1990: Reflections of a Folklorist in a Residential Therapeutic Community

Craig Fees. ‘Reflections of a Folklorist1 in a Residential Therapeutic Community2 for Emotionally Deprived and Disturbed Children’

[Originally published in MALADJUSTMENT AND THERAPEUTIC EDUCATION 8:2 (Summer 1990), pp. 68-73, reprinted with publisher’s changes in FOLKLORE IN USE: Applications in the Real World 1:2 (1993), pp. 149-155]
For a description of the background to the writing of this article, see: “No foundation all the way down the line”: History, memory and ‘milieu therapy’ from the view of a specialist archive in Britain“, Craig Fees, THERAPEUTIC COMMUNITIES Volume 19: Number 2 (1998), 167-178]


A folklorist living-and-working in a school for emotionally deprived and disturbed children is nothing new: Bruno Bettelheim listed an anthropologist on the therapeutic team of the University of Chicago Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Love is Not Enough (Bettelheim 1950) and at least one English postgraduate thesis has been written by an anthropologist having been on the team of a therapeutic community (Edgar 1986). But it is not widely understood, in or outside of the profession – I am often asked in effect (and sometimes in these words) when I am going to start my career. Saying that I began my career as a scholar long before I took my degree in folklore leads to the question “What is a scholar doing living-and-working in a school for emotionally disturbed children?”

The function of scholarship is to help illuminate the world, and to do so by exploring the way it works and why by jumping into a small bit of it and wrestling with what comes up. Where you jump and how you wrestle depends in part on your academic discipline, in part on yourself, and in part on which bit of the world you land in. An academic discipline is a tradition which provides leads and life-lines, maps and colleagues, insights and its own set of blinkers, misconceptions and snares. The task of the scholar is to leave a better map with fewer snares and, if not more applications for the discipline, then at least fewer unknown dangers when others follow. By implication the tools and techniques of the discipline are refined and perhaps new ones forged in meeting new problems and situations.

The discipline of Folklore concentrates on groups and on individuals within groups; it queries the origin and history of cultural behaviour, where ‘origin’ means not only first invention, but the full story of its particular manifestation in a particular situation3What is it (Observation), and how and why has it come to be as it is (Explanation)? In a therapeutic situation it is necessary to go one step further, to ask “and what are we going to do about it”? (Action).

Each of these questions has been asked many times before a child comes into a residential therapeutic institution, by the family, teachers, doctors, health visitors, social workers, psychologists, police, magistrates – each constrained in the way they ask and the answers they find by their training, function and available options. Ultimately these options narrow until the only positive one is referral to a residential placement.

Put another way, a child arrives in a residential therapeutic community with a history of social failure: a broken or self-destructive family, disrupted classrooms, foster families who refuse to keep them, children’s homes which can’t contain them, psychologists who can’t heal them, and police and social workers who cannot keep them where they are and protect them at the same time. Where the worlds the child has been placed in have not disintegrated, or attacked and/or rejected the child, the child has attacked or rejected itself, or dis-integrated within itself – made it impossible for a normally functioning group to incorporate successfully the child in its everyday functioning.

The therapeutic community is specially constructed to be able to incorporate the child into its everyday functioning; and to do so in such a way that it not only does not attack or reject the child, but ultimately enables the child to be incorporated into normally functioning groups (families, schools, workplaces) which then carry on functioning normally without the child becoming split off, destructive or thrown out. It is to this task that a folklorist working within the community as a member of the therapeutic team can contribute, utilising the specialised approaches and insights of folkloristics.

Why? Because as the term implies, the working of the community as a community is itself among the main therapeutic elements of the therapeutic community – this means the entire physical, behavioural and symbolic world of the people (adults and children) in their living together. This is, par excellence, the subject matter of contemporary folk studies.


The discourse of therapy – not just the discourse about therapy, but the discourse which is itself therapeutic – is at the heart of the community, and therefore at the heart of a folkloristic approach to the therapeutic community. In the centre of this discourse of therapy is the discourse of disturbance with which it is engaged.

However individual a disturbance, unless it is organic or based in brain damage, it develops in the context of a social situation which, as far as the child’s normal social and personal development is concerned, went terribly wrong and got worse. In effect, the child continues to replay this situation using cultural material at hand: it is in a dialogue with the environment, putting its disturbance on display and acquiring a culturally appropriate disturbed personality in the process.4

It is important to realise that the emotionally disturbed child wants to take part in life, that the discourse of disturbance which it acquires through its everyday living in the world is a destructive mode of self-revealing which the therapeutic community, by bringing to the child a discourse of therapy (or health), attempts to transform into a constructive mode of self-revelation. It is an interesting question for the folklorist whether a better understanding of “disturbance” in Society at large might diminish the number of children who acquire profoundly disturbed personalities: a better understanding of childhood almost certainly would.

The concept of childhood and disturbance held by any group is fundamental to the way it engages, or doesn’t, the disturbed child. Where the child is seen as evil, wilful or unmanageable, then systems of punishment, discipline and physical constraint are developed (as institutionalised at one time in Borstals and older style Approved Schools). These folk models for disturbed and disturbing behaviour give rise to children’s anti-Them traditions, which a child may pick up if it spends any time in them-and-us institutions.5 Furthermore, since these folk models are widespread, the child coming into a residential therapeutic community may well have internalised images of itself as evil and uncontrollable from an early age; indeed, folk beliefs about children may have contributed significantly to the child’s disturbance. The therapeutic community therefore begins from a very different position, characterised by Freud’s comment that “Essentially, one might say, the cure is effected by love”:6 the child in the discourse of therapy is a person with profound difficulties which it requires an equally profound commitment from others to deal with.

How specific therapeutic communities tackle the discourse of disturbance depends upon their own traditions and accumulated experience. It was once de rigeur to more or less side-step the discourse altogether, to run alongside it with a forgiving and apparently inexhaustibly loving presence which could sustain all the emotional abuse, wildness and destruction of which the child was capable, until the child, secure in the knowledge of an environment which could survive and still love it, would turn spontaneously to a dialogue with health. The more general tendency today would be to show a loving but firm ability to stop the child from destroying its environment, as a way of recognising and engaging immediately with the child’s display of disturbance, with the aim of redefining the way that people with difficulties behave: channelling the dialogue between disturbance and therapy into the public realm where needs can be met and events can be affected through the manipulation of established and shared symbols. A child who can accomplish this step from the internal into public discourse is well on the way to successful re-incorporation into a non-specialised Society.

How this is tackled, and the specific make-up of the symbol-world involved, will vary from therapeutic community to therapeutic community. Each will have its own customs and traditions, ceremonies and rituals, modes and manners of communication, verbal folklore, social and spatial and temporal organisation. It may well be (and this would be an important subject for research) that different communities are differentially successful therapeutically, or differentially successful with different types of disturbance, and it may further be that these differences can be related to the specific differences in their particular cultures. Many of the communities are themselves related historically through migration of personnel, and these relationships can be studied in the way that folklorists study related cultural communities in general.


There is no such thing as a hundred per cent success rate in therapeutic communities, and it would be difficult to know how an appropriate quantification of success could be made. Apart from anything else, the child by definition `grows’ in the time it is in the therapeutic community, and would `grow’ no matter where it was. Apart from anything else, its social role will change radically as it ages, and the environments from which it came as a failure will have themselves changed simply through time or through the intervention of (for example) Social Services. This being the case, what of any positive change in the child’s behaviour and functioning can be ascribed to its life in the therapeutic community? And what if a ‘failed` child is actually a successful mitigation through the work of the community, of damage which would otherwise have been far more severe?

Perhaps a performative or processual assessment is possible, built (1) on a knowledge and understanding of normal development and culture of children within specific home communities and (2) a knowledge and assessment of the therapeutic community as a symbolic system. That is, it ought to be possible through a folkloristic analysis of the child within its ‘home’ environment, or within groups of peers and adults such as nursery schools, to develop a model of its personal cultural/communicational system; and by observation of the child within the therapeutic community, to recognise transformations which relate directly to the therapeutic community, but which are not specifically developmental, and therefore are directly attributable to the child’s opening up in that culture. Analogous material may be available in studies of immigrant cultures, particularly studies of assimilation and acculturation.

If a folkloristic analysis of the effect of the therapeutic culture on the child is conceivable, it is certainly possible for a folkloristic analysis to suggest ways of making the therapeutic culture itself more effective, drawing both on direct experience within the therapeutic community and on the literature of folk studies generally. Because the culture of the therapeutic community is dynamic and changing, transformed by the movements of each person (adult or child) through it, the folklorist has a marvellous opportunity to observe and experiment, to test theory and the reliability of theoretical activity, to observe tradition and innovation through several generations of children (and perhaps adults) within a few years’ time. As a full member of the team (as opposed to a visiting fieldworker) the folklorist can potentially be in the position of sharing insights on the functioning of the team and of the community which involve the culture and therefore what is at the core of the therapy as such, and also of receiving insights from people who are themselves specialists in certain aspects of the community’s life, who can work on the folklorist’s ignorance and thereby contribute to the folklorist’s effectiveness both as a theoretician and as a therapeutic tool.

The folklorist has a potential role, therefore, in illuminating the workings of therapeutic communities generally, and the how and why of individual communities. Because of the history of these communities and the diversity of the people who come into them, this would, necessarily, involve the full range of folk studies, from childlore to discourse theory, from storytelling and performance theory to studies in innovation and tradition, and involve orientations from the psychological to the linguistic to the anthropological. From the folkloristic point of view the therapeutic community is, in effect, an intense laboratory, a “field” which trades in symbolisation and communication as its method of being.

Folklorists have a potential role to play at each stage of the child’s career – by examining the folk cultures of the family, doctors, social workers and magistrates; by illuminating failures of communication, cultural strategies, patterns of culture, appropriate and inappropriate interactions: Did this classroom fail because the concepts of space involved were utterly foreign to the child who in effect felt isolated and exposed and therefore reacted in panic (for example)? Is this family’s “refusal” to co-operate with social services a function of misunderstood culture cues? Is that child’s “bizarre” or inexplicable behaviour in fact an aspect of social practice within its own community?

As a member of the team within a therapeutic community the folklorist has the opportunity to share insights of immediate value, because the culture of the group is, by definition, among its most important therapeutic tools, and at the same time has the unique opportunity of testing insights and models from the academic literature in daily observation and practice. The skills of the folklorist can feed into the effectiveness of the group, and life and work within the therapeutic community can hone and deepen the field of folk studies.



1. Although it is still a bit risky to refer to oneself in England as a folklorist – because of past association of “folklore” in this country with a quaint, quirky and somewhat ethereal scholarhisp – this is changing, and elsewhere in the world folk studies is recognised as a rapidly developing branch of anthropology which is making significant contributions particularly to our understanding of group and individuals as creating, performing and communicating entities. [This note was left out of the “Folklore in Use” version.]Return to text.

2. ‘The term “therapeutic community” was coined by psychologist Tom Main in 1946 to describe work in a military hospital during World War II, which was “an attempt to use a hospital not as an organization run by doctors in the interest of their own greater technical efficiency, but as a community with the immediate aim of full participation of all its members in its daily life and the eventual aim of the resocialization of the neurotic individual for life in ordinary society-” (Main 1946:67 , quoted in Kennard 1988:154).

The history of working with emotionally and behaviourally disturbed, deprived and delinquent children as if they were fellow members of the community rather than inmates in an institution is less than eighty years old in England, starting with the experiments of Homer Lane in the Little Commonwealth just before and during the First World War. The Little Commonwealth failed, or was failed by the Home Office, and direct transmission of experience and practice (A.S. Neill being a prominent exception to this) therefore dates mainly to the late inter-war period and to the work of pioneers such as David Wills and George Lyward. Return to Text.

3. Cf . Heidegger 1975, and particularly the first sentence: “Origins here means that from and by which something is what it is and as it is.” Return to Text

4. It is for this reason that it is possible to speak in terms of a discourse of disturbance, and for a folklorist to bring insights to bear from the study of performance and display to the understanding of a particular child’s difficulty. There is no question of a folklorist having anything like the entire insight into a child, but he or she can contribute a significant illumination which becomes part of the therapeutic team’s working. Return to Text

5. ‘See David Wills’s discussion of them-and-us culture in an approved school (Wills 1971). Return to text

6. Sigmund Freud in a letter to Carl. Jung, 6 December 1906, in McGuire 1974: 12-13). Return to text



Bettelheim, Bruno. 1950. Love is Not Enough: The Treatment of Emotionally Disturbed Children. London: Collier MacMillan.

Edgar, lain R. 1986. An Anthropological Analysis of Peper Harow Therapeutic Community With Particular Reference To The Use of Myth, Ritual and Symbol. MPhil thesis, Durham University.

Heidegger, Martin. 1975. “The Origin of the Work of Art”. In Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, pp. 17-87. New York: Harper Colophon Books.

Kennard, David. 1988. “The therapeutic community”. In Group Therapy in Britain, ed. Mark Avelone and Wendy Dryden, pp. 153-184. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Main, T.F. 1946. “The hospital as a therapeutic institution”. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 10:66-70.

McGuire, William, ed. 1974. The Freud/Jung Letters: The Correspondence Between Sigmund Freud and CG. Jung, trans. Ralph Mannheim and R.F.C. Hull, London: The Hogarth Press and Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wills, David. 1971. Spare the Child. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.