I don’t ever read books about historical events that involve me, because there aren’t any. Or so I thought until I got my hands on a wonderful book about one of the most interesting experiments of the storied Nineteen-Sixties. The book’s called Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune, and its author, Grant Goodbrand, himself a psychotherapist, was an eyewitness/participant in the events he relates. And — in the interests of full disclosure — so was I. Goodbrand, by the way, is not a close personal friend. I hardly knew him during our years in Therafields — a group which, by the way, has produced more than its share of artists and writers, including the late poet bpNichol.
For those of you who’ve never lived in Toronto, Therafields is part of city lore. It was a psychoanalytic community created over a twenty-year period by Lea Hindley-Smith, a gifted and charismatic lay analyst from Britain. It began in the early Sixties, and at its peak, it may well have been the largest commune in North America. It included nine hundred people, thirty-five houses, four hundred acres of farmland, two city offices and two houses in Florida, one for recreation and another for therapy. Lea Hindley-Smith came to believe that society could be changed by the use of psychoanalysis in everyday living, and she rejected the medical model of psychiatry as a one-on-one relationship in favour of a model in which group living could dramatise the problems that dogged peoples’ lives. It’s to her credit — and also, to the therapists she trained — that many lives were changed for the better.
Goodbrand traces this story from the time when Hindley-Smith began to work with a group of fifty Roman Catholic nuns and priests, all of them influenced by the liberal ideas of Vatican Two. By the early Seventies, the youth counterculture had planted firm roots in Therafields, and Goodbrand argues that Hindley-Smith found in them firm allies for a more radical view of social change than the so-called “Catholic group” would support.
Yet social change never happened, and in this sense, I’d contest the central thesis of this book. Far from being stodgy conservatives, the group of ex-priests and nuns may have been the most radical among us. They abandoned their religious callings and their academic careers at a time when these choices were highly respected ones. They also had brains, and some of them were grounded in a strong sense of history. On the other hand, our version of the counterculture was never radical in any self-conscious way. We were all very young, and we risked little or nothing by investing time and energy in this enterprise. That was as far as radicalism went. The self-actualising values of the Sixties promoted narcissism in Therafields, and, along with solid therapy came a lot of silly, new-age experimenting with fad diets, card reading and astrology (No drugs, thank God). Respect for critical thinking and social analysis was pretty darn low on the list.
As for Lea Hindley-Smith’s social radicalism, I don’t buy it — not with such massive acquisitions of private property. In fact, Therafields was feared by left-wing activists in the genteel Toronto neighbourhood where it bought contiguous properties. These homeowners worried that big-business developers were about to bulldoze the neighbourhood. Goodbrand’s correct in pointing out that when the postwar boom economy that had sustained this experiment began to fail, social values became more conservative and Therafields eventually unravelled. All of it true — but we’d always lived in a capitalist culture and the seeds of conservatism were there from the start.
Yet Goodbrand has written a moving, heartfelt, and thoroughly researched book. Unlike many “rise and fall” books, this author doesn’t gloat, doesn’t remain aloof from tragedy and sorrow, but embraces it in an honest effort to understand what happened. It’s this candour and honesty that makes Therafields such a deeply affecting meditation on hope, vision and mortality. It allows all Sixties people — in or outside the Therafields experience — to mourn a moment in history when the world was full of fearless and passionate dreamers. Yet it gives historical weight and fulfillment to the real achievements of Therafields that still live on in the lives of so many.
That’s Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune by Grant Goodbrand. It’s published in Toronto by ECW Press.