Therapy for the Effects of Boarding School on Relationships
Boarding schools do not tend to produce people who have healthy intimate relationships, who are at ease with themselves, or who are self-aware.
My goal is to help you address these difficulties and overcome them. We do this by working through your intimacy and relationship issues so that you can develop more satisfying and rewarding emotional bonds with those around you.
Boarding School Survivor Relationship Traits
If you are the spouse or life partner of a boarding school survivor, you will probably already be familiar with these characteristics and, if you are an ex-boarder yourself, you may recognise some of them in yourself:
Boarding School Survivors …
- are often defensive in relationships
- withhold their emotions or feelings
- use strategy to navigate their intimate relationships
- are determined to ‘stay out of trouble’ at any cost
- can be unemotional
- can be secretive and wary of giving away inner thoughts or emotions
- are internally dominated by a need to ‘stay in control’
- live driven lives behind socially acceptable survival masks
- are very capable of living a double life
- can struggle to know how to communicate with their partner, and how to love their partner
- can also struggle to know how to connect with their children or to meet their children’s needs
Boarding School and Damaged Relationships with Parents and Families
Whether you were sent away at 7 or 8, or at 12 or 13, you were not yet developmentally ready to have the bonds with your parents and family disrupted or severed. Humans are not designed that way.
Becoming an independent and self-sufficient individual is a very gradual process. The success of being able to grow and mature, as a person, depends on lots of input from parents or a stable parental figure.
The close parental relationship provides the infant, then adolescent, with ‘good enough’ nurture, love protection, support, guidance, limits and boundaries, on a daily basis, to allow the child to understand emotions and relationships and how they work.
Lack of Parents’ Love and Concern at Boarding School
Parents need to be present in their children’s lives to mirror back and validate the child’s feelings, whatever their age.
It is important for any of us to receive lots of loving touch during childhood, which is one of the first things that is lost at boarding school. A child needs to feel ‘special’ to his or her mum or dad, and to feel the evidence of this day in and day out.
It is crucial that there is someone in your life who really cares if you have a smile on your face or not, who notices how you are and is personally interested and invested in how you are. It is vital for a teenager to be sulky and challenging sometimes, and to rub up against their parents.
Boarding School and the Loss of Intimacy
If you think back to boarding school, you couldn’t fully and straightforwardly love your parents because it hurt too much, but you also couldn’t love your peers, because that was strictly out of bounds, all you could really do was to get out of the habit of loving altogether.
What you were doing was to cut off that part of you which trusts and loves and is open to being loved.
In its place you installed what psychologists call a ‘strategic survivor personality’ – very necessary back then, but probably damaging to now as an adult wishing for fulfilling, intimate relationships.
Therapy for the Effects of Boarding School on Relationships
The lack of all of these experiences is a tremendous loss for the adult survivor of a boarding school childhood. It also makes it extremely hard for them to trust in a loving relationship ever again.
If, as an adult, you have developed into a guarded, detached observer – as boarding school required – you’ll have discovered that you’re extremely ill equipped to sustain a fulfilling, intimate relationship.
This is where therapy comes in. Marcus’s aim, as a therapist who is also a boarding school survivor, is to help improve and transform the quality of your relationships. Get in touch with him for a chat or initial session.
Some helpful articles and web pages on Boarding School Survivors & Their Relationships in Adulthood
In this pioneering, very readable book Nick Duffell sets out the characteristic features of Boarding School Survivors Syndrome. He describes the construction of the Strategic Survival Personality, as well as telling some of his own story of moving from ‘surviving’ to ‘living’.
A Letter To My Parents
A recent article in the Guardian newspaper written by the ‘boarding school child’ to his parents
George Monbiot, the journalist, offers his personal view.
Some further articles of interest
Professor Joy Schaverien PhD published this highly recommended article in the Journal of Analytical Psychology, Issue 49, in 2004.
(The definitive version is available at www.interscience.wiley.com)
George Monbiot published this article in the Guardian on 22nd January 2008 under the tag line 'Britain’s strange private school system causes immeasurable harm'.
- Only class war on public schools can rid us of this unhinged ruling class.
Cowardice over the charitable status of private education leaves power in the hands of a tiny, damaged elite.
If only the government would justify the paranoia of the ruling classes. They believe, as they have always believed, that they are under unprecedented attack. All last week the rightwing papers rustled with the lamentations of the privileged, wailing about a new class war. If only.
The whinge-fest was prompted by the publication of the Charity Commission’s new guidance about public benefits1. If institutions want to retain their status as charities, they should demonstrate that they do good2. The benefits they create should outweigh the harm they might do, the poor should not be shut out, and “charities should not be seen as ‘exclusive clubs’ that only a few can join”. It hardly sounds radical: after all, what sort of charity is it that doesn’t meet these conditions? Well, it’s a distressed gentlefolks’ association called the private school, and it costs us £100m a year in tax exemptions3.
Though they cannot meet even the crudest definition of charities, the commission – doubtless terrified of the force they can muster – grants private schools a series of escape clauses. Their charitable status will be preserved if they provide some subsidised places to poorer pupils or share some of their facilities with other schools, even if they charge for them4. Thus, according to Melanie Phillips, Simon Heffer and a Telegraph leader, the commission has launched a “class war”5,6,7, motivated (according to Heffer) by “government-orchestrated spite” or (a headteacher writing in the Telegraph) “the rhetoric of envy”8. As seven of the Charity Commission’s nine board members were privately educated19,20. He proposes that places at the best universities should be awarded to the top pupils in each of the UK’s sixth forms, regardless of absolute results. Middle-class parents would have a powerful incentive to send their children to schools with poor results, then to try to ensure that those schools acquired good resources and effective teachers. They would have no interest in sending their children to private schools.
But who is prepared to fight the necessary class war? Not the government, or not yet at any rate. Not the Charity Commission. Unless the Labour party starts to show some mettle, we will be stuck with a system which cripples state education, preserves the class structure and permits a few thousand frightening, retentive people to rule over us. And this will continue to be deemed a public benefit.
1. The Charity Commission, 2008. Charities and Public Benefit: The Charity Commission’s general guidance on public benefit. http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/Library/publicbenefit/pdfs/publicbenefittext.pdf
2. The Commission is interpreting the Charities Act 2006, which is explained here: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/upload/assets/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/third_sector/charities_act_interactive.pdf
3. Polly Curtis and David Brindle, 16th January 2008. Do more for poorer children or lose your charitable status, private schools are told. The Guardian.
4. The Charity Commission, 2008, ibid, page 25, para 3.
5. Melanie Phillips, 16th January 2008. A most uncharitable campaign. The Spectator. http://www.spectator.co.uk/melaniephillips/452356/a-most-uncharitable-campaign.thtml
6. Simon Heffer, 18th January 2008. Our chippy ministers revive the class war. The Daily Telegraph.
7. Leading article, 16th January 2008. Labour’s class warfare in independent schools. The Daily Telegraph.
8. Martin Stephen, 16th January 2008. The crime in teaching at independent schools? The Daily Telegraph.
9. Email from Sarah Miller, the Charity Commission, 18th January 2008.
10. Nick Davies, 8th March 2000. State of despair as public schools get the cream. The Guardian.
11. Two new studies, by Francis Green and Stephen Machin, are summarised here: LSE, 2008. New research on independent schools – their effects on teacher supply and the returns to private education.
12. Originally published in the Guardian, his findings are collected in Nick Davies, 2000. The School Report, Vintage.
13. Nick Davies, 15th September 1999. Bias that killed the dream of equality. The Guardian.
14. Nick Duffell, 2000. The Making of Them: The British attitude to children and the boarding school system. Lone Arrow Press.
16. Caroline Elkins, 2005. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Jonathan Cape, London.
17. Nick Duffell, ibid, p7.
18. Michael Henderson, 17th November 2008. Prep schools can still teach us something. The Daily Telegraph.
19. Peter Wilby, 20th September 2007. As arbitrary as ever. New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/200709200015
20. Peter Wilby, 26th March 1999. Give every school an Oxbridge place. http://www.newstatesman.com/199903260006
This article was written by the psychotherapist Jane Barclay and published in 'Self & Society' in 2011 and on the Boarding Concern website (www.boardingconcern.org.uk).
My intent is to provide experiential evidence that boarding at school is indeed a trauma and needs wider recognition in these terms. Sexual abuse, corporal punishment, rape, torture, imprisonment – all these readily evoke shock, anger and a collective desire to protect as well as a mass of literature and training in therapeutic response. Boarding school continues as a highly lucrative business to be regarded and promoted as a privileged choice of education, the core suffering from enforced and prolonged separation avoided or at best excused on grounds that it’s ‘for your own good’.
I write as an ex-boarder, a therapist, a client in therapy and as a (recently become) director of Boarding Concern.
Ten years ago, I had only a fleeting idea that living two-thirds of each year at school from the age of nine and a half was in any way connected to how I related both to myself and others in adulthood. Since then, my awareness has been surfacing in fits and starts until I am now in no doubt, especially after working on the chapter in Does Therapy Work? (Barclay, 2011) that describes how I ended long-term therapy, that this experience left me with debilitating ‘separation anxiety’ and a host of life-constricting coping strategies and ‘somatic memories’ (Rothschild, 2000, p37).
I put all awakening down to inherent inner wisdom that strives above all for truth and integration. I put the hesitance of this particular awakening down to cultural normalisation (hard-wired during Empire days) of boarding school as being ‘a good thing’ for building character, fostering independence, turning ‘little soldiers’ into big ones (girls as well as boys), producing leadership qualities – all highly-desired attributes. Pupils readily adopt the mantras, ‘It’s for the best in the long run’ and ‘Think of others less fortunate’; these, and more, are cemented in place to defend the system from challenge and aid suppression of homesickness.
When my therapist included the word ‘privileged’ in his response to my apologetic sketch of ‘Poshland’ upbringing, including tentative mention of boarding-school, despite knowing he was referring to enough food and a roof over my head, what I heard was accusation. My spurt of rage (Barclay, 2002) quickly subsided; I wasn’t sure enough of my own ground to fight for understanding or risk being challenged. I continued to link my anguished mix of clinginess and mistrust to other young-child experiences (my need to make sense of flooding emotions intense), and many years passed before I found a space to work more directly towards integrating my neglected, split-off boarding-school-self.
I attended a talk entitled Trauma of the Privileged Child (presented by Prof. Joy Shaverien) that spoke directly to my nine year-old heart. Wow. I enrolled in the therapeutic workshops offered by Boarding Concern (see below) and had an immediate sense of coming home. What relief to be among people who didn’t need convincing but already knew the loneliness, the need for recognition and struggle to be best at something, the unspeakable and therefore unfeelable homesickness, the universal lack of privacy, the comforts of sagging mattress, teddy and of treacle stodge.
After a year and a half more in therapy, with a woman this time, I know that eight years’ incarceration offered no chance of recovery from the initial shock of being transported from home and left somewhere I was led to believe as jolly that instantly turned out to be otherwise. Being severed from all that was familiar and comforting shattered my core assumption (Janoff-Bulman, 1992), along with trust, that ‘my’ adults wouldn’t leave me, that I could rely on them to keep me safe (Gerhardt, 2004).
Enforced adapting, becoming independent, reliable and emotionally stoic - this is the very process, ironically, that is so revered. Whilst adoption, fostering, evacuation and deportation are accepted as destabilising, and children of separated parents are encouraged to make home with one rather than split themselves between the two, the form of child-rearing that entails moving between home and school six times each year (not counting weekends and half-terms) is even now barely acknowledged as a disturbance to a sense of ‘secure base’ (Bowlby, 1979).
* * *
The moment of trauma is the realisation that return home isn’t possible. This may impact on the front steps, unpacking the trunk, at bedtime. (Being sent out of the dining-room for crying was ‘it’ for me: first breakfast, a puddle of black treacle spreading across the plate – too much.) The slicing separation of child from primary attachment figures is mirrored by internal splitting. Since the protesting energy that surges forth cannot be mobilised (Levine, 1997), it must be contained. Therein lies the split: the one who feels hurt, abandoned and betrayed gets locked away; expression of feelings are not welcome in this place and to feel with such intensity all alone is unbearable. What remains is a child whose thinking is on overdrive, searching for reasons for being left (commonly leading to the question ‘what did I do?’ since it offers the possibility of correction,) and at the same time faced with a host of new instructions to assimilate.
Crucially, at boarding school, just as in any ‘care home’ or institution, children not loved by their caretakers. They are taught, fed, housed but not parented. Bowlby writes extensively of ‘secure attachment’ and ‘separation and loss within the family’ in Making & Breaking Affectional Bonds; in Why Love Matters, Gerhardt adds neuro-scientific findings to support visible evidence of insecure-attachment-induced stress (p 25-31).
Contact by letter (nowadays by phone and email), periodic day’s out (nowadays frequent weekends home) and even an extra visit for a match or concert cannot erase the certain knowledge that another goodbye looms; living in anticipatory dread becomes normal. Nor do ever more glossy brochures of comfortable common-rooms, extensive grounds and the lure of attractive extra-curricula activities compensate for missing pets, home bedroom and even irritating siblings. Or for lack of goodnight hugs.
The first hour, first bedtime, first breakfast: the first week is a series of after-shocks before the bizarre becomes familiar. One new and bewildering experience follows another relentlessly (Duffell, 2000) without ‘down-time’, a private place to recover even temporarily or cuddles. No amount of being shown the ropes by peers, bracing encouragement from staff or even momentary comfort from an under-matron provides reassurance since the reality doesn’t change.
The process of acclimatising and desensitising can be compared to that of prisoners-of-war (Herman, 1992) who, if guarding and terrain combine to make escape impossible, can only sit it out hoping one day for release. Survival of treatment intended to depersonalise and make keeping order easier – use of surnames, uniform bed-covers, strip-washes, lack of privacy – is dependent upon being canny and competitive. Upon suppressing longing; upon living one day at a time, eking out supply of rations of both food and affection; upon refusing to think about home and then when finally there blotting out ‘the other place’. The legacy, that all forms of abuse and neglect have in common, is a sense, back home, of strangeness, of not belonging – until or unless a process of re-joining the splitting brings about integration.
‘Abuse? That’s going too far.’ Both schools and parents ‘sell’ the benefits of boarding school to their children as they have had it sold to them. Together with persuasive enticements and reassurances, in terms of grooming this is on a par with any other version of ‘it’s for you own good’. Defences in the form of mantras, quickly learned by rote by new boys and girls, are necessary to protect all concerned (shown in Colin Luke’s documentary The Making of Them, 1993) from the bleak reality, all in the name of top-class education which in turn leads to top jobs. Individual distress is contagious; if an epidemic broke out, the emotional brutality of the regime would be exposed. To challenge centuries-old beliefs that to have less leads to needing less and that to not-need promotes independence would mean, as well as the demise of a highly lucrative business, stepping out of ‘all that is familiar’ (p2). No wonder the investment to keep the status quo.
‘What about service families?’ ‘And what about escape from abuse at home?’ Surely being fostered is a more nurturing option if rescue is needed. And reliability of home and family more important than constancy of schooling, at least up to the age of thirteen (Gerhardt, 2004).
I emphasise, it is the power of collective defensive arguments, by those whom the system has served in terms of high-achievement and those who envy the academic advantages, that compounds the particular trauma of being sent to boarding-school: a child who steps out of line and plucks up courage to complain (about continual separations, about missing home – tho more likely about conditions since his feelings have been locked out of awareness) is most likely to be told hear that he or she is lucky – shamed into silence that can extend long after breaking-up for the final time.
For the first three weeks at prep school contact with home is firmly discouraged, on the grounds this would upset both children and parents (shown on Channel 4, Cutting Edge, Leaving Home at 8, Spring 2010). Imagine, if you haven’t experienced this hiatus, or remember if you have: after a brisk and hearty, stiff-upper-lip parting, the measures a child must resort to, to bear watching all s/he knows as safe and familiar, including the source of hugs and cuddles, driving away. (It is quite common, I’ve discovered, not to remember the first ‘goodbye’, not consciously anyway.) The brain strains to make sense out of utter confusion. So much to learn, so quickly. Fear must not be seen by peers, distress quickly stifled; protest to staff is unthinkable. Activity without respite – ‘timetable-ing’ (Duffell, 2000) – is the well-known antidote to homesicknes. The adults in charge know that three weeks is the length of time that breaks a child’s hope of rescue; the children themselves make the decision to stop looking ahead, to put needs on hold (the crucial moment of necessary self-betrayal) and turn to the immediate business of surviving.
The younger the child, the greater the emotional wrench when separated from primary sources of love and nurturing physical contact, and the greater the threat to physical safety when separated from primary sources of protection. The longing (I call this ‘cuddle-hunger’) that arises from unmet needs demands a focus and so deflects towards sweets and puddings, towards gold stars and top-of-form status, to shows of courage on stage or playing-field: to winning. Oh yes, and to being naughty. Enough to win admiration from peers. Imagine a school full of children with such determination: every aspect of living becomes a competition, from ‘bagging’ the thickest slice of bread (Dickensian measures to ease emotional starvation), to whose brother is the grooviest at sports-day. Pretending, ‘telling stories’, cheating when necessary – anything to get a sense of identity, of special-ness. Yet to be the best means being envied, a lonely state: public schools historically turn out officers, not ‘men’.
No wonder ex-boarders (the ones who haven’t sunk into a mire of self-destructive behaviours) continue to fill places of leadership, public roles and the top positions in elite professions: being best is what they learned to value, to compensate for inner emptiness. (When I watch Blackadder or Monty Python I don’t laugh; my inner schoolgirl squirms at public-school humour, recognising and re-feeling the pain underneath.)
* * *
So to post-trauma. In the first weeks, fight/flight energy must, if not mobilised, collapse into submission (Barclay, 2010). The third survival-serving response, to freeze or ‘play dead’ (Rothschild, 2000), cannot be sustained over an indeterminate period. ‘Freeze’ takes the form of switching off needs that cannot be fulfilled (extended longing is self-torturing) and turning to what or whoever is available as substitute to ‘make do’. Survival means living as two sides of a coin, back to back, one side permanently hidden (Laing, 1960), the other the face that is seen. It is the latter that people respond to, the one that its owner comes to believe is all s/he is.
The Strategic Survival Personality (Duffell, 2000) develops as a shell to present to the world. This way of being does serve its purpose in terms of locking away feelings; it also carries a high price. The hidden, silent ‘face’ must find alternative ways of making its presence felt, for example via an eating disorder, self-harming, cheating, aggression. The on-going splitting can manifest in depression and bi-polar mood-extremes as well as in powerful control of self (needs in particular) and others, including addictions – to behaviours such as gambling, sex and high-risk activities, and to drugs, alcohol and food. To quote my therapist, ‘How can you relate to other people if you cannot relate to yourself?’
Ex-boarders can have just as much difficultly rejoining within themselves and hence to the wider world as do combat veterans and released prisoners, conditioned to continue surviving by the same means that served ‘getting through’, including making light (‘fine, really’) or joking about hardships (‘put hairs on my chest’.)
‘The syndrome that follows upon prolonged, repeated trauma needs its own name. I propose to call it ‘complex post-traumatic stress disorder.’’ (Herman, Trauma & Recovery, p 119). Out of hard-wired coping strategies grows the ‘drama triangle’ (Karpman, 1968) of victim, persecutor/aggressor, rescuer – each behavioural position a maladaptive bid to gain at least an illusion of power and of ability to self-protect, and to get needs for safety met without intimate engagement. Anything to avoid re-feeling helpless.
The most visible survival technique or ‘face’ particular to the ex-boarder is social confidence, the ability to ‘get on’ with everyone, often admired as ‘charming’: bubbly small talk and wit both serve to avoid being known, very exposing for someone who has long denied the existence of his/her inner self. Also common as a defence against social contact is arrogance. Next is competence: striving for excellence and competition in all things again serves to promote hierarchy and hence avoid intimacy with others. One of the hallmark legacies of boarding school is the double-bind of aiming to be ‘top’ but not getting ‘above yourself’ – hence ladles of self-deprecation.
* * *
The cost of my own survival strategies all come under the heading ‘fear of intimacy’.
‘I see the problems of sexuality in boarding schools expressed in later life as difficulties in loving, or more specifically in combining sex, love and intimacy in relationships.’ (Duffell, The Making of Them, p 169.) I began to make sense of all my relationships together with my irritation and frustration at girlfriends who gushed greetings but remained elusive, somehow ‘not there’ even when we were chatting over coffee. Instinctively, I’d homed into people of my own kind: no wonder my hunger for meaningful contact remained unsatisfied. Boarders, including myself until recently, can become expert at ‘doing’ effusiveness, at ‘doing’ relationships, all the while ‘being’ absent. Now I understand my indefinable sense of ‘something’s missing’ and dismal lack of belonging.
The first taste of attention from my therapist was like a grain of sugar given to a starving man, unleashing a craving for someone to love and be loved by (equally risky) that demanded to be satisfied – and was over time (Barclay, 2011), gradually enabling me to take these primary needs beyond the therapy room.
No wonder, in retrospect, how my early years of therapy were all about having more and more: time and attention. I dared not let in nourishment and so remained hungry. No wonder, too, that my therapist’s holidays that started with the words, ‘See you in three weeks’, were breaks to endure by ticking off calendars and drawing him pictures. Anything to stop him, and thereby stop me, from disappearing. Over years of work, separations became less threatening as I became more substantial, more connected to myself in his absence; however, the final goodbye (Barclay, 2010) left me pining with homesickness and drawing on my habitual, survival mode of ‘having to go without’. After struggling alone for months, I sought help from another therapist, a woman this time, to complete this ending.
True freedom – from the prison of the ‘drama triangle’ – means reconnecting to and remobilising fight/flight survival energy (Levine, 1997). I’ve discovered just how different this feels from prickly defensiveness, muscles warmed up and primed rather than cold and tight, body expansive rather than hunched (Keleman, The Human Ground).
* * *
Ex-boarders are likely to come to therapy without any idea of schooldays as a source of distress. Fiercely self-critical of being needy and suspicious of attachment, let alone dependency, they automatically deflect care by means of criticism and comparison and fiercely stick to subject-matter that appears safe: the ‘problem’ they’ve come about and what to do to beat it.
An unaware therapist who misses a passing reference to boarding-school may inadvertently give the client a chance to assert his/her case; more likely, the omission will pass unnoticed since the client won’t be aware of its significance either. A therapist who colludes with collective assumptions about the privilege of boarding-school is potentially lethal. The first time I described my moment of abandonment and subsequent survival measures to a local group of therapists, I was received with a mix of surprise and curiosity. Only one in the group stayed silent; afterwards she came over and said, ‘I’m sorry you had such a bad time; for me it wasn’t so at all.’ Perhaps I’d overused my personal experience and needed to present more clinical evidence to get my point across; perhaps she didn’t dare, wasn’t ready to get the point.
As therapist, to maintain awareness of my ‘self’ as separate from an other’s depends on inhabiting me as ‘home’. Attention to ‘monitoring arousal and anxiety’, ‘use of brakes’, and ‘becoming familiar with the theory of the Autonomic Nervous System’ (Rothschild, 2006) is invaluable. The unshakeable belief that I suffered trauma from enforced separation from home and parents enables me to let my experiences, and responses to a client, inform me. This includes remembering at all times that behind missed appointments, forgetting to pay and all the other defences against connecting with me more fully is a small child saying ‘keeping my distance is what I had to do’. As much as s/he may long for love, safety meant self-reliance for all things, peers and adults alike not to be trusted – however high the cost in isolation. A client I’ve worked with for three and a half years handed me a Christmas card just before leaving for our break – of three weeks. ‘I tore up the first one,’ he said, ‘Of course, I gave myself a hard time for such waste. But I’d written ‘with love’. This one, well, I hope you like the picture, it’s a favourite of mine; and I’ve just signed my name.’ I thanked him for the card, and thanked him for the extra gift of telling me what he’d torn up.
My endeavour is to raise awareness rather than fight against denial, to remain respectful of defences and continue to proffer my own experience to inform and promote understanding – in conjunction with Boarding Concern which provides a place to call for anyone who is ready.
Barclay, J. (2002) Class – Prejudice and Privilege, Self & Society, Vol 30 no 4, p33-35.
Barclay, J. (2010) Endings, to have and to hold, Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, Karnac Press,
Barclay, J. (2010) The Trauma of Boarding at School, www.boardingconcern.org.uk
Barclay, J. (2011) Does Therapy Work? Exeter: Troutbeck Press.
Bowlby. J (1979) The Making & Breaking of Affectional Bonds, London: Tavistock Publications
Duffell, N. (2000) The Making of Them, London: Lone Arrow Press.
Gerhardt, S. (2004) Why Love Matters, London: New York, Routledge.
Herman, J. (1992) Trauma & Recovery, London: HarperCollins.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992) Shattered Assumptions, New York: Free Press.
Karpman, S. (1968) Fairy Tales & Script Analysis: Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7 (26), 39-43.
Keleman, S. (1975) The Human Ground: Sexuality, Self and Survival, California: Centre Press.
Laing, R. (1960) The Divided Self, London: Tavistock Publications.
Levine, P. (1997) Waking the Tiger, California: North Atlantic Books.
Rothschild, B. (2000) The Body Remembers, London: New York, W.W.Norton.
Rothschild, B. (2006) Help for the Helper, p113-114, London: New York, W. W. Norton.
Documentaries: The Making of Them, BBC, 1993 (Colin Luke)
Leaving Home at 8, Cutting Edge, Channel 4, Spring 2010
David Mair published this cover feature article in September 2005 in 'Therapy Today', the journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
How damaging is it to be sent away to school at a young age? This article critically inspects the psychological implications of a form of education intended to produce 'the best years of one's life'.
The phenomenon of child abuse attracts extensive coverage in the media. Whether the abuse is sexual, physical or emotional, all serious attempts to prevent the harming of the most vulnerable members of our society are to be applauded. Why is it, then, that a practice that 'offends no fewer than 11 articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Britain signed in 1991,' continues with barely a 'murmur of concern'?1
The practice in question is the peculiarly British tradition of sending young children away to boarding schools at ages when they are still in the process of establishing their sense of connection and attachment to their families and environment. One of the reasons why it attracts barely a murmur of concern is that a boarding education has conventionally been seen – primarily by those who send their children away – as a privilege and an opportunity to be grateful for. To quote the title of psychotherapist Nick Duffell's book, it is seen as 'the making of them'. 2 Another reason why boarding school seems to attract little attention in the public media could be to do with the association that public schools have with the upper classes, the privileged few, with 'the establishment'. Although this association is perhaps weaker now than in the past, there is a commonly held view that public schools provide a better start in life, a firmer foundation for a successful future, and that anyone who has been through the system and dares to criticise it is a 'whinger' or a 'spoilt rich kid'.
Recently I attended a two-weekend workshop for ex-boarding-school survivors run specifically for gay men. Led by two London-based therapists, Marcus Gottlieb and Richard Nickols, both ex-boarding school pupils themselves, the group was 10 strong. The experience as a moving one for all of us; all had painful stories to tell and difficult experiences to relate.
Primarily the pain was centred on the abandonment that happened to each of us at the time, and the struggle that we have had since to move on from the survival strategies that enabled us to cope with boarding school but which left us unprepared for emotional contact with others afterwards. There was, for many, the added reality of physical or sexual abuse, which had remained hidden for years. For all of us there was some experience of a double self-alienation – initially from our sense of pain and rejection at being sent away to school, but later also from our own sexuality. What could be more ironic and confusing than on the one hand a growing realisation that I am gay, surrounded by other boys to whom I am attracted, but on the other a total inability to express this for fear of the hostility that it would elicit from the peers whom I need in order to survive?
Central to my own experience of being sent to boarding school was a sense of abandonment. I now realise that this sense of abandonment occurred primarily at an unconscious and instinctive level. Consciously, I understood why my parents had decided to send me to England: they were working abroad and they, and I, believed that getting back into the English education system at the age of 12 was the only way to ensure that my education would pave the way to university and a good career. To stay in Chile where we were living would have meant going into either the local or the American system – we were ignorant of how this might actually have been the better option.
So I knew that my parents loved me, and that they were doing this because they genuinely thought it was for the best. And yet, my 12-year-old reaction to the 8,000-mile separation from family was one of terror, pain, withdrawal into myself and an avoidance of others. I remember being ashamed of my reaction; I had been looking forward to school and had expected to find it exciting and fun. But my almost instantaneous reaction, from which I never fully recovered in the five years I was at the school, was a kind of emotional paralysis and hyper-vigilance that I could not switch off. I now realise that this response was a normal, biological response to the experience of separation, probably exacerbated by my own innately reserved personality and temperament. How else could I survive, without distancing myself from the intensity of such feelings?
Instead of engaging in a normal developmental separation from family with the onset of puberty, I became fixated on returning home and escaping from the school in which I found myself. Nick Duffell summarises this experience: 'I now understand how difficult it is to achieve a healthy separation from parents if it has not been allowed to happen in its natural course. I suspect that a natural separation would occur some time just after the onset of puberty'.2 However, a boarding school separation is not natural or gradual, but rather an amputation. And the premature loss that occurs can make it extremely difficult for an individual to feel that he or she is ready to strike out alone and face the world as an adult. This is something that I have worked on several times in personal counselling; but early traumas do not heal easily or fully3 and learning to live with their memories is a key step in moving forward.
During the workshops I attended, we watched a video of young children being sent away to school at an even younger age than I was. There was much for the group to identify with:
- The need on the part of the child to hold on to the belief that this experience was exciting, and fun, and good for him, because of the need to hold on to the belief that parents always act lovingly and in the best interests of the child.
- The need of the parents to defend their own pain at losing their child with a 'but we know it's the best thing we can do for him' rationalisation.
And then in the weeks that followed the separation, the kind of distancing from intense pain and loss that all of us in the group had been through ourselves. One very poignant scene showed a child of nine telling the camera how being sent to school meant that he was learning how to look after himself and be grown up, and that this was good because it meant he would be able to get a good job and be in control of other people. This 'false self' was immediately juxtaposed with the same child, back temporarily into his 'real self', telling us about the clown-shaped birthday cake he'd had last year, and how he'd eaten the nose and hoped he'd get another such cake this year.
Survival at a cost
The creating of a 'false self' is something that happened for me very quickly at boarding school. I soon learnt that 'soft' feelings and affection were 'not on' in this environment. One major realisation for me is that boarding schools are not in the business of providing love and that therefore no matter how benign the regime, or how liberal the policy of contact with parents, one of the fundamental needs of any child – to be loved and held and connected – cannot be met in this system of education. Duffel describes what he calls the emergence of a 'survival personality'. For me – and I suspect many of the other men at the workshops – the dismantling of this personality has been the work of a lifetime.
'Survival personality' in essence is about finding a way to get through, to defend myself and to disconnect from any needs I may have that threaten my survival in the environment in which I find myself. Duffel 2 writes:
We are usually unaware of having been the Designer of Survival Patterns, so although we may live compensated lives, we are unlikely to connect this with our need to survive. The boarding school survivor can become a strong fortress, and genuinely does not remember how or why he became so, nor does he know another way of life.
For anyone, the experience of boarding school can be traumatic – varying in intensity according to temperament, personality, and the age at which they are sent. For someone who realises that he or she is gay as well, the survival personality can develop another dimension of self-alienation and a need to deny. Again, speaking for myself, the shaming experience of reacting to separation in a paralysed, semi-shut-down way, was doubled when I realised that I was not the same as other boys who were beginning to get interested in girls. With no emotional outlet for a normal but different sexuality, my shame and need to deny my own feelings intensified.
Now I understand another part of why it took me so long to 'come out' (until I was 30); the survival personality I had constructed did not, and does not, lie down easily.
Healing the Damage
Working with ex-boarding school pupils, of whatever sexuality, requires a special sensitivity on the part of therapists. We must be alert to and aware of the possibility of a well-defended, wounded inner child. Of course, it would be a mistake to believe that all boarding school pupils have been similarly affected. But neither should we necessarily take at face value dismissive or trivialising accounts of the experience of being sent away, particularly from adults who boarded at an early age, say seven or eight. One clue to a defence against pain would be an inability to provide a coherent narrative of what boarding school was like.
'Patients who cannot remember the details of their childhood are repressing painful memories.' 4 When pain has been so well defended for so many years, the level of self-awareness of a client may be extremely low.
Indeed, this level of internal defence suggests that a purely rational way of working may be altogether inappropriate. What is needed instead is a much more experiential way of accessing images, memories and feelings from a painful and obscured past. Some of the techniques used so powerfully during the group workshops I attended could be adapted for work with individual clients:
- Imagery work – guided visualisations, going back to school, seeing yourself as a young child again, spending time with the feelings, thoughts, smells, tastes, touches that are evoked and aroused by photographs taken during those years, pieces of clothing, memorabilia. (The trunk, used to pack up home into a box, seemed to produce a particularly powerful evocation of feelings among the participants in the workshops.)
- Writing letters – to yourself as a child, responding to the unspoken fears, needs, desires, from your perspective now as a concerned and loving adult. Writing letters – to parents (not necessarily to be sent!) expressing hurt, anger, rage, bewilderment, at their decision to send you away.
- Drawing pictures – what picture or image would represent you when you were at school? (For me, it was a conker in its green, prickly shell – well defended and hidden!) And what picture might represent you now?
One of the keys to successful work with ex-boarding-school pupils is the ability to encourage the recognition and expression of feelings in a variety of ways – feelings which have often been hidden from self and others for many years. This may be very slow and delicate work, but only once these feelings have been allowed out of the trunk into which they were stuffed can any movement towards healing begin.
I recently worked with a client whose description of his life left me wondering why he felt he had to stay in a relationship that was abusive, and in a job where there was so little satisfaction. His reply was, 'Well, I went to boarding school – it teaches you to put up with a lot.'
Looking at the website for the school I attended, there is a brief section on 'boarding' (interestingly headed as 'Boarding – an experience for life'!) which says: 'Boarding life opens up doors to many new opportunities', 'Boarding's great – you have your friends all around all the time, you never get lonely, there's always someone to cry with, laugh with, have fun with'. My strong feeling – shared, I suspect, by many of the men at the workshops – is that boarding schools should carry a mandatory government health warning and that parents should be obliged – at the very least – to watch the videos we watched over the weekends so that they can be made aware of the powerful, damaging, unacknowledged experience of boarding that the schools themselves prefer to ignore and deny.
David Mair is a BACP Accredited Counsellor working in private practice in Worcestershire and at the University of Birmingham Student Counselling Service.
1. Monbiot G. The Guardian, 1998. Cited in Duffell N. The making of them. London: Lone Arrow Press; 2000.
2. Duffel N. The making of them. London: Lone Arrow Press; 2000.
3. Young J. Schema therapy. New York: The Guilford Press; 2003.
4. Holmes J. Attachment, intimacy and autonomy: using attachment theory in adult psychotherapy. New Jersey: Jason Aronson; 1996.
Why is it still acceptable to send young children to boarding school?
Seldom has the role of the social worker been so clearly spelt out. On Monday the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) released a report arguing that adoption should be used as a first resort for children abused or neglected by their families. Childcare professionals were criticised for their reluctance to place working class children with middle class families.
Social workers have long suspected that they are employed to police the parenting of the underclass, while turning a blind eye to the abuses perpetrated by their social superiors. Middle class families whose children suffer behavioural abnormalities tend to be referred to the child psychiatrist, not the social worker. Partly as a result, we continue to believe that working class people make far worse parents than middle class people, and should be regulated accordingly.
This judgement, which underpins the IEA report, is false. It persists only because Britain’s most overt and qualmless form of child abuse is ignored. Perhaps because this peculiar cruelty is the preserve of the middle and upper classes, it has never been the cause of referral to the child protection register, though both neglect and emotional abuse are clearly demonstrable. It is, if you haven’t guessed already, the barbaric tradition of dispatching children as young as eight, seven, or, in the case of one friend of mine, three and a half, to boarding school. This practice offends 8 articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Britain signed in 1991. Yet it attracts scarcely a murmur of concern.
I have an interest to declare. Good at work, bad at sport, with heterodox opinions and a crippling stammer, I would have been bullied at any school, but at boarding school the bullying was remorseless and inescapable. Sometimes it lasted through much of the night. To have “sneaked” would only have made it worse, so from the age of eight I was thrown upon my own puny resources. It is hard to believe that the teachers didn’t know what was happening: perhaps they thought it was “character building”.
Less visible, but just as prevalent, was sexual abuse: new boys were routinely groped and occasionally sodomised by the prefects. Sexual assault was and possibly still is a feature of prep school life as innate as fried bread and British bulldogs.
While some seemed to thrive in this environment, many of us did all we could to get away. One boy escaped at every possible opportunity, sometimes running as far as 15 miles from the school, before the mysterious tentacles of surveillance and collusion that seem to surround this system captured and returned him. Some schools retained boys and girls during the holidays, when their parents were working abroad or simply couldn’t be bothered.
I hope this doesn’t sound like special pleading from a poor little rich boy. It shouldn’t be hard to see that everyone in Britain suffers from the brutalisation of the elite. Few of its victims have grown up to fight the system which gave rise to these abuses; many more, like the uncaged bird which returns to its perch, defend and promote it. Empowered by the sociopathy in which they were schooled, they visit their agony upon other people. One had only to look at the retributive misfits of the Thatcher cabinets to see how dangerous is the damage done to the captive offspring of the ruling class.
Our silence on this issue is astonishing. The NSPCC has never compiled a report on private boarding schools, has no data and no information. Prep school children are shielded from social workers; the teachers, like everyone else in this system, close ranks. Old boys argue that the harshness of their schooling made them the men they are. In truth, early boarding is no more character-building than any other form of brutalisation. Private boarding schools strive to turn every boy into a monstrous Coriolanus, every girl into a mannered debutante. Character emerges despite, not because of, this system.
The insatiate middle class, having preyed upon its own, now demands the children of the unemployed. Yet, if any parenting patterns need examination, they are surely those which are currently least investigated. The IEA argues against taking children into council care, and rightly so. But how can this position be reconciled with the incarceration of tens of thousands of small children, as a result of a different, and decorous, form of parental neglect?
First appeared in the Guardian (1998)
Cover Story Extracted from PINK PAPER 24 September 2004
As pupils get back to their studies, Simon Swift finds out why a former student has set up a group for gay boarding school survivors.
Boarding schools are as famous for their tales of gay sex as they are for their formidable academic reputation. But the belief that the posh kids are all enjoying wild sex-lives blinds people to the crippling emotional problems that pupils are often left with.
Marcus Gottlieb, a former boarder at Eton in the 70s, is now a psychologist. He offers support for gay boarding school "survivors" and claims that ex-students are still suffering from hiding their sexuality during their youth. "I remember before going to Eton in 1971, reading an ex-housemaster’s book about school life, which described homosexuality as 'almost always a phase and nothing for parents to worry about'," he says. "When I got there, my housemaster's rumoured attitude was: 'I don't mind mutual masturbation but I draw the line at buggery'."
"In my schooldays the word 'gay' wasn’t used as an insult – instead the term 'perv' was used. That says it all really" He adds becoming a completely different person is a way of life for some gay students. "[At boarding school] it's so much more important to pass yourself off as 'normal' – as one of the boys or girls – and not to let anyone suspect your gayness. There's really no outlet.”
Gottlieb is running one of the first series of workshops in London especially for gay men who have been ex-boarders.
He claims many have experienced difficulties when they leave for life outside the school walls. "There is an overriding lack of privacy at boarding school, an absence of personal space and boundaries that other children or teenagers take for granted. "You are always subject to intrusion. So you're very alert to how others are behaving," he says. "Your actual impulses, needs, desires, preferences about anything – what you eat, how you exercise your body, or how you express your sexuality – are experienced as a nuisance or simply irrelevant."
Gottlieb claims that some of the gay ex-boarders he has dealt with have experienced debilitating problems such as clinical depression, eating disorders and alcoholism.
Although some are often successful in their career, they discover relationships aren't working and friendships are often superficial. He says many are in their 30s before they realise something is missing in their lives. "We all have strategies for surviving at boarding school, rigidly conforming, acting tough, evasiveness, humour," he recalls.
"In my schooldays the word 'gay' wasn't used as an insult – instead the term 'perv' was used. That says it all really. "My own experience was of bursting out [of the closet] pretty soon after leaving, but the guilt and oppression has left a deep scar."
One ex-boarder said: "It's like an extra suit of armour you have to wear in that, to an extent, you've already adapted your personality to fit and keeping a handle on your gay feelings is just another thing to worry about. "University is a different world but I still felt like I couldn't come out still – which is a shame because that's your opportunity to have fun."
Nick Duffel set up Boarding School Survivors in 1990 – a national organisation which helps troubled ex-boarders make sense of their experiences. His book, The Making of Them, illustrates the effects boarding can have on young people. The situation for gays and lesbians is especially complex. "They [gay men] have difficulty with relationships becausethey have become closed people at boarding school but this is also reinforced by the shame and secrecy, until very recently, that were a big feature of being gay," he says.
Duffel has identified a condition called Strict Survival personality in some boarders, which involves staying out of trouble and being very guarded. "You suffer many of the things that people in prison suffer and yet it is a privilege," he adds.
In his research Duffel has heard some horrific stories about anti-gay bullying in boarding schools. "Using gayness as a term of abuse is not just a boarding school phenomenon but there is an absolute fear of being thought of as gay in such an institution."
Boarding schools have a real hot-house effect where pupils are sexually impatient and experiment with other boys and girl "In fact if you get an attractive boy that turns the other boys on they can pay a heavy price and become stigmatised as gay for arousing such feelings in other pupils. When I was at school this did happen to another boy and he killed himself as a result because there is a tremendous amount of scapegoating, particularly around puberty. The culture is eventually one of denying, suppressing and sublimating into sports." Even more confusing is the mythology that gay experimentation is a regular practice at boarding schools. Duffel says staff attitudes towards sex are often the problem. "These boarding schools are often single gender and have a real hot-house effect where pupils are sexually impatient and experiment with other boys and girls – and yet experimenting with your body is taboo in the eyes of staff."
Gottlieb agrees: "It depends on what school you go to. What's acceptable varies but in most cases whatever goes on is pretty much behind closed doors." Most feel they are doing something wrong and, if anyone finds out about it, they will be outcasts.
"The fact is that when I was at school expulsions did happen and if you were caught having any sort of sex you were liable to be expelled." There’s no easy solution and gay organisation School’s Out admit that boarding school is not an area they deal with at all. Gottlieb says that there are forward thinking institutions but unsurprisingly they are not in this country.
"Nowadays some of the leading American private schools, such as Andover and Concord, permit gay faculty house parents to live together so that pupils have a role model of a normal, loving adult gay relationship," he says. "For gay students it is going to be very important for them to see gay faculty members able to live a normal life. The presence of gay couples with solid relationships supports those who are at a vulnerable period in life."
The image of boarding school in books such as Tom Brown's Schooldays, Mallory Towers and even in the five Harry Potter books is one of intense camaraderie and freedom to grow up. The reality for some remains surprisingly different. Gottlieb explains: "A writer I was at school with said 'boarding schools are in the country.
You can play football and cricket and make huts in the woods. But what you cannot do is love. You cannot love your parents because it hurts so much – and you cannot love your fellow pupils because there is an overriding taboo against any hint of homosexuality. So after a while you just get out of the habit of loving – getting back into the habit can be a very difficult task'. "I just find the problems are multiplied if you are gay, because the taboo against gayness is usually so very strong, and what you have to hide or deny yourself is so much more."
I wrote this article in 2005 and published it in 'Self & Society', the journal of the Association of Humanistic Psychology Practitioners.
In the past five years I have worked in groups with about 40 fellow boarding school survivors and corresponded, spoken and shared experiences with dozens of others. More recently, I have worked as a psychotherapist with around 20, most of whom have been gay, lesbian or bisexual. It was in September 2004 that I started to run workshops, the subject of this article. These were designed specifically for gay men, like myself, who felt that their boarding school experience was difficult to come to terms with and had had a long-term negative impact.
At that point it was exactly ten years since I had entered therapy. When I started that journey, I was unaware that my anxiety, isolation and sense of failure were linked to my schooling. Since then, I have oscillated between anger about the damage done to me and insistence that I have little genuinely to complain about. Struggling with this duality is common. Boarders can buy into themyth that we were special and fortunate. It is a tenacious introject.
I find it less painful, less shameful, to 'defend my parents' and maintain the story that I was happy, than to admit that my daily reality at school was tedium and torment. If I do voice my real feelings, I may do so apologetically.
The major selling point of boarding schools is that they instil 'character', self-confidence and self-reliance. I think this claim deserves to be questioned. It may be true that boarders can grow into competitive and domineering adults, and these are qualities well rewarded in our society. However, the cost in many cases is surely too great, in terms of the trauma of early abandonment and institutionalisation, the symptoms of which are clearly seen in adults who are hardened, pressured, and do not permit themselves normal weakness or failure, who are resistant to loving and being loved.
Nurturing parents know that their children are dependent on their protection and love. They set boundaries to contain and support them becoming gradually less dependent, by individuating, making choices and developing their adult form. Crucially, this is an organic process, which needs a pace appropriate to the individual.
combined with dependency on the school, an overweening, ersatz authority.
Boarding can be damaging because it takes parents and family out of the picture and substitutes premature independence, combined with dependency on the school, an overweening, ersatz authority. An institution is not designed to meet a child’s emotional needs, and they may conclude that these are unimportant or a mere nuisance.
It is important that therapists are aware of the scars that ex-boarders may carry, very often hidden. "Now that I realize," one client said to me, "that my problems of low self esteem, depression, fear of intimacy and difficulty with relationships are classic by-products of the boarding experience, I feel much of my previous therapy was wide of the mark." The surface the client presents can be polished and urbane. When I meet other ex-boarders, I tend to connect through humour and can appear confident andtough; to show that I survived. I was conditioned from childhood not to ask for emotional support, nor to share unhappiness. To talk about my needs or vulnerability at boarding school would have been unthinkably 'sissy' or 'soft'- especially taboo given my awareness at some level of being gay.
At an early age, we had every significant relationship abruptly, unnecessarily cut off: mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins,
grandparents, friends, pets, home, neighbourhood, community were suddenly lost. (I use the word 'unnecessarily' advisedly: of course there are rare exceptions where family life is so dysfunctional that boarding comes as a relief.)
This breach of relationships has implications, for example, when a gay ex-boarder comes out to his family; the healthy connection, which might support a person in this process, has already been radically broken. Not surprisingly, 'nesting' and the security of a home can feel extremely important and healing, and many of us have found new communities and 'families of choice'which have gone some way to filling the gap left by the rupture in our childhood.
A vital part of the healing work is making efforts to imagine - or remember if we are ex-boarders - the shock felt on first arrival at school. That is to make contact with the child before he adapted to his new environment and shut down his authentic, feeling part. "I didn't complain to my parents," is the message I hear from ex-boarders when asked to recall their first hours at school, " because that would have let them down." This is a very wrong thing for a child to have been taught. To be vulnerable or powerless should not invite contempt, and to need love and reassurance is human and natural.
The child who arrives at boarding school is well aware that his parents, having invested a great deal in the success of this project, expect him to be calm and courageous. Resourcefully, he may come up with a piece of double-bind reasoning which runs something like this: "I am privileged to have been sent away from home, I'm lonely and dying to be touched and comforted but I'm not going to ask for that. My parents have sacrificed themselves and sent me away because they love me, and I know that they love me because they tell me so. Therefore the experience I am having is not real, or not to be trusted, or there is something wrong with me. It is not possible to imagine that my parents have been selfish, cruel or ambitious for themselves. I must be ungrateful, undeserving, rotten to the core."
At the same time the child puts an immense, instinctive effort into not crying, disciplining and deadening himself, strangling his throat, tightening his chest and restricting his breathing so as to hold backtears and shut off the waves of grief and homesickness. This way of using himself becomes habituated, and is evident both when I work with adult ex-boarders and when I reflect on my somatic self-organization. It becomes what the child, then the adult, recognizes as his identity. It corresponds to what Nick Duffell has termed the 'strategic survival personality'.
Duffell quotes a client once having said; "I became a strategic person, always on the lookout for danger and how to turn every situation to my best advantage. I still do it. It's exhausting. I don't know how to stop doing it." This fits with my own experience and that which others have reported to me.
One of the manifestations of the 'survival personality’ is extreme polarity of control and chaos. "I look to all the world as if I'm fully in control, but inside me is turbulence," one person told me. "I try to deal with everything on my own, won't let anyone help me." It seems important to act competent, and not to feel one’s own chaotic feelings. Several people have told me of "seeking refuge in work", over-committing or over-extending themselves, being addicted to work or to the abuse of drink, drugs, food or sex. Life feels shortened, because they do not allow themselves to stop and breathe.
I increasingly connect this squeezing of time to the conditioning of school time-tabling. A non-boarding youngster typically luxuriates in free, unregulated time, whenever he or she is at home and particularly at weekends. It can almost be seen as the teenager's developmental task, to 'hang out', as they wait for their adult identity to form. It is hard to convey to someone who has not grown up under a tight, institutional regime, what it is like to have no moment which is not precisely allocated to one demand or another, every space filled lest, heaven forbid, the pupil have some self-contact, and access to feelings such as sadness, anger or lust
Thus boarding school survivors tend to be stoic and ever enduring. They have been 'trained to put up with a lot', as a workshop participant expressed it to me. Survivors are inclined to deprecate information in their body about their needs, impulses, appetites and preferences.
They often lack a subtle, sensitive feel for their own boundaries. The structures of traditional boarding school actively discourage the normal, organic exploration and discovery of boundaries. "There are rules for everything", one client told me, "and you won't get far if you question them, however eccentric. You cannot go here or there, yet there's no way you can stop people invading your private space. In fact, there isn't any privacy. It's like the army, but for immature, impressionable children."
Another said, "I can never belong to anything, because for so many yearsI was forced to belong to the school. I wore their uniform, obeyed their rules, jumped out of bed and went running to the chapel or the refectory whenever they rang their bell." And poignantly this person added, "I would rather live like a hermit than have anyone ever tell me what to do and when to do it".
Boarding schools seem to produce compliant conformists and sabotaging rebels: both externally referenced, both reactive to their environment, rather than responsive to themselves. Sometimes these co-exist as sub-personalities within the same individual. I am aware of this dichotomy in myself and watch for it in the therapy room. Up to a certain point, one can expect the client to comply or co-operate, but, sooner or later, the rebel side asserts itself, absolutely refusing to be moulded and happy to 'cock a snook'. I see this not as 'resistance' to be overcome, but as an attempt to make a personal boundary, which I will support in any way that I can, for example by facilitating the client to express, and to have a bodily experience of, their anger. It is part of the process of developing their sense of self that was disturbed by being separated from home.
Men who were sent away at a variety of ages, from 7 to about 14, have attended my workshops. They were at boarding school from the 1940s through to the early 1990s, before Wolfenden up to the era of Section 28. They include men who did, and who did not, identify as gay while at school, and others who had at least a dim awareness of their gayness. Some are still uncertain of their sexual orientation. Some had sexual relations at school, which was not always consenting. All were at single-sex boarding schools, and all experienced these as profoundly homophobic environments. Their parents, in some cases disappointed by their failure to align with male gender norms, had sometimes sent them away, in part, to 'make a man of them'. They went to a place where silence around gayness suggested a real sense of dread. Sex was punishable by expulsion - the threat of a second exile - and only took place under pretence of machismo and coldness. My memory, and generally that of the people I have worked with, is of repressive, austere, joylessinstitutions from which everything tactile, sensual or voluptuous was excluded. "Ironically,there was plenty of sex in the Latin poetry that was force-fed to us", one man pointed out, "but I kept myself safely emasculated and ignorant of what it really meant. 'Amo' was just a verb to be conjugated." Masculinity was policed from the outside andself-policed. "If you were identified as a 'cock watcher' or a 'perv', at the very least you were derided and threatened." Some attempted to keep themselves safe by adopting an exaggeratedly firm handshake and doing whatever else they could to pass themselves off as heterosexual.
The author Paul Monette, a gay boarding school survivor, believed for years that sex and love could not co-exist. "As long as I kept them apart, love would be sexless and sex loveless, endlessly repeating the cycle of self-denial and self-abuse." Several clients have indicated their aversion to intimacy. This can manifest as engaging in furtive or dangerous sexual activities, obsessing about unavailable partners, or withdrawing and isolating all together. Others report anxiety and physical tension preventing satisfying and pleasurable experiences of sex within loving relationships, possibly because sexuality has been split off from the rest of the personality.
"I yearn for a sustained, warm, intimate relationship", one gay ex-boarder told me. His behaviour, however, shows as contradictoryand ambivalent. In common with other survivors, he avoids anger, conflict, play, spontaneity, weakness, and being open to possible rejection - all constituents of intimacy. "It's almost like an allergic reaction, whenever I get close to a possible partner, or even think about intimacy", another client has reported.
If and when they do get into intimate relationships, survivors often relate in a controlled and controlling manner. "It's the difference between being committed with all my heart and soul, being passionate and honest, and saying what I'm thinking, or, on the other hand, always making calculations and judgments about what I'll get away with", one man explained. "I want to ensure that he doesn't leave me, and also that he doesn’t discover the truth about me, how bad I am - this is an absolute 'must', I will do anything to achieve it". This flavour of an urgent, life-and-death need for survival is the 'strategic survival personality' in action. Honesty, empathy and sharing may appear to be present in the relationship, but at some level it is a masquerade. The ex-boarder is playing a secret, clever game - a 'role', a 'pretence', as some described it to me - censoring true thoughts and feelings, clinging to a partner while passing himself off as secure and confident. After all, he got a lot of practice 'passing' at boarding school.
Sometimes ex-boarders need to become aware that what they have engaged in is a pretence of loving. As survivors, they have continued to care mainly about themselves, whereas having a real, gratifying, loving relationship involves action and effort. "I know that I will be really healed when I can make love to, with, for and about my partner", one movingly said to me.
Relationships require us to manage both closeness and distance, to regulate our contact and ourselves. People I have worked with find this difficult. To anyone who has not been at a traditional boarding school, or had an analogous experience of abandonment, missing an absent friend or lover is a manageable experience. Some survivors, on the other hand, find it intolerable to hold the other at a distance. Separating from the other is like being emptied out. Better to switch off loving feelings, than attempt to cherish and sustain them in absentia. That is the dilemma. "After the experience of being incarcerated at school, literally counting out the days, months and years", one person said to me, "it's just too painful to let myself miss my partner". Missing and longing have to be abolished as experiences, and endings or transitions erased. Thus there is no continuous thread of relationship; each new meeting entails starting afresh. This is something a therapist needs to keep feeding back to his client about, finding ways to support a sense of continuity of self and of relationship until in time the client begins to have feelings about it and makes different choices.
Quite often, survivors move between poles of closeness and aloofness, impulsiveness and caution in ways that others experience as teasing or confusing. I have experienced myself determined not to get close to anyone and, if occasionally I did, being equally determined to cling to the other as if it were a matter of life and death. This poor sense of boundaries and insubstantial sense of self characterise the survivor. We cannot get and stay close to another, and in right relationship with our self, if we do not know where we end and they begin. In order to stay, we need to know that we are whole, and that we are free to leave.
The workshops have been unique gatherings. It is unusual to invite gay ex-boarders to come together on the basis of common history.
The discovery that one is not alone can be transformative. I have been forcibly struck by participants' truthfulness, their strong appetite for contact and connection, and their evident delight in finding a safe place to share their stories, feelings and reflections on the ways in which boarding has impacted on their adult lives. The feedback has been that they have felt lighter, liberated, relieved of a burden, unblocked, stronger, and more in touch with their own sadness and gentleness, having had an opportunity to get to know others who survived similar childhood experiences. Men who are used to hiding, feeling small or invisible in groups of other men, report having had a powerfully different experience after breaking their silence about their hurt and anger. They were willing to give and receive affection, appreciation and acceptance, which they might ordinarily find intolerable. For me it has been key to reverse the efficient suppression of emotion. Ex-boarders can flirt with feelings then briskly move on. Working with them, it has proved important to make more space for their feelings. In particular, they are entitled to their rage, which needs airing. In this way they can find a place where they feel clear and can celebrate themselves and feel proud rather than ashamed.
I acknowledge that boarding schools are beginning to move with the times. Whether they are any more than 'children's care homes' for the 'privileged', even now, I leave for others to judge. For some outgoing 14 or 15 year-olds, the boarding might be a life-enhancing adventure. For younger ones, I can only express some relief and pleasure that there tend to be more frequent and longer visits home, more fluid interaction with parents and friends, mobile phones and email to stay in touch with, and counsellors and other sources of confidential and sensitive support.
I am told that the modern curriculum generally includes discussion about sexuality, feelings and relationships, that the competitive ethos is softening, that there is a kinder, less authoritarian, less bullying atmosphere. In today’s schools, I am informed, to be gay no longer automatically means to be ashamed and invisible.
Thus the worst effects of separation from family are being mitigated, though those whose parents are distant, whethergeographically or emotionally, will continue to struggle, as will those who are first sent away at a young age. The younger the child, the more likely it is that removal from family life, parental care and all the attachments of home will preclude them getting what they need in terms of reassurance, safety and acceptance - in a word, love.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge my debt to the great pioneer in the field of boarding school survival work, Nick Duffell, whose ideas and experience underpin and provide a framework for my thinking, and who has taught me that the deep wound to our souls deserves recognition and honouring. I also give warm thanks to Richard Nickols, who joined me in facilitating the Spring 2005 workshop.
1. Duffell, Nick & Bland, Robert. The Making Of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System. Lone Arrow Press. 2000. (See boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk and abss.org.uk.)
2. Monette, Paul. Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story. Abacus. 1994.
3. Raphael, Frederic. A Spoilt Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood. Orion. 2003.
4. Fry, Stephen. Moab Is My Washpot. Arrow. 2004.
5. Lambert, Royston. The Hothouse Society. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 1968.
6. Schaverien, Joy. Boarding School: The Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2004, vol. 49, pp. 683-705.