Remembering Peter Lomas

I had the very good fortune to be introduced to Peter’s work right at the start of my involvement in this business more than 20 years ago.  I had just started at the Institute of Psychotherapy and Social Studies and we had a regular slot called the social studies seminar where we would read things about the social and political context of psychotherapy.  That first term in 1987 we had to read two books by people I’d never heard of, one was Taking Care by David Smail, who would also become a huge influence, and the other was a book called The Limits of Interpretation by a man called Peter Lomas.

Unlike many others Peter was never a passing phase, however important, however lengthy, not like my Bion phase, my Searles phase, my Patrick Casement phase, or my Christopher Bollas phase, or whatever.  Peter was something else altogether.  His humility,  scepticism,  hard-earned wisdom,  quiet anger, and  sheer lack of pretension, provided a ground on which I worked. In his last book he wrote of the therapist as being a ‘respected other’, a decent person, not idealised and from whom one would wish to have reciprocal respect, and, in his writing, which was how I knew him, he was very much that for me.

Peter is, I can truthfully say, the person who has been the single greatest influence on how I actually work as a therapist, and how I think about what I do, and I can equally truthfully say that whenever I look at Peter’s work again, what I’ve been struggling to say he has said years before me, and much better.   Most of the time his writing had an unusual clarity, an unfashionable clarity too one might say, no postmodern tricksiness, no literary showing off, no brain-deadening jargon.  He himself laughed in the introduction to his collected earlier papers, Personal Disorder and Family Life (1998), at how he felt he had to express himself as a young analyst, ‘a change from object-cathexis to ego cathexis’ being one phrase he could no longer stomach, as he put it. 

To my mind it’s a bit like the writing of literary critics like Al Alvarez or Vivian Gornick, a writer I discovered this year.  Her little book of essays, The Men in My Life (2008), about some of the male writers she admires, sometimes in complex ways, contains not one word that sends the reader to the dictionary, not one sentence whose meaning isn’t crystal clear to the attentive reader.  And it’s a joy to read.  And how rare it is.  But also how illuminating in the true sense of the word; instead of obfuscation and obscurity, there is light, the more clearly to see

And, of course, Peter as a writer was of a piece with how he saw therapy, something ordinary that was best captured in ordinary language, in all its richness and subtlety

Peter was, of course, in Frantz Fanon’s lovely term, ‘a man who alwaiys questions’.  At least in his writing, Peter never seemed to waiver in his view that therapy was good and so his questions were never about the value of therapy, but about what got in the way of a genuine meeting between two people.  

Today,  I’d like to pursue the question of our fear of the soul, not Peter’s phrase but that of Peter’s close contemporary RD Laing, and one that seems to me to be  connected to Peter’s idea that therapy is, whether we like it or not, inevitably bound up with the ethical, that therapy is, sooner or later, about moral choices, about how to live, which is, I understand, what he wanted to call his last book, Doing Good?  (It’s always hard to pronounce that crucial question mark, isn’t it?)

One difficulty that arises from this view of therapy of course, as Peter saw, is to do with language.  We lack a language in which to speak of ˛ethical and moral matters without sounding either pretentious, sentimental, naive, or just simply banal.  This is one of the reasons that Peter, like many of us, looked away from the narrow world of psychotherapy to the richer world of literature, poetry and fiction in particular.  This is present in much of his work, including the early book True and False Experience (1994), which draws on Blake, George Eliot, Edwin Muir and others, and which begins with the great Edith Wharton who has one of her characters say about her work with a child, ‘I am trying to teach her to wonder’.

In this regard, the centrality of ethics in human relations, I think Peter has much in common with Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish thinker who put ethics at the very heart of our being, as what makes us human beings, ethics in the sense of the priority of the other and our responsibility to that other.  Of course Levinas’s language was not Peter’s, but for myself I still find him inspiring, despite the predictably obscurantist and cliched ways in which his thought has been taken up and the horribly religious-like tone of too many conversations about his work.  Not for the first time is a return to the source called for.

I now see the ethical element in psychotherapy less as a form of moral influence, as Peter wrote, especially in his last book, Doing Good? (1999) and I’m more doubtful about the place of wisdom in therapy than I was when I wrote my own first book in 1999 and whose last chapter was entitled ‘The getting of wisdom?’.  Maybe I’m less idealistic.

Now I see the ethical in therapy more as the provision of a kind of ethical space, where thinking might occur, a form of ethical conversation.  Let me explain a little.  The idea of ethical space comes from the philosopher Roger Poole, whose book Towards Deep Subjectivity (1972),  sought to reinstate something that had been lost in our lives, and has even more so since Poole wrote his book more than 40 years ago, This is the idea of each of us as moral flagents, potentially able to think morally, ethically for ourselves and to come to an informed judgment about what we should do, how we should live.

As Peter recognised, as therapists we can wield enormous influence on the people who seek our help and I for one have no wish to do this.  It is always a cause for dismay when I hear people say things like, ‘My therapist thinks i should do this’ or ‘My therapist says I should do that’.  Where is the idea of ethical responsibility in this, that people come to their own decisions and take responsibility for them?  Where is the idea of autonomy, of knowing as much as possible about one’s situation and acting, or accepting that one can do little or nothing but accepting that in an active, rather than passively?

The idea of ethical space is a deeply democratic one, for it recognises each man and woman as, potentially at least,  a responsible being, able to come to her or his own decisions through reflection and, most important, conversation.  This latter component is crucial.  It’s not that we can sit, literally or metaphorically, on our own and think our way out of our difficulties, although very many of us do this and just get more entangled.  It’s that we need conversation, as the philosopher Charles Taylor reminds us,  to know what we really think, what we truly feel.

None of this is very comfortable for the therapist.  People may take positions we don’t like or even disagree with, but at least they are doing so for themselves.  Many of the people I have seen have values quite different in some important respects to mine but I do not see it as my job to argue about these unless they come up in our conversations.   Is therapy the place for me to articulate my views?  I think not.

(In the same way I want the people I am involved in training as therapists to think for themselves as much as possible, not to follow me - even though I know i am right!)

So too how do we judge the qualities of our patients’ or clients’ relationships, for instance?  Who am I to say to someone, in effect if not literally, you should leave this man or woman?  We can and should help people explore a relationship as fully as they can - what are they getting, what are they not getting,  what keeps them, what stops them going, what are the realistic possibilities, if any, given their age, their status, their time in life?  This is not about being ethically neutral, it’s not a moral fence-sitting - if someone wants my view I’ll happily offer it, and if someone did something I thought was awful, I hope I’d find an appropriate way of conveying what I think.  People are always being told who they are, who they should be.  They don’t need any more from me.

People need to be recognised for who they really are, not as they feel they have to appear even to those close to them.  One still hears talk that therapy is self-indulgent; yet most of the people I have seen during the past 20 years far from being indulgent have been their own harshest critics.  In any case the Delphic injunction to ‘Know thyself’ is not, the philosopher Ian Hacking reminds us, about endlessly going over the past.  It’s not about memory, but knowing one’s character, one’s limits, one’s needs, our propensities for self-deception. 

We all need to be seen, to be heard, to be listened to.  How simple - even simplistic this all sounds, and yet how rare it is.  But when it happens - we all know - how different the world can seem.

I don’t mean by this stance anything like a technique - here I’m in complete agreement with Peter, in complete opposition to the safety and seduction of such approaches. I’m not talking about the ‘unconditional positive regard’ of person-centred therapy.  As therapists we have hopefully developed a sceptical stance, we’re not taking in everything we hear at face value; of course there have to be challenges, confrontation, even, if this feels right - but we’re not disbelieving everything either.  Nor are we imposing our frame of understanding on people.  Again Levinas is important to me here for always reminding us that this is what a lot of our ordinary ways of thinking and being are about, making things fit in to preconceived frameworks.  So nothing can escape.  And of course we do this with people too all he time.

As an epigraph to True and False Experience, Peter quotes a passage from the start of Andre Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs where the author asks a priest who is a friend what he has learned about men and his friend replies that people are much more unhappy than one thinks and that there is no such thing as a grown up person

As therapists we get to see this unhappiness in a way that others may not, not even those supposedly close to the person.  Like Malraux’s friend, we are often the only people to see the person as he or she really is.

This is both a privilege and  a burden.

What person in her right mind would hold herself out to do this?.  We are right to be afraid - there are no procedures to be followed, no guidelines, no protocols

The risks are bloody real.  I started some seminars at the PA recently saying psychotherapy is a dangerous business.  The strain on us is real - the enormous demands of confidentiality, for instance can make one feel as though one is working as a spy, living a double life;  the burden of taking on one person’s considerable troubles and distress after another, the making of relationships, the ending of relationships, more often than not far from the perfect planned endings of the psychotherapy literature, the people who drift away, the people who disappear...

The inevitable entanglements - and all the difficulties these bring.  We encourage people to tell us their desires, their fears, to trust us, to depend on us.

Was this what Bion meant when he said before any psychoanalytic session there ought to be two rather frightened people and if there weren’t what was the point?

At times we risk losing people for good because of something we say; at other time - and thankfully more rarely, we risk something more dangerous altogether. In the PA community house I work in, I’ve been told I should come outside to settle things - the same young man told me I had been close to being glassed, not because I had been offensive, but because I had stepped over a line of familiarity with him.  (Was this what Winnicott meant by the use of an object?  I’m not sure.)

But it isn’t just therapists who fear real relationships.  For many of the people who come to us in their distress or disappointment or despair, in the grip of forces bigger than them, the last thing they want is a real relationship.  Instead we are expected to play a part in their drama,  to behave in a proper therapeutic way, listen to the stories of their childhood, make interpretations, and not say or do anything else.  Of course, this happens very subtly.  Maybe even for years we listen to people as we are supposed to, they talk about what they think they should, but we realise more and more we’re not really engaged and we can even feel guilty about this: why don’t we feel more moved or more interested than we are?  But something is missing.   

At such times we are going through the motions of therapy, the game, the dance.  Vivian Gornick, whom I mentioned earlier, says wistfully in one of her most personal and disarmingly honest essays, people speak to transmit information, not to connect.

If we step out of our allotted roles, if we are ordinary whether in a kind way or, as regrettably happens, in a frustrated way, than all hell may be let loose.

What’s going on is a defence against something real, something frightening.

The danger lies, oddly enough, in ordinary conversation   Once people start to talk ordinarily the conversation cannot be controlled.  Who knows where it will go!  We see this all the time in families, our own included of course, where ordinary conversation really is like an emotional mine field, you can never know when you’re going to stand on a subject that blows up in your face.  Someone once remarked to me that the only possible conversations with her mother were about cooking or the weather. as only these were guaranteed safe.  Nowadays of course given what we know about climate change, even the weather is not uncontroversial.

In contrast, the people I’ve been able to help, been of most use to, are those with whom I’ve been able to be most ordinary.  This idea of the ordinary has always been crucial to the ethos and practice of the community houses run by the PA since the 1960s.  And from the therapist’s point of view I know many of us have enjoyed t¸his despite sometimes awful stresses and strains, because we are able to be more ourselves.  A casual visitor would sense little difference indeed from other shared houses.  Residents have their own rooms in a large, family house with a garden. They simply pay rent at a level coverable by housing benefit.  They shop, cook and look after the house.  They stay in their rooms, they watch TV, they go to the pub or the park.  And the kind of conversation we facilitate is not a therapeutic one, it’s an ordinary one, albeit one that’s hopefully a lot more honest than most.  And often it takes visitors time to work out who is a therapist, who a trainee on placement or a resident.

The more I think about it the more I believe that the theory of transference is part of this defensive posture on the part of the therapist.  (Here I do differ from Peter who seems to have found the concept helpful.)  It defends against real feelings, saying these are inappropriate, misplaced, infantile.  What I’m saying is not of course new.  Existential therapy has never had any place for transference and one of the most devastating challenges was made many years ago by the person centred therapist John Shlien.  ‘Transference, he said baldly, ‘is a fiction, invented and maintained by the therapist to protect himself from the consequences of his own behaviour’.

So too while the current vogue for countertransference rightly emphasises the therapist’s role in the co-production that is therapy, it’s the wrong word betraying the wrong muddled thinking, stuck in the old subject/object frame of reference.  Nevertheless it is at least an attempt to recognise the therapist’s real feelings.

We provide, as I have said, a particular kind of space for a particular kind of conversation and a lot of what we are about is what we don’t do - we’re not giving advice, we’re not telling people how they should be, or what they should do, we’re not jumping in with our own stories, we’re not afraid of what people may tell us, we’re not telling people to pull themselves together.  A lot of the time we aren’t doing anything active, or so it might seem and this absence of advice or some sort of plan of action is often, in my experience, what loses us people, especially younger people who are so used to being told, that they find it hard just to take the time that therapy takes.  And of course the ubiquitous CBT has communicated the idea that all you need, is not love, but 10 or 12 sessions.

This capacity to wait with people and with situations and not jump in and do things was also a hallmark of the PA communities from their earliest days.  ‘What do you do when you don’t know what to do?’, RD Laing would apparently say.  And if was a very risky business as people’s lives were sometimes at stake, as in the case of Richard, so powerfully evoked by Robin Cooper in his essay on dwelling, who retreated to his bed for months, eating hardly anything, speaking to no one, having to be washed by others.  As Hugh Crawford who ran the house at Portland Road, said, ‘We were concerned. We bothered. We stayed in touch’, and things worked out OK in the end but they could easily have not done so and the consequences would have been terrible for Richard and for the PA which would undoubtedly have been blamed for his death.

We do this all the time in our work with individuals, though not with everyone all the time, like parents we wait and we worry, but there is probably someone for each of us who about whom we worry - will we see him again, will she survive the weekend, our summer break.  (One of the things you learn from experience, and can only learn from experience, is just how resilient people are, how they cope.)

I think too that therapists are afraid of being deskilled.  We have, after all, made such massive sacrifices for many years -  of time and money and other things we might have been doing - that we understandably want to think that we’ve got something that others don’t, that we’ve acquired something we didn’t have before.  I do think we have something, but the nature of that something isn’t always easy to articulate, far less to quantify.  As I said it’s a lot to do with what we don’t do.   It’s an attitude or a stance.  Whatever it is, it’s not a knowledge, at least not a knowledge in the usual sense of a body of facts.  What facts can there possibly be about the human soul other than how endlessly various it is? What knowledge can there be  other than how little we can truly know  or the infinite ways of dealing with suffering?

One of our founders, the radical psychiatrist, David Cooper, like RD Laing noted that one of the greatest obstacles to change in psychiatric practice was nothing to do with what might be ‘wrong’ with the patients and a lot more to do with psychiatrists and nurses unwilling to give up their authority and power.

From the phenomenological tradition, Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular, and from my own therapist Robin Cooper, I hold the view that life is endlessly complex, sometimes wonderfully so, but also, for many people, all of us at some times if we are being really honest, disturbingly so.  Nothing really is simple - it’s all about our experience of it.  As Bernard MacLaverty marvelously puts it in Grace Notes (19987) ‘Things are simple or complex according to how much attention is paid to them.’ This recognition, for the people who come to see us, of the complexity of the most seemingly ordinary situations, the idea that sense can be made of all experience, is wonderfully liberating.  Therapy in this mode takes nothing for granted.

Nothing is too traumatic for a human being to bear, RD Laing reminded us, if it can be talked about

Faced with the soul of another person who is looking to us for help it is right to be frightened.  We never know where it will take us. It really is the terra incognita of olden times, - here really are lions, as the maps said, or at least may be.

And yet it isn’t entirely that.  By virtue of being human we know what loss, pain, desire, sadness are, even if we have never experienced them in quite the way the person before us has.  The life we live is a life in common and we have an ability to empathise, to imagine the pain of others and through this imagination be better placed to be of use to them|.  And of course we have the experience of others who have gone before us;  first among them for me would be Peter Lomas.



(Talk given to ‘The Legacy of Peter Lomas’ conference, Cambridge, 6 November 2010)

My obituary of Peter was published in the Guardian on 25 February 2010.