The Free School, Dead Medium Productions’ new documentary about Ireland’s first ‘Sudbury Valley School’, broadcast this morning on Newstalk. Wicklow Sudbury is an experiment in alternative education, bringing ‘free schooling’ and ‘unschooling’ to Ireland. You can stream the programme above, or download at our podcast link below. It will also be rebroadcasts at 10PM on Saturday 18th November.
Special thanks to all the staff and students at Wicklow Sudbury School, including Aaron, Ciara, Sonja, Isthara, Mia, Kashmira, Rick, Fionn, Ed and Faye; and to the national school students featured at the beginning and end of the programme Sophie, Conor, Emma, Aoibhin, Tadhg, Donal and their parents Clare and Keith; to Joanne Lane who was kind enough to speak to me while visiting Wicklow Sudbury; and to Emer Nowlan of Educate Together, and environmental educator Joesph Campbell.
I wrote this review as part of a diploma course in Psychoanalysis a number of years ago. Two other reviews written for that course of ‘Understanding the Borderline Mother‘ and ‘John Bowlby & Attachment Theory‘ have proved incredibly popular. Hence I’m posting this review as it might be of use to some readers, especially therapists interested in countertransference based diagnostic and treatment approaches, often at odds with more interpretative approaches. A review of Casement’s first book is available here.
Review: Further Learning From The Patient.
Casement’s second volume represents an examination of working with transference and countertransference (CT) as the means to understand a client’s current experience, early development. The book also deals with the use of countertransference to re-parent the client through containment and interpretation. Casement fuses this emphasis on CT with a person centred approach to psychoanalysis.
Casement begins by outlining the development of many of the ideas he discussed in depth in Learning From The Patient (Casement, 1995); including trial identification, the internal supervisor, and the mechanics of transference.
Early theological investigations disabused Casement of the idea of a single unitary and accessible truth. The discomfort of not knowing (cognitive dissonance) blinds us to the contradictions at play in the world. For Casement, dogmatism suffuses psychoanalytic claims to understand the mind. Transference occurs because of a mirror between internal or external reality and past experiences (pp7) – hence it is not always merely the patient’s projection, but also can reflect aspects of therapists own behaviour and self presentation.
Casement was initially wary of interpretation – intuiting that it could mask the client’s own experience; and this led him to develop a more client centred form of interpretation. (pp6)
Casement classifies transference as ‘unconscious hope’ (pp7) a signal reaching from the client indicating their disordered thinking and desire for understanding. But is unconscious transference a kind of communication? It can certainly be understood as communicative (and informative as to the client’s prior experience), but given that transference is a part of everyday life (outside the therapeutic encounter) it is perhaps merely indicative of learned role / behaviour in response to a perceived aspect of another person or situation – rather than an effort at communication. Casement distinguishes incidental and intentional communication (pp110). Hope (the assumption of environmental reliability) arises initially from the meeting of infant needs during the omnipotent stage of development. In client work, it’s always present (even if repressed by the client) and may need to be held for the client by the therapist when its dissonance with felt despair is too great (although the clients negative emotions must also be felt and tolerated simultaneously) (pp122).
Casement distinguishes between client developmental needs (appropriate containment and empathy) and libidinal demands (satisfaction of desire – more practical needs) (pp91). He differentiates client needs (for appropriate therapist response and containment) from their attested wants – e.g.: for answers, control, power over the analyst (pp114).
I question Casement’s belief that clients seek a firmness in reaction to their anger (pp115) – rather than an acknowledgement of what is being communicated by it – the intolerability of the internal experience. Although I do find his acknowledgment of the secondary benefits of social deviance / attention seeking / cruelty useful (pp123).
Casement distinguishes internal supervision (as a critical, pre-conscious way of thinking about ones contribution to the session) from an internalised supervisor (the introjected advice, opinions and attitudes of a real world supervisor) (pp9, 15).
Casement argues for the value of maintaining openness ‘not knowing’ alongside expertise. This is an openness to the client’s dynamic reality in the individual session, rather than theory or existing knowledge alone. Interpretation is something to be tentatively, playfully worked towards in collaboration with the client, (pp12) gradually scaffolding their disclosures (pp28), avoiding the appeal of trite, theoretically driven, falsely certain universalities (pp17). A client’s reaction to interpretation is as important as the clues that drive it initially – and in this way mistakes can become beacons to new understanding (pp20). Clients provide clues to their experience in the therapeutic relationship, and their emotional response to interpretation that Casement (citing Lands) describes as ‘unconscious supervision by the patient’. They may employ ‘communication by impact’, acting so as to provoke unacknowledged, or inexpressible feelings through the therapist’s projective identification (pp24). Interestingly, Casement notes that even accurate interpretations can serve as intellectualisations blocking engagement, when provided to the client rather than discovered with them (pp28). However, the example he provides – of a client’s repressed memories of abuse being screened by oedipal phantasy, is not the support for psychoanalytic theory Casement attests. Rather it evidences real abuse: The seduction hypothesis abandoned by Freud (Robinson, 1993), substituted for by the concept of the oedipal complex.
For Casement the role of the therapist is not necessarily a re-parenting one – in the transference clients can need the therapist to take the part of negative presences in their life. This can be an object relation that is bound, and indeed needs to fail – for that primeval failure to be recognised and overcome. However, the therapeutic encounter can become a replication of earlier dynamics, providing an opportunity for reconciliation of inadequate parenting (pp26). The client may use the therapist in a variety of ways – as a whole or part object, as subject of positive or negative transference, as a container and so on (pp105).
Therapist countertransference is both the creation of the client, and involves the contribution of the analyst. Others have proposed a variety of therapist contributions to the countertransference, as well as admixtures of client and therapist material. These include classical CT (the therapists own neurotic material), complementary identification (identifying with the clients disavowed / projected material), concordant identification (identifying consciously or unconsciously with the id, ego or superego of the client), indirect countertransference (introjection from supervision and other third parties), institutional countertransference (introjecting an institutions relation to a client), stylistic countertransference (self presentation effects), and ecological countertransference (aspects of the therapists own life) (Geddes & Pajic, 1990); any of these forms of countertransference could potentially be ego syntonic or dystonic for the client.
In Casement’s work with a child client, he initially expresses an admirable reluctance to provide the child with a readymade ‘symbolic language’, seeking to remain more reserved about unconscious assumptions. The parents had already labelled their prepubescent child ‘very sexual’, and compounded this interpretation by framing her behaviour in the context of seduction. At the same time, her mother behaved in a rejecting manner, while her father overindulged her. Casement employed play therapy with this client; despite his avowed reluctance to interpret, his (primarily sexual) analytic hypothesis fly thick and fast. Although he holds back some interpretations, Casement does provide the child with a theoretical frame – through his selective focus on sexual interpretations, and his provision of a narrative of secret collusion (pp39). The issue with this kind of interpretation is that humans cannot help but recognise patterns – even where none exist, and clients (especially children) are likely to provide a narrative that meets the (consciously and unconsciously expressed) expectations of the interpretive encounter. In this client’s disclosure we can see themes of penis envy (pp35, 37, 39), vagina dentata (pp39), camouflage (pp41), masculine violence (pp 39, 40) and so on, but it’s important to remember the selective, interpretative nature of Casements account; and to acknowledge his ‘coaching’ of his client through constant tentative interpretations (of her drawings).
Rather than working with the client’s parents to directly address her exclusion within the family system, Casement is preoccupied with discovering the hidden content of her disclosures. Thus there is a co-production of meaning at work – as seen in the mutual letter game Casement and his client develop (pp46); in which Casement serves not merely to understand, but despite himself, to build a context – through selective reflection, suggestion (e.g: theme of ‘secrets’ which could be revealed in confidence), fixation (e.g.: on genitalia), tentative interpretation etc. Another therapist might have focused on – and hence elaborated, other aspects of the client’s fantasy world – for example the archetypal figures of the threatening ‘great condor / eagle’ (pp54), or the cared for ‘coal baby’ (pp56). Casement by contrast, focuses on eliciting explicitly sexual / gender related themes with the client – even as he gradually comes to accept her need for age appropriate freedom and ‘messy’ regressed escape from control, and simultaneous desire for appropriate boundaries (pp50, 56, 58). Casement finds success when he models behaviour (playing word games), rather than directing it; developing the creative alliance in a way that’s more productive than interpretation (pp46, 48). His fixation on penis envy, and his interpretation regarding his client’s confusion over her own gender / family place, eventually produce the desired response in the child – who begins to respond in the terms and through the metaphors Casement has provided. This does not convince as an archaeology, but rather suggests an identification by the child with Casement’s own projected material (pp61). This creates a desire for the child to please the seductive partner, by producing the reading behaviour that he desires – as demonstrated when she later makes Casement’s baby ‘her baby’ (pp63). Casement disagrees – suggesting that he has gradually come to follow the child’s lead in addressing (explicitly sexual) matters that he was initially uncomfortable with; ultimately allowing the child to explore her own gender, and providing a space for reading ‘after her own more urgent needs had been attended to’ (pp63).
Casement uses another case to examine client communication by impact, and how to differentiate neurotic from diagnostic transferences (pp65). Such communication cannot be interpreted in isolation, but must triangulate with explicit client communication (pp66). Casement details the treatment of a client horrendously abused by the medical establishment. Casement’s CT feelings concerned boredom at her rote deadened disclosures – and he identified this as a ‘role responsiveness’ re-enactment of the clients relationship with her withdrawn father. Rather than directly disclosing, and further distancing – Casement raises the issue from the client’s perspective – using trial identification. Later Casement identifies an erotic interest in the patient, hypothesising that it is the clients disowned erotic feelings, intruding on the session; he confirms this by asking the client about her sexuality (rather than disclosing his own feelings), unlocking a series of connections between sexuality and punishment (pp73). This case study provides not only a pragmatic examination of how to work from CT impact without disclosing inappropriately; but also a startling illustration of the biomedical treatment (and iatrogenic worsening) of hysteric symptoms.
My grandparents, my parents and me – Frida KahloTraumatic Transference
Discussing trauma, Casement highlights that it can be gradual or one trial learning, and aroused in the here and now of the session through associations with the original event or circumstances (pp 76). Casement’s use of the concept of signal anxiety, parallels the idea of the conditioned stimulus on behaviourism (Wyricka, 2000). What differentiates this psychodynamic account is that the anxiety can be provoked through unconscious associations with the original trauma (which can itself result from unconscious associations), rather than simply through direct replication of traumatic circumstances / stimuli (pp79). Casement identifies the differences between trauma and current transference as what make the transference endurable (and catharsis possible) (pp79), and hence inadequate / overly identified transference may block the work (pp81). Rather than attempting to ‘re-parent’, the therapist should maintain both the ‘as if’ transference illusion, within boundaried containment (pp82). In Casement’s previous volume (Casement, 1995), he revealed the extent to which he would risk client psychosis to avoid tempering this illusion (pp87) – which he sees as potentially retraumatising (along with potential similarities between traumatic childhood treatment and the analytic encounter). All this points out the difficulty of working in the transference – the necessity of being sensitive to parallels between inadequate parenting and the therapy, without seeking to reactively correct them. Casement argues against the ‘corrective emotional experience’ recommended by Franz Alexander, suggesting that the ‘good’ object in therapy is not reparative but needs to survive the client originated attempt at destruction described by Winnicott (Winnicott, 1971). It’s questionable whether this complete rejection of the concept of corrective emotional experience, and the implied necessity of abreaction / re-living of trauma as always necessary or sufficient to recovery (Lopez, 2011).
Casement discusses the intersubjectivities of therapist and client, both laid down (according to Casement) in early childhood experience (pp126). The therapeutic relationship hence acts as a re-enactment of the clients early disturbed object relations, aspects of the therapist related through in the transference as the previously failing care giver. If supportively contained, accurately trial identified and interpreted and provided sufficient boundaries, the client can find in the analysis the reparative relationship needed to heal early trauma (pp129), passing from antagonism, to dependence and finally independence – transcending the need for the therapist (pp131). Casement’s recognition that the therapist’s counter-transference can block this process, if unaddressed, is valuable.
By rejecting the ‘corrective emotional experience’, Casement distances his analytic technique from the intervention styles of behaviourist therapies – and their demonstrable efficacy in certain domains of psychopathology (Butler, Chapman, Forman, & Beck, 2006). However Casement’s issue seems to be more with the alliance damaging, transference provoking technique advocated by Alexander, than with the corrective utility of new emotional / social experiences themselves (provided they are client directed). Contemporary cognitive therapies frequently work to provide clients with the tools to meet their own needs – and while this can potentially fixate on the presenting problem, it also provides an agency and a willingness to accept client directed growth, lacking in a Casement’s singular focus on transference as a clue to developmental trauma which needs to be reworked. Casement tackles this contradiction directly when he talks about a case where therapist affirmation had helped solve a client’s immediate depression and purposelessness, but failed to tackle her deeper existential dilemma – by providing a ‘false self’ image that was not derived from the client (pp101). However, psychoanalytic interpretation too can provide a frame or self for the client that may not be wholly authentic. Further, as pointed out in my previous review of Casement’s first volume, there is a fallacious essentialism at work here – an assumption that there is a singular ‘true self’ (hypothesised by Winnicott), existing apart from influence and capable of destruction (Foucault, 1984).
Casement advocates waiting until the therapeutic alliance is developed to begin transference interpretations (pp95); therapists need to provide appropriate (emotional and physical) space, without impingement on or role-responsiveness to the client. Further, insight is of limited utility until it is experienced as transference (pp103). This is an important point, and I feel provides the powerful advantage of impact / transference based object-relations approaches. Emotional experience, rather than intellectual comprehension, is the domain of change and insight. The part I find challenging is the attested efficacy of interpretation during emotional experience (pp104) – isn’t this merely confining emotional reality into a new configuration of the symbolic order? Casement himself questions the power of naming (pp108) and the importance of the content of interpretation vs the communication of having understood the client (pp109), even while arguing for its utility. However research does seem to indicate the efficacy of interpretation, even apart from the other therapeutic aspects of analysis (the real relationship etc) (Høglend et al, 2008).
I found a number of Casement’s incidental ideas to be illuminating. For example, his definition of self-respect, self-esteem etc, as products of ways in which others have related to the self (pp98). This is another way of stating Roger’s utility of unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 1961) – in providing a space for reflection and acceptance of unmanageable communicated emotions often absent in the primary parenting relationship (pp99). Casement’s reframing of ‘negative therapeutic reaction’ in terms of ‘pain of contrast’ provides a way of understanding why clients might reject new positive experiences (pp106).
In treating narcissistic wounds, Casement recommends attending to the meaningful content of the symptom, rather than attempting to treat its abrasive aspect (out of intolerant defensiveness) – which may re-enact happened in the parental relationship (pp132). Narcissism as a defensive position, may occlude internal self loathing, and be perceived as un-repentant, resulting in projective identification criticism from the therapist – worsening defences / re-wounding the client (pp133).
As with Casement’s previous volume, there were moments when his treatment of clients in his care seemed worrisome. For example in his physical restraint of a misbehaving child client and his exclusive focus on sexual interpretations of the child’s play behaviour. With an adult client Casement recounts the uncovering of ‘repressed’ memories of sexual abuse (pp135) – which is an enormously problematic area, vulnerable to the construction of detailed false memories based on unconscious therapist suggestion (Rubin, 1999).
As with Casement’s first volume (Casement, 1995) there is a strong contradiction between his explicitly stated desire to ‘follow’ the client in interpretation, and the leading behaviour demonstrated in his case studies. However, Casement’s explanation of handling countertransference impact is a practical guide to handling the extreme emotional restimulation and regression that can occur in therapy.
This volume clarifies concepts established in Casement’s first book, such as the nature of the internal supervisor, the efficacy of transference work, and the methodology of trial identification.
For me, Casement’s approach is broadly a person centred psychoanalysis. Trial identification mirrors Rogerian empathy, while acceptance is another way of framing unconditional positive regard, and interpretation of the CT impact / the acknowledgement of mistakes in therapy are both example of deepening the therapeutic alliance through congruence. The innate orientation towards growth in humanistic models, is reflected in Casement’s belief that the client continually seeks to meet ‘unmet needs’ (pp105) through ‘unconscious hope’ (pp111). Finally, the client directed nature of person centred therapy, is mirrored in the focus on the clients own search for ‘therapeutic experience’ through transference (pp107), and the importance of tracking the client’s needs, intercommunicative style and experience of the therapeutic process.
Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M., Beck, A. T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clinical psychology review, 26(1), pp17–31.
Casement, P. (1990). Further Learning From the Patient. The Analytic Space and Process. Routledge: London.
Casement, P. (1995). On Learning From the Patient. UK: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault Reader. UK: Pantheon.
Geddes, M.J., Pajic., A.K. (1990). A multidimensional typology of countertransference responses. Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 18(3), pp257–272.
Høglend, P., Bøgwald, K.P., Amlo, S., Marble, A., Ulberg, R., Sjaastad, M.C., Sørbye, O., Heyerdahl, O., Johansson, P. (2008). Transference interpretations in dynamic psychotherapy: do they really yield sustained effects? American Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 165(6), pp763-71.
Lopez, G. (2011). Why verbal psychotherapy is not enough to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: a Biosystemic approach to stress debriefing. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, 6(2), pp129–143.
Robinson, P. (1993). Freud and his Critics. USA: University of California Press.
Rogers, Carl. (1961). On Becoming a Person. Great Britain: Constable.
Rubin, D. C. (1999). Remembering Our Past: Studies in Autobiographical Memory. UK: Cambridge University Press.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. UK: Tavistock Publications.
Wyrwicka, W. (2000). Conditioning: situation versus intermittent stimulus. UK: Transaction Publishers.
Science fiction is undergoing a cinematic renaissance. Over the past few years we’ve had an undeniably great continuation of the Starwars saga, two populist reimaginings of Star Trek, and superhero shows to every taste. Bladerunner just had a remarkably tolerable sequel, albeit one that like the original, bombed in America. The most popular cartoon is a hard SF parody, and the best satire on Netflix is cerebral future shock. For ‘a that, there have been surprisingly few recent adaptations of major science fiction novels or series. Fewer still have been artistically or commercially successful. There’s no Rama or Ringworld movie, no Hyperion or Xeelee series. ‘Syfy’ channel efforts to bring life to Riverworld, Dune and Earth Sea have done more harm than good. The reason is undeniably budgetary. Sure, CG has come to the point where digital compositing is routinely used to take the place of location shooting. Yes, movies like Gravity have demonstrated an almost entirely digital set can, with care and expense appear photorealistic. However, the old fast, good, cheap equation still applies. In the case of CG the response is, ‘pick one’.
That’s one reason I have so much trepidation about the proposed adaptation of Julian May’s classic Saga of Pliocene Exile. Julian May died recently, at eighty six. She was perhaps my favourite writer. The books you stare deeply into as a child become the lens through which you view the world as an adult. As a tween I ate up late Victorian & Edwardian comic fiction, from Just William, to Jeeves and Wooster to Three Men in a Boat. To this day I still have an inappropriate fondness for the aesthetics and chummy noblesse oblige of late British imperium. When early adolescence hit, another perhaps only slightly less fanciful genre became my focus. I ate the greats of science fiction in huge, unchewed swallows – from Asimov and Clarke to Aldis, and Baxter. Later I nibbled weirder stuff, Lem, Dick, Ballard and Delany.
Science fiction was for me, as for so many others, an escape from a miserable adolescence. It spoke to the possibility of a future filled with wonder. Alien life and artificial intelligence offered the possibility that we, and I, were not alone. The endless vistas of space were a joyous vacation from the confines of early 90s Ireland. With its apologia of technological magic, science fiction offered a believable, and by inference hopeful future. One light years from Catholic Ireland, original sin, and the mundane suburbs of The Pale. From my wooden, inkwell holed desk in St Joesph’s Christian Brothers school in Drogheda, I could run the endless strips of Trantor. Wet arsed on the grey ceilinged beaches of Laytown, I could walk without rhythm across the sand dunes of Arakis. Each mind bending short story by Niven or Heinlein or Bester, offered the possibility of a word vivid and different, a world of hope and change, in a place and time that seemed devoid of both.
For an unhappy child in an unwholesome place, the believability of escapism was paramount. And no one justified her fantasies like Julian May. Her magic was the ability to craft from hokey tropes like telekinesis, spiritual possession and alien visitations, a world at once mundane and utopian. My exposure came through the journalist dad of a school friend. He was occasionally sent books with covers and premises to garish to review, and kind enough to pass on a few to me. That’s how I came across The Galactic Milieu series, and through those May’s best known work The Saga of the Exiles.
Julian May spent decades writing copious non fiction. Including “7,000 encyclopedia articles on science and technology, [and] over 200 juvenile nonfiction books on science, sports, and biography”. That experience gave her with a literally encyclopaedic general knowledge. Her narratives are bedded in a profound mythological erudition, rivalling that of that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkin. The Saga of the Exiles is saturated with Scandinavian and Celtic mythology (one fabulous conceit of the books is that they explain the origin of the myths that inspired them). Not to mention fanatical attention to the detail of geology, mountaineering, materials science, cordon bleu cookery and a hundred other disciplines. Her characterisation is rooted not in Joesph Campbell, but in Jung’s primordial archetypes – as filtered through mythology and classical literature.
The books are littered with wordplay connecting characters and ancient alien races to Irish mythology. For example the Firvulag (a race in the Saga of the Exiles) take their name from the Fir Bolg, one of the first peoples of Ireland mentioned in the legendary volume of Irish pre-history Lebor Gabála Érenn. The Firvulag’s ancient rivals the Tanu, take their name from the Tuatha Dé Danann an ancient race of Irish gods. Their leader was Nuada Airgetlám, who becomes Nodonn Battlemaster, a powerful alien psychic in May’s universe. Game of Thrones might be the apex of contemporary fantasy world building, but for depth of mythological reference, complex psychologically diverse characters, and the fusion of the conceptual depth of SF with the magical conceits of fantasy, The Saga of the Exiles has it beat.
May blended science fiction and fantasy in a way only giants like Frank Herbert and Anne McCaffrey had previously attempted. Both in terms of content (fantastical beasts, Arthurian aristocracies, hyperspace travel) and mythic resonance. Her work took the tropes of fantasy seriously in a way that authors whose popularity transcended the genre (with notable exceptions like Ursula K. LeGuin and Susan Cooper) rarely did. Her taxonomy of ‘metaphysic’ mental abilities, developed out of a fascination with parapsychology. She reenergised the ‘next stage of human evolution’ trope by imagining super human abilities emerging gradually and inconsistently throughout human history; accounting for everything from ghostly apparitions to faith healers. As with the x-men franchise, the mistreatment and eventual acceptance of her psychic operants can be read as an allegory for the civil rights and the emerging American gay rights movement.
Over two interconnected series, May constructed a grand and intricate narrative. A genre defying tale of warring political dynasties, organised crime, time travel, serial killers, psychic abilities, mountain survivalism, ancient reptiles and near future space colonisation. Her books are undeniably science fiction, just as they are undeniably fantasy, noir, political thriller and philosophical treatise. Her characters are human, in a way that is all too rare even today in genre fiction. As likely to argue Quebecois history or the theories of Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as they are to battle on flying beasts over the skies of Pliocene Europe.
This unrivalled ambition was not always successful. Her work can at times become bogged down in sheer detail, and the meta-narrative that connects her two best series can seem initially impenetrable. The final two Galactic Milieu books inexplicably run out of steam, just as they arrival at a conflict that should bring the arcs of all her central characters to a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps these factors explain why her work is not as well remembered as it should be. Just as likely, the books are simply too difficult to categorise to be truly marketable. Like the high fantasy-SF of real life spyCordwainer Smith; May’s fiction remains too human and quirky for genre fans, yet too fantastical and narratively focused for literary fiction.
Julian May died two weeks ago. Perhaps the rumoured TV adaptation of her Saga of the Exiles will give the books a second life, but I doubt it. The scope, ambition and sheer scale of her major series would require a visual treatment dwarfing Game of Thrones. They’ll likely remain second hand book store favourites, passed from fan to fan. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
“Aprofessional writer for my entire adult life. Married to the same man for thirty years. Mother of three grownup children. I have three cats that keep the house messed up and a big Japanese Akita guard dog that goes backpacking with me. I grow cute little miniature roses. I play pop songs on a mighty theatre organ and love to go to the opera. I drive a bronco four-wheeler. I sew on a 1928-vintage electric sewing machine. I’m a practical, hard-headed pro. I write for money and make no bones about it. Starving for the sake of art has never appealed to me. I like to write and I’m good at it – but it’s my profession, not my pastime. “
Think back, what were your least favourite parts of school? Maybe math, maybe physics, maybe you just hated gym. Now imagine a school where you didn’t have to do anything you didn’t want to. A school with no exams, no homework, no classes, not even any teachers. What if I were to tell you that not only does that school exist, it’s right here in Dublin, in a regular semi-d near the cold unfinished boom era monstrosity of the Sandyford industrial estate. This documentary explores a year in the life of Ireland’s most unconventional school, ‘Wicklow Sudbury’. This radical form of schooling has been running in the United States for almost fifty years, but can it work here? We follow the first few months of the fledgling school. Listeners will meet students, staff and parents, and explore what they found lacking in conventional education. In the process we’ll see just what Irish education can learn from The Free School.
Wicklow Sudbury School is an experiment in alternative education, attempting to apply the principles of ‘free schooling’ and ‘unschooling’ in the Irish context. The first ever term has recently begun, and right now the school consists of eighteen students of all ages, learning together.
Free or democratic schools are organised around the principle that students should take a lead in deciding their own educational path. These schools take a radical approach to encouraging free thinking and agency in their students. Free schools offer an alternative to mainstream education. They share an emphasis on child-centered learning: Seeing the learner as an active participant who choses his or her own course of study.
For many Wicklow Sudbury students the mainstream educational system has been a failure. They or their parents haven’t found the education they’re looking for in standardised classes and subject based classes. Instead they’ve chosen a school with no classes, no subject, no homework and no teachers. We follow their first few months in the school and learn how radical education works in Ireland in practice.
Broadcaster: Newstalk 106 – 108fm When: Sunday 12th November at 8AM, repeated at 10PM on Saturday 18th November. Online: Podcast or soundcloud.
The latest round of the Sound and Vision scheme awarded funding to an audio drama interpretation of my play Mic Drop. Mic Drop was initially staged at the Scene + Heard festival last summer. The radio drama version will go into production for Phoenix FM over the next couple of months, featuring up and coming actor Adam Tyrell (star of the stage production) in the lead role.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the podcast 'The Polybius Conspiracy', if you haven't yet heard the show, you might want to listen before reading the rest.
Someone might just have pulled the Blair Witch of podcasting, and no one’s noticed. In 1999 a viral campaign for the pioneering found-footage horror, The Blair Witch Project, briefly convinced millions of people that a team of young filmmakers had disappeared in occult circumstances in the forests of Maryland. The stunt was so successful it helped kickstart the found footage genre. The micro-budget film went on to gross almost 250 million dollars worldwide.
Radiotopia are the HBO of podcasting. The network has given birth to shows like 99% Invisible, the Heart, Love and Radio, and Johnathon Mitchell’s unparalleled drama anthology The Truth. It makes sense that this outfit, responsible for some of the most innovative and diverse (not to mention popular) programming online, would come up with something like this.
Full disclosure, I’ve met Radiotopia founder Roman Mars, and count several Radiotopia staffers among my friends. But I haven’t spoken to any of them about this theory. My guess is the truth is locked down to a few members of the production team. In any case, it’s much more fun to puzzle out as a listener.
The Polybius Conspiracy series centres around Bobby Feldstein, a man who claims to have been abducted in October 1981 from his home in a suburb of Portland Oregon. Discovered the next day near the Tillamook State Forest, 60 miles from home, Bobby told a wild and implausible tale of mysterious figures paralysing him before transporting him to a hidden location. There he managed to escape only after being freed by another boy, a long term captive. This event is somehow connected to an unusual video game Bobby had played in the weeks before his disappearance. A legendary arcade cabinet known as Polybius, said to have briefly appeared in Portland arcades in 1981.
The myth of a mysterious mind controlling arcade cabinet is a well known one within the videogame world. The story seems to have originated in the Pacific Northwestern arcade community in the early 1980s. Recently, Polybius has had a resurgence in popularity. It’s been the topic of popular articles, documentaries, a graphic novel, and even a virtual reality interpretation by legendary game developer Jeff Minter. The story taps into all-too-real mind control experiments carried out on American citizens by three letter agencies throughout the latter half of the 20th century. It arose in the context of an American conservative renaissance, with Christian and family groups railing against Dungeons & Dragons, videogame arcades and a litany of ‘satanic’ cultural influences. Variations of the story include everything from extra-terrestrials to the notorious MKUltra chemical control programme. Those unfortunate enough to have played the Polybius game cabinet are said to have suffered nausea, nightmares, madness and even death.
In Episode One of The Polybius Conspiracy, Bobby Feldstein recounts how he discovered an unusual cabinet at an arcade called Coin Kingdom, run by a dubious man named Willy King. The game contained in this unmarked cabinet featured strange abstract graphics and an usual control scheme. Bobby spent weeks perfecting his skills, till one day he reached a high level where he was assailed by invisible enemies. After playing he felt nauseous, barely making it home before passing out. He awoke a few hours later with a powerful thirst, and walked downstairs to get some water. Here he was somehow paralysed by three mysterious non-human figures, who entered his home and abducted him.
The programme makers don’t play along with Bobby’s story, at least not at first. Via real videogame historian Catherine “Cat” Despira, they introduce dark inferences about the underbelly of 80s arcade culture. Perhaps Bobby’s story is a con, perhaps it’s a screen memory for a more mundane yet horrific story of abduction and abuse.
Bobby recounts how he woke up paralysed in the dark, in a tunnel somewhere in a forest far from his home. Barely able to see, hearing a thrashing sound, he was released from the ‘vines’ holding him down by another captive. This boy fled with him but ultimately disappeared. Bobby managed to make it through the wilderness to a road, and finally a petrol station where he called his parents. Bobby claims his story was dismissed by both parents and police. We’re informed the owner of the arcade, Willy King, died in a car accident nearby a mere month after Bobby’s experience.
Episode 2 introduces a man named Ruben, who’s partner Mark Symms had a storied history with prostitution and drug addiction centred around the Portland arcades. Mark recently disappeared after taking thousands of dollars from the couples shared accounts. Cat Despira provides context for the Polybius legend, linking arcades where the game is alleged to have existed to police raids in the 1980s. These raids centred around drugs, stolen goods and underage prostitution. In February 1981, a friend of Catherine’s, Tony Sayers, told her about an unnamed game at the ‘Good Times’ and ‘Games Plus’ arcades. A game that had supposedly driven a teenager insane.
Back in the present, we learn that Mark Symms disappeared, leaving his partner Ruben, family and job in drug rehabilitation. After his disappearance his sister (for reasons unexplained) sent Ruben a picture of Mark as a teenager in a ‘Knights of Entertainment” tournament at Coin Kingdom. Ruben claims to have stumbled across Bobby’s tour (which includes a visit to Coin Kingdom) online. Although Mark had never mentioned Polybius, Ruben decided to take Bobby’s tour When Ruben showed him the photo of Mark as a teenager in the arcade, Bobby instantly recognised the boy who’d saved him in the forrest. We then hear Bobby take the producers on a tour of through the old arcade, and into tunnels running under the building (now a laundrette). This leads into a discussion of another legend, of ‘Shanghai’ tunnels supposedly running beneath the streets of Portland, used to press gang young men into forced servitude on the seas. The presenters enter the tunnel beneath Coin Kingdom, which Bobby suggests could have been used to ferry the Polybius machine into the arcade. Oddly the programme spends several minutes discussing the likelihood that the tunnels running under Portland were probably never used to smuggle the unwary into a life on the seas. There really do seem to be networks of tunnels running beneath Portland, which once connected the opium dens, brothels and casinos of Chinatown. They were likely not commonly used for ‘Shanghaing’, but that doesn’t serve discredit Bobby’s story, only his knowledge of local history. The episode ends with a credulity stretching tale from Mark Simm’s partner Ruben. Ruben describes finding Mark standing on the window ledge of their apartment in sleep walking daze, a couple of weeks before his disappearance, staring into space repeating the line ‘They’re coming’.
The Polybius Conspiracy is a part of Radiotopia’s ‘Showcase’, a rotating channel of one off podcast series. The programme started life as a kickstarter to create a film documentary. The trailer for the original documentary features a variety of figures from the Portland gaming community, but makes no mention of Bobby Feldstein or child abductions. A google trawl returns no Bobby Feldstein walking tour in Portland, and no Polybius walking tour. In fact no Bobby Feldstein appears in a google search at all. There are only 8 Bobby / Robert / Robyn Feldsteins publically listed on Facebook and three on Twitter (none of whom have ever tweeted). Producers Todd Luoto and Jon Frechette claim to have heard about Bobby’s walking tours from a friend. A key claim made by Bobby in the show is that he gives his walking tours in part in the hope that he’ll find his mysterious saviour, the boy who rescued him from the forrest tunnel. If that’s the case he’s done a remarkably poor job promoting them. Unlike the other arcades mentioned in the series, variants of Willy King, and Coin Kingdom return no results on google, either in it’s former incarnation as an arcade or its supposed current one as a laundromat. Needless to say the same is true of Mark Symms / Simms. So we have a missing protagonist, a missing location, and a missing ‘missing person’. But google is not omnipotent, perhaps Bobby’s tour has never made enough of an impression to be mentioned on the web, or depicted in photographs on flickr.
Dylan Reiff, a Portland based comedian and game designer, is listed as a ‘character’ on the website, but a ‘field producer’ in the show notes. Dylan is a real person, here he is at a storytelling event in 2016 talking about his passion for gaming and an alternate reality experience he created that convinced one ordinary teenager he was the saviour of the world. Dylan was also one of the documentarians behind the original kickstarter.
Joe Streckert, described as a Portland tourguide, gives regular talks about the Polybius myth and was filmed performing in front of a live audience for the abortive documentary, at an event hosted by Dylan Reiff. Joe’s a writer and host of the weird history podcast, as well as the author of The Legend of Polybius book. None of this is a smoking gun, but it does speak to deeper links between the producers and their guests than are made explicit in the show.
The nail in the coffin of The Polybius Conspiracy, for me, is this paragraph, from a 2015 article on Eurogamer about the proposed documentary film.
The film didn’t start as a documentary. Originally Luoto and Frechette were hoping to make a fictional sci-fi film touching on similar themes. It was only upon doing the research for that project that the filmmakers realised it would be both more interesting – and more cost effective – to follow this already existing myth. “We realised that truth in a lot of ways is stranger than fiction,” Luoto says. “Once we started reading more and talking to people we realised ‘this is fascinating. We shouldn’t wait for people to give us millions of dollars to do this. We should just do what we can.'”
Did the producers found another way to tell their story, one that didn’t require millions of dollars? Notably Radiotopia’s site is careful not to call the show a documentary, but rather “the complex story of two men united by a decades-old urban legend”. So is this a masterfully crafted docudrama, mixing real interviews with scripted fiction? Or is the Polybius Conspiracy a sincere and chilling investigation into a real abduction: One with life long consequences, that helped create a myth that persists to this day? The story of a mysterious arcade cabinet, that drove innocent Portland kids to a lifetime of addiction, and perhaps ultimately death? Tune in to find out.
Photoshoot for the Rapture of Hugo Ball, by Roger Gregg.
The Rapture of Hugo Ball is a dark comedy staged as a radio show with live music and sound effects. A satire tracing a performance artist’s unsuccessful struggle to gain recognition and acclaim in an independent world. The protagonist finds himself thwarted at every turn by an arts culture rife with the rivalry of competing egos, choked by academic jargon and administered by indifferent bureaucratic gatekeepers. Though set in the realm of performance art, the tale equally applies to all the creative arts wherein the individual artist has to struggle to establish a viable career.
The show has been staged twice, initially a the Collaborations in Smock Alley and again at the Ranelagh Arts Festival. If you’re interested in the show coming to your venue or festival get in touch with Roger.
The Bee Loud Glade Cabaret is a series of twelve bite-size programmes bringing some of the best of the contemporary Irish spoken word scene to radio. Each episode will showcase one beautifully produced spoken word performance, and one ‘backstage’ interview, featuring emerging & established Irish poets. The series represents an exciting new approach to poetry on radio in Ireland, mixing studio performance, music and soundscapes, to recreate the excitement of the live poetry scene. It will bring poetry as a living spoken form to a new audience, and promote the work of a new generation of emerging and contemporary Irish artists. The Bee Loud Glade will take the word off the page and reimagine it using original music and soundscapes. Created for RTE Lyric FM. Funded by the Broadcast Authority of Ireland with the Television Licence Fee.