Wilfred Bion: An Appreciation and Some Reminiscences

By Margaret J. Rioch | Published in Group Analysis, 16(3), December 1983.
A Note from John

One of my motives for including this article on my website is Rioch’s appreciation of the importance of the work of A.K. Rice in the USA, which led to the establishment of the A.K. Rice Institute. In the Archives, within the Cotswold Community Working Notes you will find the first two Working Notes written by A.K. Rice. This is evidence of the high regard he had for Richard Balbernie and the importance he attached to the task of converting an Approved School into a Therapeutic Community.

It was my privilege to know Wilfred Bion in the last decade of his life. Since I did not know him earlier, I must leave it to others to explain, if anyone can, how he became the remarkable person he was. When I knew him he had a degree of serenity which I have not seen in any other Westerner. It may be that some of the Oriental masters have something similar. The cultural patterns are too different from ours to allow me to make comparisons. But although I have seen a fair sample of Western ‘wise men’, I have met no one who could match Bion’s serenity. At the same time he was phenomenally alive and original, so that along with his serenity, one had the impression of someone who was constantly alert and responsive in a thousand ways to his surroundings.

I am personally especially grateful to him for his role as spiritual ancestor of the A.K. Rice Institute in America. As its name indicates, the Institute is directly the work A. Kenneth Rice. But the thinking underlying the work of A.K. Rice owes a great debt to Wilfred Bion. The Group Relations Conferences, which were developed at the Tavistock by A.K. Rice and his colleagues, would scarcely have found their form without the ideas of Bion.

Bion put his ideas into practice in the groups he conducted at the Tavistock, in one of which Rice was an early member. The conferences were introduced into the United States in 1965 by the Washington School of Psychiatry and the Yale Department of Psychiatry under the leadership of A.K. Rice and two British colleagues, Pierre Turquet and John Sutherland. Since that time a Group Relations Conference has been held almost every June at Mount Holyoke College in the pattern developed by Rice and his colleagues. In this pattern it is assumed that each group, in or out of the conference, has a task which is being accomplished when the group is a ‘work group’. It is also assumed that there are covert processes in any group or organisation which may either hinder or further the ‘work task’. Thus the thinking of Wilfred Bion about groups is made evident to the members in every conference even though the words ‘basic assumption’ and ‘work group’ may not actually be spoken either by members or by the consultants who make up a large part of the staff of the conference.

One of Rice’s major concepts, namely that of the ‘primary task’ of an institution, whether it be a factory, a school, a church or any other, seems to be a blood-brother to the ‘work’ of groups and organisations as conceptualised by Bion. The primary task is that task which the group or organisation must perform if it is to survive. Rice also used concepts similar to Bion’s ‘basic assumptions’ in talking about the ways in which organisations could be sabotaged by their members or their leaders if they allowed the irrational elements to get out of hand, and if the leaders or members did not keep in touch with the realities of time and the limitations, human or technical, of the group or organisation in question. Irrational or primitive forces can either undermine or be mobilised in the service of task performance. Rice, in the Group Relations Conferences which he developed, created a structure which provided many opportunities for members to observe the working of these primitive and irrational forces which Bion called ‘basic assumptions’.

One of Rice’s major points, which he made over and over again to his staff, was that as consultants they should become ‘work leaders’, especially in what he called behavioural interpretations, for example, beginning and ending the group on time. These he considered to be even more important than verbal interpretations. The behaviour of the consultant as a ‘work leader’ could be a model for the members of the group in that they were all presumably striving to do ‘work’. Bion, as he describes his own behaviour in ‘Experiences in Groups’, seems never to have dreamed of being anything other than a ‘work leader’. He is constantly trying to understand what the group is doing, particularly what it is doing to him; and then to make this clear to the group. This persistent sticking to the task is something which was very congenial to A.K. Rice, and I trust it still is to the A.K. Rice Institute. In this way we are happy to recognise Bion as our model.

At the time of A. Kenneth Rice’s death, the Board which had sponsored most of the Group Relations Conferences in America was renamed the Board of the A.K. Rice Institute as a memorial to him. Because of Rice’s far-sighted policy of training us to take over, we found that the work had been sufficiently established to enable the American staff to go on, albeit sadly, without his personal presence. We are still cognisant of our debt to him, to others from the Tavistock Institute and Clinic and, especially, to Wilfred Bion, whose seminal work on groups continues to be a stimulus for new workers in the field. The A.K. Rice Institute now consists of a National Board, some members-at-large, and five local centres, one on each coast, one in Texas, two in the Middle West, and one in the Pacific Northwest. All the centres, as well as the national organisation, are dedicated to the study of groups and organisations as open systems. This purpose is carried out through educational processes of various kinds, including Group Relations Conferences, organisational consultancy, workshops, and other educational events.

Around 1968, the group of people who had early on been chiefly responsible for the development of this work in the United States, had often spoken about their wish to have a ‘study group’ of their own, for themselves as members. The difficulty was to find a consultant. It would not do to have one of ourselves. We were by then too well acquainted with Ken Rice and also with Pierre Turquet to make it feasible to ask one of them. I think it was Pierre Turquet who finally came up with the idea that we might persuade Wilfred Bion to come to Washington for this purpose. He was at the time in Los Angeles and that seemed definitely worth trying, and very desirable if it were attained.

Most of the Group was around Washington or New Haven and so it fell to me to make the arrangements. Pierre Turquet had told us that Wilfred Bion would probably lay great emphasis on the physical properties of the room in which we met. Therefore in writing to request Dr. Bion’s services, I described in great detail the two rooms which would be available to us at the Washington School of Psychiatry, and I also wrote in detail to ask for his preferences about a schedule. Since A.K. Rice had laid great emphasis on the time boundaries of our work, I presumed that Wilfred Bion would be even more exacting about having the time clearly marked out.

To my great surprise, Wilfred Bion wrote back very courteously:

“I think that your conundrum about the rooms seems to be one which commits me at the outset to holding an opinion unsupported by any evidence gleaned from my personal observation. How would one room on Saturday and another on Sunday do? Seriously, I hope you will settle it in a way which best suits your administrative arrangements. As far as I am concerned, the most important consideration is good ventilation.”

He also pretty much left the schedule in my hands. He would be accompanied by his wife, he said.

When the day arrived, I went with Dr. Roger Shapiro to pick him up at his hotel. Dr. Sutherland had told me some years before that Bion looked like ‘the father of all mother-figures and the mother of all father-figures.’ I had also been told less poetically that he was an enormous man. I saw no-one answering to these descriptions, so I returned to the car. A bit later I went again and saw a large man, though not enormous, looking inquiringly around, so I approached. It was indeed Dr Bion. I recount this because it is illustrative of the myths which we all carried and in a way still carry in our heads about Wilfred Bion.

We got to the Washington School of Psychiatry and I introduced him to the room where we were to meet and to the group. The first thing that I recall is that we had gone long past the time scheduled for the first session. Finally one of our number mentioned something to the effect that it was surely past the time for a coffee break. Dr. Bion responded immediately with appreciation: “Ah, now you have an administrative leader!”

The physical properties of the room were never mentioned. Instead there was a great deal of talk by our consultant about mathematics, which all of us tried hard to understand. So far as I know, no one succeeded in spite of our best efforts.

I had thought that in order to preserve his separateness from the group, Dr. Bion might prefer not to have lunch with us and so had made elaborate preparations for him to be served alone. It turned out however that he would like company, so we of course willingly obliged. From this event I remember only one little scrap of conversation. I don’t recall the exact words, but I do remember Dr. Bion’s deploring what he had been told was the obscurity of his written style. He said something to the effect that when he writes he has something in mind that seems as clear as day. And when it comes out on paper it becomes obscure to readers.

I had also thought that he would prefer not to have dinner with the members of the group in order not to contaminate the work of the next day. Having taken counsel with Dr. A.K. Rice, I made careful plans for him and Mrs. Bion to have dinner in a private club with my husband and Dr and Mrs. Dexter Bullard. The club turned out to be noisy and I got the distinct impression that he would have preferred our company. But the decision had been made, so we went along with it.

During the second day one member started off telling a dream, the contents of which seemed relevant to the group. Dr. Bion did not comment on the content, but did call attention to the kind of communication that was being used, namely the telling of a dream, that is, an ‘unreal’ event. It strikes me in retrospect how little I recall of the content of both days. In the afternoon of the second day some brave soul admitted to being bored but said that was in no doubt in the interest of learning. I remember Wilfred Bion saying that he had not seen any monuments erected to boredom as a great boon to the human race. Toward the end of the day I recall twice he introduced questions for our consideration, which were really invitations to us to address some very interesting topics, though I did not see that the questions emerged from the behaviour, verbal or otherwise, of the group.

Except for a purely social occasion, I had only one other contact with Wilfred Bion. It was the first and only Group Relations Conference experience he ever had, when Dr. Roger Shapiro asked him to be on the staff of the Amherst Conference in 1969. He started off being his own unconventional self, as I had known him in the Washington Study Group just described. He first appeared as a consultant in the Large Group, where members were immediately intrigued with his presence and were wondering about how he would behave. I remember his wondering out loud about who he himself would become in this group. When the staff left the Large Group at the end of its first session, he lingered behind with the members who were eager to talk to him and it seemed he was not averse to conversing with them. However, it was not hard to persuade him that there were good reasons for the convention of the staff rising and leaving together.

In his comments to members there was always an element of the surprising, of the angle not yet thought of, which he brought to the group. It was the era of student revolt when members routinely did something like occupy our chairs, or lock us in or out. I remember that even the most rebellious of the rebels, in the midst of the rebellion, nevertheless spoke to Dr. Bion with an almost awe-filled respect. When he spoke it was always with a surprising and original view of the matter in hand. He often connected behaviour of members with recent history and the advent of fascism and national socialism, which had destroyed so many people both in peace and in war but for which no individual seemed to be responsible. Sometimes he seemed to make a little fun of our wordiness by stating that all that needed to be said in the introduction to the conference was: “Here we are” and in the intergroup exercise: “Here we are again”.

After the conference I myself felt that Bion should be reserved for advanced students or members, for he was rather confusing in his questioning for beginners. I think now that I was probably wrong. Since there was not ever an opportunity for advanced students to meet with him, I think it would have been better to let beginners struggle with him than not to let anyone have the opportunity to work with him.

Around 1971, about one year after my article about Bion’s work on groups was published in Psychiatry, I received a delightful letter from Dr. Bion about the article, a letter which I must have hidden very carefully for I have surely preserved it, but I cannot now make it come to light. In any case, after apologising politely for his delay in responding to the reprint which I had sent him, Dr. Bion reported that he had at first begun merely to skim the article. Reading between the lines, I assumed he meant he skimmed it in a rather boring way since he was ‘supposed’ to read it, “But then”, he added, he “became very interested in what ‘this fellow’ was supposed to have said” and he read avidly to the end, discovering new things about himself. I can not imagine that I could have received higher praise from anyone.

Bion’s original turn of mind and phrase had the gratifying effect of making the person addressed feel that he was the object of special attention, whether that was favourable or unfavourable. I was no exception to this.

I think that everyone who came into contact with Wilfred Bion would join me in thanking the kind fate which put us in his way as he proceeded gravely and at the same time disturbingly through his life.

  • Rioch, Margaret (1970) The work of Wilfred Bion on Groups, Psychiatry, 33, 1. Pp 56-66.