Financial Times: Miranda Green (Jan 07)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 05:34

 ‘God and mothers keep me in business’

Interview with Dorothy Rowe by Miranda Green

Published in the Financial Times Weekend section: January 26 2007

Amid the darkness and cold of yet another winter, Dorothy Rowe, whosebooks have helped many an occupant of northern climes survive and recover from depression, is in good spirits. This could be because the prolific psychologist is about to produce another volume of her insights, this time on sibling relationships. It is a move her fans hope will encourage the publishing world to reconsider its decision to let most of her 12 previous works go out of print.

Or the cheerfulness may be due to Rowe’s long-established routine of flying back to her native Australia every winter to visit her son and avoid much of England’s gloomy season. She jokes that until climate change actually creates a beach in her north London garden, she has to make do with the colourful touches of Oz – the paintings and the plants – that adorn the flat.

She points out with patriotic satisfaction: “At the bottom of my garden there are three gum trees, a wattle and two bottle brush, and my oleander’s coming on very well, so you see I’ve got my little bit of bush there.” Nationality and national history, as well as family background and ancestry, are important ingredients in Rowe’s professional view of life’s challenges and how individuals cope – or fail to cope – with them. The theme runs through several of her books, including the bestseller on depression, Depression – The Way Out of Your Prison, first published in 1983 and frequently reprinted.

Her analysis of ordinary human unhappiness is illuminating, and her advice bracing. It is based not only on years of research and practice in the NHS but on her own experiences. She tells me, in a throaty voice still heavy with the accent of New South Wales, that transportation and internment inflicted scars on her forebears, causing indirectly her mother’s depression and therefore her own family’s “craziness”. Rowe can explain but not, I sense, fully forgive the causes of her own troubled childhood and early lack of confidence, about which she writes movingly. A residual anger comes out many times during our meeting, as Rowe, now white-haired and looking very much the part of the wise woman, delivers her caustic observations on how a child’s healthy self-love can be undermined.

But finding a way to integrate and understand painful experiences, including the pressures of history, society and political culture, is a key part of her message. Unlike many of the current top-selling psychologists, Rowe tells her readers not to pursue happiness but to acknowledge sadness and face up to the unavoidable negative results of every choice we make.

“Happiness is a by-product, you can’t make it, and loss and failure are just part of life,” she tells me simply, ridiculing the rash of self-help books that promise an earthly paradise by following a 10-point plan. She also has doubts about the current vogue for prescribing cognitive behavioural therapy, which she believes can be helpful in getting moderately depressed people off the drugs but is far from being a panacea. “Where cognitive therapy has its limits is that there are things in life for which there is no happy interpretation,” she says. “If someone who really matters to you dies, then if you blame yourself for that person’s death you will be unhappy. But there is no interpretation that leads you to be happy. The best you can do is accept your loss and understand that you have to live with that loss for the rest of your life. And a lot of cognitive therapists haven’t got the courage to face that.”

In America, the land of optimism, these stark views have made it impossible for Rowe to find a publisher – although she sells well in most other parts of the world. She claims that her book on phobias was turned down by one New York editor on the grounds that it didn’t contain a cure for fear. She protests with a laugh: “I mean, if you live in New York you need fear – otherwise you wouldn’t survive for six hours!”

Australians and Europeans, she argues, have a totally different relationship with unhappiness and loss because they are steeped in the struggles of the past. “If you have grown up in this country or in Europe, you are with the memorials and the tragedies all the time,” she explains. “And if you grow up in Australia .. . you’re in a country where the land is indifferent to your existence and there is no way you can make any impression on it.”

But even in Britain, she laments, it is becoming unacceptable to express unhappiness in a natural way. “Unfortunately the word ‘sad’ has become a condemnatory word – he’s a sad guy, et cetera. And so people don’t use it. The word ‘dispirited’ has gone out of fashion, and so people say they are depressed. They are not – they are sad, which is often an appropriate response.”

Trenchant criticisms of psychiatry and organised religion, together with an intensely political emphasis on the need for an individual to resist the expectations of anyone with authority over them, along with her rejection of the modern happiness industry, have made Rowe both influential and controversial.

Mothers also get a rapped by Rowe as the main origin, along with the church and with old-fashioned teaching methods, of authoritarian attitudes that can belittle the child and instil lifelong feelings of inadequacy. “God and mothers keep me in business,” she jokes – somewhat unfairly, it seems to me. Many mothers encourage great confidence in their offspring, and why should the other parent avoid the blame and the responsibility? “Yes, fathers are lucky,” she admits ruefully. “Not being there is a great idea.”

In print, Rowe’s style is forceful. She uses words such as “tosh” to describe the myths and manipulations with which society “bamboozles” its citizens, and a family its children, into obedience. But in the flesh, even when making one of her frequent jokes, Rowe is far more reserved than readers of her bolshie books might expect. Although delighted to find that in this case the interviewer is actually acquainted with her work – “I get a lot of idiotic requests from journalists” is one aside – she seems a little reticent at some points during our conversation.

Perhaps I had not adequately absorbed the recurrent theory in so much of her work about the huge differences between extroverts and introverts – not just in behaviour, but the fundamentally different motivations and interpretations which can lead to so many misunderstandings between the two types.

But here in Rowe’s living room, the two of us seem to be proving the theory correct: I’m sitting at the edge of one sofa, desperate to make her like me, and she is sitting back happily self-contained against the cushions opposite, not picking up on my need for greater interaction, and possibly even keen to end this interruption and get back to her desk.

“It’s about what is, at base, most important to you, achievement or relationships,” she explains. “Because that is the way we operate – we want everything but if we can’t have everything and we are wise, we go after what is most important to us.”

In Rowe’s case, the introvert’s drive for achievement has led her on a lifelong mission arguing against treating the mentally ill with incarceration and prescription drugs, as well as trying to help the rest of us understand our lesser miseries. A question about whether the lessons from pathological behaviour can credibly be applied to less dramatic unhappiness or distress draws an animated response about “very insulting language”.

“I don’t think people who are psychotic are ill. Psychosis is a way of defending yourself when you are really feeling that you are falling apart – with depression and all of those things,” insists Rowe. “For example, the kind of person who under great stress and losing all their self-confidence becomes very obsessional and compulsive, before that situation was a person who tidied up and kept things organised.”

And here’s a rebuke for those who think they are sane: “I’m looking for this normal family or this normal person, but I still haven’t met them.” An absence of “normal” families to study, along with a serious dearth of academic research on sibling relationships, led Rowe to draw on novels for some of the case studies in her forthcoming book on brothers and sisters – she uses Jane Austen’s Bennet girls, for example.

But the subject fascinates her because she has found that almost everyone has an emotionally charged story to tell about their own experiences of the sibling relationship and how it continues to be played out at home and at work. The cut-throat competition within families also illustrates another of her favourite uncomfortable truths – that this is not a just world, and erroneous expectations about what will result from our good or bad behaviour is a common psychological trap.

“Children know that they have to be good in the way their parents define good and sibling rivalry is about who is the goodest – and then the terrible thing is, you might be the goodest but you don’t get the rewards.”

‘My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: Making and Breaking Sibling Bonds’ is published by Routledge in April. The third edition of ‘Beyond Fear’ is published by Harper Collins in March

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007