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A Different Path

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"Our human task is to be lived by Life. Life as a transcendent principle. It seems to me that a reliable test of whether we have lived worthwhile lives is this: is the world a better place for my having lived in it?"Neville Symington has written a dozen books about psychoanalysis but this one is different from all the others. It is an emotional autobiography that starts with his own birth and gives a character sketch of his mother and father and his upbringing in Portugal, with a two year period in Canada, and takes the reader through to the age of 45 by which time he was a qualified psychoanalyst, married with two sons and, at the time, living in London.This sounds like the story of a peaceful journey from childhood through to his chosen career in adulthood. However, the author takes the reader through the period of his earlier career in the Church in a parish in the East End of London and the turbulent period of change that led him to take leave of this first career, seek psychoanalysis and finally to become a psychoanalyst himself.This is an engaging book that charts the emotional storms and the ups and downs that beset the life's journey of a well-known psychoanalyst.

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Chapter One: Father

ePub

The source of the Douro River is in the lakes of the Sierra Negra a little east of Soria in the northern centre of Spain and this dusty brown river winds its way past Vallodolid through the port wine vineyards of Portugal and ends by cutting the town of Oporto into two distinct parts—Porto to its north and Vila Nova de Gaia to its south, before pouring past a long sandbar and tumbling into the Atlantic Ocean. Three brothers lived north of the river but worked together on its southern bank. Those three brothers, who were English, between them fathered eight sons and four daughters. Seven of those eight sons live and work in Portugal in business. An eighth son lives in Australia and works as a psychoanalyst. This book is an inquiry into why that eighth son, the author, journeyed down a different path.

These three brothers, of whom my father was one, were the sons of Andrew James Symington, a Scotsman who was brought up in Paisley and who migrated to Oporto in 1880; there he married Beatrice Atkinson whose father was English and mother Portuguese. Andrew and Beatrice produced six children, five boys and a girl. So all those children which included my father were three quarters British and one quarter Portuguese. Two of the boys, the eldest and the youngest, died and the daughter married a soldier in the army and lived her adult life in England. My grandfather started as a humble clerical worker in a firm owned by a fellow Scotsman. He later moved into a port wine firm, was made a partner and when the owner, a bachelor, died he left the business to my grandfather. The firm flourished and his children were born into a prosperous inheritance.

 

Chapter Two: Mother

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My father was essentially a simple man but my mother was a complex creature. I think at heart she was lonely with a desperate longing to be understood. She attempted to satisfy this by sucking her children into the vortex of her inner world to alleviate a gaping agony.

She was born in Sydney, Australia, the second of three daughters. Her father, my grandfather, was an agricultural expert and adviser first to the government of New South Wales and then to the newly formed federal government of Australia. In 1912 he wrote the classic textbook Dairying in Australasia1 which remained a basic text for agricultural students for many years. He was Irish, born in Tipperary in 1868, went to agricultural college in Copenhagen and, after qualifying, went to New South Wales. In September 1901 he married his wife, Alice, who was a New Zealander from Christchurch, born in 1877. In 1924 the Argentine government, wanting to develop their beef cattle, offered him the job of initiating this new project and proposed to pay him a salary which was three times what he was earning in Australia. He accepted this and moved his wife and family from Sydney to Buenos Aires, where my mother lived for five years. She was eighteen at the time of this move. At the age of twenty-three she went to London and worked as a secretary for the actress, Mrs Nisbet, for two years. While in Buenos Aires she became a close friend of Audrey Bird whose father was the British consul there. In 1930 Mr Bird was posted as consul in Oporto and the next year my mother went to Oporto to stay with Audrey. There she met my father and married him the following year on 26th January, Australia Day, at St Mary's Church, Cadogan Street in Chelsea. She lived for the next fifty years in Oporto except for three years during the war when she and her three children went to Canada. She gave birth in the first five years of her marriage to three children: Jill, my sister, who was born in 1933, my brother, James, who was born at the end of the following year, and me in 1937.

 

Chapter Three: School and After School

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I knew there was something wrong with me. I lived in an innocent world. I was walking along the beach one day and I said to myself: I'll put all my trust in God. Everything else had fallen away. It was a last resort. I was about fifteen at the time. From that time on I was haunted by this Hound of Heaven which was going to demand my life of me. I was terrified of it and it tortured me.

I was three when my mother, together with Jill, James, and Joan Smith, emigrated to Canada. My father was going to join up. In 1940, after the fall of France, it was thought that the Germans would invade Iberia and the British embassy in Lisbon advised English subjects to migrate to Canada or South Africa. I remember well my father coming and giving me a little string bag full of small model farm animals—his gift to me before a long parting. Parting has always been a trauma for me and even as I write this I am tearful. We flew to America from Lisbon in the Dixie Clipper1 and I remember walking on the wide wooden gangway which took us from the shore of the Tagus into the wide open mouth of the seaplane. I remember a day we spent in the Azores and picking up a piece of pumice stone on the beach and then landing at Bermuda. The landing at the Azores had been rough and bumpy but in Bermuda there was just a small spray of water on the windows and I remember my mother saying, “Oh, that was a gentle landing.” A fair-haired girl called Alison Moreira was on the plane also and I can remember standing at one of the plane windows with her looking upon clouds that were down below us. Soon after arriving in Canada we had news that my father was seriously ill and could not go to England to join up.

 

Chapter Four: Nightmare in Lisbon

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Iarrived in Lisbon early in 1957 on the Andes which docked at the Alcantara Quay and I was met by my mother and Clay Wilson. After the violent rupture of my mother's friendship with Clare she became friendly with Clay and decided to set up a teashop with her in Cascais. Clay was the most unlikely person to be running a teashop. She was a fulsome figure of a woman who drank heavily, was somewhat insensitive, and very different from Clare. My mother and Clay were sharing a flat in Monte Estoril and had arranged for me to stay there too. I initially set up office with Count Gerald O'Kelly de Gallagh. He had been the Irish ambassador or minister in Lisbon and when he retired he started a small business selling French wine and brandy to a few gourmet customers. I worked for him and also started my own business. O'Kelly had a difficult task selling expensive French wines to the Portuguese who were well supplied with their own wine; his wines cost twenty times more than local varieties. His logo was: The cheapest is never the best; the best is ever the cheapest. The day after I arrived I went to visit him at the office which I was to share with him. He was a short, vigorous man with white hair and a goatee beard. He had hooded eyes that stimulated a distrust and reserve in me. At that first meeting he said he would like to ask me to dinner but his wife was a little ill that day, but as soon as she recovered he would invite me. The next day his wife died. I went to the funeral a day later. The coffin was brought to the graveside and he was standing there watching when, to my alarm, the coffin was opened with the body exposed and two men poured quicklime over the corpse. He stood there watching as all the diplomatic corps of Lisbon stood in a large circle gazing at this macabre scene. He seemed to me like a caged animal in a zoo being watched by voyeuristic tourists. I felt so sorry for him. A few days later he invited my mother and me to lunch. A little papillon dog came into the room and whined. He said, “He used to climb onto my wife's lap; he is whining because now there is no lap.” When lunch was ended he asked if we would stay while he read aloud to us a story. I was too moved by his recent loss to hear the story but I remember he read with effective power. I came to know him quite well over the next few months but I was always somewhat timid in his presence.

 

Chapter Five: The Seminary

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As I was walking along the corridor that led to my room—the room I was to inhabit for the next five and a half years—I saw at the end of the corridor a marble bust of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Something happened as I looked at it. I gave myself over to this institution I had just entered. An act of submission occurred but one which I believe was injurious. In Tolstoy's novel Resurrection he writes,

Military service always corrupts a man, placing him in conditions of complete idleness, that is, absence of all intelligent and useful work, and liberating him from the common obligations of humanity, for which it substitutes conventional considerations like the honour of the regiment, the uniform and the flag, and, on the one hand, investing him with unlimited power over other men, and, on the other, demanding slavish subjection to superior officers.1

An act of submission occurred at the moment when I looked at that marble bust, similar to the one that Tolstoy describes here. It was not a military institution but it did require obedience and devotion to the symbols that were endemic to the institution. Slavish obedience was demanded to the ceremonial duties of the institution. In that act was a renunciation of my own person, my own thinking, my own responsibility.

 

Chapter Six: The Birth of Subjectivity

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I had been posted as curate to a parish in the East End of London: the Church of Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena at No. 181a Bow Road. I arrived there on the evening of 2nd July 1964, the day before my twenty-seventh birthday. My parish priest was a tall sandy-haired man called Tony Beagle. This is where my conscious journey of suffering began. Here I ran up against emotional intensities the like of which I had not before imagined.

Tony Beagle had been born and brought up in Barking which is further to the east of Bow. He had trained as a priest at the English College in Rome some twenty-three years before. He had spent his priestly life at Edmonton in north London and had been posted as parish priest to Bow some four months before I arrived. He was a man of extreme kindness and courtesy and totally dedicated to his life as a parish priest. He loved his Catholic flock and devoted himself to the work of bringing them first into the bosom of the Church and then, once firmly there, to the sacraments. In him I encountered a sentimental piety that had been unmodified by his theological training. I spent two and a half years in this parish with him. I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with him every day. There were not two things I found myself in agreement with. His mentality and mine were totally opposite. I could not bear him but, at that novice time of my life, I was unable to manage this discord between us. He was equally disabled in this respect.

 

Chapter Seven: In Exile

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So at the end of February 1968 I left the parish in north London. A few days before I had visited a men's outfitting shop and bought myself some layman's clothes. I tried on a herringbone grey suit. I felt awkward in it. A few days earlier I had had an interview with Cardinal Heenan. He was an unsympathetic man with little feeling for the difficulties of people like myself. He looked at me through his bifocal lenses and made a few castigating remarks. He had tried to be “modern” and in tune with the changes taking place at the Vatican Council but it was mostly an outer show. He was a grim conservative within. There was, however, one attitude which I appreciated. His view was, “Either stay in and be a good priest or get out”. He had no patience with those who moaned but stayed in the Church, all the while making a nuisance of themselves.

On my visit to see him I caught the bus to Victoria station and walked along to Archbishop's House. Inside I felt an empty shell with no substance in me. I was a loose shabby suit walking along with no body inside. In that mode I am sure I was aggressive towards him. I hated him at the time but over the years have become more conciliatory towards him. He was very opposed to my having had psychoanalysis and thought I should have gone and had a long retreat at some religious house. At one moment he was dismissive of me as a priest. I protested that my work in the East End had been recognised to be good. He agreed and apologised. I don't think he really knew what to say. Many priests were leaving and he did not know what the trouble was in the Church. He gave me a letter granting me “leave of absence”. So for six months or so I was in limbo. I was neither in nor out. I had to decide whether to leave or to stay. To make the final step was an unnerving decision.

 

Chapter Eight: Disaster and Recovery

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Sometime after Christmas 1968 when I had been banished from the family and was wallowing in self-pity I received a telegram out of the blue from Josephine Earth asking me to contact her and giving me her telephone number. I rang her and she invited me to visit her at Overstrand near Cromer in Norfolk. So I drove up one Friday, arriving in late afternoon. I spent the evening with her, the night with her, and by the next day had proposed marriage to her. Two months later in the Kensington Register Office we married. Fourteen months later we had parted. If I ever need evidence of my madness I have only to hold this episode up in front of me as a salutary reminder.

The madness lay in the fact that her violent and savage behaviour towards me was quite evident prior to marrying her. She had been married to a GP called Paul Earth and he had committed suicide. It was not difficult for me to see that being married to Josephine had been a contributory factor. She talked about Paul incessantly. I was still seeing Dr St Blaize-Molony for psychoanalytic psychotherapy and I mentioned this to him but I remember saying to him that this was alright because it satisfied the homosexual part of me. I don't believe that anyone could have stopped me. I was in the grip of a violent and inescapable force. A tyrant goddess had got hold of me and no rational process could release me from it.

 

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