#3 : Dennis punched the wall in lieu of his mother


DENNIS was my star prisoner. If it hadn’t been for him, I could well have agreed with all my other psychiatric colleagues that I was wasting my medical time talking to “PSYCHOPATHS”. “Psychopaths”, so current medical wisdom decrees, are “other”, they are quite impossible to understand. They aren’t really human any more. They do things we would never dream of doing, for reasons which are utterly incomprehensible, either to themselves, or to anyone else. They lack “normal” emotions. For some reason, probably genetic, they couldn’t feel things like the rest of us – their whole way of behaving was out of sync. They would kill their own grandmothers, or anybody else who happened along, as easily as lifting a cup from the table, as one of them described it to me. Ideal as hit men (which that man was), but rubbish as neighbours. Why waste good medical time? Happily for me, though less so for him, within four months Dennis had proved them all wrong – at least he had for me.

Dennis was a big man. He punched the wall when he had a temper, and the wall would know about it. He frightened prison staff, largely because they couldn’t understand where his violence came from – but then, neither could he. He was serving a life sentence for, of all things, killing a fellow burglar – not for gain, nor for opportunity, indeed not for any obvious reason whatsoever – asked why he did it, Dennis, in common with the other 50 murderers I worked with, simply didn’t have a clue. Fortunately for me, the prison system had placed him in a Special Unit, a Special Prison Wing for the most violent, the most unstable, illdisciplined lifers, in the entire UK prison system. It was located in Parkhurst Prison, the UK flagship prison on the Isle of Wight, which is where I then found myself, after a series of events almost as fantastical as any fairy-tale.

My relationship with Dennis did not bode well to begin with. I’ll never forget the first time I interviewed him. We were sitting, unaccompanied, in the prison cell which served as my impromptu office, when it suddenly dawned on me that he was between me and the cell door. I was totally new to prisons, so the significance of this had escaped me earlier. Bear in mind, Dennis was in for murder. 

It was when a particular event in his prison history came up, he suddenly got animated, and stood bolt upright to make his point more forcefully. What he didn’t notice, but I did, was that by doing so, he completely blocked my only escape route. The very bulk of his whole body, stood between me and sanctuary. I couldn’t even see the door, he was so big. The prison staff had assured me (perhaps to indulge me) that, since I was totally new to prisons, someone would keep an eye on me through the glass panel in the door. But when I looked for help, at this crucial point in time, they were nowhere to be seen. What next? Dennis was carried away with describing how he’d picked up this hammer – to emphasise the point, he even waved his arms about, which didn’t calm me one bit. Then, as he concluded his story, his energy subsided, and he sat down – to my palpable relief. There was more to this prison work than I’d anticipated.

My medical career up to that point, had been pretty conventional, even hum-drum by comparison. I’d spent four years learning about psychiatry, both in the UK and the US, and having disagreed with conventional psychiatric wisdom about the use of ECT, Electro Shock Treatment, which they endorsed, and I regarded as barbaric, I had been exiled for 20 years, to the outer reaches of family medicine. Studying family structures – the way some families “worked” and others tore themselves apart – I’d uncovered what I took to be the key for where intimate personal relations went wrong, and why. 

I had seen and talked to perhaps as many as 20,000 people by this time, and they had already taught me a huge amount. Prominent among them was a 6-year-old who I’ve already described in an earlier post (1 : Little David’s Big Problem). People, even when small, could find themselves doing things, sometimes destructive things, for no sensible reason at all – at least no obvious reason that they could see at the time. It had all seemed suddenly so simple, so obvious then. But working in a respectable family medical practice in the north of England was proving rather different from sitting in a maximum security prison cell, trying to make sense of violent men. I’d gone there on the assumption that the simplification in how emotions worked would somehow transfer from ordinary medical practice, to violent adults. But would it?

There were many hurdles I had to face – I knew nothing about what went on inside prisons – how could I? Some issues were obvious, others well buried. A few I had anticipated, such as what I should be called on the wing. Would I be known as “Dr Johnson”, or as “Bob”? I knew that serious, even violent, problems came from emotions being misplaced on to authorities – essentially putting doctors on a pedestal as some sort of father-figure. Indeed Freud himself had committed the cardinal sin of inviting his patients to “transfer” their parental emotions onto him – a fateful error in my view.

So what people should call me, was the first “issue” that needed to be sorted as soon as I arrived on the Wing. The last thing I wanted to be was some sort of parental figure, since that could attract seriously unwanted emotions – so I had already ruled out being called “Dr Johnson” on that ground alone. I told the assembled wing staff that I intended to be known as “Bob” – simple, obvious, straight-forward, which would put me on a level playing field with the downtrodden prisoners.

This however, proved rather too “level” for the staff – they said there was no way they would accept it. What was I to do? I was totally averse to “Dr Johnson”. But it became clear that I would not be allowed to get away with “Bob”. So, with compromise in the air (I knew these prison workers were the ones I had to work with as well) – I suggested “Dr Bob”. This, with some reluctance, they accepted.

And just as well they did – because later, Dennis himself declared without demur, that had I said, “Call me DOCTOR Johnson”, he’d have had nothing to do with me. So I made the right call there. However my “title” was not the only thing to cause ructions. During one of those early lunch-time admin meetings, where all staff on the wing kept themselves uptodate with goings on, one stalwart of the old school stood up, to put a spoke firmly in my wheel. He robustly informed the assembly, that since he’d known Tommy for 20 years, he well knew that the man had been born evil. Therefore, not only would I never change him, I was a waste of tax payers’ money. Hardly an encouraging start. When, after work, I told my psychologist friend about this, he was convinced I wouldn't last in the job more than 6 months. In actual fact, I was there for 5 years, and only left when they closed the Unit around me.

I arrived there on Monday, 1st July 1991, via a circuitous route that involved my wife’s college friend marrying a man, John Marriott, who later became the youngest ever Governor of Parkhurst Prison. Leaving further details aside for the moment, I had accepted working in the most rigid of all institutions because, or so I told myself, I could call on his friendship when things went wrong. I could go to the straight to the top and enlist his help to stop them rattling my chains again (or so I thought).

What I hadn’t anticipated was that within a month or two of my arrival, John himself had asked me for my help. With a decidedly bouncy personality, John had bitten off more than he could chew. He had rashly volunteered to give a talk at the Annual Prison Governors’ Conference, coming up in October of that year. And as the due date came ever nearer, he began to get cold feet. And to my surprise, he saw me as his way out – he suggested we give a joint presentation. No problem, I said straightaway –  but only if I could show videos of my work. I’d videod my medical sessions before I came to work in the prison, and I was keen to start again. 

This put John in a bind. Video cameras in prisons are anathema – but putting yourself in front of a critical audience of your peers, was beginning to prove worse for him. However, since as Governor, he was the one man in total charge of the Prison at the time, he therefore had full authority in the matter. He duly signed all the necessary paper-work, and within a couple of months, I was happily videoing sessions with all those prisoners who would agree, which with a few notable exceptions, most of them did. (Indeed, some were positively keen – “look, the red light is flashing again, doctor, time for a new tape!”. In some ways it was like a third party in the room – posterity ensured they were on their best behaviour.)

Thus on 11th September 1991, Dennis provided the video evidence that not only was I on the right track, but that all the upheaval I’d put my family through in moving from Lancashire to the Isle of Wight, had been worth it. His courage in doing the work I had set him, his delight in the new way of thinking this gave him, added substantial weight to the conviction that the orthodox psychiatric view of psychopaths just didn’t add up – they’d simply been asking the wrong questions.

So let’s pull some of these threads together. In the first post, we saw Little David ricocheting all around the house, bouncing off furniture and grandparents alike, for reasons which no one could understand. Ask him directly, and you’d draw a dud. Ask his parents, or in his case his grandparents, and they didn’t have a clue either. Ask the local doctor, i.e. me, and I wasn’t much the wiser. But I did know that this was not normal 6-year-old behaviour. That is – something was out of sync, and if I played my cards right, it was certainly possible that I could find out what. 

Well, as described there, to our joint surprise, what had gone wrong with Little David was that no one had told him that his deceased mother wasn’t coming back. The harsh truth was that being dead, she couldn’t. This was the missing piece in the mental jigsaw, which triggered an entirely unexpected response. Why didn’t David work this out for himself? Why didn’t his grandparents put two and two together, and note that his uncomfortable behaviour had followed chronologically from the disappearance of his mother? The family doctor had an inkling – but that didn’t help, if he couldn’t apply it in the right place – notably deep inside David’s mind.

Three things are in play here. Something happened in David’s past, which he couldn’t tell you about – not because he didn’t want to, it was simply because he didn’t know himself. Secondly – this was a highly emotive event, which drove him to erratic, even violent, behaviour. Third – once he could think calmly about it, i.e. slow everything back down to normal thinking speed, then the central problem was solved, taking the disruptive behaviour with it.

In the second post, Alec is described as having a blackhole where his normal thinking should have been. He made very clear, when he first arrived, that he was going to kill again in prison, that nothing in his mind was going to stop him. To normal people, this showed that there was something really important missing – which is why I called it a blackhole. It didn’t mean he couldn’t think at all. It was not that his thinking apparatus had stopped working altogether – no, the rest of it was working just fine – it was the missing link that was causing all the trouble. He could function well enough, but only in the wrong direction. Just as with Little David, the outcome didn’t help. The human mind is there to make things better – here it was making things worse. And in Alec’s case, you can’t get much grimmer than serial killing.

So sitting down with Dennis, I was still puzzling as to how to get that same Eureka moment with him, as I had done with David. And then, as suddenly, there it was. Just as David didn’t know, and therefore couldn’t say that his mother was dead; nor, with Alec, that he didn’t have to kill, in order to get through life – so with Dennis, the “thinking” problem was even simpler. Which was just as well for me – since it was so simple, it was unmistakable.

What could be simpler than saying that Dennis was a big man? Indeed, that he was a grown up – he was an adult. Who could possibly doubt it? You’d have to be half-blind not to say so. Imagine going up to this great hulk of a man, a major criminal at that, and suggesting to him that he was only a small child, not much bigger than David. You’d be mad to even think of doing any such thing.

And yet, hold on to your hat, that is precisely what Dennis thought of himself. Yes, he seriously doubted he was an adult. Hard to believe? So look at the most important dialogue in recent psychiatric practice. This is what I recorded on 11 September 1991. It’s verbatim. I’ve played the video thousands of times. It matters, because it shows a grown man unable to think realistically about himself. Worse, he thinks of himself as a small, impotent child. He obviously isn’t – but that has yet to penetrate into his full consciousness, just as the fact that David’s mother was deceased, failed to make it either. The mental blockage, the blackhole, was identical in both cases. And both were remediable by careful, trustworthy support. Watch.

Here are lines 39 to 46 from that pivotal session in September 1991. As before, more dialogue is available in the ebook How Verbal Physiotherapy works(Or search - smashwords 892956.) ($2). In this session, I have invited Dennis to imagine his mother was in the room with us. It’s a type of role-play, which enables us to access bits of the mind that are otherwise out of bounds. Feelings and emotions that attach to that particular parental figment are thereby brought to the fore, which is where they interfere most with normal thinking – they represent the edges of the very blackhole which is the root of all the trouble. The numbering comes from the book just mentioned.

39.    Bob:   . . . . Say your mother was sitting over there, what would you say to her? 

40.    Den:  I'd say "Mother you can't hit me any more.  I am an adult". 

41.    Bob:   And you believe that? 

42.    Den:  Yes, partly. 

43.    Bob:   You partly believe it and partly don't? 

44.    Den:  Yes.  I don't know whether I could say it to her or not. 

45.    Bob:   What would stop you? 

46.    Den:  Fear. 

Line 42 gives the game away. Dennis doesn’t believe he’s grown up. In his mind, he hasn’t. Which means he’s still stuck in a violent childhood, in which his mother batters him for no reason that he can see – an onslaught against which he still has no defence. What line 42 tells us is that Dennis is being 100% honest. Alright, he does believe, partly, but that’s only because I’ve been drumming that into him, in the preceding 4 or 5 sessions before we could bring in the video camera.

And he’s honest and trusting – neither of which vital assets are easy to come by, either in a maximum security prison, nor anywhere else for that matter. Because, if he hadn’t been, he’d never have said it, nor said it on camera, which he knew was running all the time. Gradually, even in these 11 minutes, he is bracing himself to challenge something that had, for 40 odd years, got the better of him – his inability to stand up and correct his mother’s view of him. She always thought of him as a “naughty boy”, and until he allowed me into his most private, most intimate fears, no one had ever got close enough to enlighten him.

This is how Dennis earns the title “my star prisoner”. Happily for me, he was the least emotionally damaged of all the others in that Special Unit. More, he was robusthad  enough to accept what I had to offer, namely straightforward emotional support in a decidedly non-parental manner.

Here was indeed the Eureka moment – though this time, unlike with David before, I was awake enough to recognise it. It kept me going. It explains, for those willing to look, why this hidden key is so well hidden. The sufferer doesn’t want to know. They go to enormous lengths to keep it from reaching the surface. Those blackholes are there because their owner cannot see a better alternative, just as Alec couldn’t to begin with, and David not at all.

However, and this is the gold dust – get alongside them, show them that you're not afraid of what they’re afraid of, gain their 100% trust, and then they can bring themselves up to date. They can grow up emotionally. In fact that’s all they needed to do. But given the bind they’re in, it is simply not possible, unaided. No one was telling David that his grievous problem was that his mother was dead – he never asked, because he didn’t know that that’s what was wrong with him, either. No one told Alec that he could survive even better without killing, than he could with – because no one was allowed close enough emotionally to him, not after all those broken relationships he’d met throughout his upbringing. Nobody had thought to tell Dennis that he didn’t need to punch the wall in lieu of his mother, because, in today’s adult reality, she couldn’t hit him, ever again. Again, it never occurred to him to ask.

But they all three did. All three grew up, and left their impotence behind them. All three bridged their blackholes. And then, when they had, they all cheered up. Just as I did. Wouldn't you?

Hard to believe? Alec took 2 years of persuading. Happily for me, by November 1991, Dennis had confirmed the benefit of growing up emotionally, 4 months into my time there. Others in that Special Unit in Parkhurst never made it – they left or were removed before making the leap. So if you remain unconvinced – like the bulk of my psychiatric colleagues – you are not alone. But check out the other posts, as they come by – they’ll form chapters in a book.

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MEDICAL NOTE – at one level this is just as simple as it sounds. At another, it involves life-or-death emotions – which is why it all gets so gummed up. So you need to be extra careful when discussing these points with people who might have similar, deeply buried problems. IF IN DOUBT, DON’T. Life-or-death could mean yours.

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NOTE These posts are a new venture for me. I’ll aim for at least twice monthly. If you like what I write, please encourage me by responding, all but the latest will be free. You can always read the academic background to it all, free, by clicking The Simple Science of Sanity. Thanx.

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MEDICAL NOTE – never stop psychiatric drugs abruptly – seek expert help. I’m happy to answer Qs & As (if slowly), but can no longer discuss individual cases, I closed my clinic when I retired.