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head space: will self


"A Room of One's Own" was especially written by Will Self to accompany the head space images.
It was published alongside a series of images in the Independent on Saturday Magazine on October 30th 2004.

"In some ways I feel overqualified to write about those strange interiors in which - depending on which view of them you choose to take - psychotherapists either ply their trade, exercise their profession, or perform their art. My own life has been fraught with therapy the way other's are fraught with religion. Indeed, I could reasonably make the claim that were it not for psychotherapy I might not be here at all to write this. Let me clarify this, just one of the cosmically undermining anecdotes that my mother was subject to retailing, was that while she was pregnant with me she seriously considered having an abortion. She was persuaded not to by her then therapist, the eminent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr Antony Storr.

I persuaded myself that while some element of this might be true, the raw facts were not as she stated them. After all, to owe your very life to psychotherapy is enough to give anyone a complex, and besides, my mother would say anything to make her children feel uneasy. Anything at all - especially about my father. Alas, after she died I in 1988 discovered in her papers two letters from Storr which more or less confirmed the substance of the story, and the clincher came when in 1992 I went and bearded her quondam therapist in his Oxford lair. Naturally, he played down his role as my psychic father, but he agreed that my mother had been distraught during her pregnancy with me, had considered a termination, and that he had expressed the view that she would regret it.

I was less interested in the peculiar spin this tale placed on the Oedipus myth that in Storr's North Oxford home. I don't think he actually held consultations there, but even so its interior held true to the savage dichotomy I'd come to expect of the spaces tenanted by psychotherapeutic practitioners. On the one hand there were the oral therapists, whose rooms seemed to say: here I am, take me warts, dog-eared paperback, family snaps and all; while on the other there were the anal-ysts, whose antiseptic windowsills and colour-coded spice racks (should you have the misfortune to see them), suggested a relentless pursuit of mental hygiene: no psyche was to be left unirrigated, its studied brown neuroses sluiced clean away.

Storr's wife had died recently (and he him self has since gone), but there was no hint of widower neglect about the place. You could see the tracks the vacuum cleaner had made on the neat, fitted carpet; the kitchen was a white riot of surfaces; the net curtains hung across the transparent windows like the most decent of draperies. I found it hard to square this pristine home with the healthy respect Storr showed in his writings for the creative ebullience of aberrant states of mind, or the refreshing tonic of solitude. I had hoped my psychic father would prove riotous and unconstrained, instead I found him furtive and enclosed. Which is not to say that he wasn't also warm, civil and obliging, but for all this the visit unsettled me, plunging me back as it did to the time of my first extended psychoanalysis when I was in my early twenties.

It was with an orthodox Freudian who lived on a pitilessly bland street in Willesden, a pitilessly bland suburb in North West London. Dr S was always neatly turned out in an off-the-peg blue suit, white shirt and dark tie. His consulting room was a converted garage tacked on to the side of his bland semi. Inside it still had the robustly boxy feel of a garage, and the additions of dado and architrave looked like mere garnishes of room, rather than the thing itself. I reclined on a mini-Ottoman covered in a dun rug, Dr S sat behind my head on a black leather office chair. I remember there was a small reproduction of an illustrated Koranic verse hanging above the Ottoman, and a standard lamp with shade angled upwards in the far corner. On the way into Dr S's consulting room there was a preposterous little vestibule, tricked out with a coat tree, a chair and a magazine rack. Every time I visited Dr S (which was twice weekly), this vestibule would impinge on me. Did he seriously think that one of his analysands was going to arrive early and sit in this dinky waiting area leafing through the month old copy of the Radio Times , which was the sole reading material on offer?

I can remember very little of the work I did with Dr S - for reasons that I'll explain later - but I do recall that on one occasion, during a particularly hostile session, he did ask me whether there was anything about either him or his analytic environment that I found particularly enraging. Without any hesitation I said 'your magazine rack', and then proceeded to enlarge on this as above. It seemed to me at the time that while other analysands might be having some form of positive transference to the tabula rasa of Dr S's personality, I had achieved a negative one to his white plastic magazine rack.

I'd come to Dr S through a succession of NHS therapists based at a large hospital in North London. One of them, Dr B, was the father of a former schoolfriend of mine. I liked Dr B, whose consulting room looked out on to a large green hill, and was full of filing cabinets and works of dubious outsider art. But he felt he could do nothing with me and passed me on to his Registrar, Dr N, who saw me in a windowless, institutional, insanity-scuffed, white space; the two us vis-a-vis in those low, foursquare chairs peculiar to hospitals. I suppose there was a certain psychic schadenfreude involved in attending the psychiatric ward weekly and seeing the lamentable state of the inpatients, however it didn't halt my decline, any more than did the perfectly enjoyable chats I had with the sympathetic Dr N.

After Dr S I had a break from one-to-one psychotherapy, until in the early 1990s I found myself a client of an interpersonal therapist based in West Hampstead. Ms T saw me in the front room of her overheated flat, the two of us in uneasy chairs in front of the whistling gas heater. The flat smelt of cat and instant coffee, it was homely, messy and the walls were adorned with framed-up bits of spiritual advice, alternating with photographs of Ms T's grownup children. Ms T was a good woman and I honestly believe she did her best to help me. I liked the way she conducted her therapy as if it were a cosy chat between old friends. However, when Ms T said to me 'I can feel your pain', and began to weep, I would begin to feel, inexorably, the pain induced in me by Ms T's decor. Inevitably our work together came to an end.

When I resumed therapy in the mid-1990s it was with a star who was heading for the zenith of the analytic firmament. Mr Z was a humanist and a Neo-Freudian, who was thought to be making - by those who concerned themselves with such things - some important new contributions to the art of psychoanalysis. He had published a series of witty and discursive little books, full of anecdotes of his own case histories, interspersed with gnomic aphorisms and glosses on the philosophes. I thought Mr Z would be the thing for me, but I'm afraid out extended sessions - Mr Z favoured an analytic hour-and-a-half - degenerated into mutual intellectual masturbation.

Nevertheless, I stuck with Mr Z for over two years, and I might well have gone on for longer if it hadn't been for the stain on the carpet underneath his sofa, that and the unchanging and artfully messy stacks of books which ranged all over his little flat in Battersea. I suppose Mr Z might well have taken the view, if pressed, that the deshabille of his living-cum-consulting space was in keeping with his analytic approach. It was not for him to present a blank screen of a personality, or an institutional interior; what we were engaged in here was a meeting of minds each free to involve the other in the structuring of useful narratives about our lives. Trouble was, as the weeks turned into months and the months into years, I found that the narratives I constructed about myself in which Mr Z figured as a character, were very dispiriting ones.

In them Mr S had an analyst, Mr Z, who never cleaned his carpet, and who, despite displaying many signs of alarming erudition, never actually appeared to read any of the books in his pokey little flat. Mr Z's flat was on the third storey of a terrace, and from the window Mr W could see the action going down on the opposite corner of the road, outside the bookie's. Mr W found the narratives he constructed about these lairy characters rapping, scrapping and downing super-strength lager far more interesting than pretentious Mr Z and his ratty carpet; eventually his relationship with the carpet became like that of the moribund Oscar Wilde toward his wallpaper: Sooner or later one of us will have to go. Mr W went.

And this by no means exhausts the list of initials I've surrendered my anonymity too, or the peculiar rooms - character full, characterless - in which I've psychically stripped. A brace of Jungians were seen for a brace of sessions, one in Clapham (oral type, dream catchers, joss sticks), one in Notting Hill (anal type, tiny gaff like a sawn-off Trust House Forte 'country house' hotel). There was the sex therapist I consulted, who had a house off the King's Road full of Royal Doulton figurines and Empire couches upholstered in striped satin. A diminutive lady of a certain age, who wore a twin-set, pearls and one of those lace collars that looked like a doily set beneath her china-doll features. It was difficult to imagine that this woman ever had sex herself, let alone any good ideas about it, that my enthusiasm for the work shrivelled, then retracted inside me entirely. Then there was the eminent and celebrated Ms O, whose clients have included the topper-most of society. I saw her in her well-appointed attic conversion of a consulting room, perched atop her behemoth of a Hampstead villa. Here Ms O discoursed behind a set of thick double doors that put me in mind of an Oxford college, and which suggested a degree of emoting on the part of her clientele that I very much doubted I could live up to.

I can understand that this somewhat bilious account of therapists and their little domains must sound cynical and disbelieving, yet I bear little real animosity to any of them, and retain a curious affection for the profession as a whole. It's true that in my darker moments - fixated on magazine racks and carpet stains - I've decided that therapists should be deprived of their consulting rooms and forced to roam the urban scape like mendicant friars, in search of clients who they can shrive in the street. I've also, when in the course of one unsuccessful therapy or another, put it to my interlocutors that perhaps they should be paying for the privilege of talking to me, rather than vice versa. Nevertheless, like a wishy-washy Anglican I retain a watered down adherence to the Church of Therapy, while no longer wishing to attend any of its services - after all the talking cure is the religion I was born into.

There's this residual faith, which always surfaces whenever there's a friend who seems to have a particularly intractable neurosis, and who can't - or won't - find the means to resolve it in their ordinary lives. To pursue the Anglican analogy, I may not have gained solace from the creed myself, but I still believe in it as a powerful healing tool. There's a secondhand office furniture shop on my daily school run, and every morning when I've passed it for the last few years, I've noticed an examination couch on the pavement outside, set incongruously among the superannuated filing cabinets and moribund swivel chairs. It has a pathos, this couch, dragged out into the open each day, only to be returned to the gloom of the premises again, unsold each evening. Time and again I resolve to buy the couch, take it home, and set up in business myself as a therapist. After all, while may different counselling and psychotherapeutic qualifications and associations exist, there is no centralised body for the control and regulation of the profession exists. Anyone can set up as a therapist if they wish, all you need is a suitable place for your clients to recline, and a room they can call their own, for an hour."

Will Self, 26th February 2004

Copyright Will Self. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction prohibited.

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