A Sixties Tale: Grant Goodbrand’s Therafields

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.



Filed under Book Reviews

12 responses to “A Sixties Tale: Grant Goodbrand’s Therafields

  1. WG

    Fascinating! I’ve never heard of Therafields but I admit I’m curious to check out this book.



  2. dennis.duffy

    A seven-year veteran/survivor of Therafields, and grateful for Grant Goodbrand’s bio info abt Lea Smith (most of which i never knew; much of which was a matter of rumour), I nonetheless want to point out some matters that his book neglects to develop.

    Let me cover them with an umbrella term: OHCAC. The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. GG mentions how important Catholic clerics (“religious,” to use an in-house term with the implication that the rest of us are ir-religious) throughout T’field’s history, esp so at its beginning. What he doesn’t note is that the OHCAC factor accounts in two ways for T’field’s decline and fall.

    For one of the hallmarks of OHCAC is that it filters experience through hierarchy, and that it fails to construct a conduit for the flow of critical thought from bottom to top. What GG sees as history is too often what the Officers’ Mess decided was the outfit’s history. We can see this in his account’s absence of any strong focus upon the many T’fields adherents who did not live in House Groups, and in his near-obsessive treatment of the split between the Smith family and the Hypno One group, as if those were the only parties concerned.

    Like any elite, they all took themselves and their deliberations far too seriously, and assigned themselves the roles of selection, recruitment and training of leadership candidates. Unfortunately for the project, that process did not include any fostering of avenues for creative input from below, let alone critical analysis. Too often–in my experience and that of others which I witnessed–the merest hint of criticism was greeted with suspicion and psychologizing. “What is your personal obsession that leads to this stance? Why do you war with the Matrix?’ were typical responses. This tactic stifled critical thinking of the sort vital to any organization’s health, esp. that of an organization so diverse in its membership and aims.

    An aspect of the deference paid to hierarchy that the book never appears to register is the personal hypocrisy that an institution thus structured demands. Various organizational kingpins, so GG relates, had their quarrel with the direction T’fields was taking. Very little of that was broadcast among the Other Ranks. It’s that sort of “pull the wagons in a circle, don’t disturb the kiddies” response that greatly saps the energy and authenticity of the higher-ups repressing their own feelings while in the presence of the lower-down. These latter suspect that bullshit is coming their way, but can never quite pin down its source.

    Such an atmosphere in OHCAC helped produce the clerical pedophile scandals. Such an atmosphere in T’fields helped produce the criminal behaviour of the Ka School, the near-criminal behaviour of the extra-legal switching of parentage (google the Snyders’ article online), the dabbling in crank notions (“possession”), the faddism (which therapeutic writer is in or out this week? is this when we are all eating potatoes with every meal), and the resultant alienation and apathy that killed the project.

    I can sum it all up by recalling an event GG mentions as a major moment in the movement/cult (because much of what I am writing abt is a kind of behaviour we associate with cults): the grand gathering in St. Lawrence Hall. Billed as a criticism and vision-sharing session, it was in fact a fund-raiser. The point of the gathering was to feed the leadership’s Edifice Complex by undertaking yet another acquisition/renovation of the real estate, without any hard thinking abt economic trends, the stability of the real-estate market, the allocation of collective energies, etc. What is so sad abt the fall of Therafields is not only that it degenerated into an argument over real estate, but that the property questions were so disastrously handled. Again, it recalls the ONCAC scandal of the Vatican bank. It sold its soul, but then couldn’t even make good use of the profits such transactions ought to have realized.

    Should these remarks provoke any response of a serious nature, i would hope that they are marked by two characteristics:

    –identification (not just the initials) of the respondent;

    –an avoidance of relying on self-serving and emotional motives as an explanation for my critique. I am willing to engage in dialogue, but only in the kind of dialogue that credits one’s opponent with rationality.

    Finally, thanks Carole for the space. You were always among the best and brightest in that bunch!


  3. Elle Gallagher - daughter of John Gallagher

    I’d be interested in reading the information about the parentage switching. Nothing came up on Google about it as related to Snyder that Dennis Duffy mentions. Please let me know?

  4. If you google “Therafields, Snyders” you should find Tom Snyders’ review of Goodbrand’s book for Georgia Straight. He makes brief mention of it there, since he was one of the kids affected.

  5. Solmer

    It seems that Therafield ideas live on in the Centre for Training in Psychotherapy, based in the Annex as well. Lea Hindley-Smith’s son in law teaches there and his work still includes stuff on possession. If anyone can confirm that CTP is the modern day incarnation of Therafields just without the commune bit, I would appreciate it since I am trying to determine whether the whole organization is made up of a bunch of cranks or actually does any legit work.

  6. I have a friend who’s a graduate of CTP and she’s no crank! However, I don’t know all the ins and outs. I know they have a website, which may clarify where they’re coming from.

  7. Solmer

    Good to hear about your friend. They do have a lot of the same people and their roots do seem to be in Therafields and all I know if Tf is what has been written online.

  8. Tom Snyders

    Doesn’t anyone here know how to hyperlink? There’s the direct link to my 400 word review (50 over their normal count, and 50,000 under what I could say about it). Dennis, yes, absolutely – the parallels between the hierarchical structure and self-serving denialism of the Catholic Church and Therafields are not merely metaphor, but reflect the parent organization from where many of the prime movers came from and the wellspring of the worst aspects, in my opinion.

    Many of us children are still trying to cope and heal from the trauma of our experiences under (not in) Therafields and the various incarnations of Malcolm’s school, and yet many adults seem to want to wax nostalgic about “the good old days.”

    Anybody who wants to preserve anything of value that existed then (and yes, I *can* remember some that was good), should extend themselves to help those who were out-and-out abused by their time there. Some made careers, while others – largely children, there involuntarily – were traumatized. And in an organization at least in part aiming to heal people from their childhood traumas, that legacy was hypocrisy worthy of the finest papal regalia.

    Tom Snyders

  9. A young person’s memoir of Therafields would make a very interesting and controversial book.

  10. paul hennig

    Good to hear from Carol and Dennis, two fine souls from those times. Great title, Carol, “A Sixty’s Tale.” We were all deeply aware of the vast short comings of the existing culture, social order and politics of the time and so we were vunerable to the dream of a higher order to all of that. And so we were seduced by the hope of that dream by the Smith Family Compact. The saga of the Gloria Swanson Estate in Englewood Florida, given to her by Joseph Kennedy back when he was screwing her, was a case in point. Lea saw the possibilities of restoring it to all its 1920’s, Jay Gatsby, splendor by the employment of Therafield’s worker bees. I remember friends giving up their holidays to go down there to work on it. All in the service of The Dream, of course. That estate is currently on the market for $29 million. Check Englewood real estate for 10 photographs of its ludicrous splendor.
    But back to the culture of Therafields, There was this notion similar to Scientology’s “clear” that the further up you were on Therafieldian zigurat or in Howard Adelman’s model, the wedding cake {see my posting on Brenda’s blog} the more “clear” you were. And any doubt one might have were written off as paranoia or unconscious hostility to the theraputic process and you were suspect for even having such thoughts. Even dreams, I was fool enough to bring up a dream about Robbie implying doubt in a group led by Lea. Up till then I was regarded by Lea as an upcoming star but that dream finished me off. Just as well. Well, all this is very curious and significant stuff. Too important to let it go as “water under the bridge.” Paul Hennig {hennigpaul@yahoo.ca}

    • Nice to hear from you, Paul! Back then I felt — and still do — that without understanding the political and historical context in which we live, it’s impossible to have real social change. It’s at best naive to try, and at worst, dangerous. It’s how we get into cults and authoritarian leaders. I think this insight saved me from a lot of bitterness. I made myself a thorn in everyone’s side and a lot of people thought I was nuts! It didn’t bother me, though, and eventually I just got on with my life.

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