Connecting up psychotherapy and religion – personal relations theorists 4

Harry Guntrip, Jeremy Hazell’s analyst, was originally a Congregational minister and had turned to a life in the church after his unhappy childhood. His own father had been an evangelical preacher described in an extraordinary interview given by Harry Guntrip to Bernard Landis in 1981 as a ‘hell-and-brimstone preacher who conveyed drama and excitement and attracted many people’. Unfortunately his father couldn’t handle Guntrip’s domineering mother and so stayed away from home most of the time. Whilst his father made many religious pronouncements, he was never seriously concerned with Guntrip’s existence leaving him feeling utterly isolated.

Guntrip describes in the same interview how the most durable and shaping influence in his life was his domineering and incessantly critical mother, and for Guntrip the most puzzling and transcending issue in psychoanalysis was how to disengage from this kind of experience. His mother, destructive from the beginning, was remote, depressed, and cruel, administering frequent and violent beatings, screaming that she never wanted to be a mother. Once she beat the family dog so savagely that she gave it away to avoid murdering it. Her violence, as well as her complete disinterest in Harry, drove him from the house except to sleep. Guntrip recalled how he often would try to claim his mother’s attention, but she’d only become enraged and beat him, ordering him to buy a new cane when an old one broke. By six or seven, dispirited and despondent, he began spending time at the nearby Salvation Army headquarters, often following the band that played on the streets near his home. By the time he was sixteen the Salvation Army was practically his home, and Guntrip said that it literally saved his life. He spent most afternoons singing along with the band, and thought seriously of devoting his life to the Salvation Army, though in fact joined the Congregational church instead as an adult. He said that the nexus of his life-long struggle was the dread of aloneness.

Guntrip realized that insight was not enough and that for reparation to take place was the life interaction of two personalities where both people change as a result of the encounter. Additionally, in Guntrip’s experience, the analyst must be able to find something of substantial value in the patient that he can reliably affirm, something pertaining to the patient’s own capacity to nurture and create. Guntrip declared: “The fact is, I’ve become much less interested in theory. Theory—this is just a schizoid defense. It doesn’t lead to change. This only occurs through an enduring personal relationship.”  The incorporating of an affirming analytic relationship was the heart and means of cure. In the same way religious theory ‘dogma and doctrine’ can only mean something in the context of a personal relationship with God.