Gwen Davies

Chasing sanity in the 1970s and 80s – group therapy

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“What’s the first thought that pops into your head when I say red?”
“Red? When he says my job is the wife thing. Red, that’s what I see!”
“Who is he, Lorraine? What’s his name?”
“Will. His name is Will. Will is training to be a fighter pilot. Air Force big shot. Will thinks I’m going to cook roast duck and clean up after drink-till-you-puke parties and sew slipcovers. Serve petit fours to the ladies whose husbands will give him a promotion.”
“Sounds like you’re pretty angry about that, Lorraine. What do you think you’re going to do about it?”
“Me? Glad somebody asked. I’m going to study. I’m going to get myself a degree and maybe teach university, or work for the UN. Something where I make a difference.”
“Who are you, Lorraine?”
“Me? I’m a woman who knows what she wants. That’s right. I’m someone who is going to fire people up so we can rearrange this sad little world.”
“Tell me again who you are.”
“Lorraine. I am Lorraine, girl with a brain. What I do matters. That’s who I am.”
“Hey, Lorraine. Welcome.”
People on the cushions are laughing and clapping. For me there is only your eyes, everything inside unfastened.

In this piece from “The Joneses of Fellowes Harbour”, in Facing the Other Way, Lorraine remembers the Gestalt workshop where she sorted out her relationship to her young husband’s expectations. She fell in love with Thelma, the therapist.

Gestalt is about giving attention to all the elements of something such as a dream or event in order to gain insight. Because we rebellious youth rejected almost everything our parents’ generation had to offer, we spent a good bit of time trying to figure out who we were outside the social norms. Group therapy helped a lot. Here is a thorough look at Gestalt, and here is a short video that includes a good piece from Fritz Perls, who developed the therapy with his wife Laura.

From time in the 1970s, I brought a couple of talented Gestalt therapists to Halifax. People lined up to work with them. The format was usually a full day workshop, all of us sitting on cushions on the floor. (In general, if the therapist was male and the organizer was female, it was expected that they would sleep together while he was in town. Such were the 70s.)

A good Gestalt leader would notice an image or a date that the participant would repeat or treat as important as they relayed a dream or an issue, the way Lorraine is invited to look at the colour red. The participant usually jumped into the opening and the leader would help them examine the details until they had a gestalt – an insight that came out of this examining. I do believe that these workshops helped many of us survive PTSD fathers from WWII, sexual assaults, and other challenges of growing up in the 50s that might have swamped rather than simply shaped us.

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