With shame I confess . . . .
In a painful piece in the Guardian recently Kirsty Capes wrote about her unknown history, not knowing why she came into care at the age of 2 and knowing little of her early years. In attempting to regain that hidden history, the ‘secret history of my own self I will never know’, she sought access to her Social Work records but there she discovered a heavily redacted and deeply pathologized and pathologizing version of her self: ‘The reports pathologise my childhood behaviour and character in a way that, as an adult, confuses and shames me. This vision of my young self . . . bears no resemblance to the version of myself that I remember. ‘
Kirsty goes on, pointing to what is omitted from these accounts of her childhood self, growing up in her foster family: ‘The records don’t tell the story of my family, who took in my brother and me, and treated us as their own. They don’t tell the stories of our resilience and accomplishments in the wake of trauma; the unconditional love that we share.’
As it happens the article, coinciding with the publication of Kirsty’s debut novel, Careless, finishes on a celebratory note, ‘The identity that I built for myself – a successful, sensitive, compassionate, occasionally over-sharing but loving woman – with the help of my family, my friends, and lots of self-love. That is who matters the most.’ And yet it is surely fair to ask why did the version of Kirsty that fitted with the woman who was going to be ‘successful, sensitive, compassionate’ never appear in her files? Why was it that only Kirsty’s ‘testing, squabbling, crying/screaming temper tantrums, her aggressive behaviour, her challenging and lying and poor personal care’ were highlighted? And the answer is that the Social Workers who carefully recorded Kirsty’s life in her files were merely doing their job, being professional, recording the things that were regarded as significant, as important at the time. And with shame I confess that if my social work files, the ones in which I wrote copious notes relating to the children and families with whom I worked in the 1980’s were to be examined today, I imagine that the same hideous, distorted unfairness and lack of balance would be found. But is this distortion merely a historical footnote, something that happened then but of course we all know better now? Unfortunately I rather suspect not. The abuse, for abuse I truly believe it to be, continues to this day.
To take one simple example let’s think about client (or patient) histories. History taking is still seen as a foundational part, a pre-requisite perhaps, the basis for effective intervention in the fields of social care, psychiatry and perhaps psychology. Professionals talk with clients about taking their history ‘I’m just going to start by taking your history’, but is that in fact what they do? I have read many so-called ‘client histories’ over the years but very often the ‘client’s’ history is exactly what they are not. What not infrequently becomes clear and evident as we read, is that these histories are not balanced, inclusive accounts of the client’s life. They could better be described as ‘histories of the problem’ in the client’s life, and they should in the interests of fairness be described as such. Were we to decide to be open with the client about what we are up to in constructing such histories we should perhaps introduce what we are doing in the following terms ‘I am interested in trying to understand why your life seems to be going so wrong and in order to do that I am going to focus on every unhappy event in your life, every failure, every misery, everything that has gone wrong for you, every possible personality fault, every unfairness that you have experienced, every unhealthy pattern, every addictive behaviour and so on – and doing this will help me to create a coherent narrative which will fit with the inevitability of the difficulties which you are experiencing now, and when your problems do indeed appear to be completely predictable then we will be able to say that the history is thorough’. And yet I cannot recall ever hearing a professional tell me that this is the way that they introduce their ‘history-taking’. And just imagine for a moment that the client believed us and took us seriously! What if the client did indeed come to believe that this was truly their history? What a disservice we would have done to that person. How absolutely unethically we would have behaved. How ashamed of ourselves we should be. Some years ago I found this in Jacques Donzelot’s book ‘The Policing of Families’ (1979): ‘At Easter time in 1976 an obscure inmate of a provincial prison died as a result of a long hunger strike that he had embarked upon because, in his judicial dossier, only his faults, his deviations from the norm, his unhappy childhood, his marital instability had been noted down, but not his endeavours, his searchings, the aleatory train of his life.’ Oh dear yes – no mention of ‘his endeavours, his searchings, the aleatory train of his life’, just as Kirsty found no mention of ‘our resilience and accomplishments in the wake of trauma; the unconditional love that we share’.
Histories of possibility, histories of success.
Of course there are other equally unbalanced, equally biased histories that we might take, histories, we could called them of possibility, histories of success. What if we were to take the history that is coherent with, that fits with the expectability of good outcome? We could choose to do this. All that we would have to do is to ask different questions.
For example, and there are many more questions that would fit the bill, we might ask:
‘It sounds like life has been pretty tough for you, so how have you got through those times in a way that fits the life that you want for yourself in the future?’
‘As you have found your way through those times, in the best way that you could, what have you learnt about yourself and your capacities that you are pleased to have learnt?’
‘Tell me about the times that you found yourself truly at your best, the version of you that you are proud of and would like to see growing and becoming more dominant in your life?’
‘Of all the people who have known you well who most believes in you, or indeed who has most believed in you and your capacity to make a success of your life?’
‘What is it that those ‘believers’ saw, and indeed see in you, that is the basis for their belief in your capacity?’
‘If we had those people here with us today what stories of your life might they be recounting that would be the basis for that belief in you?’
’Tell me about the people in your family, the people around you as you were growing up, who succeeded in getting through life’s difficulties. Which qualities are you proudest to share with them?’
And so on and so on – the list of possible questions is extensive.
History taking is not a neutral activity – it is an intervention in the client’s life, drawing clients’ attention to this rather than that and inviting them to see significance in the pathological and problematic this rather than the hopeful that, inviting people therefore to see themselves in a very particular light. And of course since we come into people’s lives with status, with importance, with our qualifications and with the letters after our names, clients may come to believe that the histories that we point their gaze towards have a significance that those that lie hidden in the shadowy recesses of their lives, those barely glimpsed, the ones that clients cannot allow themselves to see since they do not fit with the versions reflected back by powerful professionals, lack. Reading Kirsty Capes and Donzelot should help us to see the life-long implications of the choices that we make, the implications of which we will not have to live with - but our clients might.
Kirsty Capes. My Secret History. Guardian 15th May 2021
Kirsty Capes. (2021) Careless. London: Orion
Jacques Donzelot. (1979) The Policing of Families. New York: Random House.
06 June 2021