Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Discovering Neville Symington with Jeanette Winterson

Stephanie Dowrick reminisces...and makes new connections and discoveries.

One of the greatest pleasures for me in reading comes from the connections it prompts and the intellectual and emotional landscapes, as well as the physical ones, that it allows you to explore. The Britain - and particularly the feminist/literary/"alternative" London - that Jeanette Winterson evokes in her exceptional memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, is poignantly familiar to me. London was my home and world for almost 16 key years of my life. It was the place where I came of age in terms of my continuing political, intellectual and social interests. It was where some of my most significant friendships grew and flourished.

It was with great interest, then, that I read a description, quite late in the book, of the psychoanalytic writing that supported Winterson during a bleak period of her adult life.  I have also read my way over many years into greater well being and insight, through bleak times and better ones. Not all of her reading, or mine, has been explicitly psychoanalytic, but her choice was strong and I found myself eager to comment on it.

Winterson describes how, not in London but in Oxford at the famous Blackwells Bookshop, she discovered books by a writer who became unusually helpful to her understanding of her emotions, choices and behaviours. "I found Neville Symington," she writes, "a priest turned shrink, who had a simple direct style and was not afraid of talking about the spirit and the soul - not as religious experiences but as human experiences - that we are more than body and mind - and I think we are."

She continues, in her lovely, plain and so-effective way: "Symington helped, because I was getting well enough to want a framework in which to think about what was happening to me."

Jeanette Winterson
To recover a sense of self when we feel that we have "fallen apart" is nothing short of life-saving.  It is the difference between returning to a life of meaning and pleasure, or not. And this never happens without some degree of "holding", most often by a skilled and infinitely patient therapist, but perhaps also through the a benign, scrupulously safe environment, an intensely generous relationship, or, occasionally and wonderfully,  a writer who offers a framework trustworthy enough to restore that crucial inner sense of safety which makes it possible to go on.

At the time I wrote my own first major non-fiction book, Intimacy and Solitude, I too was very interested in Neville Symington's writing. I haven't read his work for some years, but now will do so again, and am particularly keen to discover his more recent writing.

Neville Symington
Meanwhile, if your curiosity is piqued, and I hope it is, you can discover Symington for yourself.  This British-born analyst has lived in Australia since 1986 and has written an impressive number of books. You can find many of them through our on-line bookstore affiliates (above right). In choosing, I would suggest you experiment a little. The Psychology of the Person is his most recent book. The Analytic Experience is the one I remember best.  I am going first to read A Healing Conversation. (Isn't that the most promising of titles?) And should you follow this up then, please, do let us know something of what you discover. You can hear Neville Symington speak on this YouTube link - speaking to professionals and the interested general public on the potential gifts of psychotherapy, even with people whose mental well being has been severely disrupted.


  1. I have had the good fortune to be doing analyses with Neville Symington. I am also reading his books starting with "Pattern of Madness" and finding how it applies to me. His theory on Narcissism is so close to 'hitting the mark with me'and I do hope I am able to dismantle this structure and find the freedom to be the real and authentic person I have been striving towards all my life.He is the most important person in my life!

  2. You are indeed fortunate to have NS as your analyst! I have admired his writing and his humanity for many many years. My own earlier work is heavily influenced by the same theoretical basis, especially my book Intimacy and Solitude which you may enjoy. Thank you for sharing your comment.