Memories of Working with Barbara Dockar-Drysdale | 1972-1990

By John Whitwell, March 2024

  1. I worked with Mrs D (as she was known to most people and Pip to her friends) in her role as Consultant Child Psychotherapist from 1972 when I first arrived at the Cotswold Community as a Residential Social Worker until She retired in 1990.
  2. In my opinion, Mrs D was the driving force behind the creation of a therapeutic culture in the Cotswold Community. Richard Balbernie, as Principal since 1967, dismantled the worst features of the Approved School to ensure that the conditions were right for the development of a therapeutic culture. In other words, he provided the management structure within which Mrs D could develop the staff’s ability to work therapeutically.
  3. Mrs D and Richard Balbernie worked very well together. They shared many values and principles and there was a strong sense of mutual trust and respect. This was undoubtedly tested to destruction from time to time but they never wavered.
  4. Mrs D seemed to need a male leader and/or manager to provide a safe framework within which she could work. For example, her husband Stephen (known as Dockar) in the very early days of the Mulberry Bush, John Armstrong at the Mulberry Bush when she took on the consultant role there and Richard Balbernie at the Cotswold Community.
Mrs D described very clearly how her consultancy developed at the Cotswold Community in the paper she wrote, “Staff Consultation in an Evolving Care System”.
She refers to three basic assumptions which had to be overcome if a therapeutic culture was to be established.
  1. The impossible task. She felt there was a strong vested belief among staff that it was impossible to bring about change in the young people. It also seemed to suit the great and the good who “supported” the work. “You poor things doing such a thankless task”.
  2. What Mrs D referred to as “the dinosaurs” – consisted of all the bits of Approved School institutionalisation remaining in the people living and working in the Community. You have to remember that the Approved School culture was a carrot-and-stick (reward and punishment) way of working which had no place within a therapeutic culture.
  3. The fallacy of a delusional equilibrium. This implied that by keeping things calm and smooth on the surface the chaos underneath need not be reached. A typical institutional response from staff would be something like, “A quiet day is a good day”. In a therapeutic environment if things are very quiet among the children the staff might be wondering, “What are we missing?” I think that linked to this was the concept of the delinquent contract, or you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. This is perhaps most vividly portrayed in prisons where gang leaders expect to be left alone in return for giving the staff a quiet life.

Some of the many things I learnt from Mrs D:
  1. Inside the delinquent adolescent is a vulnerable baby. This links to Mrs D’s assertion that delinquent excitement can be converted into oral greed. The emotionally deprived baby will often lose excitement in the feeding experience as it is unreliable and as the child grows will increasingly turn to self-provision which can all too easily be through stealing. During treatment, this pattern can be reversed as the young person discovers excitement in food again.
  2. The importance of complete experiences in the therapeutic process. This derives from the lack of complete experiences during babyhood as parental care was unreliable.
  3. Fairness is not everyone having the same but each according to their needs. This isn’t easy in group living but as the therapeutic culture becomes established it is understood.
  4. Adaptations are a crucial part of the therapeutic care of emotionally deprived children. The carer reliably adapts to the needs of the child in the way a newborn baby is adapted to by his/her parents. This might take the form of a special activity with a particular grownup on a reliable day and time.
  5. Communication is at the heart of therapeutic care. When communication breaks down acting out will follow. When a child’s acting out is being thought about it can usually be traced back to feelings that the child either couldn’t communicate or the grownup wasn’t receptive to the child’s need to communicate.
  6. Symbolic communication occurs often in the play of children. It requires the grownup with a special relationship with the child to enter their fantasy world, using their symbols.
  7. Mrs D stressed the importance of getting to know the child sufficiently well to understand their signature tunes, in other words, the clues the child gives that something is the matter. This enables the grownup to intervene by anticipating the potential for acting out and preventing it. As the young person becomes emotionally integrated she will recognise this for herself and know what to do by way of prevention.
  8. The emotional significance of food for the child who has been emotionally deprived. Food may be stolen or hoarded from a feeling of mistrust that there will be enough or reliably provided. Finding food that the child can get excited about, and looking forward to having, usually provided by a grownup with a special relationship with the child, is often a key part of the therapeutic process.
  9. An emotionally frozen child will go to great lengths not to feel sad. The thawing process will entail supporting the child to feel sadness, usually prompted by everyday events and frustrations but which will reach back to the sadness of the emotional damage experienced in those first few months and years. Supporting the sadness is the opposite of trying to jolly a child out of this feeling.
  10. Assessing the needs of a child requires the whole team to contribute in recognition of the fact that he will present different aspects of himself to different people. For example, he may see a particular grownup as completely good, unable to do anything wrong. The opposite also happens when a grownup can never do anything right.
Memories of Mrs D as a person

Whenever I think of Mrs D her husband Dockar (Stephen) quickly comes to mind. He was a larger-than-life character, something of the country squire about him, who used to drive Mrs D to the Cotswold Community and collect her, in a car that looked and sounded as if it had seen better days.

Mrs D conveyed a great sense of certainty with little or no room for doubt. This may seem at odds with psychotherapy but in her role as a consultant to largely unqualified staff being definite in her advice was mainly an asset.

Linked to the above was what I would say was a charismatic style of consultancy verging on the didactic at times. This was particularly useful when convincing local authority managers of the importance of allowing time in the Community for healing to occur.

Mrs D stressed the importance of reading, especially Donald Winnicott’s work. She accepted no excuses even though the staff worked very long hours. Word would quickly go around the staff teams if Mrs D was on a mission to check on what we were all reading.

She had an extremely high regard for Donald Winnicott, having had supervision from him in the early days as a therapist. She brought him alive to us in the Community as if we had known him as well. She also helped us understand some of his more complex papers.

Mrs D was a great supporter of staff training at the Cotswold Community. Both she and Richard Balbernie ran weekly staff training groups where relevant papers were discussed. If she felt that a particular staff member had the potential to be a psychotherapist she would be very encouraging to this person, including the encouragement to be in therapy themselves. It’s not surprising, looking back, that a significant number of people went on to be psychotherapists.

Mrs D grew up in a well-to-do family in Dublin but was frustrated with not being able to go to university. Although having a posh speaking voice she was able to get on with everyone, whatever their background. This was particularly helpful when dealing with the parents of emotionally deprived children who themselves most likely had difficult childhoods and who could feel envious of what their child was receiving in the Community. Mrs D stressed the importance of meeting the emotional needs of the parents when they visited by looking after them in very tangible ways, for example, offering nice food and drink before discussing their child.