I first came across the life and work of Barbara Dockar-Drysdale while I was researching residential child care at Edinburgh University from 1969 to 1973. Some of what I gleaned was through her own writings, but also from the work of Richard Balbernie and others who admired her pioneering initiatives. This period was seminal in my own life and work, as I was consciously seeking out models for what was to become my life’s work at Mill Grove. I met John Bowlby, and his work together with much else, including that of R.D. Laing, D.W. Winnicott, seeped deep into my sub-conscious. As far as I can recall I did not meet Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, and it was only many years later that I finally visited Mulberry Bush.
Like the most formative influences I cannot recall many specific nostra or cases, but looking back with their writings beside me, I discover just how significant their combined influence has been. Some years ago I was asked to distil my own thinking and practice into book-form, and I did this in The Growth of Love, with its two supporting volumes, Reflections on Living with Children. With these in mind, I revisited the contribution Dockar-Drysdale and immediately realised that the five fundamental principles of my understanding of therapeutic child care were completely congruent with her overall thinking and practice: Security; Boundaries; Significance; Community; and Creativity. It doesn’t take much imagination to find the equivalents in her writings.
What is more, on reflection the fact that Mill Grove still exists may be said to owe something to her. It is an individual residential home requiring intense, unconditional commitment, where the rhythms and minutiae of daily living, and the quality of the personal relationships between carers and children are the key to healing and growth. Mulberry Bush was one of those places that encouraged and inspired us to carry on whatever the fashions and pressures of subsequent periods of professional practice. This is a point that was made (I discovered after writing this) by Chris Beedell in his obituary in the Independent. In the light of emerging beliefs about family support and therapy, and community-based care for all client groups, residential establishments were often seen as unfortunate anachronisms, reactionary last resorts. There were times when it seemed as if the whole professional world, including social work, was determined to erase them from the earth. But she and others had listened more carefully to the expressed and unarticulated realities and feelings of particular children and young people, who needed a form of primary care that was not available through counselling or community support.
One of the terms common at the time was “maladjusted”. It is now seen as unfortunate and politically incorrect, but then it was an attempt to move on from the labelling and connotations of “delinquent” and “criminal”. My sense is that Barbara Dockar-Drysdale realised that society in general, and education in particular, were maladjusted in their relation to some children and young people. There had to be another, alternative, radical way of seeking to understand, relate to, and help them. Those, like her, who knew of the traumas caused to children by wartime experiences, were all too aware that society is not always wholly sensitive and benevolent in its dealings with those deemed out of the mainstream.
A term that has proved consistently apt throughout my life alongside hurting children and young people is the word “frozen”. It is chillingly indicative of one of the main ways in which they seek to deal with terrifying traumas and the accompanying psychological and emotional pain. Recently one of those who lived at Mill Grove over fifty years ago wrote an autobiography, and when we discussed his reflections, he and I saw that in essence this is how he coped with his lack of attachment for most of his life. When the thaw comes it is potentially very difficult and painful, and this is where the presence, empathy, insight and consistency of those who offer unconditional presence and love are critically important.
Creative and supported regression is vital in restoring the emotional blood flow, and that requires a complete world or “containment”. The latter word has become associated unfortunately with the term “pin-down”, but one of the most important experiences for children is that of “being held”. For those who have not experienced a close parent-child attachment, residential care offers the possibility of a place (literal and symbolic) where the distress and pain of controlled and supported regression can be managed over time, and through many different aspects and phases of discovery.
Mill Grove is not a school and therefore does not function as such a total living environment as Mulberry Bush, but when the formal education system fails particular children and young people, it becomes the place that continues to “hold” the child. I recall one boy who was expelled from every school he attended, including a special school. From that point on, and until he attended a residential school during week-days (returning to us at week-ends and holidays), he was with me for much of each day. We learned and explored together. There was no doubt in my mind that the educational system was maladjusted to his unique combination of experiences, gifts, abilities and needs.
The strains that such children place on themselves, their carers and their peers are, of course, predictably considerable. And this means that the residential setting needs to be robust enough to acknowledge (rather than deny of suppress) the volcanic, primal eruptions of feelings including those of shame, guilt, despair, annihilation. From the time that Ruth and I started living at Mill Grove as leaders of the community we have been supported continuously by a consultant psychotherapist. There have been just three in over forty years. It is only with such consistent support, objectivity and challenge that it would have been at all possible to hold on to the reality and discomfort of the children’s raw emotions and feelings without developing unconscious mechanisms for coping with them (freezing, for example!). Barbara Dockar-Drysdale described children who had not experienced primary affection and holding as having “caretaker selves”. One of our consultant therapists introduced us to the term “co-habitee”. It is, in my view, a variation on exactly this theme: seeking to make some order out of the emotional fears and chaos by shielding the embryonic ego from the harsh truths of the inner and outer worlds.
Though not a school or possibly because Mill Grove is not a school, we have been able in the lives of some of the children and young people who have come to us, to provide an environment of unconditional acceptance and love that lasts throughout their lives. It is a primary experience in touch with the natural world, seasons, rhythms of life and celebration. And crucially, analysis and daily living, inner and the outer worlds, are connected. It is this connection that Barbara Dockar-Drysdale saw as the key to everything, if only the healthy relationship could be maintained, strong enough to withstand the storms and eruptions that must come if a sense of unity and identity are to be experienced.
Times move on, and our understanding of the experiences, gifts and needs of children thankfully deepen. Some of what Barbara Dockar-Drysdale stood for and described would now be put in different ways and appreciated in new contexts. Attachment theory and resilience have developed since her time. In my view one of her natural successors is Dan Hughes, and I would be interested to hear from others about who they see as the people carrying the torch that she handed on. Meanwhile I am thankful that I came to know of her work and Mulberry Bush at that early stage in my own journey of discovery. I would be surprised if there are not many others like me who never met her, but who have been profoundly influenced by her life and work. Just a pity that I was not able to tell her to her face.