The Times: Alan Franks (Aug 02)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 05:33

Saturday August 24 2002

"The guru of gloom"

Interview with Alan Franks

DOROTHY ROWE is the sort of woman you never see.

The reason for this is very simple, if you believe her own evidence. She is invisible, and has been so since the onset of middle age. As she is now 71, the condition is well advanced; she shares it with the vast majority of women in their middle and later years. She is unnoticeable not only because she has lost her sexual allure but also because she is indistinguishable from so many others in her situation. Yet the woman is a cult figure, which in this instance means more than being revered by a small band of total devotees. People form queues for her lectures on the art of living, they buy her books in large numbers, and some give up all other forms of therapy as being superfluous to her wisdom.

I went to her basement flat in north London to see her, or to see if I could see her. She may think herself unseen, but never unread. She is the author of a dozen very influential books, including Wanting Everything, Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison, and Beyond Fear. This last one, which argued that most of our suffering comes from the fear of vanishing as if we had never been, is being reissued in an updated edition, 15 years after it made its initial impact. I want to know whether this terror has been aggravated by terror itself in the year since September 11; also, whether it will be made worse still by the crisis in the stock market and the sense of impending penury that now laps even at the middle-classed and middle-aged. She is after all the author of The Real Meaning of Money. In the end we find ourselves talking about something far bigger and more significant - her mother, of whom much more in a moment.

It all makes sense, and it all joins up, but you have to be patient. That's the thing about Dorothy Rowe, who was unhappy for most of her first 40 years, and whose subsequent life can be seen as an attempt to turn it to good account for herself and her thousands of readers. One thing she is emphatically not doing is offering you first a syndrome and then its essential manual. You do not buy these books of hers in order to become a Woman Who Runs With Wolves, Loves Too Much or Nurtures Your Inner Child. She is a purveyor of the slow fix, which is probably why she has never really cracked America. You get the books because there is something in her plain-speaking approach which lets you believe, perhaps for the first time, that you don't have to be quite as unhappy, baffled and frustrated about everything as you thought you did. How is this done? At one point in our conversation she says, "You can sum all my work up in one sentence," but as I had to wait for this, so will you.!

When it comes to depression, the subject on which she is an acknowledged expert, the thrust of her argument is that it is not an illness, and should not automatically and routinely be treated with drugs. If we resort to that approach, we may contain the symptoms of the depression, but we will also prevent the sufferer from helping him/herself. Ultimately they (the sufferers) are their own best physicians since it is their own response to that monstrously uncontrollable thing, the world, which has caused them to turn their anger inwards and so induce a kind of paralysis.

Personally I think her success is partly down to being an Australian, a former teacher and child psychologist, seeing and writing with great clarity for a mainly European self-help market eager for enlightenment but notoriously clogged with New Age claptrap. This is her in Beyond Fear, taken at random: "One of the excuses which some people use when they do not want to take responsibility for their actions is that they cannot help doing something because they have been 'conditioned' to act this way. Such an excuse has no scientific basis. Whatever we do follows from a wish, a desire, a need to possess or avoid something. We may not be consciously aware of these wishes, needs and desires, but they are ideas which we have learnt from experience."

Or this, from Friends and Enemies; Our Need to Love and Hate: "No childhood is idyllic and no parent is perfect. All children suffer, but some are fortunate enough to suffer less than most. One of the tasks of adult life should be to inspect the beginnings of our story and see it clearly and truthfully. From our adult perspective we can modify the interpretations of events we constructed in childhood."

To ideas like these, we may well reply that we knew it all along. But did we? Or rather, did we know it well enough to put it into practice? Her style is persuasive precisely because it uses the kind of perception which we feel we might have used ourselves. She does not deal in slabs of truth but in propositions with which we are already half familiar. It is in this way that she manages to speak the reader's language and carry her along - it is usually a her - as an equal member of the journey. Easier said than done.

In person she is similarly free of ostentation. When I ask her what she calls herself - she is in fact a construct-based clinical psychologist - she replies that when she is at a party she might well lie about what she does for fear of the stock reaction...
"Oooh, I expect you can see right through me, then."

Her speech would verge on blandness were it not for the challenging fluency of its content. There's something of Fay Weldon (a fan and fellow Antipodean) about her; canny granny, shrink-basher, conciliatory feminist. Fairly twinkling away while discussing the direst effects of bad depression. This is an unexpected guru of gloom. In conversation she does that rarest thing among the opinionated; she gives way the moment a question comes in, which is generally the mark of a committed listener.

She started life in the town of Newcastle, just up the New South Wales coast from Sydney. Her mother sounds a complete fright although, of course, it is never quite as straightforward as that. The father, meanwhile, a commercial traveller, was the inevitable good guy. In fact, Rowe has done as much as anyone to explode this bad parent/good parent paradigm. "If you have a bad parent," she says, "and the good parent does nothing to try and change the behaviour of the bad parent, then guess what, you have not one bad parent but two bad parents."

Sex was a forbidden topic. So too, apparently, was Dorothy herself in the months before she was born. "My mother didn't even tell my sister about it. She had been the only one for six years and then, on the very day of her sixth birthday, I arrive. Some present. My mother let me put it this way, when we are born, we are quite often presented with a problem. For me this problem was: why does my mother behave as crazily as she does? She could be sweet and lovely, and then have a terrible temper tantrum and retire to bed for months. She was always critical. She had no idea how endlessly critical she could be. She did it like breathing. The world never lived up to her expectations. She was totally dissatisfied with it."

Rowe may be emphatic in her account of the family, but she acknowledges that her sister's version would differ. She, the sister, reads all Dorothy's books and points out what she considers to be errors in family history. But this is just the norm for siblings looking back from adulthood; Rowe says all such memories are riddled with disparities, right down to the facts of who was present at a particular family Christmas. And if there are differences to be found here, then how much more so when it comes to the subjective business of evaluating the parents' behaviour.

In Dorothy's recollection the garden was their mother's safe haven. Her own sisters, Dorothy's aunts, and one woman friend, were allowed there. Neighbours never dropped in. She sounds terrifying.

"Yes, yes, she was. She was dangerous. But she was frightened of people herself, and was passing on that fear. When you are born into a family, you assume all others are the same. It's the only model you have. You don't realise that you might be having bad treatment yourself. When I started writing these books, my sister began talking to me about what had gone on. It was sometimes quite illuminating, but at other times she would just say, 'I don't remember.'

Was this a case of selective amnesia? Or lying? Isn't that what we do when the implications of talking about something big and far back are too troublesome for the present? And isn't this fair enough? Rowe smiles and makes an equivocal noise, and we move on.

The point about all this is that when she came to England and started work here as a clinical psychologist, she kept coming across female patients whose behaviour was eerily similar to her mother's. They were invariably suffering from depression, among other things. Hence Rowe's deduction that this was what her mother had been suffering from as well. Moreover, all these women seemed to have had mothers who had acted in the same fashion. It was an ironic way to be reminded that you never really get away from your mother, particularly since Dorothy had come to England with her ten-year-old son Edward because it was on the other side of the world from her family of origin.

She was also putting distance between herself and her ex-husband, the boy's father, Ted. He by now was on his next and third marriage, to the woman who had been his mistress while he had been married to Dorothy. Now he wanted to invert the arrangement, with Sally as the wife and Dorothy as the mistress. From her description he was an Australian of the kind who would make Crocodile Dundee appear wimpish, but with a peculiar reluctance to pay bills and, therefore, a habit of falling into catastrophic debt. "Even with me," she says, "he would never post a maintenance cheque for our son. I always had to go and meet him at his club, with gin and tonics, and laughing, until, finally and grudgingly, he would give me the cheque. Lots of men do this. I'm not exactly the first ex-wife to be saying this sort of thing. And for a while I went along with it."

Since one of the big recurrent ideas in her writing is that of self-imprisonment and the need for escape, it is hard not to see her own 12,000-mile move as symbolic as well as physical. Yet the England she came to in the late Sixties was in some vital respects more hidebound than the supposedly colonial climate she had left. In particular, she was alarmed at the prevalence of diagnosis-and-drugs in the field of depressive "disorders".

Just as she kept coming across her mother in patient after patient, so she kept running into herself, or rather the woman she had been while she was married. With the significant difference that Dorothy had both the will and the means to quit. Already in Australia she had proved herself to be a top student, gaining an exhibition to Sydney University and studying there while she was working, and married, and raising a child; and, she admits, going through one of two periods in her life when she just might have been suffering from depression herself. She got a PhD at Sheffield University, and from 1972 to 1986 was head of the North Lincolnshire Department of Clinical Psychology.

It was here that her mother was to be found, in the innumerable guises of East England women. "Most of the patients were women," she recalls. "Most of them were depressed, and most of the depressed women were married."

When I ask her how many people, men and women, suffer from depression in Britain today, she says it is difficult to say since GPs, unlike psychiatrists, don't keep figures on their diagnoses. When pressed for an informed guess, she says the figure is probably one in six. So, a serious factor in the national health. In the worst instances it can be fatal, not just through suicide, but because of the physical running down which lowers the immune defences of the body.

"Most of us," she says, "when we have a physical illness, we see the GP, and he perhaps gives us some pills and tells us how to look after ourselves. And most of us do what he says because we want to get better. But when we are depressed - and this goes for all the mental disorders - we don't even try to follow the good advice that may be given to us by friends, counsellors, family, anyone. There is something about the condition that we want to hang on to."

But there must be degrees. Not every headache is a migraine, not every snuffle influenza. "Yes, there are degrees with depressed people. The more they hate themselves, the more deeply depressed they become. The state of depression gives them some protection because they feel, not consciously, that it's a defence which shuts out a whole lot of the turmoil around them." So that's the nature of the prison. But how do we enter it in the first place? So many people who have got themselves "incarcerated" seem to be successful, integrated, popular, worthwhile, healthy, achieving individuals. As my list of adjectives lengthens, so her smile broadens. I am missing the point, which is that these externals count for nothing in depression; they may conceal the self-disgust of people who believe, too deep to show, that they have been living a big fat lie, or else privately violating some unbreakable moral code.

We are getting closer to it. Dorothy Rowe's face stops moving from side to side and starts moving up and down. It looks like a nod of agreement. A disconcerting but rewarding aspect of talking to her is that the lessons she would have us learn are very simple. In her particular trade they have been obscured by the specialist's inventory of terms. Whether she intended this or not, she has removed the mystery from her subject to such an extent that she is virtually inviting the layman to consider his/her own opinion as valid as the next person's.

In the case of depression this is exactly what she is doing. Her reason is that in depression the chances are that no one is better placed to help than the sufferers themselves. "In childhood," she says, "we develop two ideas which are very common and which come out of the way in which most of us were brought up. The first is: I am not acceptable. I have to work hard to be good. Along with that is a belief that we live in a just world where goodness is rewarded and badness is punished. Lots of people may say they don't believe this, but the fact is that most people have had some kind of religious upbringing, and religions tend to teach that this is a just world. Now, as adults we sort of put this to one side. Then we encounter some terrible disaster, outside us or inside, and we ask ourselves why this happened.

"There are only three answers. It is my fault, it is someone else's fault, or it is chance. But of course in a just world nothing happens by chance. So, if you believe in a just world and you suffer a disaster, it's either your fault or someone else's fault. And since good people don't blame others, there's only one culpritI" While we are talking, late into the afternoon, the sky opens and the heaviest rain ever seen falls on to the garden. It makes as much noise as a diesel motor as it hits the conservatory roof. It is National Cloudburst Day, that Wednesday at the start of this month when roads became rivers without warning. The rain is making such a show of itself that you would need to be gravely cut off from your senses not to heed the power of the world beyond the head. It brings me back to what I wanted to ask at the start, when we got waylaid by the eternal Mum. Surely, outside forces have a bearing. If we were in a real flood, and we were clinging to the chimney pots on what remained of Highbury Grove, and all the rescue craft were busy saving the people of Belgravia, and we faced true annihilation - not the figurative kind she writes of - then we would be, well, beyond depressed. Wouldn't we? We would be witnessing our own bereavement. And it wouldn't even be our fault. Neither is the stock market slump, nor the attack on the World Trade Centre - unless you take these things very personally - nor the Asian brown cloud. Yet they all happen, like illness and bereavement, and they all deeply affect the circumstances of our lives. No mood is an island. This is when she says it: "You can sum all my work up in one sentence." I crane for this because the rain noise has gone right up off the volume dial, and fully grown plants are reeling like boxers. Then the lightning cracks the whole roof of Highbury open, and everything is truly wild. She speaks up: "What determines our behaviour isn't what happens to us, but how we interpret what happens to us." There's a pause while it hangs there, and I'm thinking: is this really Wise Old Granny, or is it just Hard Old Thing?

She follows up by going directly on to Northern Ireland, then unemployment: "During the Troubles, depression went down because there was unity of purpose. Anxiety went up, but depression went down. Some people, if they are unemployed, work out how they can get benefit while at the same time making money on the black market. So for them it's an opportunity to lead a happy life. Others have acquired the belief that to be a good person you have to work, so to be unemployed is to be wiped out as a person."

Annihilation again. Then the scene shifts. A fresh story, a new beginning. We are with a poet whom she knows, and the poet's husband. They are visiting friends in a smallholding, where the ewes are being sorted into pens. Pregnant ones this way, non-pregnant ones that way. Now, as a child the poet had vowed that her task in life was to make her mother happy; she knew that she would fail in this if she did not have children of her own. Yet in adulthood she and her husband have reached a thoroughly mature and rational decision not to start a family. The friend sorting the ewes says the non-pregnant ones don't get extra food, but the poet hears this as meaning that barren women starve.

She had failed her mother, explains Rowe. Not deliberately; she just hadn't bargained for the remorse which hit. "Often we make thoroughly sensible decisions without realising that these decisions won't fit. This woman is fortunate in that she can write about it and think it all through."

The rest may not find it so easy. And that, really, is what Dorothy Rowe is for. Like her poet friend, she has thought it all through, has no truck with scapegoating the genome, and condemns the old wisdom that everything can be explained by bodily processes. "What determines our behaviour isn't what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us." So easy if you're doing it, so hard when you're not. There she is, sorted and kindly, on a safe, homely bank, separated from the dangerous place by a fast river. It is a torrent of fear, roaring down from the memory hills, full of things you would rather not see. Come on over, she smiles, it's good here. Many thousands make it.