This is the version submitted for publication (then edited a bit for Context 29 Winter 1996) of a plenary paper presented at the AFT UK 1996 Annual Conference in Bolton. It is one of a pair of papers on rituals. The other was to psychoanalytical psychotherapists in 1995. I see rituals as a somewhat ignored but potentially rich bridge between psychoanalytic and family therapy approaches. The pair of papers were two ends of the bridge. Rituals small and large are everywhere an ordinary and an extraordinary part of our lives, full of meaning and therapeutic power too. The implied argument is that therapies and therapists would do well to draw on the power of the ordinary in people's lives, to connect with what is outside the clinic door, rather than amputate that resilience and look at the bleeding stumps inside it.
My aim is to re-commend to you what I’ll call ‘animistic possession’. Animism is the belief that things possess living spirits. Magnified as it is in rituals, I think animistic possession is a key that opens up doors. Animistic possession is just one aspect of rituals, and not really a key one either. Ultimately I’m making a very obvious and ordinary point about life and work.
At Bolton, after presenting this paper, I conducted an AFT 21st Anniversary Key Ritual. Readers can also take part in this continued ‘distance’ ritual by having a key ready and imagining you were there. Because of the distance, readers will need to concentrate hard, but the power is strong enough to reach you if you do, and give you too an actual key possessed by the spirit of that occasion. At Bolton, a box was passed round to collect people’s keys. These keys have accompanied us variously for some if not all the last 21 years. Imbued with the day’s significance, they may accompany us through to AFT’s next major birthday, the 40th. They come from every area, all disciplines, they have been around our homes and work settings, our clients, colleagues, our books and learning, in private and in public. The keys have an intimate acquaintance with all kinds of real and metaphorical doors and drawers being secured and opened. At Bolton and later they picked up the collective spirit of the occasion, and something of the thought waves and atmosphere focussed into them. The box was the one Stuart Lieberman used for filing the first AFT papers when he was the secretary 21 years ago.
Not Much About Maturana I recently saw a lovely misprint. Inadvertently, it neatly links post-modernism and pre-modernism to illustrate my starting point. With the aid of ‘modern’ computerised spell-checking, the word ‘position’ lost its middle. So the sentence read: ‘I don’t know much about Maturana, so I cannot comment on his potion.’ Well, I don’t know much about Maturana either, but I think that the way we solemnly and collectively revere some mysterious, if not mystifying or downright foggy, ideas, is very similar to the solemn collective reverence of ritual religious potions and incantations that the priest or witch-doctor brews up. The witchdoctor calls up ancestors with the mystique of ceremonies and potions. We draw up genograms with the mystique of teams and mirrors.
Ellenberger’s (1970) history of dynamic psychiatry, shows that psychotherapists are the direct descendants of the tribal healer or shaman. The dominant pre-modern belief in supernatural forces was countered by the rationality of the age of enlightenment. In 1775 (exactly 200 years before AFT was born), Mesmer famously deposed the priest and exorcist, Gassner, in royal court. He demonstrated the effects of the natural force, animal magnetism, proving that invoking supernatural forces of spirit possession and exorcism was unnecessary. Subsequent generations of hypnotists developed their ‘science’. For example, they induced magnetic sleep from a magnetised elm tree! In that example, the tree, the event and the people were all possessed by each other. Together they formed a system without which the event wouldn’t work. They were connected, I suggest, not by animal magnetism, but by animistic possession.
For 200 years, science and reason tried to bury religion and animism while, via hypnotism and psychoanalysis, psychotherapy grew apace. Freud was a neurologist and hypnotist first. He visited Charcot in Paris. In Freud’s London study he had the famous picture of Charcot demonstrating a case of grande hystérie at the Saltpêtrière, a clearly suggestion-loaded rather than scientific event (Linda Grant, Guardian 14.9.96). The eminent gentlemen wear aprons for no apparent scientific reason – perhaps they were to cover their excitement at the revelatory floor-show! Despite such flimsy cover, psychotherapy has always taken itself to be firmly rationalist. Unsurprisingly it has never been able to convince scientists and proper doctors that we’re of their ilk! And the proliferating development of competing psychotherapeutic schools and institutes is indeed more like that of tribal or religious sects and movements.
And everywhere irrationality and animism are still very much alive. They need more than scientific voodoo to kill them off! Postmodernism has questioned the modernist notion of the world having an integrating rationale. This disintegration, helped by millenial madness, opens up a new wide space for all kinds of old-style extreme irrationality and animism.
I’m not arguing that we return to the excessive extremes. But I am suggesting a moderate reclaiming of these pre-modern elements. And I am still an old-fashioned modernist enough to seek some integrity in our world and work. In particular, I believe, this historical and conceptual perspective leads to a rapprochement between two still distanced fields – psychoanalysis and family therapy. I’ll illustrate this from the media, giving extreme, then moderate, examples.
Mostly From The Media First, and speaking of ‘media’, a 54 year-old gypsy woman appeared before magistrates in Wales this year accused of being a bogus medium under the 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act (Guardian 1996). Think about it – the implication is that the (recent) law of this land acknowledges that there can actually be genuine mediums!
Pat Kane wrote on ‘the war between science and mystery’ (New Statesman, 23.8.96). Catherine Bennett (Guardian 14.6.96) reviewed the rise of superstition, the paranormal, future-telling, and alternative therapies. Before we scoff, who doesn’t ‘touch wood’ or wish people ‘good luck’? Large or small, these irrational actions still possess that imperative quality that characterises rituals of all kinds; they need to be done, or else. Catherine Bennett wants us to hold onto rational enquiry even though people find ‘scientific materialism deeply unsatisfying and they want to get their souls back from science.’
But alternative therapies were all the doctor used to have anyway. Roy Porter (Observer 16.6.96) rued the passing of the old-style GP. Before the 1930s, the family doctor had no medicines that actually cured diseases, but was respected for knowing the whole family throughout their lives, for being by the bedside to share the bad times. Now scientific drug trials all recognise while denying the placebo effect by double-blindly ruling it out – the pill possesses more than pharmacological power. Today doctors are required to become technocrats and 9 to 5 pen-pushers. So the ritual of the GP surgery gets nastier ‘Listen to the new-boy explaining the ritual with the prescription pad: ‘It’s a good way of getting rid of the patient. You scribble something out and rip it off the pad. The ripping off is really the ‘fuck off’.’ No wonder the more caring alternative therapies are attractive! The doctor’s visit used to possess far greater satisfaction. Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter, said: ‘Orthodox medicine may have much to learn from complementary medicine about maximising the placebo effect. Medicine is an art as well as a science. Witch-doctoring is the artistic side of it.’ (Observer, 1.9.96)
Now you wouldn’t want to return to active witchcraft. But, while British medical students sat their finals in the summer this year, the Observer (16.6.96) showed women waiting to be initiated as witch doctors in South Africa, and (presumably once qualified) dancing to invoke the spirits . In that culture, ‘any misfortune is attributable to the supposedly malignant influence of some innocent member of the immediate community. . . . A committee of 8 witch doctors threw bones to divine who was behind the lightning that struck down an old woman. The crowd immediately decided to kill him (one of the 8), stoning him and then setting him alight.’ This is the full extreme of spirit possession.
Thank God we’re not so illogical, we protest in civilised fashion – invoking God’s name nonetheless! But Steve Bell’s cartoon (Guardian 8.5.96) accurately rendered the illogical mass hysteria about the British beef crisis. The men in white coats culled cows at random in order to ‘feel public confidence almost palpably returning’! The cows are possessed by some evil spirit and, whether they’ve also got BSE or not, let’s kill them off until we repossess our good spirits again.
Another amazing cocktail of pseudo-scientific thinking lies in the ADHD epidemic (see last CONTEXT). With ADHD, the modern talismanic potion is as much the scientific incantation as it is the drug prescribed, conceptual illogicality stirred up into a wonderfully effective brew, pressed and distilled by the popular media – the tabloids are to be taken daily!
Much We Can Go Along With Leaving ancient and modern extremes of spirit possession and irrationality, there are some ritual events and objects we can all go along with. We know it’s not rational, but we find part of our selves, our spirit, is in them, attached to them. Responding to Pat Kane, Patrick Curry (New Statesman 30.8.96) made the point nicely, casting a plague on the houses of both science and magic (note the witchcraft metaphor!). He said there is ‘covert continuity and complicity between science and magic. They share a dangerous characteristic, the goal of knowledge as power, pursued if necessary at all costs, including the destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. This situation calls for a different distinction, that between magic and enchantment – enchantment being the realisation of imagined wonder.’
Simple examples of the moderately enchanting would be a wedding ring, or collecting a famous person’s autograph – everyday ritual objects that possess more worth than the gold or paper they’re written on. In contrast, bereavement provides the plainest demonstration of major ritual processes and their reasons, and it has most relevance for us in psychotherapy.
Young people were pictured attending the funeral in Cornwall of Caroline Dickinson, raped and murdered in France during a school holiday trip. In the Guardian photo, they each hold a white rose with a message attached to the stem. It takes hardly a moment even for us distant observers to possess and be moved by the poignancy of the whole situation, and the significance those roses possess for the children, as we imagine what they may do with them during the ceremony. The roses and those actions don’t just possess us, they possess us – that is, we are in them; part of our spirit irrevocably lives there in them; they are animated by us. They express and evoke things in us immediately and effectively, and in a way that only lives in those roses and actions – it can’t be withdrawn from them.
An even more striking grief brought Grace Strang from the other side of the world for what was objectively just an inanimate place and a pile of rubbish. But you would have no trouble understanding the significance of Jim Grace’s lifelong love of his childhood and ‘spiritual’ home by the Leith docks in Scotland, and his wife’s journey back from Australia when he died of cancer to arrange to scatter her husband’s ashes on the waters of the Forth as he had always wished. (Edinburgh Evening News, 28.6.96)
Minimal Theory Now, some theoretical ideas behind ritual and possession. This, rather than clinical work, is where I think the interesting link is to psychoanalytic work. First, the sense of animistic possession is not just found in rituals, it is ubiquitous. Although psychoanalysis tends to pursue an implied rationalising anti-animistic internalising discourse, it is otherwise constantly recognising what it calls identification, projection, symbolism, cathexis, attachment, and so on. The original German word for cathexis – the analytical term for an actively invested attachment to someone or something – was an ordinary military term meaning ‘holding and defending a hilltop position behind enemy lines’. Christopher Bollas, an analyst with a literary background, captures the same liveliness and animism in his description (1992) of how we ‘dream’ our lives:
We each live amidst thousands of such objects that enlighten our world – things that are not hallucinations (they do exist), but whose essence is not intrinsic to what Lacan calls real. Their meaning resides in what Winnicott termed ‘intermediate space’ or ‘the third area’: the place where subject meets thing, to confer significance in the very moment that being is transformed by the object. The objects of intermediate space are compromise formations between the subject’s state of mind and the thing’s character.
Poets and novelists feed on these thousands of minor things which we take for granted and pass by. Our subsequent appreciation of the poem or novel shows how we feed on them too. Bollas describes how we ‘fall into’ some rather than other objects. Works of art are objects specifically designed to facilitate our ‘falling into’ them. So are rituals and ritual objects.
Next, a chief characteristic of rituals is that they accompany life’s transitions. Again it should be said that we are always in transition – ‘the crossroad moves with us’ as the existentialists say. But in life and in therapy, it is the more major transitions that concern us and that’s where rituals show up.
Ingpen and Wilkinson’s (1994) lovely illustrated book,Celebration of Customs and Rituals of the World, demonstrates the range of life events and transitions we all go through. Family life cycle stages, surviving, healing, socialising and disputes, the yearly round, spirituality, and so on. But science and technology have indeed diminished the need to appeal to supernatural powers so much nowadays.
The key notion for us in therapeutic work is that: rituals help us make and mark difficult and complex transitions in life. The difficulty and complexity arise when there are too many confusingly ambivalent and paradoxical factors to be expressed or addressed adequately otherwise. Rituals and ritual objects contain and help digest the difficulty and confusion. They do this partly through symbolism. Symbolism is one of several features rituals and psychoanalysis have in common, some of which some forms of family therapy also share. Other common features are a particular mode of paying attention, a framework of life transitions and maturational stages, difficulty and complexity due to multiply determined ambivalence and paradox, metaphor, conscious and unconscious, self and other. I note in passing Philip Barker’s book Using Metaphor in Psychotherapy (1985) which I think hasn’t been directly taken up as it could have been. Psychoanalytical work has other aims that need to exclude designed therapeutic rituals, but in its practice it uses variants of ritual. Children’s play, the vehicle for child analysis, is a sort of continuous ritual performance. Transference at any age is akin to allowing spirits to come to life and be possessed and worked through in the therapeutic relationship – similarities to using a voodoo doll are not coincidental.
Psychoanalysis and rituals share their investment in symbol and metaphor to a degree that tends to forget that symbol and metaphor is what they are. Both take leave of reality to wonder ‘What if such-and-such were really true?’ Taking metaphor for reality can generate problems! But suspension of reality testing (even if we know we’re doing it) is a basic requirement for the power of rituals to carry us through transitions. Adults tend to forget the magical powers experienced by children. To help you remember, just think back to the investment you had in your doll or teddy or whatever transitional object you had. ‘Helping us make and mark difficult and complex transitions in life’, rituals and ritual objects are transitional objects. In the absence of ‘nurse’, they help us through ‘worse’, the pain and pleasure, the paradox, of separation and loss while remaining connected.
Psychoanalysis, which I like to think of as personal research rather than therapy, has unearthed interesting ideas about psychological development – an area that family therapy studiously ignores. Analytical writers have considered symbol formation itself as dealing with just that transitional development and problem of separation and loss in an infant’s development. My colleague, Anne Hood, has noted (1995) that:
The importance of ritual, as of art, music, literature and poetry, is that it captures the magic communication of the non-verbal and pre-verbal. Even more so because symbolisation begins at the point when the baby responds to absence and separation by creating a fantasy or symbol. Winnicott on transitional objects, Segal on symbolisation, and Bion on thinking, amongst others, highlight the importance of the first me/not me objects and experiences. These (transitional processes) moderate the otherwise devastating loss of omnipotence, allowing some control and power as the baby moves to a depressive position. So the ritual (helps by) encapsulating the experience of helplessness and loss of control Projecting into the (ritual or) symbol and then controlling it is a way of accessing (otherwise) unspeakable feelings.
From this point of view, when it occurs, symbolisation is in itself the baby’s first ritual event, developed to cope with a very early ‘difficult and complex life transition’. The symbol or transitional object is possessed by the spirit of what’s lost.
Since family therapy’s main therapeutic focus is on positive stories and solutions, I emphasise here that symbols and rituals can get used, not just to access and express the unspeakable, but to shut off thinking and feeling. So ‘rites’ can also get used ‘wrongly’ or perversely, as fetish, torture, abuse, self-abuse, obsessions and so on.
To summarise so far, the emotional rationale and power of rituals in secular life and therapy continues despite our rationalistic attempts to exorcise the animistic qualities. Elements of transition, symbol and therefore ritual are anyway omnipresent. We, therapists and clients, find ourselves possessed by ritual events, objects and narratives, and these possess our ‘spirits’ too. Rather than reduce this metaphoric world back into the individual’s psyche, I suggest we work with it ‘alive’ in its natural abode. This is the reflective parallel to our experience of personal action. When we carry through an action such as walking, we focus on the externalised aim and intention rather than on the internal muscle groups that make it happen. Honouring this ‘primitive’ human capacity for animistic possession puts flesh on disembodied, internalised, individualised, and skeletal notions of projection, symbolism, metaphor and attachments. Rituals provide a much needed bridge and clarifier from family systems to psychoanalytical work. With it’s systems methods and thinking, family therapy is well placed to go on developing these ideas clinically and theoretically, working as we do on that special and originating version of animistic possession, the mutual interpersonal possession between human beings in relationship in families and other social systems.
Moderation in Therapy I think a rituals framework does generate a clinical approach, but animistic possession itself doesn’t. There is literature on the therapeutic use of rituals (see references). But first, I wonder if people would need therapy of any kind so much if there was more satisfactory ritual available in our everyday lives nowadays.
Lucy Partington’s beautiful story (Guardian 18.5.96) described how the sister and family of one of the Wests’ victims faced and worked through the horrors at each stage, creating their own ritual processes to help them. This is an example where you might predict therapy would be needed, but with the help of their own rituals, therapy was done naturally and without therapists. People come for therapy where, short of religious help itself, they could be doing with rituals to help them. Featured in the Express (7.5.96), Heather Campbell is a kind of rituals consultant whose job is to help all kinds of people and businesses to use ritual and ceremony creatively. Maybe she would like to join AFT and we would welcome her as fellow rituals consultants?
To be satisfactory, rituals such as funerals and weddings need to be reclaimed and repossessed to enliven them, not left to the empty forms that rightly put us off. Some complex or traumatic events need to have rituals created where none exist – divorce, stillbirth, cultural celebrations for modern mobile and multi-cultural forms of family. Coming for therapy itself is a kind of ritual, even if you don’t do anything specially ritual. But all of us ask clients about major life and family events and how they have managed them or not.
Here are some clinical examples which show ritual processes in a low-key way. Low-key is how I prefer to use them – I think therapy should be on the sidelines of a client’s life, and significant ritual should be in the mainstream. Rituals are highways to the dignity in people’s lives, the ‘unique outcomes’ and ‘sparkling events’ Michael White talks of and that therapists often don’t look for (White 1995). He also uses ritual ideas explicitly and implicitly.
The Stillbirth: A psychotherapist colleague had seen a woman over some time who was still significantly affected by the unmarked loss of a baby at birth. A natural question occurred to him. ‘Do you know where the baby’s buried?’ This question directly engaged the patient’s interest to search and find out. And that process, a kind of healing ritual, helped or coincided with her improvement.
The Abuser’s Grave A single mother with a history of childhood and marital abuse was making use of weekly sessions. The abuse was still a secret elsewhere. Keeping her feelings and memories mostly to herself, she mentioned that, without knowing why, she wanted to find and visit the grave of her sexually abusing grandfather who had died while she was still in her early teens. The idea was disturbing for her and she didn’t feel able to go to the graveside alone. ‘But you must think it’s a stupid idea,’ she concluded self-deprecatingly. Given my usual readiness, I said that I didn’t think it was a stupid idea, and that I would go with her if she would like me to. This concrete offer was obviously more moving, meaningful and therapeutic for her than my usual comments, which she usually cut across in the pressure of what she wanted to say. But she has moved on in various ways and now, though she has found out where the grave is and may visit in due course, she feels able to do so alone.
The Pet Dog Two of us kept working unsatisfactorily over several years in various ways with what seemed a grimly miserable single-parent family. All we ever got shown was the hatefulness between the mother and daughter. Then we saw them just after their dog died and we discovered how much love had been plainly routed through this extraordinarily loved and loving family member. We heard at length of the funeral arrangements and saw the resulting re-possession of a good relationship between the surviving humans.
Pets occupy a position between family member and ritual object. We learnt how much pets can be part of the system and are best brought into the picture at the start. In the next example I took a more active approach, proposing a ritual possessing special power to contain and express a very difficult situation.
The Family Feud Mary was another single mother from a complicated and often traumatic Catholic, working class, housing scheme, background. She had used and benefitted from a longish period of weekly individual work. Growing away from her loyalty demanding social class, she began to train as a social worker – or ‘fucking social worker’ as her family called it. I saw her intermittently and met her in a further crisis or two. One extended family dispute over disclosure of abuse, with her mother as the eye of the storm, left her so infuriated that she felt literally ready to tear into her mother and kill her unless she avoided actually meeting her. It seemed like a furious genuine feud where neither side felt heard and where, without any other arena for a hearing or justice, each side felt like provocatively taking the law into their own hands, though nothing really criminal had yet occurred between them. It seemed to me that a court-like arena was indicated. Mary said that her mother saw me as the enemy that had helped turn her against the family values. So, on my own, I could not offer to convene a meeting of both sides. Discussing this with Mary, the priest was my nearest equivalent on her mother’s side. I followed up with a written version of my suggestion, with copies available for Mary to give to her mother and their priest, carefully outlining my readiness to liaise with the priest in order to set up a meeting for the purpose of providing a fair hearing for both sides. I think Mary did give a copy to her mother. But anyway, without anything further being done, that feudal crisis dissolved.
In other words, rather than applying the internalising framework of interpretive psychotherapy, and family or personal pathology, the framework of justice and the ritual structures appropriate to it, allowed a way of thinking and a proposal to be made that did enough justice in itself for things to move on.
I suppose my main point clinically is that we therapists should actively learn how to find and go along with our clients’ ways – not so much their ways of thinking about their world, but their ways of possessing their world and being possessed by it. Because it is seen as irrational and childish, we and they tend not to bring this into our work. Rituals small and large can be the key that brings out clients’ (and our) very own, often otherwise hidden, stories and skills. So to finish, reader, as part of the continuing ‘distance’ ritual, take hold of your key and imagine you and it were part of:
The AFT 21st Anniversary Key Ritual When you’re sitting comfortably, we’ve had 21 years of AFT, and in a moment I’m going to ask you, if you will, to recall and reflect on what AFT and FT has meant for you in the past, what you’ve heard about it if you haven’t been involved long, the informal personal and professional bits, the workshops and conferences, the ideas you’ve taken on and left behind, the good and bad memories, and so on.
When I ask you to start reminiscing, I shall count slowly to 21, while ceremonially stirring the keys (reader: waving your key here will help), to enable them to capture something of the collective reflections which I would ask you to project in this direction. OK: Start, 1, 2, 3 . . . . . .20, 21.
Now the next 19 years before we’re 40. Can you do the same, but this time imagine what the next 19 years might hold for FT and AFT? Starting now, 1, 2, 3 . . . . 18, 19.
The box got passed round again and everyone took away a key. They and you may now want to keep the special key or ring on your key-ring, to touch for comfort or inspiration, for it now possesses powerful properties to connect you to all those people, activities and ideas that AFT has and continues to stand for over the years.
References: Barker, P. (1985) Using Metaphors in Psychotherapy. Brunner Mazel: New York Barker, P. (1992) Basic Family Therapy. Norton:New York (pp176 et seq) Bollas, C. (1992) Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience. Routledge: London (p18) Child, N (1996) Letter in Journal of Family Therapy, 18, 118-122 Ellenberger, H. F. (1970) The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. Basic Books: USA & Fontana: London Hood, A (1995) Baby Observation and Personal Communication. Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J. & Whiting, R. (eds) (1988) Rituals in Families and Family Therapy W. W. Norton: New York and London. Ingpen, R. & Wilkinson, P. (1994) A Celebration of Customs and Rituals of the World. Dragon’s World: Limpsfield. van der Hart, O (1983) Rituals in Psychotherapy: Transition and Continuity. Irvington: New York White, M (1995) Re-Authoring Lives: Interviews and Essays. Dulwich Centre Publications.