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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
An encounter with Bateson
An encounter with Bateson
Kybernetes, Volume 42, Issue 9/10
In the summer of 1977 I took part in a physics conference in Paris. It was a big change from the pattern of my regular existence, living in Palo Alto, working in a research group at SRI International in Menlo Park. It turned out to be the occasion for a major turning-point in my life. In that, Gregory Bateson provided a crucial piece, a crucial interaction, though he knew nothing about it at the time.
Let me give you a little background. For a long, long time it seems as if I had been trying to find out who I was supposed to be. The fact that I had gay feelings, and did not know what to do about it, and did not dare, was part of it, but it did not seem to be the center, and I did not know what was. So, eventually, I had found my way to a Freudian analyst, and that took its long, long time. But things did not seem right there either, and it was almost a relief to be away from him. This gave me a chance to wonder about some of the ways we interacted with each other. And of course I was very much into the pattern of blaming myself, I must not be doing it right.
One day, just before a summer break, Dr X., who was always exceedingly prompt, kept me waiting 5, even 10 min in the waiting room, so that I had almost decided to leave, assuming there had been some mistake. When I commented on this in the session, he told me firmly that my watch was always fast, and that I had been early. I knew I had just set my watch, so I stuck to my position. His watch, he said in a prim but lordly way, was never slow, and was just back from the watchmakers. The patient, coming to the rescue of the therapists watch, said “Maybe it wasnt adjusted correctly. At this he got up abruptly, obviously very annoyed, strode into the next room, used the phone, came back, and said, in an even more angry tone, “You were right!
My trip to Paris came very soon after this affair of the watches. Just before leaving, looking around for something to read on the plane, I tossed in the small, thick paperback of Steps to an Ecology of Mind. My nephew, when he was at UC Santa Cruz, had told me how impressed he was by Bateson, and so I had the book, but had hardly looked at it.
In that book was the clue to my salvation. In the few days after the session of the watches, and on the trip, and in the days in Paris during the conference, over and over my mind brought me back to that session and to other clues I had set aside before. And my spirit of subservience brought out all the arguments that I must be mistaken, surely I was not right, I was being unfair. It was an agony of arguing over and over with myself.
I had sampled parts of the Bateson book during the travel – New Guinea, Bali, dolphins, many things. It was in my hotel room in Paris, during the day or two I allowed myself for getting over the eight-hour time change, sleeping and waking at strange hours of dark and light, that I happened to look at Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia, the great paper by Bateson, Jackson, Haley and Weakland that presented the story of the double bind. It became my guidepost and my anchor. I read fascinated, finding one part after another of my interactions with Dr X. set out for me there. And, of course, the prescription for ending it. It must be done abruptly, completely, without ever going back.
I read that article over many times during the week of the conference. During the days, I was often busy because I was part of the organizing group, I had a paper to present, and there were many colleagues to talk to and papers I was interested in. There were also intervals for thinking. Each day I found myself coming over and over again to distrust myself, to imagine that surely I had misjudged unkindly that matter of the watches, surely Dr X. had my best interests at heart, I should give him proper allowances, surely the commitment to that therapy was the right road for me. Each night, back in my hotel room, I read that BJHW article again, and I knew that they were right. They brought me back to sanity. And I knew that my real judgment of that scene about the watches was right.
I was very lucky to have that book with me, to read it at the right time, in the right place and circumstances, far, far from the location and the surrounding currents of my usual everyday life, from all the things that nudged me back into the eddy of that double bind in which I had become entrapped. All those novel circumstances, and with them all, Gregory Batesons book, my dialogue with him and his colleagues, each day and night, during that extraordinary week.
For it was an extraordinary week. Along with the daily involvement in important interactions and activities, under the surface the unconscious circuits in my brain were engaged in their own out-of-the-ordinary activity. They were going over years and years of the old files, stored away, and when they came upon something that seemed to require special attention, they presented it to the conscious mind. I remember now that I noticed, that week, that an important new revelation flashed to my attention two or three times a day, I knew it was there, and I knew I could examine it sometime later when I had an opportunity. And I did.
What were these revelations? Many of them were instances of the characteristic patterns that make up the double bind as BJHW described it. Item: contradictory messages, verbal and nonverbal together: “I dont mind if you are homosexual, if you really want to be. (This, delivered with a scornful, even contemptuous tone of voice on the last six words.) Item: keeping the victim in the loop, if he ever shows signs of trying to get free: more than once, I had said I thought it might be a good idea to consult someone outside about whether this was really working for me, and he quickly turned it around, saying “I think we should look at why this question comes up now. (And there we went again.) Or another example: on a number of occasions, I might make some real progress, finding a new way to behave, breaking through some old inhibition or counterproductive way. Quickly, Dr X. would change the subject, not adding a reinforcement or even giving me time to consolidate my own gratification at the accomplishment; instead, he would remind me, with disapproval in his voice, of some other hang-up that still afflicted me (and now that I was looking at these files, I realized that he had done this sort of undermining a number of times over, it was a pattern).
And then there were some more remarkable episodes that came to mind that week. Item: I had told Dr X. something of an interaction with a therapist in Boston while I was in graduate school, who had on an early occasion recommended I try dating women, and some time later encouraged me to follow my gay inclinations. When I expressed surprise at his change of position, Dr T. had said matter-of-factly, “I decided I had made a mistake. Whereupon Dr X. said, in a superior tone, “I never make mistakes.
Or this one: item – I told of a nightmare repeating a childhood fear of a burglar climbing through an open window, to which he said “I suppose you were fantasying a big, black, negro buck climbing in and raping you. Since this had nothing to do with any fantasies of mine, or even fears, we can only assume where it came from. And there was at least one other occasion, with another distasteful, anally explicit homosexual fantasy projected on me.
Of course, in my case, the victims need to enact extreme subservience was a big factor in staying in that double bind so long, and cooperated with the double-binders need to keep him there. And so, even with all the information I had, for several days those agonizing doubts, that I was misinterpreting the whole situation, kept coming back. I needed those articles in Gregorys “Steps to confirm each night what the file clerks of the unconscious kept uncovering in the way of data. It was an intensive consultation, with sessions every day for a week. And in the end, it worked.
By the end of the week, I had sent a cable to Dr X., canceling all future appointments, “letter follows. The letter was very short, and to the point. It alluded to the episode of the watches, confirmed the cancellation of all appointments, and said that I had concluded that “we were involved in an inadvertent double bind that is most untherapeutic.
In a way, my consultation with Gregory and his colleagues was complete, it worked for me, it got me through the crucial change, and I found a far better path after that. And a couple of years later, unexpectedly, this encounter had a very fitting coda.
I got into very different circles and explorations after that, explorations that were bewildering and delightful. One of these new things took me to some events at Esalen. One day I found myself at lunch at the same table with Bateson, and at the end of the meal I asked if we could find a little time when I could talk with him.
That is when I was able to tell him a bit of how his “Toward a Theory […] paper had enabled my escape from the double bind with Dr X. Of course, after I told him of my terminating letter, Gregory asked, “What did he do then? “He sent me a closing bill. “Did you ever encounter him again?:
Yes, once. I was leaving a small restaurant after lunch. I saw Dr X. at the counter in a different part of the room, and went over to say Hello. He looked up from his newspaper, looked right at me, and his head continued to turn slowly and his eyes went right on by me and he cut me dead.
“Ah, yes, said Gregory. “Double binders do not like to be told.
Felix T. Smith
Independent Research Scholar, San Francisco, California, USA