‘No Foundation All the Way Down the Line’ Revisited: Analysis and reflections on 30 years of working with and building community processes through oral history
Oral History Society Annual Conference
“Community Voices: Oral history on the ground”
Manchester Metropolitan University
18-19 July 2014
[By switching with another speaker, this became the last paper in the last session on the second day of the conference. 20 minutes proved too little time to fulfill the promise of the paper proposal/abstract]
In 1984 I was awarded a grant by the Folklore Society for a project entitled “Folk Memory in a North Cotswold Community“, in which I was given licence to discover what it might mean to be a community folklorist in rural England. Five years later the Planned Environment Therapy Trust gave me the opportunity to explore the role in greater depth, when it asked me to establish from scratch an archive and study centre devoted to therapeutic communities, group therapies, and alternative education communities more generally. The work of that project was crystallised in the 2010-2011 HLF-supported “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children: An oral history of residential therapeutic child care c. 1930 – c. 1980“, an outcome of which was two national awards.
This paper marks the 25th anniversary of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre, and examines the nature, purpose, rewards and realities of being a ‘community folklorist’ for a communities-based field which, by its nature, is defined by traumatic experience, dispersed and exploded identities, loss, recovery, ignoranced and obscured histories and heritage, huge humanities, and the immense possibilities in human being.
The title of the proposal references a reflective paper published in the journal “Therapeutic Communities” in 1998 entitled ‘”No foundation all the way down the line”: History, memory and ‘milieu therapy’ from the view of a specialist archive in Britain’, which in turn references William Saroyan’s 1939 play, “The Time of Your Life”, which in turn references the life work of Joe Gould’s “Oral History of Our Times”, which in turn brings the focus of the proposal back to the people whose voices, on the ground, are the essence of community. I intend to demonstrate in action the old maxim that “oral history problems are fun problems.”
I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into when I proposed to reflect on the past 25 years as a ‘community folklorist’, in creating the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre. The clue ought to have been in my description of
‘a communities-based field which, by its nature, is defined by traumatic personal and family experience, dispersed and exploded identities, obscured histories and heritage, huge humanities, and the immense possibilities in human being.’
Between the horrors of what people can experience and do to one another, and the joy of what people can experience and do with and for one another, and for themselves, I find it, in the words of a far better person than I, “hard to talk…” Indeed, almost impossible.
This story begins with my arrival in this country in 1981 as a theatre historian beginning work on a PhD into folk performance at the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies at the University of Leeds. One of the first things my tutor said to me was “Why didn’t you do this through the University of Pennsylvania”, which had an excellent folk studies programme, with the remarkable Henry Glassie. What I didn’t hear was the movement in the background, of the reforms to the British Higher Education sector set in train by Mrs. Thatcher’s government, in which a rushed and therefore brutal cut back of funding was about to take out the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies where I was enrolled. Within two years it was gone; and if you read my final report to the Folklore Society you will see, pretty clearly I think, the anguish as well as the idealism in my setting out with their grant to discover what if any value there might be in being a folklorist, and the force in the motivating question: “Do Folk Studies Matter?”
It was, of course, a much broader question, which resonates through this paper: “Do these people, do these institutions, do these cultures, do these traditions matter?” The answer to which has to be “Of course they do, but…”
I left America thinking I was stepping out of a country at war with itself as a matter of principle and into a stable, self-confident country in a deep historical peace with itself, steeped in evolutionary change: What I found was a country in rapid/headlong change, disassembling and tearing itself apart. I wasn’t naive, but I was innocent; and I still am. It is an innocence which is continually being stripped away by events and experience; but – and maybe this is the inverse of the Myth of Sisyphus – it is continually being restored and strengthened by my experiences with many of the people I am privileged to meet and work with, from the generous people in Chipping Campden who taught me how to do oral history, to Len and Will and their extraordinary if quietly understated genius and generosity; and crystallised in the array of activities and restorative experiences of the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project, of which more in a bit.
As I dropped into my doctoral work on Christmas Mumming in a North Cotswold town, I found myself diverted from theatre history and its abstract/theoretical applications, into a practical world, far from my starting point in the libraries of Los Angeles. Key was a therapeutic community for very disturbed and damaged children, in which I – and there is naiveness in this – based myself to do my field, archive, and library work in and around Gloucestershire, trading my labour for food and a place to stay. To give a sense of what I found myself in:
In a 1990 paper called “Reflections of a Folklorist in a Residential Therapeutic Community” published in the journal of the Association of Workers for Maladjusted Children, I described the children:
“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 residential therapeutic community – home, school, unit, village or other – was
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.
This is no mean feat, and to be in among it, see it happening, and learning about ones’ self in the process was a revelation. And what bound it together for me as a theatre historian becoming a folklorist – an almost-anthropologist – was that the reality and fullness of the community as a community – a real and enduring community – was essential:
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.
So you can imagine what happens to people when these communities, to which they belong and whose endurance they depend on simply close or disappear or are taken away from them. In 1998, at the time of “No Foundation All the Way Down the Line”, I had already handled the records of six therapeutic communities for children and young people which had been forced to close “none of which closed because of the failure of their therapeutic regimes or through internal administrative or organisational collapse.” In our application to the Heritage Lottery Fund a decade later I referred to 32 different places for children and young people whose archives we held, or of, or about which we had significant material of one kind or another.
When I say “We”, I mean a specialist Archive and Study Centre established twenty-five years ago by the Planned Environment Therapy Trust to gather, preserve, manage and share the history and heritage of planned environment therapy. The Trust itself was founded in 1966 by a trio of therapeutic practitioners who had worked with each other since the 1930s. The Trust’s founder, Marjorie Franklin, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, coined the term “planned environment therapy” before the Second World War for a way of taking psychoanalytic insight and practice out of the elite consulting room and into the community. It was almost immediately overtaken by the friendlier term “therapeutic community” which emerged from Second World War military psychiatry and covered pretty much the same ground. Psychologist and psychoanalyst Harold Bridger, one of the pioneers of the approach, described “therapeutic community” as “The idea of using all the relationships and activities of a residential psychiatric center to aid the therapeutic task…” – the whole of the environment, in other words – going on to say “It entailed a radical change in staff/patient relations which produced a figure/ground reversal in the traditional authoritarian hospital. In order to achieve active patient participation in treatment, power was to be redistributed away from its monopolization by the doctor and shared by other staff and patients in appropriate ways.” Shared Authority, or, in “planned environment therapy” terms, “shared responsibility” as a matter of principle.
The Trust’s history and 20 years’ work and experience in the Archive and Study Centre went into the project design for the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project, funded by the HLF in 2010-2011. You should have the Project Brochure, and can download the fuller Final Report if you wish; so I shan’t go into great detail about it.
However, From the 30 odd possible communities represented in the Archive, the project focused on five very different communities for children. All but one was long closed – this was a selection criterion – and the fifth had changed almost to the point of being a different institution. We originally aimed for a five year project, but were forced back to three years and then to 18 months for financial reasons – time is an essential for many reasons, not least emotional, and not least for building trust among people for whom trust is not to be taken for granted; and 18 months was very tough on all of us – we did it and it was generally successful, but three years would have been better.
At the core of the project were three-day residential opportunities for members of each of these former communities to come together in a kind of cross-generational reunion, meeting one another sometimes for the first time and sometimes after a very long time, but somehow, over the course of the three days if not immediately, family. These “Archive Weekends” were filled with activities, archives, oral history, meals, talking. Oral history with a local secondary school resulting in performance. Visits to current therapeutic communities for children. Websites. Training. Regular seminars played a key role – bringing volunteers, project team members, community members, and a wide range of people from outside to engage with the project, raise and explore issues, feed ideas and experience into the project, and out.
The underlying premise of the project was expressed in the Project Brief:
5. This is an immensely influential and fundamentally important area of the nation’s heritage, but it mirrors, in relation to the national heritage, the marginalisation and social exclusion often suffered by the children and young people themselves. It is characterised by the invisibility, by the inaccessibility, and by the destruction and loss of records, of memory, and of objects of memory relating to the children and the places and people who looked after them, as well as of the wider work itself. It has, in a sense, fallen out of the national heritage.
6. This absence, loss and destruction of memory and heritage is reflected in the lives and memories of many of those children and young people themselves, who, as adults – and however creative and productive their lives may have become – retain a part of themselves which does not belong to the mainstream community around them, or have a safe and valued place in the wider heritage. In the absence of memory by, about, and for them, their personal histories remain hidden, or protected, or simply unspoken, unknown and unarticulated; but in any event detached from the mainstream history and heritage of the community.
7. For many former children and young people the loss, invisibility, and inaccessibility of records about them, of people who remember them, and of significant places in which they lived, translates into a corresponding lack of personal foundation and certainty about themselves and who they are. In the absence of being remembered, and enjoying an ongoing dialogue with familiar objects, places and people from key stages in childhood, they have a lack, to some degree and at some level, of a coherent and connected understanding of their own place within the scheme of things, or even a firm understanding and knowledge that they have such a place. Once again, through lack of certainty and belief in their own personal heritage and its value, and the ability or opportunity to experience, articulate and share it, they are effectively excluded and estranged from full and confident membership in the heritage of the nation as a whole; and whatever they may have given back in their lives, it remains difficult for them to feel entirely as if they belong, and as if the riches of the nation’s heritage truly belong to them as they do to others.
The project won two awards. “The Most Impactful Archive” award by the Community Archives and Heritage Group in 2012 arose from a process of self-nomination. The proposals and nominations for Your Family History Magazine’s “Archive of the Year” award in 2013 came instead from people who had used the Archive and been involved in the project, and in that sense the award summarises their experiences of it. The magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Nick Barratt, said of the award
“It may be that you have never heard of this archive, but the work that it undertakes and collections it holds are inspirational.
“The Trust was founded in 1966 to support therapeutic approaches to the treatment of children and adults who have suffered severe emotional and psychological hurts. The archive and study centre was formed in 1989, and not only does it collect and curate 200 archival material collections, including 1,100 oral histories, but provides a space for people to share memories and experiences relating to environmental therapy, and so it is continuing to undertake therapeutic work today.”
“This, to me, is the essence of family history – practical, small scale and life changing. All this is done on a small budget, showing that you don’t need millions of pounds to make a difference to people’s lives.”
Many reflections come out of this project, but I’ll end on three, very briefly:
The crucial nature of relationships:
The reality of shared responsibility, of shared authority: Mutuality, red in tooth and claw; which includes seeing, interviewing, working with people as they are, and not as one would like them to be.
For example – and we had to state and re-state this throughout the project: Whatever people might have experienced, it was not therapy, and it was not research: It was an exploration of “a particular area of the nation’s history and heritage with, for, and by people who were not subjects of the project but participants, and even better, colleagues and co-workers in it.”
This has profound implications for example in relation to copyright, where the default position can not be assignment of copyright to the project.
Time and emotion
On the back of a history of many brick walls, and many closed and sometimes slammed doors, internal and external, not to mention abysses of history and memory, expect oral history and relationships to take time.
When I carry out an interview, the interviewee becomes a part of me. Over the course of twenty five years, many of the people I have interviewed have died, taking part of me with them. Add to that the handling of archives – the reified living – of a number of communities which have themselves died, and visiting places in the throes of death to survey their archives and record memories: And it becomes, as I said at the beginning of this paper, hard to talk. Thank you for listening.