talked over the patients) saying – ‘Well she’ll be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life but we might as well get her fitted for some calipers’ – and I sat there and said to myself – ‘I’m not going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life’, so I got my calipers and got walking. I think my uncle pulled some strings and got me into an ex RAF rehab place near Watford.  I had to wait three months and spent it at home, which was hell. I had three months in the rehab. It was one of these big places and all day long you did what you could do using your muscles and before you left you had to be able to use public transport. So by the time I left I was able to get on a bus. My father got me a little black Morris Minor through his firm in the autumn of 1953 and I learnt to drive in three weeks, passed my test after practicing up and down our long drive with hand controls – so I was mobile. So what was I going to do next? I then gave in and did a secretarial course.

Sarah: What was that like?

Alison: That wasn’t too bad but again the chairman of my father’s company lent me a flat in a block of flats and I was able to leave my car outside the door, so I was gradually getting back into some sort of life.

Sarah: Were you using sticks then?

Alison: I was using elbow crutches and calipers and I could get up steps and stairs and within a few years I was going into these big London houses with granite steps going up to them – going up was reasonably easy but coming down with no rail was like coming down Everest and I never fell – my heart was in my mouth all the time.

Sarah: So your world was literally turned upside down after the polio, you had to think in a completely different way.

Alison: Yes. In those days my faith had very good foundations in the Church of England education and I went to the Abbey in Sherborne every week. When I was confirmed I thought my life would miraculously change and it didn’t. I did believe that God had a purpose for my life so that was how I rationalized it was okay to be disabled so I’d never at that point ranted and raved about not being able to do stuff.

Sarah: So you internalized a lot of frustration.

Alison: Of course, absolutely, but that was there anyway. While I was at the secretarial college Billy Graham came to London and one of the women took a load of us along to hear him at Haringay. I thought it was wonderful and if only this was for me. I did have one friend from school and also my father’s firm had a chaplain and I don’t know how I learned about it but he was showing Billy Graham films in the local church. I went along to one, which was called Oil Town USA and again thought ‘this is wonderful if only it was for me.’ And then the one friend I had from school was converted under Billy Graham’s ministry and through her I did get to that point myself where I saw it simply as surrendering my life to Christ, and when I did that, this was one of the life changing times in my life, and my life really did change. I got in with a group of people whose lives had also changed and we did a lot of Bible Study and I joined a church that was really helpful and learned a lot of scripture verses. I didn’t realize it then but they were the most marvellous affirmations that you can ever have and again to this day I will use them, particularly if I’m scared about anything the verse is there for me.

Sarah: Would you have described yourself then as a born again Christian?

Alison: Definitely. Oh yes. And this is when my family started thinking I’d gone mad. It really gave me life in a way I had never experienced before. Billy Graham came back again and I was a counsellor then and I went to all the classes I could.

Sarah: Did you train as a counsellor with Billy Graham?

Alison: As a Billy Graham counsellor yes, but not what we would call counselling today.

Sarah: A ministry type of counselling.

Alison: Yes, pointing people to verses that would help people, praying with them, helping them to lead a new life and I got in with this group called The Navigators who actually ran quite a lot of these counselling classes and it was through them that I eventually moved out of my flat. I was left five thousand pounds by a relative and bought a house in Golder’s Green, a fantastic house, with the idea of having other young women living there and we would call it a Navigator’s home. There was one American woman who was the head of the house and then there were three or four of us living there and it was a great time and I learnt a lot about other people: that not everyone did house work the same way I did, not everyone cooked the same way, you know, I’d not come across this before. I learnt to compromise. We shared chores. I learnt that if someone doesn’t come in for a meal on time that was okay. It was a tough one for me to learn. I learnt so many useful things for life as well as getting well stuck into my Bible.

Sarah: Would you describe this as you first taste of community living?

Alison: Well I’d lived the school life, which is community. And of course when I did my horse management course we were living in the same house so I’d lived with people but this was another chapter and at this time I was also working for my father’s firm. They had found a job for me after the secretarial course and I had worked my way up and got promotion working in Brixton. The next change came when I realized I didn’t want to work in an office so what was I going to do? Again this question of choice. I was always taking these leaps of faith and it was like leaping into the deep end of the swimming pool all the time. So the next leap was that I took unpaid leave for three months to discover what I wanted to do. I had no income and I remember one day I got the car to the top of the hill with very little petrol and coasted down the hill on my brakes and got to nearly outside the house when the petrol ran out – it was this living on faith and that money would come from somewhere. It was around that time that I started working for a Beach Mission in North Wales with this amazing Australian and I went up there every summer for about five or six years and I learnt so much about learning which I’ve always passed on to my students – the first stage is the credulous where you take it in and isn’t this fabulous, the second stage needs to be criticism, is this really right? Is this something I can or want to believe in because I’ve looked at it from every angle? The third one is conviction and what I realized is that so many people stay in the credulous stage and don’t work through the criticism to the conviction and that is one of the main things I learnt from this wonderful Australian guy – also a lot of things that we do today that when we did them with him were new – like having buzz groups and these kind of things which he started off with businesses in London and everything just spread – I was so fortunate to have been in at the beginning of so many of these things.

Sarah: Would you describe yourself as a pioneer?

Alison: I suppose I must be yes, because they were the things that attracted me. I remember we really believed in the power of prayer and we used to have these services on the beach every day that were fantastic because there was always something different going on. One day we had this very special service and the clouds up in North Wales were coming in and we could see that the whole place was going to get deluged and wrecked and everyone was praying that the clouds would just keep away until after the service, and they were kept away until after the service. That kind of thing we would regard as a miracle which of course just increased our faith in the power of prayer or whatever you like to call it today – it was just using the energy of the universe.

Sarah: Is that what you would call it today – the energy of the universe?

Alison: Well I personally would still probably talk about prayer but it is the power of the universe – we’ve had to anthropomorphize God or whatever we might call he, she or something, in order to get a human understanding but actually it’s the energy that’s out there in the universe, the energy that creates. So while I would still talk about God, whether it be he or she to people, actually I want to de-anthropomorphize God, if that’s a word, because the power in the universe is so much greater than anything we could ever think of God. I remember J.B. Philips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small and I thought, that’s wonderful, yes our God is too small and even then my God was too small for what I now experience, I guess.

Sarah: So have you moved from God as a person to something much bigger?

Alison: Well no, I still call on God for help. I don’t call on universal energy for help. It’s easier to call on God for help (laughs). I mean I do this several times every day, I’m saying ‘please help me to do this, please enable me to do that,’ and particularly with my mobility and the physical things I have to do. Then there are the people who have come into my life and helped me as a result of my calling for help. Yes, it is the universal energy but it’s also God. I didn’t think of God as a female God until I worked for Frank Lake in the 70’s and that was shattering. My theology has had to evolve as I’ve evolved.

Sarah: Why was it with Frank Lake particularly that you found the female God?

Alison: He was bringing in people from the States, pastoral counsellors and so on who were beginning to talk about God as feminine and my theology had to do a big somersault really and at times it was quite painful, but it was good in the end because my vision was too narrow. For a time I was very judgemental of people of the fundamentalist brand of religion because they couldn’t see the bigger picture, but then I realized that there was a safety in the narrow vision and I had no right to judge people because they didn’t feel safe enough to go further out and engage with something that was broader.

Then I sold my house in Golder’s Green and used the money to go to Bible College, where the principal thought I could take the Cambridge certificate in the summer. I was aghast because I had absolutely finished with exams when I was at school so the thought of taking another exam was terrible. Anyway I did it and got my Cambridge certificate for Religious Knowledge and got my training as a parish worker and then wondered what I was going to do next. Nothing came up. I had nowhere to live. All my belongings were in my Morris Minor car including a wonderful camp bed, a mattress, everything. And then out of the blue – you know things do happen out of the blue – I got a call from someone who ran a Bible College asking if I’d like to go and do the accounts. I certainly didn’t want to do any accounts but it was a job and I admired this woman enormously, so I went to do the accounts in Ridgelands Bible College for five pounds a week plus my keep. I got a room on the ground floor and everything was fine. As well as doing the accounts I was gradually getting more and more teaching to do.

I also learned a lot about gardening and also noticed that this woman kept on getting rid of staff and finding things wrong with them and all the time I was the blue-eyed girl and when one of the staff members got sick I had to take on a whole load of teaching that I hadn’t anticipated, so I had to read up on subjects the week before seeing the students. The principal had double booked a women’s day of prayer meeting and she asked me to take one of the meetings so there I was in this big church with this big sermon and it went extremely well. But from that moment she switched and I got the evil eye. Looking back on it, it was jealousy. She also had a sickness as she had had Dengue fever from which her husband had died in Africa. After I left she became more and more paranoid and eventually had to go and get help. I needed to find a way to leave legitimately without being pushed out. So come on God, what’s the answer to this? Maybe I could go back to the Church of England people who choose parish workers and see if I can be a parish worker. So I went for the weekend selection and then came back and waited. A letter arrived saying ‘we think you would be better suited to do the Archbishop’s diploma in theology which was a three year course.’ That was their advice to me. More exams. More study. So I put it out there. ‘God if this is what you want me to do, you’d better get me a grant to do it and find me somewhere to live and if you do that, I’ll do it.’ Well I got a grant quite easily and surprisingly got a place to live quite easily, in Streatham in London and got the college I could get into. So I got out legitimately even though the principal thought I was beyond the pale, but that didn’t matter as I kept my own integrity in it. So then I had three and half years of study which took me into a deep, deep depression, unrecognized by me at that time, of course!

Sarah: Why was that, do you think?

Alison: Well I realized later that I had actually been depressed since I was born.

Sarah: So it was starting to come out.

Alison: Yes. I had a friend living with me who was also doing a degree at the London Bible College and she was a help to me. I also had a very good tutor at Gilmore House and if it wasn’t for her I would never have got through but you see I was having to imbibe all these things about theology that didn’t fit with my theology at all. I was much more literal and not interested in myth and stuff. Even if I didn’t believe it I still had to work with it. I even had to learn Greek and a Bishop came and taught me New Testament Greek. So I did eventually get my diploma in theology, which was equal to an Oxford Honours Degree, but when they first came out Oxford wasn’t allowed to give degrees to women.

Sarah: Well there’s another brick wall.

Alison: Well it was hell but I would never have done all the things I have done since if I hadn’t got the degree, but I was never going to teach theology. I was still in touch with the Navigators and doing Bible Studies so I became a mentor to girls living with me and then a Dutch woman came and lived with me and she was the one who catapulted me into psychotherapy because she could be quite psychotic. She didn’t know what was the matter and I didn’t know what was the matter with her. This was where I learned to listen as I would spend hours on her bed and she knew the moment my attention wandered! She was an excellent nurse in a psychiatric hospital but she would come home and be suicidal and it got to the point where I couldn’t cope and she agreed to see a psychiatrist. I’d got Frank Lake’s book, she agreed to see a Christian psychiatrist so I rang Frank Lake who was back from India and he had a space and I took her up to see him. And it was like phew – he knows what she is talking about – he understands – and so I took her up once a fortnight regularly to see him. That was when I began to get involved with Clinical Theology myself and went to all the seminars in London. I was able to buy a brand new purpose built flat in Streatham for £6000 with all mod cons. It was the first place I had that had central heating. It was a two bedroom with a lovely big sitting room and kitchen and today would probably cost about £225,000! So I moved there with the Dutch woman.

Sarah: Had her condition improved by this stage?

Alison: Well she and I had a row one night and I woke up the next morning and found her sitting at the end of the settee bolt upright and unconscious with the phone hanging off the hook. She had obviously decided to try and take her own life. So I rang Frank and she had been trying to ring him before she lost consciousness. He felt that a lot of this was his responsibility and I think he was right. He told me to call the doctor and the ambulance and get her to hospital. That was when I learned about suicide that actually it is never the therapist’s fault. He told me there is no blame attached to you even if you’d had a row the night before. It was her decision and her responsibility and that was what she had decided to do. So after she had been in hospital, where she felt thoroughly humiliated, having been a sister on a psychiatric ward and was now there herself, I took her up to Frank where I overheard a conversation he had with her where he told her that people who are helpers need to have help themselves and he persuaded her that it was okay for her to get the help she needed, especially working with psychiatric cases.

My eyes metaphorically lit up and I thought, this means I can have some help because I was worn down. I was the kind of person who would nearly sink under the stone; I would go on until I could go on no more. So I asked Frank if I could see him and I never forget the very first time I went out to see him myself and lay on the bed in his consulting room and to me for the very first time in my life it felt like I could be who I really was and that, of course, was the needy infant wanting desperately to be looked after. I’d spent all my time learning to look after other people, I guess in the hope of being looked after myself, which I was to a certain extent. Of course in those days R.D. Laing was into this re-parenting stuff and I got into this too. Then there was Frank’s great tome in which he said that to reach the trauma you’ve go to allow somebody to be in that infant state in order to get the trauma out. This is where the whole primal thing began to come in.

Sarah: Can we just to go back to the place where you felt for the first time that you could be who you were really supposed to be. Was that because Frank was a safe pair of hands and that he wasn’t going to kill you as you felt your mother did?

Alison: Absolutely, yes, although at that time I was not aware of that.

Sarah: So in dealing with trauma it’s essential to find that safe pair of hands.

Alison: Absolutely. In ensuing years when I had therapists I always made quite sure I would be safe with them. I was very fussy about who I would go to for therapy and I found the right people. I wouldn’t let just anyone in a group work with me because I had to be sure. Even when I went through my own birth which was ten years after I met Frank (I still thought I’d had a perfect birth) I went through the horrors of my own birth– and although I didn’t have to go through it again, I realized more and more what that first trauma meant and how it had affected aspects of my life. Only five years ago did I realize that in fact I had been nearly killed. I had to go to California to William Emerson to actually go through the horror it. Today we can’t work like we did when I was going through all that because we’d be had up as abusers. It was tough, physical stuff, voluntarily gone into, but we couldn’t do it that way today.

Sarah: How has it changed and become easier today to do this kind of work?

Alison: There are many more ways of doing it today. You have got drumming, voice training, different ways of massage, gentle biodynamic stuff that can actually bring the emotions up there’s many ways today that just weren’t available in those early days. But it was marvellous in the early 70s in London. Everything seemed to be opening up.  I mean you could get a broken arm by going into a therapy group! I mean people started fighting. I was careful to avoid those groups but I knew it went on.

Sarah: You really were in at the cutting edge like the pioneers…they had it tough and many of them died.

Alison: Well I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The 70s were the most exciting days of my life without a doubt. I had someone helping me with some of these weekend groups. And come Monday morning I would sometimes wonder if I would still have a job because of the fine line we walked, literally on a tightrope, on a razor’s edge and we got results, and some people were helped.

Sarah: Do you think some people were damaged?

Alison: Ah now. Part of my job when I went to work for Frank in 1976 was actually to pick up the pieces that he’d dropped because unfortunately he was so schizoid – he worked wonderfully with people and knew exactly where they were – but when they got too close to him he would drop them. So that was part of my task I reckoned, so that this didn’t happen and I think to a large measure I managed to do that. I always followed up on the people I had and some of them came to groups for years. That was how I first came to Northern Ireland when I got invited to Benburb Priory in 1978 to do weekend primal workshops and I would bring over someone over to help. They were amazing groups and of course I’d never been to Ireland before and in Armagh we were right in the middle of the troubles. We would go on to goodness knows what hour at night and start in again the next day. There would be several things going on with different people in the group and I learned then to be able to know what was going on in any part of the room and would be able to intervene. I learned so much about the baby who was being born. Like one who was twirled around like they do with calves and sheep to make them breathe. Mind-boggling stuff which was obviously true or why would it come up.

Sarah: Having gone through your own difficult birth you would understand that beating against the brick wall and that near death experience.

Alison: I learnt so much from my clients and I could go through anything with them. There was never a problem of my being too scared and this I realize is why many people can only go so far with their clients because they are too scared to go any further to the depths that the client may need or want to get to in order to sort out the trauma.

Sarah: You are saying that the therapist really has to have done the really deep work if they want to do deep work with their clients.

Alison: Yes definitely. Even before I went to the States to do my own birth work I was still able to stay with people at whatever depth they needed to go, and I guess I could do that because I’d been able to live with own trauma for so many years, even if I didn’t recognize it in those days.

Then because this was Ireland even after we’d been working all day there was the party and everyone would have their party piece, there would be poicin (laughs) and coming from England this flabbergasted me to start with as it was a world I wasn’t used to at all.

Sarah: Did you feel at that time, that this was what you were supposed to be doing?

Alison: Well I knew what I was supposed to be doing after I first went to Frank – that was where I got my knowledge and knew this was what I wanted to do. Up until then I’d been promised ‘a lamp to my feet and a light to my heart’, as it says in Psalms and I’d always gone step by step with the lamp because I couldn’t see any further. I owe my life to Frank, I caught the passion for the work and with his encouragement continued with whatever I felt I could do.  As well as being a great teacher he was always the great encourager. Then after I had done everything with the CT seminars I wondered if I needed to train further. Should I take a degree in psychology? Is this the next step, which horrified me? Frank said ‘no, you don’t need a degree in psychology.’ So I then discovered that the Westminster Pastoral Foundation had courses. Although I had no money I went and worked on reception and did the odd night course and then did the first full time counselling course in the country, that was in 1971. I was also going to John Gravelle for therapy. He ran the seminars I went to and it was marvellous as I was just allowed sometimes to be the little girl and sit at his knee.

Sarah: What type of therapy was that at the time?

Alison: We were just beginning to experiment with primal floor work. He would give me some bio-energetic exercises; get me into some kind of altered state where we could reach some of this pain which was inside my body.

Sarah: So Reich was known.

Alison: Oh yes, Frank brought over Alexander Lowen from the States. He brought over loads of people when things were just opening up in England.

Sarah: It must have been very exciting.

Alison: Oh it was very exciting. The Gestalt ideas were coming in and we used them as well. But we were experimenting. The way Frank worked was that you were on the floor – no mattresses and you got cushions piled on top of you and eventually if you got too claustrophobic you would seek to find your way out of the cushions, which would be your birth – and there would be people sitting on the cushions to make it more difficult. Over the years we refined it enormously. I could tell the way someone was being born really just with my hands so we didn’t have to pile on the cushions and nowadays its hardly done at all. Somewhere the whole consciousness has raised enough for people to be able to reach these depths without having to use the methods we did. I didn’t know what consciousness meant in those days. It was an unknown factor.

Sarah: So how did you come to live in Ireland?

Alison: I was coming over to Northern Ireland on a regular basis and we would have quite large groups of twenty people and I’m still in touch vaguely with some of the people there who said there lives had been changed. It was both hair raising and wonderful. Then I got invited to do a workshop in Dublin and then invited to do one in Cork. In England I had left Frank and Clinical Theology in 1979 because I was earning money for several other consultants so I got fed up with that. I went to William Emerson in 1981 and got to know people in the States – and another mentor, a healer, Rosalyn Bruyere from California. Again, a miracle how I got in touch with her. I was living in Daventry with a mortgage way over my head and couldn’t afford to stay in England, so I was encouraged to come over to Dublin and got a superb bungalow just outside Enniskerry. My mother died having seen Enniskerry on the map and just after I’d signed the lease for the house and she was happy as she thought I was coming home. Her parents were Irish from Cork and I think she died happy knowing I was living here in her homeland, even though she never had lived here. So I moved over entirely and left England behind.

In 1982 I was over in the States again when the horrifying prospect of having something called Amethyst came into my mind as I was meditating with the stone on a friend’s deck one day. I pushed it on to the back burner.

Sarah: You were meditating wearing the amethyst?

Alison: It was in my hand because it was a brooch in those days and I didn’t wear it at all but I was looking at it and noticing all the facets when it came to me – you’ve got to found something and call it Amethyst, because amethysts have been around for thousands of years and the name has never changed so it doesn’t matter what new therapy or what new healing comes into being it can still all be under the umbrella of Amethyst. And the idea refused to go away and so on my mother’s birthday December 5th 1982 I held a dinner for a few friends and Amethyst was born. We got premises in May the following year and we were one of the first holistic centres in Ireland and every Friday we would have an open evening and have someone different come to present something and they were very well attended.

Sarah: So this was the birth of pre and peri-natal therapy in Ireland.

Alison: I think so and we ran weekends which were called Getting the Past out of the Present and again these were very well attended.

Sarah: Would a lot of the current therapists have started with you?

Alison: Certainly a number of the old stagers would have come across my path from time to time. People who were committed to doing their personal work and some of whom have died. And of course Carmel was introduced to us. I had met Shirley one weekend in Lingdale. I remember being astonished for saying something outlandish to Shirley – ‘that I feel you and I have a lot of work to do together in the future.’ And that eventually happened. She would come over to Ireland and help with weekends and she came over permanently after she finished her degree and her teaching job. We spent three months in the States together in 1985 and we shared the house in Enniskerry up until 1999 when we moved down here. I had a landlord who was trying to get me out and then there was the miracle of the friend who bought me the house up there – I already had the land – so many miracles happen along the way – but I always have to go into something literally head first.

Sarah: Your birth process?

Alison: Well in a way and then I get rescued at the last minute like being rescued at the last minute with this house being built for me. But I don’t like being rescued at the last minute. I’d like to be rescued earlier (laughs), thank you….

Sarah: This seems to be the way it is.

Alison: This is the way it HAS been. Does it have to continue that way? When I was forty and considering having to put my mother into a nursing home I thought my parents never even considered their old age and I thought I’ve got to start thinking about this now, preparing for my old age. So in the back of my mind I’ve been preparing for my old age because I could see what was happening to people who hadn’t thought of it, possibly because they didn’t think they’d live that long. People didn’t just after the war. Also I never wanted to be beholden to anybody and that again is a birth script when I had to wait for the help that nearly killed me. But I’ve had very good inheritance, which has enabled me for the last ten years to lead the kind of life which I never dreamed of, as well as my own hard work. I’d never have been able to buy any property if it hadn’t been for my mother’s brothers who have been a great help to me financially over the years but of course they’re gone now and so has their inheritance. (Laughs) But I have got somewhere to live for life and it will always be cheaper to keep me here than put me somewhere else.

Sarah: Well in a sense then you have changed the script. You don’t have to die in order to live here.

Alison: Well everything is a choice, whether conscious or subconscious. Even by choosing to do nothing we are making a choice. So everything is influenced by the choices we make and I’m really happy – or am I – I could have made a choice in 1985. Another guy who helped me change my life was Meyer Schneider and he actually is a physical therapist and he said in California, at a time when people were being taken to court for breaking their word, that he reckoned he could help me to walk in two years and I believe him, but I chose not because Amethyst was just beginning over here and my life task was over here and I couldn’t spend it learning to walk again. Maybe if I’d had the cash I would have done it and it would have been really hard physical work for me because I know how he works, but I chose not to. And yet as a result of the choices I’ve made I’ve been able to help many other people make choices they are glad they have made in life, through the work I’ve been able to do and the training programmes we’ve done here which were fabulous.

Sarah: You have contributed a huge amount to psychotherapy here haven’t you?

Alison: I would think so, yes.

Sarah: Do you see the positive results of psychotherapy?

Alison: Well yes, but I think it’s getting too narrow. I feel it’s getting too institutionalized. It’s difficult keeping the breadth and I don’t know what the answer is.

Sarah: Do you think that happens to everything in the end; becoming institutionalized? I mean look at religion.

Alison: (Laughs). Well yes after hundreds of years yes.

Sarah: Psychotherapy has been around for a very short time.

Alison: Well no. When I was training as a counsellor in the 70s they were then talking about being government regulated and it still isn’t. Okay there are the associations that now regulate but they took far longer to come into being than was originally planned.

Sarah: Do you want to see regulation?

Alison: Well the problem is more about recognition. There are always going to be charlatans in every profession unfortunately. But in psychotherapy if people don’t find you helpful they leave you.

Sarah: Do you fear psychotherapy is becoming too institutionalized?

Alison: I don’t fear it, I don’t like it. I don’t like the rules and regulations but gradually since we got into training we have recognized the need to follow them if we are going to produce people who are going to help others. You have to follow some tramlines in order to get a living. The main purpose is to help other people but if you can’t earn your living by it you have to have another job as well. Two years ago with the help of others I got together a very good syllabus for a four year training programme, which actually fitted the criteria standard needed for training so if anyone wants to take on this training there is this syllabus which I would be willing to allow the right kind of people to take over. It’s a damned good course. It’s well thought out and well balanced and has everything built into it. If wanted we would be available to help but not to run it.

Sarah: Do you have any observations of the psychotherapy profession today?

Alison: Too many people have not done their own work.

Sarah: Why do you think that is?

Alison: Therapists want to help people but it’s too painful to go into the depth of their own stuff.

Sarah: Is that because personal therapy is not seen as a priority?

Alison: If people are happy with the depth they have got to they will help people at that depth and that’s it. People who come to us have said ‘I got so far with so and so and she wouldn’t go with me where I needed to go.’ I’m not sure the best intentions and academic standards in fact would produce the kind of psychotherapist I would like to see out there.

Sarah: What have your learnt from your supervision groups?

Alison: I’ve learnt what life is like out there because here I’m in a delightfully isolated spot. I love running groups but at the moment we are too far out for people to come here except for a few. I feel I still have some nuggets to share I just need the opportunity to share them. I appreciate the wisdom I’ve got and would like to share it more. Maybe the opportunity will arise. I’m not ready to throw the towel in yet but I do enjoy being retired. (Laughs)

Sarah: I can’t see you throwing in the towel just yet. I think there are still many nuggets and wisdom you can impart.

Alison: I keep going back to saying that we do have to take responsibility for the choices we make and the lives that we lead. Even those of us who have been victimized need to look at what caused them to become a victim in the first place, and this can be very difficult with all the abuses that are out there at the moment. For some people this is just too painful so we have to devise helpful means to enable them to live a life without feeling victimized or having to go back to these terrible times. I haven’t quite said this right but where I’ve said to get through a trauma you need to go back to it and work through it. For some people they have been so traumatized that they cannot because the terror is so great that they have to remain with it hidden and live lives they can with whatever help they can get. Some people need support for life because of what they have suffered.

Sarah: So even the right therapist would not be able to overcome that terror.

Alison: I think there are some ways now, perhaps through energy healing which can lift some of that trauma out of the body, because everything is stored in the body. I think we need to look at more ways of doing that. Biodynamic ways can be gentle, I don’t know. My belief in reincarnation is an enormous help here.

Sarah: Is this what you believe in now?

Alison: I came to it about thirty years ago because we see the people who have done the damage not getting their just desserts in this life, and we can see people who have suffered terribly in this life. When can they lead a better life? This is helpful with children, with disabilities and terminal illnesses. A short life now can lead to a better life next time round because healing can have taken place with the love that has been given in a short life. I believe I’ve been able to heal both my parents since they died. They both had horrific traumas in their lives before I was born so to me reincarnation is a hopeful outlook.

Sarah: Do you think we are all continuums of something?

Alison: Yes until we get to full maturity.

Sarah: And when is that? (Laughter)

Alison: Maturing only comes in a human lifetime. What happens in between we don’t know. What we do know is that those who come back from the dead say the place they looked at was wonderful but they needed to come back to complete something in this life. So I can’t believe in an afterlife of hell. Hell is on this earth and heaven can be on this earth as well.

Sarah: In the early Christian church there was a belief in reincarnation so would you still call yourself a Christian? Or a Buddhist?

Alison: Oh I could be a Buddhist. Yes, certainly Jesus believed in reincarnation. When I’m working with somebody any kind of spirituality or any kind of God that they believe in I can work with them and I think its important that therapists can work with whatever belief system your client has. And if they have none you will be surprised that eventually they will find some spirituality because somewhere people are looking for it even if they are not aware of it.

Sarah: So your spirituality has really broadened.

Alison: Oh absolutely.

Sarah: So you wouldn’t put a label on it at all.

Alison: If I have to fill out a form I would put down Christian. I think we’ve gone beyond Christianity – well we have and we haven’t – but Jesus did say ‘greater things than these shall ye do’ and these greater things are happening today. Jesus took a distillation of all the wisdom that was available in the world and distilled it down into his teachings, which we find in the gospels, which came down from hand and mouth and were written after his death anyway. So I reckon he included all religions, so I have no hesitation in quoting scripture when it seems appropriate. In my early religious days I would have tried to cram it down everyone’s throat but fortunately I grew out of that, fortunately I grew out of the thought that God wanted me to have polio and not be able to walk. That this wasn’t God’s plan but a result of some of the choices I made. And I’ve had to make the best of it. And we have to live with the choices we’ve made. Some of them are forever in this lifetime and some of them we can change. The paralysis is something I’ve chosen for this time round. Marriage is something I’ve chosen not to be involved with this time round although I’ve had my regrets and the sort of asexuality I went in for polio was a lovely peg to hang that on for many years but of course it was because of what happened to my mother. She said to me the only man you can ever trust is your father. She was a victim of incest, being raped by her father, who was a respected family doctor in a market town in England. If I’d known that I would have been so shocked and horrified but when I came over here and found out that incest was endemic and then I discovered long after she had died that this is what had happened. My brother confirmed for me that her father had raped her. He said it happened once but incest doesn’t just happen once.

Sarah: The whole ancestral psychic inheritance is both shocking and fascinating isn’t it?

Alison: You need to look at what happened to your parents to realize why you’ve made some of the choices you’ve made.

Sarah: And grandparents.

Alison: Yes.

Sarah: This is all so fascinating. We could go on and on. Alison I want to thank you so much for telling us your story and for sharing so much of yourself and to acknowledge your tremendous contribution to humanistic and integrative psychotherapy. On behalf of all our readers, members and your ex students we wish you a very Happy 80th Birthday for March 9th, 2012.