Work in the arena of parental alienation in the UK has, until recent years, been primarily undertaken by psychiatrists and psychologists, many of whom are now retired. In comparison to countries like the US and Canada, work in this arena is in its early days of delivery, with few academics working in the field and even fewer practitioners. As a practitioner who has worked in the field for many years, alongside one of the most eminent and well known psychiatrists for a time and now at the Family Separation Clinic, I consider myself to be something of an experienced hand. As I move into the work of research therefore, I feel that I have reached a place where my experience, in wading around, neck deep with parents in the cess pit of their lives, qualifies me to set down some markers for the parental alienation debate in the UK. What follows is, I hope, a clear and unequivocal call for the movement to raise awareness of parental alienation in the UK and the work that goes on around it, to stay on track and up there with the best of the work being undertaken internationally. My fear being that within some camps, the drift is towards something of far less quality which could actually prove to be dangerous to the families who come into contact with it.
Working in the field of parental alienation does not allow one to become complacent, neither does it allow one to sit on the fence. Fence sitting, which in my experience is caused by wooly thinking and lack of courage, causes, in the alienation process, entrenchment of the problem and pressures the child further to mainain the stance. Practitioners working in this field should have the courage of their convictions and be prepared to act and take the consequences. Anything less is to fail the child and add to the problem.
People who work in this field should be involved with families at every level, they should, to follow my earlier analogy, get into the cess pit and get dirty with the families that they are working with. To do anything less is to intellectualise the approach and intellectualising the approach causes more problems not less. It is quite simply, in my view, not possible to sit on the edge and observe. All of the key figures in parental alienation work, from Gardener to Baker, to Bala to Warshak to Gottleib to Lowenstein and Weir here in the UK, got in the shit and walked with families. If your therapist is not walking in your shit with you, as well as the other parent’s shit and your children’s shit too, you are not working with an alienation specialist, you are working with a therapist who knows a bit about parental alienation. Do not be fooled, because the two are very different things.
The reason that I write these things is this. In order to be able to fully and comprehensively treat a family where alienation strikes you have to be able to do what Alajandro Jodorosky called acts of ‘psychomagic’. Bear with me, its not as bonkers as it sounds. As Karen Lebow, in Amy Baker’s recent book, working with alienation children and their families, states
‘The shaman understands that to be human is to be interdependent and that interdependence evolved for survival of the early rigours of daily struggles in prehistoric times. Sunning kills the human spirit and destroys the ability to function as an individual. Being interconnected means survival. Support group leaders who facilitate healing among targeted parents use many of the same techniques and carry out similar roles to a shaman. The shaman contains the memory, history of the community and like the group leader, facilitates healing comfort and education..’
Whilst Jodorosky has his own brand of shamansim, all practitioners who work with alienation must also develop theirs. To fail to do so, is to leave the families that we work with wandering around in the dark not knowing what to do. Anyone working in the field of parental alienation must know everything about the families they work with, everything about the world that they live in and everything about the tensions and terrors that intersect their lives. To do anything less is to refuse the responsibility that comes with doing this work, which is the responsibility to carry, for as short a time as possible, the burdens of the family and to absorb, as much as possible, the toxicity which is washing around each and every member. Being prepared to walk with those families, carrying and absorbing until the system is cleansed, is an absolute necessity. This work is not for the one session a week therapist and it is not for the person who sits in their office expecting people to come to them. This work is about living, breathing, people and the terrors that face them and just like in the US and Canada, my deepest hope is that the UK will develop a tribe of these people, each capable in their own way of taking on the challenges.
The core of what we do as alienation specialists is give of ourselves, in all of our strengths and weaknesses. This is not the work of the lofty expert and the distanced, intellectual mind. This is the work of people who bleed, of people who can get things wrong as well as right and who can know the difference and keep on keeping on. In relationship with people who face being shunned and shut out from their children’s lives, one has to know the kinds of terrors that they face, the walls that they have to climb and the seemingly insurmountable barriers that are set in their way. All of the key practitioners across the world, are involved in the (small p) political aspects of working with alienation and are, in their own way, working to raise awareness of the ways in which issues like feminism, domestic violence and false allegations are part of the landscape where alienated families walk. Debates around shared parenting, the need for two parents, the role of fathers and more are part of the narrative which surround parental alienation work and there is a clear recognition that the polarised debate is something which does not need to be changed by the practitioner, but understood.
In a recent workshop in London attended by a number of Family Therapists, CAFCASS officers and Social Workers, I asked the question which for me defines the difference between someone who is cut out to do this work and someone who is not. The question is do children need two parents? The dividing line was so stark that it was shocking. All of the Family Therapists said no and that to ask the question was to be offensive to single parents, everyone else said yes, of course they do. Within that one session I saw the way that the political correctness of the family therapy community stymies its ability to think beyond borders. Whilst I am sure that there are many family therapists who can cross them, it is clear that there is a group of family therapists working on parental alienation who are staying firmly within them.
One of those family therapists is a regular contributor to the comments on this blog and I have thought long and hard about how I deal with something that he sent to me and others recently about attending a Women’s Aid conference. Nick Child has a website called For all That, on which he discusses the issue of parental alienation and refers to me at one point in the following manner –
“Collective homeostatic forces keep them and their views in place. Few are going to venture over to the other side to find out what makes them tick. To modify their arguments or terminology – eg to see diversity or commonality in the beloved or hated banner of ‘feminism’ – is not acceptable to their tribe or flock. In personal asides, such leaders will say that, when it comes down to it, they cannot let down those desperately needy followers who look to them to support and speak for them. This is then the position of a shepherd of a flock, or indeed of a patriarch (or matriarch) of a tribe. Thus for example – and here this is a positive compliment not a criticism – Evan Stark serves as a patriarch of the women’s movement against domestic abuse, while Karen Woodall presents as the matriarch of the men’s movement against their exclusion from families. However genuinely knowledgeable a shepherd or patriarch is in serving their flock or tribe, when it comes down to it, things that may be more ritual or tokenistic than rational may also be highly valued – like howling at the moon or burning banners.”
This piece of rhetoric, appears to have me down as someone who has not seen both sides of the story and effectively dismisses all of the years that I spent in the feminist movement, seeing the world through the eyes of women first and everyone else second. To have me down then as the matriarch of the men’s movement and someone who speaks only for one side of the polarised debate is actually offensive, though I have not said so publicly until now. Given that Nick feels free to write of me in this manner, I feel that I also have the right to share the following and the concern that it raises for me, about the work he is undertaking in Scotland around parental alienation.
Nick recently wrote to me and other professionals recently about his attendance at a Scottish Women’s Aid conference, a venture he described as seeing things from the other side of the polarised debate. This is how he summed things up.
‘So my shocking recommendation is that men should warmly and respectfully join or at least join in on Women’s Aid as an organisation and their events. And perhaps other women’s organisations too. Especially men who have been victims of domestic abuse. They should join with a blind eye to the parts of WA that would normally rile them. They should join genuinely with compassion for any victims including women victims. And of course for children in the middle or victims. They should join genuinely as men who want male abuse to stop. Those men who have been victims should also join genuinely as natural allies of other victims who happen to be female. They should do so uncompetitively, being open to how different experiences may be different, and some may be worse – eg women’s experiences may be worse in several ways. What, if anything for example, is the equivalent for men victims of abusive women, of male abuser’s stalking and coercive control after separation? Surely men and women victims would do well to respectfully compare notes and experiences?’
To say that I was speechless to receive this was an understatement, having recovered myself however, this is an excerpt from my reply.
Let me make this absolutely clear. I am not and never have been and never will be part of the men’s movement. Neither will I ever again be part of the feminist movement. It is within that space however, which is created by a gendered war between men and women that families where alienation strikes are struggling and so it is into that space that I put myself, over and over and over again, in order to bring about change and healing. Writing as I do, about the inequalities and the gendered discrimination which is written into the legislation that surrounds these families is part of my work to raise awareness of what is happening their world. I do not attempt to brush over the reality, nor do I dismiss either side’s lived experience, I know there are women who are beaten, savaged and raped in the world and I also know that there are men who suffer in the same way. But I know that one side gets help and the other gets not very much at all, which is why I speak out and speak up, because unless I do so, I contribute to the problem rather than helping to resolve it.
And contribute to the problem is what I am afraid Nick Child is doing in his exhortations to abused men to get alongside women’s rights organisations and see them as their natural allies. With all of the privilege of never having suffered at the hands of a woman and never having experienced alienation directly, it is ever so easy to reduce the bloody, nasty, vicious mess that is lived experience of mothers and fathers in this arena to platitudes and broken narratives. The truth of the matter is that men AND women can be violent people and men AND women are harmed, sometimes very severely by the nature of that violence. Situating oneself however, in the safe space which is governed by feminist narratives of patriarchal power and control, fails those men AND women who do not fit this paradigm and failing to see Women’s Aid, for the political entity that they are, with all of their industrial strength funding and ability to dominate the landscape of family violence, is to spectacularly fail families. In the real world, where power and control are behaviours which are utilised on both sides and where both sides can and do kill and both sides can and do inflict serious and significant harm, the issue must not be reduced to the simplistic words tweeted by another attendee of the same conference…
Great conference today. Heartening to hear @KennyMacAskill acknowledge ‘domestic abuse happens because of inequality between men and women‘
Try telling that to the dad with his head cracked open by a cricket bat and the man who died because he didn’t put up his wife’s summer house on the day her period was due.
The truth of the matter is that family violence, like false allegations, like shared parenting debates, like arguments over whether children need two parents or not are critical issues in this field and working with them from the feminist paradigm is not going to do anything other than cause more harm, more hurt and more damage to children. Its not possible in my mind to do any of this work from naive perspectives, it takes courage, guts and steely determination, to do what is possible even when it goes against the populist approaches.
The space in which we work with alienation is, to my mind a sacred space and one in which the narratives that are shaped and formed by direct experience in the field must reflect reality, not the hopes and dreams of politically correct therapists and their ilk who seek to do good. In writing this blog I know that I am setting down a marker. I am also publicly disassociating myself with any of the work being undertaken in the field of parental alienation by the Association of Family Therapists with whom Nick Child works. I have thought long and hard about doing this publicly, knowing that all voices raising awareness of parental alienation are important but I have decided that on balance, given the nature of what I consider to be an exremely worrying suggestion by Nick Child that it is important that I do so. My work with parental alienation, in that sacred space, demands of me the courage to stand by my convictions and I am concerned about the damage that well meaning therapists, without any real experience of the field, can do. All voices speaking about parental alienation are not the same and I accept that others in the field will speak differently to me about aspects of their work. But this kind of thinking and rhetoric does not belong in the sacred space that alienation specialists work in and for me, broken narratives like this belong elsewhere, not near people whose lives are already massively under pressure.