Interview with Winifred Rushforth

Reprinted from Issue No. 1, Sempervivum Magazine Sept-Dec 1978

We thought it would be fitting to open by interviewing Dr. Winifred Rushforth, a founder of Sempervivum. Now aged ninety-three, she has been practicing psychotherapy for half a century. She was born in 1885, the daughter of a West Lothian farmer. After qualifying as a doctor in 1909, she became a medical missionary in India, and married there in 1915. She became interested in psychological work in the 1920s, and trained at the Tavistock Clinic in 1929. She moved up to Edinburgh in 1931, and in 1939 she founded the Davidson Clinic, where she was Honorary Medical Director until it closed in 1972. Some years ago she was awarded the O.B.E. for her services to psychotherapy, and she is still active, running a private practice from her home in Edinburgh.

I’d like to start by asking you about how you got into this psychological work?
It’s so strange to think that when I got into it I couldn’t even spell psychology! Nowadays we don’t realise but when I was in India in the 1920s the idea was completely unknown. My first encounter with this work was through my awareness of the needs of the women, particularly the British women, many of whom had young children. They were so woefully ignorant; almost unwilling to know anything about the upbringing of children. I started running groups for the mothers of young children in 1927 or ’28. In our various ways we were all in the business of trying to find the right way to deal with our children, all of us, I think, searching, trying to bring them up with some wisdom.

The books we had access to were all nonsense. They said that obedience was the bedrock of child training, and similar platitudes, whereas masturbation was talked about as a terrible sin which had somehow or another to be got over. So modern notions about child psychology were sadly lacking. However I was lucky in that I came into the ideas of a Scotsman called William McDougal who was working in America, largely on rats, but his teaching was about the instincts of human nature, and his great dictum was: “When God created man he had to begin at the beginning, and he endowed man with the same instinctual life with which he had endowed the creatures.” So this was a basis.

When did you actually pursue an analytical training? You came back to Europe, didn’t you?
Yes I did. I first heard about Freud in 1916, and it filled me with great excitement, this business of knowing more than the conscious mind. But it was not till 1929 that I was able to train at the Tavistock Clinic in London. It was not the sort of training that one is given nowadays, but one was given patients to work with, one had ones own analysis, and there were seminars and other teaching available. I worked there for a year, and subsequently I was able to work with a Freudian analyst in Edinburgh for another two years, but by present day standards my
training was very sketchy. I plunged into this work in 1934, and I have continued ever since then.

Soon after you began practicing in Edinburgh you became involved in setting up the Davidson Clinic. Can you tell us why you felt it was necessary to open a psychological clinic at that time?
In those days there was very little hope of help for neurotic people. It was before the National Health and there were no effective drugs. I remember very well as a student how people would have nervous breakdowns, and were sent away on a voyage round the world, or something like that. That was the treatment! The Tavistock Clinic had such a long waiting list that it never could keep up with it, so great was the need for this analytic work. When I came to Edinburgh I found people saying that analysis was all very well for people who could pay, but what about those who could not? So by1939 we had a little group of people who had some analytic training, and with financial support from Margaret Romanes we were brave enough, or bold enough, to get our clinic started. I was considered rather a freak. People said: “What on Earth is this that you think you are doing?”.

We began the work of the Davidson Clinic very definitely for the treatment of neurotic illness, both physical and psychological, but as the work progressed we found that much more was happening than just the relief of symptoms: that people were becoming much more creative, that they were better in their relationships within the family, that in many ways they were developing what we now think of as their true potential. The neurotic person is perhaps neurotic because he is not exploiting his possibilities. We have in the Bible the parable of the hidden talents, and the man who could not use his talents was sent to Hell. This unexplored aspect of our lives, undeveloped potential, is a great source of trouble.

Your work has really always been to do with the importance of getting in touch with the unconscious. One could say that at that time, the Davidson Clinic was one of the few places working in that way.
I think there was no other analytical work in Edinburgh for most of that time.

The Clinic ran for twenty-five years. Why did it eventually close?
With the advent of drugs to treat depression and schizophrenia the psychiatric hospitals were able to reduce the number of chronic patients filling the beds and turn their attention to the treatment of neurosis. Our clinic had set out to use psychological methods, but these were very tardily used by the National Health Service – they took up too much time. However the National Health said that it was taking over the care of the neurotic patient, and G.P.s were encouraged to refer their patients to the psychiatric hospitals. Also, by the nature of the National Health, it increasingly absorbed the newly qualified medical practitioners, offering them career prospects which no privately run clinic could possibly compete with.

The drug treatment became paramount and the analytic treatment was allowed to go by default.

Can you tell us now how Sempervivum grew out of Your work after the Clinic had closed?
For one week in the year at the Davidson Clinic, we used to demit from our one to one analysis and run a Summer School. Our idea was to invite a really top rate analyst from outside who would come and help us by giving talks and seminars. The average attendance over the years was about a hundred people. When the Clinic closed down people kept writing from all over Britain asking whether we could have Summer Schools again. With great difficulty, we established an Easter School which now draws over the hundred mark.

The name Sempervivum came later, didn’t it?
Yes. By the third year we had launched out quite a bit. Puja Tobey and I introduced Encounter, which we had come across in America, and we also had some Yoga and psychodrama. For the next two years we had a chap called Dick Perkins, who was working with Encounter in the States. At that time we called ourselves the Encounter Trust, but Encounter was liable to take us over and demolish what we had set out to do, so around 1970 we decided to change the name to the Sempervivum Trust in recognition of the diversity of what we were doing.

How did you come upon the name?
Sempervivum is a very humble little plant. Its name means ‘always lively’ and it grows with very little soil. It has a central rosette which in due course bears a very beautiful flower. Then the mother dies, but meanwhile it has thrown off little baby rosettes. This is the symbol of our work, that any activity should operate while there is need for it, and then it can die down having flowered, and meantime others have sprung up to take its place. Now we run an Autumn and an Easter School, and also a quieter School, which we call the Lenten School, which is ostensibly for older people. There are now a number of other activities connected with the Trust.

On a slightly different tack, one often hears people describe you as a Jungian, but you would never call yourself that, would you, despite having had some contact with him?
Well, I have a great respect for Jung, and all his teaching, but his work came into the Clinic through others. I was accustomed to working on dreams more in the Freudian schema. The Clinic never stood for only Jungian analysis, but for analysis, dream analysis, in general.

Your work has always differed from the purely Freudian approach in that it is really about contacting the inner life.
At the Clinic some of my colleagues were really very sure that our work was to be scientific, psychological and analytic, and that it was not religious. But after the Clinic packed up and I became a freelance in this work it came to me to mean very much one thing that the psyche is the human spirit, and we can’t exclude God and the creative purpose from our work.

So, looking from where you are now, at ninety-three, how do you see this work developing? I suppose there is always the unknown…
Sometimes we need to be content not to know. We don’t know, but we have great hopes that there is development going on. My own work has shifted in an interesting way, from work purely with so called neurotic people, people in difficulty, towards this idea of the development of potential, and it is in this way that I would say that we must go forward. Through drugs you don’t get any progress, any development of potential. You get rather a dimming down of potential, being content with things at a lower level. There is a general awareness that the medical profession is not dealing very well with neurotic illness. Although I am now a very old woman, hardly a day passes without someone asking me whether analysis is to be had in the way it was practiced in the Davidson Clinic. Patience is the trump card in all this analytical work, patient listening, and it is this that is so hard to find in the National Health Service. It is through listening that we come to understand, and through understanding that we are able to forgive. When you forgive people, then the healing comes, when they are aware that they are not guilty, that they don’t need to keep on mourning about their sins. Mankind is still oppressed with his sins, his guilt, his difficulty in life, but we can bring some good news, that there is no need to be always thinking about our badness, that there is another way of living.

There are other methods now as well as analysis. There is a great deal being done through groups. Many of these groups work analytically with the dream, but there are other methods also, notably in Edinburgh at the present time the method introduced by Eugine Heimler. Shortly after the Clinic closed, a number of the analysis died, and it was very tragic for their patients, for as you know the person in analysis is in a very sensitive position. In an attempt to meet their needs, a new development took place in my work, and that was the group development. There was nobody now left to whom I could refer the casework, so I began to run a number of dream groups which drew all kinds of people, including people from inside the medical profession. Before, I had thought and believed that group-work was second best to the individual analysis, but I am no longer convinced of this. I find the group a very powerful method of working, particularly when we can get the closed group of six or eight people who will work regularly together, relating to their problems through the dream.

Gradually people have been coming forward saying that they would like to restart work of the kind I have been describing. Some of these people are already experienced in analysis or in Heimler work, and some are young people who want to train, who see therapy as auxiliary to the medical profession. Freud’s last book was on this fact that it is not necessary for an analyst to be a physician. The training, we believe, takes great heed of the need for analysis in the worker. Until he knows himself, knows his own complexes and weaknesses, he cannot set out to help the weaknesses, follies and distresses of others. Our work is to be called The Wellspring’, and already we have a room and some groups. Perhaps something of the Sempervivum, the life everlasting, is happening there.

Something is happening?
Yes. On one occasion towards the end of their travels, as the Israelites were preparing to go into the promised land, Moses had a talk with God on the mountain and said: “I haven’t got a name for you. How can I go on talking to those people about you if I haven’t a name?”, and God said: “I am that I am”. It has been pointed out that the translation from the Hebrew is perhaps not dynamic enough. A good translation of the words might be: “My name is ‘Something is Happening'”. So we have taken this phrase as our watchword in Sempervivum.

Thank you.

Reprinted from Issue No. 1, Sempervivum Magazine Sept-Dec 1978