Tony Page has used his experience as a chartered psychologist to craft an interesting psycho-history of his family secrets. Secret Box: Searching for Dad in a Century of Self, is published this month by Telling Stories. He spoke to Barbara Bloomfield about dads, families and the craft of memoir.
For an introduction to this, I want to say we are many people. A father is also a son. An uncle may be a nephew. I’m a friend, a colleague and most importantly a husband married to Helen since 1980. We’re all embedded in all kinds of long-term relationships, multi-stranded, two-way and mostly voluntary. I’m free to behave as I wish, although I might pay a price. We’re free to ignore our impact on others, but I don’t believe this makes us happier.
Shortly after I was 40, I went self-employed, I had to throw off a straight-jacket from the big consultancy firm and I began writing a professional journal. This became an example of self-supervision and the basis for my first book called Diary of a Change Agent (Gower, 1996) that propelled another twenty years of professional practice.
On reaching 60 three years ago, this father thing bugged me and an urge came over me to settle it somehow, without knowing the deeper, unconscious reasons. We were empty-nesters, working less, and a big birthday makes us notice that those who can answer our family questions won’t always be there. Soon after this Helen and I became detectives on a quest to solve this mystery, ostensibly to do with my father. I was soon the psychologist son writing a book certain that this particular story addressed questions of interest and relevance to many of us.
Q1. You seem fascinated by the contradictory character of your father, his early life as church bastion, obsessive do-gooder and devoted father of four and then his conversion into a questing philanderer who seemed to have lost interest in his family. This trajectory seems to turn on its head the usual human progression from teenage ‘selfishness’ to altruism. What was it about your father that particularly interested you?
A: I was gripped by these inexplicable and perplexing feelings since my teenage years, and no one, not my brothers nor my aunts and uncles, ever mentioned my Dad, so I was robbed of that important stage of life with him. Perhaps this propelled me to study an unlikely subject, psychology: I needed to understand what was going on, but at university I got distracted and the questions went away. Only later did the unanswered questions about my antsy father return to haunt me. He wanted to leave himself behind but despite changing his life, his career and pre-occupations, throwing himself into psychology and the burgeoning personal growth movement of the 1960s, he remained frustrated, while the rest of us in the family saw him restless and constantly changing. During the quest I dug up four distinct fathers: Fun Dad, Strict Dad, Hippie Dad and Gone Dad. As you pointed out, I watched him change from altruism to selfishness, rather than the reverse.
Q2. So, altruism to individualism is one of the grand narratives and it’s interesting that you have a very definite moral stance against individualism, which is refreshing. To what extent have you faced the other people/my needs split in your own life?
A: My “very definite moral stance” is a belated scream of protest at my father: “What about the rest of us?” He was shutting himself off from others, us, who needed him. Later he regretted this. Actually there needn’t be a split if we recognise that how we depend on others.
When have I faced self-other splits? In my coaching and facilitating work, the relationships between leaders and followers or between team members are shot through with self-other conflicts, and of course in the daily relations between parents and children.
I’m struck when I see an aeroplane seat dropped onto the knees of the person behind: self-coaching questions spring to mind: Am I aware of the needs of others? Do I care? Do the others know I care? Do I ignore their needs? What happens when I can’t respond to them? How am I growing or eroding trust between us?
I believe we’re happy in the long run if we reflect on such questions.
We can get caught in the excesses of individualism. We mustn’t get stuck here.
Q3. You seem to tend to think of ‘hippy’ ideas as the precursors of rampant individualism. Is that accurate? The hippies were certainly a pleasure-seeking movement after the austerity of the Second World War but their revolutionary idea was that pleasure would bring about world peace. Why are you so down on this worldview?
A: Yes, I’m down on the idea that pleasure alone will make the life better for anyone. It’s a distortion of a post-war inspiration from Abraham Maslow about “self-actualisation” that sparked the Human Potential Movement. He described two sides to being a self-actualising person: h/she sees more deeply into themself, and at the same time has a greater humanity beyond their own self-interest.
The self-interest side was fuel for the Human Potential Movement, but the altruism was over-looked. By the time Maslow died in 1970, he had addressed the misunderstanding by describing a “transpersonal” psychology to underline the subtle but important links between self and other and a “universal” psychology to address a deeper human need for meaning, but no one took much interest.
I’ve traced how this oversight continues even today: when we give people opportunities to grow we focus on self-empowerment forgetting this is just a stage not the destination. The price we pay is most obvious in a crowded place like the metal tube of an aeroplane, but the imbalance is there into every family, every work team and every plastic-choked waterway. We can get caught in the excesses of individualism. We mustn’t get stuck here.
Q6. I also found it quite refreshing that you are so down on psychotherapy! I do find that odd in a psychologist...
A: When you say refreshing, perhaps I do find our thinking about psychotherapy stale, polarising people between those drawn and those repelled. It’s a sense of unease and yes, I’m sure it’s a reaction against the optimistic pull in my father to embrace every new guru. My mother believed many of these therapists were charlatans who did lasting damage.
Q7. Can you say more about your own unease?
A: Well, I’m a coach to clients who are mostly leaders in organisations. It’s a trusted position in which progress depends on building a relationship of trust with a person who shows me their vulnerability as they step in the door from the shark pools they inhabit.
What I’m doing isn’t psychotherapy, but we’ve all learned from psychotherapists such as Carl Rogers about the core conditions (warmth, genuineness and positive regard) to nurture in the client relationship. I hold firm boundaries: we address them in their work not in their life in general. It’s confidential.
In therapy, the work is open-ended, addressing a patient’s whole life and this brings greater vulnerability. There’s a tendency for patients not to get better. Research confirms that the core conditions of relationship are of greater consequence than the professional dogma of the therapist, although therapists cling to their dogma like a religion. Then the problems of therapy mount up. The transference summons strong feelings that are difficult for therapist and client to deal with. The examples of abuse are plentiful, perhaps less now than in my father’s time. There’s a wider and largely unexplored impact on their families.
Perhaps a clear-eyed look at therapy can uncover where the true value is, towards making the benefits more widely accessible to people outside the therapist’s consulting room.
I’m down on the dogma but up on the potential for helping people including within therapy. When Helen used to do victim support counselling she came across something that’s struck me too: people in stress and trauma need to tell their stories to someone. I’m interested in the therapeutic power of telling and exchanging our stories, both through speaking and writing. I’m also interested in the therapeutic value of constellations work in which we stand in different places and learn about others' points of view.
Q8. Does your own career as an occupational psychologist reflect your unconscious or conscious search for a better tribe or a better father role model?
A: When you say “better father” I recoil. It’s not a competition. It’s how he was. Consciously I decided long ago to try to be different than my father, but the irony is I was already deeply different anyway.
But how can we fathom the unconscious? I don’t believe I was looking for a better tribe or a better role model. I was a perplexed boy needing to put together the shattered pieces of a porcelain vase. I felt my family should look at it together and say yes, we were that vase, that was us. With this we could better direct our individual lives in full knowledge of what happened.
When you say “better father” I recoil. It’s not a competition.
Q9. But also your father’s son?...
A: Well, yes, some similarities are striking. My father began following a path into psychology and organisation development and I continued completing something he wasn’t able to. Some stories have an arc that’s longer than a single life. You can trace the threads of this story through three generations.
A longer view can be helpful. Look at the last one hundred years. Freud raised the topic of Narcissism in Vienna in 1914 and this tendency he referred runs right through to the “selfie” concerns we have today. During a long flight back from Bangkok, I recently had a scary dream about this century in which we’ve had the most terrible examples of narcissism: terrifying dictators, bloody world wars, family fallout from the excesses of the human potential movement, and a collective failure to learn from the past producing the most frightening instability today. Thankfully on waking from that dream, I could also list equally positive and irreversible advances in health, education, human rights, the openness of information and global connection during the same 100 years. I’m saying that the difference between the bleak and the sunny might be bound up with how we see ourselves in our relations to others.
Today, I’m less interested in stories about the extremes of optimism and pessimism, and I seek the zone of hopeful realism because unless we go there we dwell in blind, unreliable optimism or utter powerlessness.
Q10. Women come across as enablers of male stories of adventure in your book. Is this conscious, preconscious or what? How does your wife feel about this? How angry are you about your mother’s inability to say “NO NO and hell NO” to your father?
A: That might be true but it’s not how I think of it. Yes, Helen has been a great enabler on the quest I’ve described.
Q11. I didn’t mean ‘enabler’ In a complementary sense, really. I wondered whether, in terms of gender politics, your wife and your mother spent quite a bit of time supporting their menfolks’ quests. I was curious about their own quests? Sorry, I realise this might sound very rude! I don’t want to come across as John Humphreys here ...
A: Gender politics is a minefield and, like everyone else, I have blindspots. Helen has her own quests and a career with its own vivid narratives, and I should not tell her stories for her. By the way, she flinched when reading an earlier version of Secret Box in which I gave her a stronger part, but she’s talkative and confident with a voice and a story of her own, far from a wallflower.
As for my mother I did often wish she stood up for herself. But she did say no, and my father, in that more patriarchal age, overruled her, behaving like his father. I’m angry at my father for treating Mum unkindly. Her own kindness was legendary and deserved to be reciprocated. She made extreme efforts to be honest, objective, consistent, trustful, sharing and to heal. These were rare qualities and she was setting a strong example.
Towards the end of my book, you might notice I came round to a fuller sense of my mother’s quiet part in events and I was pleased to arrive at this. Someone has pointed out that Blake Morrison, after he wrote the famous book about his father, wrote a second book all about his mother but I don’t feel a need to do this myself.
Q12. The first chapter, the deadly estuary swim your father Initiated, is a synecdoche for the book’s themes, was that planned?
A: Synecdoche: what a lovely word. I looked it up. You’re perceptive to notice this.
Q13. Synecdoche is probably the wrong word or at least a cheeky usage. But it seems to sum up that ability to encapsulate your book’s themes in a short, vivid scene....
A: With hindsight, the estuary incident was emotionally the parting of the ways for my parents and my family, but the rest of the story (ie. my parents actually splitting up) took several years to catch up with the deep rift that happened then. Originally this incident was buried in the middle of the manuscript but I was advised to bring it forward to the very beginning, perhaps for the reason you mentioned.
Q14. What was your writing process and what have you learned about writing memoir?
A: The story jumped around at first between different people places and dates, as our memories often do as we try to make sense of things. This is an emotion that requires the story be told vying against a felt resistance that blocks memory and a taboo that says this is wrong to attempt. Rather than hide that struggle, I pitched the reader into the midst of it: seeing events on the quest, feeling the struggle and discovering the way forward.
It became a transparent piece of writing that involves the reader in various devices I fell back on for the story finally to be told.
Q15. Can you say more about devices that work in this genre of memoir?
A: What is this genre of memoir? After the gruesome brilliance of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and the misery memoirs that followed in its wake, this book is deliberately different in bringing the reader to join the detectives who are digging up a rich and raw set of stories and discovering broader resonances which show us being human and working out how we can depend on one another.
This writing solution was not simple to arrive at. My previous experience of writing Diary of a Change Agent should have helped but at times it felt impossible and it turned out something different was required of me. I attended two summer writing schools and a weekly Creative Development workshop at CityLit college in London for one year. I pondered carefully the impact on living family members and tried making this a novel with the family characters disguised but this confused the first readers about what was true and what wasn’t. I read David Eggars’ detailed declaration of what was and wasn’t true in his memoir and William Zinsser on the importance of accuracy (central characters and plot) and our latitude for invention (peripheral details). After this I reverted to real names and anchored this story solidly around four key turning points.
I used a big stack of index cards to organise and sequence the events between 1959 and 1972. On the dining table I staged scenes using egg-cups and condiments for the characters. We tested out dialogues and thrillingly long-lost words and emotions flooded back to me.
During this writing, I learned about astonishing writing experiments by Dr James Pennebaker in which he measured huge health and performance benefits of writing about past events. Over a few brief sessions the writer’s viewpoint shifted from self-interested writing into a greater understanding of the perspectives of others. In my case the writing was cathartic and I wanted to let the reader in on the felt benefits of clearing this up.
Q16. Why do you think the device of ‘the reveal’ or secrets in the family, is such a popular one?
A: The reveal offers an emotionally engaging drama like a stage play or a film, and a book lets us eagerly turn pages to compare. We all have vivid family experiences, so we can all participate. It helps us come to terms with our own stories and feel OK again. There’s a healing in this for everyone.
Q17. Filmgoers often say it’s the baddies who stick in our minds. What have you learned about troublesome masculinity from writing your book?
A: My father comes across as an archetypal male: entitled, self-interested, blind to emotion and caught up in grandiose dreams. Such people are troublesome for the rest of us. It brings us back to the dilemmas of freedom. He yearned for freedom but was free to ignore his impact on others. It shows us that choice, which is there for all of us, is worth making carefully. When he made the choice to break away and turn a blind eye to its impact on the family, it was like dropping his aeroplane seat onto our laps: I don’t believe this made him or any of us any happier.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve said enough haven’t I?
I’m running a session at AMED Writers’ Group on 8th June called “Writing and Talking Differently After a Century of Self”. It’s open to all and offers the chance to explore some of these ideas. You can find out more at (www. AMED.org.uk/events)