Trust and the Risks of Reading

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

This, by W.H.Auden, is the epigraph to one of my favourite novels, The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. It is a novel about the hardness of life, about danger, about hope and about risk-taking. Highly recommended.

The quotation from Auden came into my mind recently when along with my long-time colleague, Josie Billington, I presented a workshop at the Royal Society for Public Health. Some things that happened there, in the delightful Founders Room, with its huge bay window looking out on the back of Portland Place, got me thinking about the relationship of trust that is at the heart of shared reading.

This was the plan: I was to do a small demo of the shared reading model we use in Get Into Reading, and she was to present some of the evidence from the LivHir study. We were going to read some of the poems used in the study (especially ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice) and then look at the transcripts used in the study. These transcripts are the written up recordings of the two groups which ran in a GP surgery and in a mental health drop-in. Both groups were made up of people with a diagnosis of depression. Few members of the groups were familiar with the idea of reading for pleasure. The transcripts are a fascinating joy to read. (Download the study here) Having been a member of many such groups myself, the transcripts were particularly exciting because they pressed home to me the previously not-quite-articulated sense that reading is a slow-motion, depth-charging re-creation of experience. So many things shoot by us as we live, registered somewhere, perhaps, but not always in consciousness. Reading the transcripts, I see that written language is the technology human beings have evolved to hold experience in consciousness. I have also been rereading The Prelude by William Wordsworth this week, so perhaps that thought has also seeped through to me from there? I’m thinking of The Prelude Book V, ‘Books’;

Visionary Power

Attends upon the motions of the winds
Embodied in the mystery of words.
There darkness makes abode, and all the host
Of shadowy things do work their changes there,
As in a mansion like their proper home:–
Even forms and substances are circumfus’d
By that transparent veil with light divine;
And through the turnings intricate of Verse
Present themselves as objects recognis’d,
In flashes, and with a glory scarce their own.
But that is an aside.

*

So, about 16 people gathered to hear about our work in the RSPH Founders Room, where Josie and I turned the lined up chairs into a sort of circle. I introduced the basic thinking behind the Reader Organisation (Literature is some of the most valuable human thinking the species has ever done: we need to use it, but it is being wasted by being confined to academic courses or by not being read at all. What is The Reader Organisation doing about this? We’re having a reading revolution; we’re running weekly, read aloud reading groups in our project, Get Into Reading. (Find out more about Get Into Reading here.)

And then I read the poem, ‘Snow’, by Louis MacNeice. Do you know it? You can find it here.

A small period of time elapsed in which people in the group responded to the poem in the ways that people often will respond – recognition of ‘the drunkenness of things being various’, wondering whether the roses are inside or out. Then, just as, from my point of view, the conversation began to develop an take flight, a man said, ‘You’ve said you despair of the way literature is taught, and yet that is exactly what you are doing here – you are ripping the poem apart. I don’t see the difference.’

This was not in the plan! I must have swallowed hard and looked worried. It’s difficult not to want to fire back a straight ‘No, I’m not!’

But there was some demur from others in the group, and one person said, ‘We’re not ripping it apart, we’re mulling it over…’

The man remade his point. It was no different to any literature class. A woman sitting almost opposite me spoke up.

‘This is not like any discussion that happened to me at university, my experience of literature at university was nothing like this. There was no room for a personal response or relationship with a poem or novel….’ She spoke with a force of strong feeling, and the rest of the group attended, as the emotional temperature in the room went up by about 10 degrees. ‘Here, we are being invited to respond as people, but at University….’ She flushed now, and put her hand to her throat. ‘I’m sorry. I’m getting upset. When you study literature it’s nothing like this, they don’t want to know anything about your emotional response. I didn’t want to look at a book for a year after I left University. Oh! I’m getting upset…Sorry.’

She didn’t cry, but she did change the tone of the discussion. I told her, ‘You are Mrs Normal. I meet so many people who tell me this – ‘I couldn’t read after I did my English degree’. It happens to lots of people, and we should do something about it. If we were training chefs on a three year course that ended with them hating or fearing good food, unable to eat, the college would be closed down.’

And then we went back to the poem, and the people sitting around, some speaking their responses and some in silence, began to read and think and feel together again. Now that the temperature had gone up, some people offered more of themselves as we read – how steady the peeling of the tangerine is, how thinking comes from feeling the world through our senses, ‘On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands’.

The next big jolt came when a man sitting beside me said, ‘May I ask a different sort of question? You describe this as a powerful intervention. How do you manage risk?’

‘Risk?’ I repeated, like the naïve idiot I can be. I was in the poem’s zone and didn’t at first understand what the guy was talking about.

‘Risk,’ he repeated. ‘How do you manage it?’

Of course we had seen the risk, there, live in the room. The woman with black hair who had studied English at Oxford had, in a sense been – what is the right verb – hurt? touched? activated? by the poem and our shared reading of it, to feel some complex, perhaps difficult feeling. Her hand to her throat, a flush of blood rising to her neck, she had told us, ‘I’m sorry, I’m getting emotional….’

This is the risk.

That someone will feel something they had not planned to feel. That old or new thoughts or memories will rise to the surface. That it might be very moving. That we will be touched, that we will feel, ‘There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses’.

*

I made some attempt at an answer – not very comprehensive. In the NHS Mental Health Trusts where we run our Reader in Residence programmes, risk is mitigated (the language is foul, isn’t it?) by the presence of a member of NHS staff. In Dementia Care, a carer will be present. With Looked After Children we take great care in the choosing of books. People who facilitate or conduct reading groups are trained to be aware of the risk that someone might get upset, might spark into painful memory, might suddenly be moved by feeling. We teach people to read in advance, so as to know what might be coming, and to anticipate things that might be triggers for strong feeling. But we do not advise them to avoid reading things which might trigger feeling. How could we? Any literature might do so. To read ‘ My luve is like a red, red rose’ is a nursing home lounge is to trigger feeling, to call an old lady, rolled like caterpillar into her self, to consciousness, to gently uncurling, knot by knot, her spine straightening until she sits upright, and makes eye contact. ‘And I shall love thee still my dear, though the rocks melt with the sun.’

And in the Founders’ Room at the RSPH it wasn’t necessarily the poem that had activated the powerful feelings so much as the responses to the poem, and the practice, and the people by members of the group. How to mitigate those risks?

We try to do it by modelling behaviour and in my own Get Into Reading session in a Drug and Alcohol Service I thought about that this week when two new members joined our small group. It was a difficult week to join, as we were reading Chapter Four of Russell Hoban’s magnificent post-holocaust novel, The Mouse and His Child. It’s a chapter in which the protagonists get involved with a travelling experimental theatre troupe. Not easy for newcomers in that (i) it’s ostensibly a children’s book, and it might feel patronising or humiliating to be reading such (ii) this chapter is a skit on Beckettian theatre – you don’t need to know that, but you do need to trust the book in order to go with it…

“Act One, Scene One,” said a scratchy voice across the stream as the sun rose. “The bottom of a pond: mud, ooze, rubbish, and water plants.”

“That kills me,” said a second, more resonant voice. “That is deep. That is the profoundest.”

“Two tin cans, standing upright, half buried in the mud at centre stage,” continued the scratchy voice. “At stage left, a rock.”

You don’t have to have read Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, but…I was really wishing I could lay the novel aside and read something else for these two new people, both men, both conscious it was a children’s book, both looking more than a little ill-at-ease at finding themselves in the reading group at all. And yet, the pressures of the other members’ needs – to go on with the story, to keep the momentum up – were also strong. The risk is of alienating newcomers who may have really staked a lot on turning up at the reading group, or of annoying or disappointing longer-standing members of the group. And there are all the other – more serious, less obvious risks – in this particular context mainly to do with making people feel stupid because the book is clever…

People in the group worked hard – remembering the names of the two new men, using them – to include the newcomers, to make them feel (whatever was happening in and couldn’t really be explained about the book) that being here, with us, was ok. A woman explained that she too had come to the group after the book had started but that she had got the hang of it now. A man explained ‘It’s not really a kid’s book – it’s about getting your own territory.’ ‘Yes, and war,’ said another man. ‘It’s bloodthirsty.’

When the session was over, the most ill-at-ease of the two newcomers, who had already told us that he wouldn’t be coming again, said that he might come again because the banter had been good even if it wasn’t the kind of book he would normally read. And maybe he will. In a sense, there’s no mitigating for the risk of a first session, because people don’t know each other. We can’t really know what will have helped or hurt, unless the newcomer is brave enough to speak up. And the tone of the group says – you don’t have to say a word if you don’t want to.

Of course, as we come to know each other in a group – and some Get Into Reading groups have been running in one form or another for nearly ten years now – we learn that some things will be particularly painful to some people. If a death is going to occur Joe will warn Tom in advance, because it always does upset him, but if Tom feels Joe knows that, and he’s had the opportunity to decide not to come that week, he can take it. He will probably attend.

Some poems are to be handled very carefully in new groups. ‘Crossing the Bar’ for example, which at the beginning of the project ten years ago seemed a hand-grenade I was continuously and stupidly lobbing into groups of unknown people, one of whom would always begin to cry:

Crossing the Bar

SUNSET and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness or farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Someone who has been recently bereaved, or in some cases, someone who has been bereaved and still has a deep sore spot hidden perhaps even to themselves, will cry when this poem is read. When, at the very beginning of Get Into Reading, I saw a woman cry as I read the poem, and saw her fold up the poem and put it in her purse when we were done, and saw a fellow group member reach over and touch her hand and say ‘ Well done, kidder,’ I knew that this was the value we were missing (and perhaps the risk we were mitigating) in academic university study. In twenty years I had never seen anyone cry in response to a poem in a University. Not that people should cry, but simply that we do have to have room to be moved, if we are moved. I believe that is why people write – to pass on the inner movement which is feeling, and I think that is why – whether we know it or not – we need to read. But it has to be a personal choice.

The thing we actually do to mitigate risk is to create a reading environment where people are free to respond, or not; to speak, or not to speak. We allow the power of response to lie within in each individual – no one is required to do anything. We trust the literature to speak a human language, and we trust each other to each other’s responses with what I will call for now respect but which might also be called gentleness. People on the whole are tactful and quickly build a supportive group. So when Jack says, in an underbreath, ‘Miss my kids, loved that bedtime routine,’ Janet, knowing nothing of why Jack hasn’t access to his kids anymore will respond, ‘Yeah, lovely that time, calming them down with a story.’

It is a tiny moment of relationship, tactful, trusting. As it says in MacNeice’s poem, ‘the room was suddenly rich.’ And often, within minutes, someone else will make a joke or a cup of tea, to move us on. All this happens quite naturally when there is no educational or medical professional control, when we are a group of people sharing reading and where the real expert in the room is the book. At my group in Chester our chapter ended with the idea of ‘self-winding’. The once broken, now mended but no longer dancing, clockwork mouse-child conceives a possible self-directed future:

As before, the child felt the star a comfort. His good-luck coin clinked against his drum, and now he felt luckier than ever before. “Maybe we shan’t always be helpless, Papa,” he said. “Maybe we’ll be self-winding some day.”

“Maybe,” said his father.

‘Is the father like an addict?’ asked the other newcomer, a man in his fifties. ‘Is it like the child is reminding him of hope and the father can’t feel it? He can’t get out of his old mind-set?’

That question was a risk I think the newcomer was able to take because of the way in which the group had already demonstrated its safety to him. It will be interesting to work out, over the coming years, exactly how we do that. My guess? By asking for nothing, you leave the risk-taking decision in the hands of the person whose risk it is – they assess the situation and make their own decisions. Not having a professional in control may be less risky than it might seem.

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