“It’s like there's someone nasty inside me, and he’s the one who snaps at you, Mummy.”
That was my 11-year-old son’s way of explaining the little snide asides he’d been pitching at me, like tiny arrows.
But I’d had enough of it. I wasn’t about to let him off the hook that easy.
“Well, we’re going to sit here till we get to the bottom of it,'' I said.
He tried to wriggle out. He tried everything he could think of. Finally, it dawned on him that I really meant it.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to look at that ‘monster’ creature inside you.”
He seemed to look inward. Imagine an 11-year-old focusing inside.
Then he looked up.
“It’s like... It's a monster... It’s mean and snide… It looks like... It's Gollum!”
The image of Gollum made sense to me. It tallied with the particular style of sneaky attacks from the side my son had been deploying, followed by skulking off into the shadows.
A quick aside before we carry on with this tale.
It was fortunate that by that time I’d been reading about psychology. I’d galloped through 'Families and How to Survive Them' by John Cleese and Robin Skynner. One thing that had stayed with me from the reading I’d done was that growing up involved the task of integration.
The book described how we split off ourselves and others. Everything to do with the “good pleasant mother” gets filed separately from everything to do with “bad unpleasant mother” in a child’s mind. In a similar way, we put to one side the “bad unacceptable” bits of ourselves, the bits of us that we feel aren’t very nice.
The task of the parent (or therapist), the book suggested, is to help the process of bringing these split-off bits together again, helping them to mesh together, integrate.
When these split-off bits show up, it generally isn’t a pleasant experience. But if we can find it in ourselves to welcome them in, something magical happens. Like a coconut that had split that grows back together again.
The story resumes, as I probe by feel:
“I wonder what Gollum would like…”
I cast my mind back to the Lord of the Rings story. I recall that Gollum had grown up in his grandmother’s cottage by a river. He had distant pleasant memories of sitting on the river bank watching shimmery fish splashing in the water as the sunrays danced across the surface.
I recount these to my son. He is nodding.
I say, “So do you think Gollum would like a cup of tea?"
My son is looking up at me in wonder.
You see, the offer of a cup of tea is the very last thing that a Gollum would expect.
Encouraged, I press further along this line while it seems promising.
“And maybe he’d like a biscuit with that cup of tea?” (I am following the logic that a cup of tea and a biscuit can heal a sea of ills...)
“Gollum likes his cup of tea,'' says my son hesitantly.
“I’m glad. He is welcome to it. And he is welcome to more. He’s welcome to come back and ask for more.”
My son is looking tired. It has taken a lot of courage for him to ‘look’ at his Gollum Within. So I let the conversation wind down and read him a bedtime story.
But I wasn’t about to let Gollum out of my sight. I wasn’t sure his tricksy ways would come to a halt just like that...
So, in a couple of days, I ask, as casually as I can manage:
“So, how is Gollum doing?
“Oh… um... Gollum is gone.”
I am not sure what to make of that. Gone where? Is this Gollum gone back to his hiding place from which he will emerge to deliver sudden sharp stings again?
“What do you mean, gone?”
“He isn’t there anymore. I can’t feel him inside.”
“Well, where is he gone? He can’t have just disappeared…”
“He… He’s gone back to his grandmother's cottage, and he went fishing by the river, and he really enjoyed himself.”
My son is catching his stride now:
And he had cups of tea at the cottage, and then he decided he would really like to stay. And he wanted to have friends round and make pancakes and have a good time and be friendly.…So… he decided to turn into the Swedish Chef!!!
That is an unexpected turn.
We've watched old runs of The Muppets together, so I know the goofy jolly character my son is talking about.
But the idea that Gollum could turn around and assume a new identity, just like that...
I decide to ask a bit more, just to check. I’m not even sure what I am checking for.
“So what does the Swedish Chef do?”
My little son is sounding enthusiastic:Oh, he makes pancakes, and he flips them, and some of them stick to the ceiling when he flips them. And then he brews huge pots of tea and he has lots of friends around and he really loves being surrounded by the good times that he’s making happen, and all these people enjoying his pancakes.
My wariness is wearing off. There is such energy and jubilation in my son's demeanour.
Still, I decide to keep tabs on the situation.
Gollum never reappeared. Nor did his particular manner of snapping half-secretly at me that had been so clearly discernible in my son's ways before.
Every so often, I would ask how Swedish Chef was doing and he seemed to have settled into his Good Time Guy guise.
In fact, he became something of an ally.
When my son was feeling down or doubtful or upset, I would ask him what it would be like to go visit with the Swedish Chef. The idea seemed to cheer him up.
We encountered a whole host of other 'creatures' in my son’s inner world in the years that followed. By now I was wise to their capacity for transforming. However, I never knew in advance how that might happen. I had faith and would keep trying till something good happened.
These events took place a number of years before I encountered Psychosynthesis psychology. Imagine my surprise when, among core Psychosynthesis principles, I came across a description of the very process that I had experienced with my son.
The inner ‘monsters’ (I sometimes refer to them as ‘Dragons’) are referred to in Psychosynthesis as 'sub-personalities'. These are strands of ourselves that for some reason have had a tough time getting to express themselves clearly and fully. Psychosynthesis provides a methodology for encouraging these strands to recover their original wholesome human impulse.
The training in Psychosynthesis psychology gave me specific pathways for befriending dragons. In fact, I have befriended so many dragons that I've started to jokingly call myself ‘Dragon Whisperer’.
These days, when a client sits down in front of me and says haltingly, “The thing is, I have a Heart of Darkness in me,” I smile and say:
“Welcome, Heart of Darkness. I am confident that we will uncover the golden treasure you’ve been harbouring within.”
In 2015, my son gave a TEDx talk recounting his experiences. The TEDx conference have shared a recording here:
Monsters into Allies | Kim Steinberg | TEDxSussexUniversity