Book Review: ‘Radical Help’ by Hilary Cottam

I am wary of the word ‘radical’. It feels brash, idealistic, even aggressive, somehow. Maybe it’s just been overused, it seemed to crop up everywhere during my Masters degree, attempting to appeal to some sort of youthful optimism – ‘this is radical! new! you young people will love it! a complete overhaul will happen right away and it’ll be fantastic!’ – and precisely because it was everywhere, it seemed to disprove itself. The word radical became mundane, so I stopped trusting it.

It might have also become too strongly associated with the political left, as in ‘radical socialism’, and I’m still hurting from the labour party’s bitter defeat at the recent General Election. I too was blissfully caught up in the London-centric media bubble that made us optimistically believe Corbyn might actually win. The reality hit home painfully hard that we still very much live in a conservative country, and it is only to our detriment that we forget or ignore that fact.

But, I understand why Hilary Cottam named her recent book Radical Help. Her whole argument is that drastic solutions are necessary, and they are the only hope we have left if we want to save our welfare system. I broadly agree with her on this, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel that we might not succeed if we frame our argument in these terms. Quite simply, people do not like radical change, and I think (from my limited knowledge, so please correct me), history seems to suggest that slower and gradual solutions are a bit easier to take, and therefore more likely to succeed in the long run. Even shifts that seem radical in hindsight are probably more likely the result of multiple gradual causes coming together and reacting in some lucky way, rather than a genuinely novel and unprecedented ‘pivot’.

Anyway, there are many things I liked about this book. It is clearly written, inspiring, informative, and it covers a lot of ground. Hilary Cottam is a social activist and designer with an academic background in economics and history, and she has made it her mission to reduce inequality and fight social injustice. You can really feel the drive and determination that has propelled Cottam in her work, and as my mother reflected, the world would be a far better place if more politicians had these hopes and ambitions…

In the first part of the book, Cottam describes 5 experiments that she and her team designed and ran, all focusing on different populations and using different methods, but with the shared aim of increasing 4 main ‘capabilities’ of individuals that she thinks are vital to living a good life: learning/work, health/vitality, community and relationships.

Her team work by first identifying a problem, then by getting deep into the matter by immersing themselves practically with the issue at hand (speaking to people, living with them, actively listening to them), then they design a prototype and run it straight away, starting small and then hoping to grow bigger and bigger.

Here’s a quick summary of the 5 experiments:
Experiment 1: ‘Life’ worked by inviting families who are experiencing a variety of difficulties to participate, then they selected a team of service workers who were focused on helping the family to help themselves, those teams discussed amongst themselves best ways forward, and the Life family took an active role in making a practical plan of what their goals are and how they could go about achieving them.
Experiment 2: ‘Loops’ joined young people with managers and workers at companies/organisations related to their interests, hoping that they would form relationships with adults who could then work as ‘mentors’. This project failed and was stopped for potentially being dangerous to the young people. One of my first queries was, are these young people essentially working for free? And also, I thought this was a bit too idealistic because she imagined that life-changing mentor-relationships were easy to spark, which is unlikely to be the case…
Experiment 3: ‘Backr’ was an alternative to the JobCentre approach, and essentially was a MeetUp Group trying to unite unemployed people with others, plus some employed people, in the hope that someone might tell someone else of an opportunity that otherwise they wouldn’t have heard of. The rationale behind this one was that most jobs these days aren’t advertised but are found via word-of-mouth, so we just need people from different backgrounds getting together and discussing job opportunities more openly.
Experiment 4: ‘Wellogram’ focused on patients who had been informally classified as ‘heart-sink’ patients, who were suffering from a number of problems, and invited their doctors to come together to discuss each case. It was an attempt to see the patient’s whole life, rather than each little problem divorced from its wider context, in an attempt to understand the root causes better.
Experiment 5: ‘Circle’ was a technology-based attempt to bring together older individuals so that they could help each other with tasks that needed doing, because some will have capabilities that others won’t, allowing everyone to feel like a ‘helper’ rather than someone who is in need.

What I loved about her approach in each of the experiments was her fearlessness of failure. Too many development projects are run which are too scared of failing, so they rely on methods that have been used far too many times before, and no longer yield novel or unexpected insights. Straight out, Cottam acknowledges that mistakes will be made, wrong avenues taken, but she decided early on that the best way of learning is by trying, so what seems like a big mistake is actually the best way to learn.

Her main findings from all of the experiments seem to be that it’s best to start small and locally, really understanding the people and problems you are working with; people need to be ‘helped to help themselves’, not made dependent on aid; and that the most important of her 4 capabilities is relationships, what the welfare state needs to facilitate is strong bonds between people so that resources can be shared, rather than more money in the wrong places.

I agree with all of these sentiments. But, I have some criticisms (of course) that I’d like to think through…

The first, and obvious one, is that small projects are much easier than large ones. It’s easy to provide thoughtful and time-effective help when you are working with fewer people, as soon as systems get larger they automatically become more cumbersome and inefficient. Her hope is that these programs would grow organically, and that they would actually become more efficient as more people joined (because, more relationships mean more resource sharing) and she argued that ‘our capacity for relationships is infinite’. But I’m afraid I don’t agree. We obviously can’t have infinite relationships, there simply isn’t time in the day nor mental space. All of her projects, thought focusing on different populations, seemed to boil down to a kind of ‘Meet Up Group’, which was facilitated by a ‘reflector’ (or, what I thought was more like a therapist). If people with similar interests but different backgrounds are brought together, helpful connections will be made. And it works best when those people join actively as agents, rather than join feeling like they need to passively receive help from their group. This seems obvious? But it’s also obvious that bigger groups get less personal, so less meaningful, they become a crowd; and, it’s also actually quite difficult to get people involved in this way. We, especially Brits, are quite embarrassed to go to ‘Meet Ups’.

Another point of contention was that many of her projects relied on a therapist-style role, someone who knows when to step forward to offer help to the person needing it, but also when to step back and let them work it out on their own. This role was holistic, and was designed to see the individual being helped as a person with hopes, dreams and wishes of their own, rather than the specialist approach that we have at the moment (with various roles all focused on solving one specific ‘need’ or problem in an individual’s life, rather than concentrating on how to reach potentials) where none of the service providers actually get a good sense of the individual. While I totally agree with the problematic nature of Multi-disciplinary Teams that we have going on at the moment, because so much time is wasted with trying to share information across all the members involved, how are we supposed to get one person to focus and know it all? That, essentially, is a therapist dedicated to each individual needing help, and if we could do that financially, we would.

Finally, after finishing the book, and in writing the summaries of the experiments for this post, I realised that her projects weren’t really that novel or ‘radical’. What Life and Wellogram tried to do was encourage the many service providers to discuss each individual case in more depth, so that they could make a more comprehensive plan of how to help. This is what the welfare system already tries to do, but it is literally impossible to provide that kind of focussed attention on each individual. That’s why we have so many online databases and attempts to share information across services, which is exactly why the system feels cumbersome, and why so much time is wasted on admin. And in the other 3 experiments, the main idea was to form groups around similar interests but different backgrounds, hoping to forge friendships across people to get them to help each other rather than rely on services. These are both good ideas, but they are difficult to implement precisely because they are good when they are not enforced from above, which is what she acknowledges herself!

So, to conclude, I wholeheartedly admire her approach and ambitions. I think it’s vital that innovative and bold individuals try out new projects, methods, designs; because we need to learn practically, and in the real world. Having done from academia to the NHS as a support worker, I see and feel acutely the huge gap between thinking about helping people, to actually trying to do it.

I also totally agree with her conclusions – the fact that what is needed is not (just) more money, but that we also need to make the sharing of resources and connections more efficient. We live in a very well-off country with enough to go round for everyone, the problem is mainly to do with inequality of distribution. We need to forge connections, so we desperately need to value the power of supportive relationships and bring them into our welfare system. We need to stop thinking of individuals who need to be ‘helped’ or ‘cured’ alone by taking a pill or just telling them to exercise more. Cures work best when they are social, because we are social animals and are formed by the groups we are part of.

But, I’m not quite sure that she has designed viable ways of reaching these conclusions yet in any large scale. I think her projects were interesting and moderately successful predominantly because they were small, but I doubt her when she says that they could be organically grown and remain as useful. She may have slightly underestimated the difficulty of growing groups and projects… Having said that, she probably knows far more about it than I do, and probably goes into a lot more detail in her reports, as this book is supposed to be a summary rather than a detailed explanation. So I should read her project reports before I make too sudden a judgement, but that was my inkling.

Has anyone else read this book, and if so, what did you think?

Book Review: ‘Heroines’ by Kate Zambreno

‘Memoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided continent. The threat perhaps is a woman writing her own narrative, being her own author.’ (236)

This book is perhaps best defined in Kate Zambreno’s own words as an emotion-fuelled ‘memory campaign’. In it, Zambreno takes up the worthy task of rescuing the voices of forgotten literary wives of modernism, Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot, as well as weaving in the lives of not-so-forgotten modernist women: Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Hardwick, Sylvia Plath. While remaining faithful to their situational and temperamental differences, the work is most alert to what they all fundamentally shared: the battle of forging a voice for themselves in world dominated by the narratives of Great Men.

Zambreno’s voice joins this ‘invisible community’ as she blends her own experience of writing the book reflexively into the text itself. Heroines is intimate, repetitive, intense; all the things that biographies usually are not, and it is driven by a powerful motive – to inspire and incite young women to do exactly what she has done (and what her rescued predecessors were prevented from doing) – to write boldly in their own voices and through their own bodies. To be their own author.

A dominating theme of the book is something that I am particularly interested in (as a graduate of both literature and psychology): the uncomfortably-close relationship between passionate women artists and diagnoses of madness:

‘The charges of borderline personality disorder are the same charges against girls writing literature, I realize – too emotional, too impulsive, no boundaries.’ (266).

Following Eliot and the New Critics, the personal, confessional, bodily, intimate, and domestic was rejected in art in favour of the impersonal, transcendent, ‘universal’ (read: masculine). They valued cool, hard prose and poetry. Life was supposed to be transformed into Art. But what Zambreno reminds us of is the terrible double-standard: these men did not extract the personal and the emotional from their work, they too expressed their extreme inner turmoil. But, when men are passionate they are Geniuses; a passionate woman is simply mad. We are prompted to ask, why was Flaubert allowed his excesses and violent moods while writing Madame Bovary, while any sign in a woman that her emotions were overwhelming was evidence of her unsuitability as an artist? The answer can only be that we simply are not ready to hear about women’s inner lives. We still live in a patriarchal world in which women are supposed to be givers rather than takers. We don’t care about how they are feeling themselves; their role is to nurture and support the feelings of others (i.e. men and children).

This is a feeling that has lasted very much into the 21st century – Karl Ove Knausguaard is hailed as a literary giant for the intensity of his six-book autobiographical series My Struggle, while Rachel Cusk’s slim memoir of her divorce was decried by Camilla Long as “acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains”. As philosopher Kate Manne explains in Down Girl, her brilliant analysis of the societal mechanisms that underpin the patriarchy, what we do not want to hear we readily dismiss as ‘wrong’ or ‘too much’. Instead of critiquing our reactions, we automatically dismiss the work or artist. We see everything through filters defined by the male-dominated canon that we have all grown up within, and that is not even minding the things we do not manage to see because it has been ‘mislaid’, ‘lost’ – or silenced.

Zambreno does an admirable job in recovering these voices, and when that’s not possible, uncovering the oppressive forces which succeeded in erasing them. You will finish this book enlightened on many of the significant women artists of the 20th century, and hopefully inspired to write something yourself – to write if only to counter those silencing forces that continue to press down upon women all over the world – on a blog, in a diary, online newspaper, wherever you fancy. Or, if writing isn’t your thing, you’ll have a long reading list to get through…

Another equally important take-home message of this book is the power of community, no matter how sparse or distant it may be. Zambreno wrote Heroines not just to teach us about these women, but to build for herself a community of writers like her (or not) who share her struggles. And in reading this book we are warmly invited into that community. We also learn of Zambreno’s blog (unfortunately now ‘invite only’ on Blogger), which she used during difficult times to forge connections and friendships which nourished her. She suggests that perhaps a key factor in these women’s downfall into institutionalisation was their lack of a supportive community, they were ‘isolated in their cages’. Now, with the internet, this thankfully no longer needs to be the case.

This book is a tour de force and I’ll be passing it around my friends for a long time to come.

Recovery in ‘Will and Testament’ by Vigdis Hjorth

‘I expected to become psychotic, but I didn’t, so somewhat surprised I got up, looked around, and then I left, what else could I do? It was a clear and sparkling August day, I hadn’t noticed that until now. The air was warm, I hadn’t noticed that before. I walked down Bogstadveien, what else could I do? I was surprisingly calm. It was late summer, the air was warm, the weather lovely, I hadn’t realised that until now, three weeks without analysis lay ahead of me, I turned into another street, what else could I do? I walked past a shop front and saw someone who looked like me in the window, but it couldn’t be me because she looked well. I stopped, retraced my steps and studied myself, a seemingly functioning woman. Could I see myself through her eyes? You’re clever, I said to her, and you don’t look too bad, I said to her. Shouldn’t you be out in the world doing things?’ (120)

This paragraph follows the moment when the narrator, a middle-aged theatre critic called Bergljot, realises that she has come to the end of the psychoanalysis which she is undergoing in the hope of recovering from childhood sexual abuse. The repetition of ‘what else could I do?’ marks an interesting phase of recovery – a kind of exhaustion with her pain. As humans we are designed to recover, to continue, to survive, despite hardship. Our self-preservation instincts kick in, and eventually (most of the time), we find the strength to simply continue, and find again a new kind of normality.

It seems that here, after undergoing an intensive 4x-week therapy, Bergljot was tired with reliving her pain (an aspect of psychoanalysis that has received criticism over the years), and because of this she ends up reaching the point at which she is able to move on. This is related to the idea that we must first accept our pain, confront it face-on, and only in doing so are we able to then move on from it. There are counter-arguments that suggest that in acknowledging our pain we give it too much attention, and run the risk of becoming trapped in it. But I find this situation equally plausible and worth noting, that there is only so much sadness a human can enduring, and in getting it out in the open we at least allow ourselves the opportunity of then exhausting it and ridding ourselves of at least its most debilitating aspects.

Once Bergljot accepts that she won’t be seeing her psychoanalyst that day, she finds a freedom that allows her to notice things she wasn’t able to before therapy. What strikes her is something as mundane as pleasant weather, a ‘clear and sparkling August day’. It seems that psychoanalysis worked precisely by returning to her pain so forcefully, and then once it stops, her mind was free enough to enjoy the world outside of her. It is as though the therapy absorbed all of her trauma, enveloped it so entirely, that once it ended, it took those feelings along with it. The assumption is that if, to the contrary, we avoid difficult feelings, they remain with us, subtly colouring everything we do. I thought that this was a really beautiful and poignant depiction of one aspect of recovery, the realisation that there is a whole world outside of us that does not have to do with our inner turmoil, and that our eyes have been opened to it. Trauma, in its invasive and all-enveloping character, can often overwhelm us, and make other parts of life hard to enjoy. Here, we see the narrator finally open up and start to appreciate life anew.

This book is predominantly about how to both live with and move on from traumatic and painful histories. It is most skilful in showing both how our past experiences inevitably shape us into the people that we are – and so, we are never truly ‘free’ from them – but that also, with time, eventually they become things that we can build on and recover from in creative and positive ways. Just because something forms us does not mean it has to trap us.

The book begins by describing the narrator before this healing process has taken place. At that earlier stage, her past is something that drags her down: ‘it was how I felt, how deep it went, how it pushed me into the abyss, how it weighed me down, how I started to sink’ (15). But through gradual unearthing and understanding, and when the narrator starts to insist that other people in her life join her in confronting these difficult memories, eventually, she is able to incorporate them into her life in productive ways. She describes a growing sense that the dark past must be seen and heard, it must be given space for insight and growth to occur: ‘What I was experiencing, I came to realise once I started to understand my life, was that a moment of insight was approaching like the tremors that precede an earthquake, and like an animal I could sense it before it happened’ (21). This ‘moment of insight’ will not be easy or pain-free, but it does bring with it a brightness and optimism.

Throughout the book the narrator speaks in terms of development, she fears ‘turning into a child again’ and often expresses the wish that she could feel and behave like an adult. Adulthood apparently represents clarity and understanding, while childhood is the dependent, naïve state where we are under the sway of others wishes and desires. This is a useful metaphor with which to think of this developmental growing process that occurs over time, and though it of course doesn’t map so neatly in real life, I think we can all appreciate the feeling that adulthood brings with it agency and independence, and it is this that she is seeking.

Another important contribution to the narrator’s recovery is that precisely with this ‘adult’ agency she starts to take her own wants and needs more seriously, and does not give in to the needs of others at the expense of her own. This is a valuable part of her recovery, her realisation that she must in some way stay true to herself in order to feel better:

‘Jung saw things the way his instinct encouraged him to. If he didn’t his snake would turn on him. I tried to look at things the way my instinct encouraged me to. If I didn’t, my snake would turn on me. My mum and sisters had acted in ways and said things which my snake disagreed with. I travel along the path my snake prescribes, I thought, because it’s good for me.’ (318).