Monday, June 16, 2008

Idling With Ivor 1

Eventually I went out and bought Professor Ivor Browne's fascinating memoir called Music and Madness (Atrium, 2008).  At this juncture I have read all of Parts 1 and 2 of this memoir in seven parts.  Part 1 he calls by the wonderful title "Shapings 1929-1949." and Part 2 "Music and Medicine 1949-1962."  While each section follows the chronology of his life, this book is rightly called a memoir as it could in no sense be called an autobiography.  It is indeed filled with interesting things, both trivial and character forming, about his personal life but all the while we are very much in the presence of a wise old man ruminating on his professional and personal interest both in his own mental health and that of all others whom he has met up till now in the course of his long life.  There is also much wisdom in these pages and an honesty, integrity and congruence that would put any of his readers to shame.  One would expect no less from an exceptional human being and a talented professor of psychiatry who is also a psychotherapist.  This is a book we read for insights into the human condition and any purchaser would be disappointed were they not there aplenty.

I brought this book with me in the car today as a sort of "vade mecum" or spiritual resource for the day.  Having walked Donabate beach and taken some pictures I repaired to my car where I sat and read for almost two hours. I was conscious, too, ironically of my proximity to that famous or infamous mental hospital only a couple of miles from where I sat - namely St Ita's Hospital, Portran.

The Patient is what it's all about

This underlined title is my own, but for me cuts to the heart of what is important for Browne.  It is not very surprising, then, to find that his opening words under the heading "acknowledgements" read as follows: "My deep appreciation goes to my patients who, through the years, taught me so much about life and the nature of suffering towards growth...I so often think about their courage and affection.  Sure, where would I have been without them?" (Op. cit., viii).  All the way through this memoir we are introduced to patients anonymously or under pseudonym and Ivor's deep respect and concern are always to the forefront.

Deep Dissatisfaction with the Direction of Psychiatry

We are left in no doubt as to where Ivor Browne stands.  [I find myself using the Christian and surname more readily than any academic appellation because this book so personally addresses itself to the reader.]  In the first few lines  of the preface he pins his colours to the mast:  "I set about writing this book because of my deep dissatisfaction with the direction which psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness has [sic] taken.  There is also the wider question of the drift of western society into materialism, the mechanistic philosophy underlying this, and the growth of the free market." (Ibid., ix)  Throughout the book he elucidates on this early stated dissatisfaction.

Honesty, Humility, Congruence and Balance 

From the word go we know that this author is totally at ease with himself.  He has nothing to cover up.  Ivor points out that it was never his intention to write autobiography because firstly he readily admits that he is no writer or stylist and that much of his personal struggles and failings are of little interest to anyone except himself and also that his former wife and children as well as his current wife are entitled to their privacy.  However, because of his sheer honesty, humility and congruence we get to know what makes Ivor tick really well. He begins by being critical in an honest but balanced way about his father.  Like Johnny Cash's famous song "The Boy Named Sue", we find that he resented his father for christening him William Ivory after a Cromwellian soldier who had been given the lands that traditionally belonged to the Browne family in Wexford.  Also his father, somewhat rebelliously, joined the British Navy and married a Protestant girl.  We also find that his father resented his nationalist family because they had failed to afford him the opportunity to go on to third level education.  Because of this, unconsciously, Browne senior became very much a West Brit. In fact Ivor recounts his father's saying that "I'm afraid Ivor was a mistake.  I don't know if I'll ever be able to educate him."  Then he tells us that he spent a great part of his life trying to disprove this dreadful contention.  However, after his psychiatric training, he realised that his father had all the time been propping up his shaky self-esteem by these unconscious behaviours and even his remark about his son being ineffectual was part of this unconscious drive. However, he sees the positives in his father's character, too:  "...I feel a deep sense of gratitude...It was my father who gave me my appreciation of music, of literature, history and philosophy.  The environment that my father created around "the field", a field he rented, was not only a physical space but also a total way of life for me and the friends who lived in the area - a safe, alternative world." (Ibid., ix)  Without a doubt, his father appears to have been an unhappy man.  But, then again, so was my father for a rather long section of his life.

Fear of School and Shyness

Again I readily admit that I, like so many others, Ivor included, feared school.  I was also intolerably shy, also, at school.  While Ivor was uncommonly lanky and tall - eventually six foot four inches, I was just of average height - five feet ten and a half inches when fully grown.  Ivor recalls his fear of the huge matronly headmistress of his first school Miss Manley who was frighteningly huge and dressed in black. 

Fear of Failure 

Ivor is very good on this area of fear.  For Ivor this was essentially academic fear of academic failure, while for me I remember the dreadful fears I had as a child and adolescent of making a fool of myself on the sport's field.  I was fairly good academically and mostly got good grades all the way through school and college.  However, fear of failure at a more human level whether in games or friendships always dogged me.  I will finish this post with a quotation from his memoir on the fear of failure in general:

At last in 1951 (at 22), after two years, I was ready to re-enter medical school.  The two years of illness [TB] gave me another important piece of understanding.  Having always considered myself a mistake and a potential failure, my attitude, when presented with something new, whether it was swimming, playing tennis or whatever, was: "Oh, I wouldn't like to try that unless I was good at it."  What I failed to realise, of course, was that nobody is initially good at anything.  We have to learn to fail and try again.  The simple truth is that if we love what we do and keep trying then eventually we will succeed and can become good at virtually anything.  Human beings have an enormous potential, most of which is seldom realised. (Ibid., 35)

As a teacher, who is involved in attempting to build up the self-esteem and confidence of young adolescent pupils the above is worth contemplating for some time.


To be continued.

Psychotherapy helps us both recognise and integrate our shadow. Above a picture of my shadow, Rome May 2008

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