Milestones – Eric Miller 1924-2002

By John Whitwell | Published in NEWSLETTER: ATC, Charterhouse Group, PETT No. 5 July 2002.
Eric Miller died on April 5. He was part of the support structure that helped the Cotswold Community survive difficult economic circumstances during the Thatcher years, the threat of gravel extraction, the transfer of leadership from the founding Director Richard Balbernie to John Whitwell, and the transfer from Wiltshire County Council to NCH Action for Children, among other potentially life-threatening problems. John Whitwell, now Director of ISP (Integrated Services Programme), reflects:

A Tribute to Eric Miller

Eric Miller.

I first got to know Eric personally in about 1980 when he became a consultant at the Cotswold Community, taking over the role of organisational consultant from Isabel Menzies-Lyth, both from the Tavistock Institute. The Cotswold Community had originally been an Approved School (a junior borstal) from 1942-67, whereupon it embarked on the journey of transformation to become a therapeutic community, under the leadership of Richard Balbernie, with Barbara Dockar-Drysdale as the Consultant Psychotherapist.

This transformation was not simply a matter of replacing one philosophy with another. The management structure of an Approved School was very hierarchical, and leadership was autocratic with all the power vested in the headmaster, at least officially. There was an unofficial, hierarchical leadership amongst the inmates, mirroring the staff structure and even more vicious and punitive. The whole ethos of an Approved School was about control and discipline. As we know, a therapeutic community is a very different animal.

There had to be a revolution in the structure and systems of the Community as well as the philosophy. This was assisted by an ongoing consultancy from the Tavistock Institute, starting with Ken Rice in 1967, then Isabel Menzies-Lyth for many years, followed by Eric Miller. This was a tremendous learning opportunity for generations of staff – i.e., having direct access to these management/organisation gurus in situ. I think this is so much more productive for an organisation than individuals going off to be trained and trying to bring back the acquired knowledge. We were all in the same boat trying to make sense of seemingly impossible problems and being guided to think about them in fresh ways.

I have previously written about Isabel Menzies-Lyth’s consultancy at the Cotswold Community. (Whitwell J (1998) “Reflections on a Consultation at the Cotswold Community” in Therapeutic Communities Vol 19, No 3.) Eric’s style was quite different. He spent a day a month at the Community, meeting the whole management team together, followed by individual managers, usually ending with the senior management team. Occasionally other staff groups would meet him if there was a specific issue to discuss.

Isabel’s style was a very active one: getting into the bloodstream of problems. I have known group discussions with Eric present, when he was silent for the whole 1½ hours. It would be rare to hear more than two or three interjections/interpretations from him during the course of a group discussion. Because they were so infrequent they were all the more pounced upon for much needed wisdom. Invariably Eric was able to hear the music behind the words.

I will try and give you a flavour of Eric Miller’s consultancy from something he wrote in 1985.

“To carry out the therapeutic task the Cotswold Community (CC) has to perform two functions that are, superficially at least, contradictory: to contain; and to provide for separation. Because the young person’s ego boundary is inadequate, the CC has to supply an outer boundary on his behalf. At the same time, this boundary needs to be held far enough out to enable the young person to experience being separate and to begin to acquire a discrete identity. This has led us to the notion of ‘negotiating space’ – the space between the young person and the community within which various degrees of containment and separation can happen. At times there is a need for close containment – being a mother to this baby-in-arms. There must also be enough space – not just physical, though that is important, but also in terms of acceptable ways of being and behaving – to enable the young person to experience separateness and choice. But the boundary must not be so far away that it is not experienced as containing. Testing the limits is necessary for development, so the limits must be perceptible enough to be tested. Therefore the dynamic of treatment is managing the continual tension between containment and separation within that negotiating space.”

For me this highlights the creativity and skill at the heart of caring, either as a parent, foster carer, residential social worker or residential therapist; i.e., the minute-by-minute ongoing assessment of how much “space” (physical and psychological) a child needs to grow and develop. Too much space and he or she will fee unsafe, too little and he or she will feel oppressed and unable to learn from experience.

Another insight of Eric Miller’s related to what he called the ‘X’ factor. It has particular relevance to groups and organisations. The ‘X’ factor is something outside the web of ordinary relationships, a project, a shared fantasy or goal, which can give the group and its members a sense of vitality. It may be a sustaining myth which everyone shares. A sustaining myth at the Cotswold Community, for several years, was the dream of being completely independent of Wiltshire County Council, who owned the land. However, this was “scuppered” by the realisation that the County Council would never let go of the rich deposits of gravel under the Community’s farmland.

Each of the four group-living households, which comprised the Community, needed to have their own ‘X’ factor. One of the households, Larkrise, worked with adolescent boys who’d already had two years of treatment in one of the other households. Several years ago Eric had this to say;

“…. The staff and boys in the household require a collective X. This almost certainly needs to be a tangible project which gives them an experience of potency in relation to their environment. It will thereby be representing and reinforcing the individual boy’s belief in his own ability to be effective in the world outside. Creation of the Larkrise smallholding some five to six years ago was one such project. By now, however, it has become something to be maintained – a chore – and offers boys little experience of creativity. If a new X can be invented, it will reinforce a positive Larkrise identity and in that way help restore the boundary around the household. (Larkrise had been going through a period of heightened acting out from the boys.) It will also communicate a positive message of success to younger boys in the Community. Larkrise is then more likely to be perceived as a positive stepping-stone to the future, rather than an ordeal that has to be gone through”.

I am interested in the way a project, which acts as an ‘X’ factor, becomes more routine, a chore, and loses the ‘X’ factor dimension. ISP has a farm which is potentially an ‘X’ factor for the whole organisation. Adding some animals, as we have recently done, has raised the level of interest and excitement. The trick is finding a way to prevent it being taken for granted, just becoming a matter of routine. In the case of Larkrise’s smallholding, when the staff who started it, who enjoyed getting up at dawn to milk the Jersey house cow, moved on, the next generation of staff certainly didn’t share the enthusiasm, and looking after the animals became grudging routine. However painful, we had to agree to bring the smallholding to an end – it had had its day – and find another ‘X’ factor.

Another piece of Eric Miller’s work (unpublished), about entrepreneurship, helped me make sense of, what I experienced to be, the cut throat culture to be found in the world of fostering organisations, when I left the Cotswold Community three years ago.

“The successful entrepreneur has to have an idea or vision and the ability to convince other people that he/she can implement it. For the time being, at least, the entrepreneur maintains a monopoly of creativity; and the authority of other members of the organisation to initiate and innovate is tightly constrained. The primary task is closely prescribed but often, paradoxically, not explicitly: it is defined by the decisions that the entrepreneur makes. Overtly, the entrepreneur may indeed invite initiative; but between acceptable and unacceptable initiative there is an implicit boundary which has to be discovered experientially. Some people leave, voluntarily or involuntarily, as a result of miscalculating that boundary. Others go feeling uncomfortable with what they experience as an arbitrary authority.

My first proposition is that, in the terminology of Bion, such an organisation is pervaded by ‘basic assumption fight/flight’. The entrepreneur is essentially a fight leader. Creating a new enterprise requires thrusting out into the environment, establishing and enlarging a bridgehead, competing for finance and a market. It is a crusading process in which there is strong identification with the new product, or new concept, and anything short of complete acceptance and support tends to be interpreted as hostile. The world outside is well-stocked with potential ‘enemies’ to be converted or conquered.

It is characteristic of a ‘fight culture’ that casualties are to be expected and accepted. They are a condition of survival. It is also characteristic in times of setback to look for enemies within. External failure is explained by internal disloyalty and treachery. Scapegoats are identified and extruded, thereby reinforcing the resolve of the reminder to sustain the fight.
The personal authority of the entrepreneur is often labelled charisma. Wilner defines charismatic leadership as ‘a relationship between a leader and a group of followers that has the following properties:

1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow superhuman.
2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements.
3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional support.’”

I had the eerie feeling that Eric must have been looking over my shoulder to write that. In fact he wrote it in 1987!

Sadly, the only published material of Eric’s longstanding consultancy at the Cotswold Community, that I’m aware of, appeared in an Italian book. (Miller, E (1989) “Towards an Organisation Model for Residential Treatment of Adolescents”. In Comunita Rezidentiali per Adolescenti Difficili, edited by Cesare Kaneklin and Achille Orsenigo (Roma: Nuova Italia Scientific).)

I can strongly recommend Eric Miller’s book “From Dependency to Autonomy – Studies in Organization and Change” (Free Association Books 1993).