‘Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege – a therapeutic guide to working with boarding school survivors’ (Routledge, 2016), by Nick Duffell and Thurstine Bassett. A review by Jane Barclay.

Following on from Nick Duffell’s pioneering book The Making of Them (Lone Arrow Press, 2000), Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege is a must-have addition to the toolkit of every therapist who has worked, is working or may work with clients in connection with Boarding School – which is almost inevitable, even if the connection is outside awareness.

However, the style, the approach and the content reaches far beyond the therapy room. Anyone who has any experience of and/or interest in the phenomenon of Boarding as a practice dating back over centuries which remains ‘alive and kicking’ today, will find this a compelling read.

The layout, using clear sections and headings, makes for easy access and digestible ‘chunks’ – important since the material may be emotive for many readers.

The heart of the text is succinctly expressed on p 91: ‘Boarding is one of the most unusual kinds of trauma in that it is imposed deliberately and carries with it the benefits of social privilege. It entails a requirement to emerge as a competent person destined for societal success. Until very recently it has also been an unrecognised trauma, and there are many interests at stake to keep it hidden’.

Earlier and later chapters, guide the reader through the process of trauma for each and every child arriving at Boarding School facing the necessity to survive, both the emotional onslaught from separation and how to fit in to this new and utterly strange environment.

On p 21 we learn how the strength of attachment to the ‘Strategic Survival Personality’, and the reluctance to let go affects the therapy as well as familial relationships.

In Chapter 3 on Managing Separation and Loss, the authors make references to the work of psychiatrist William Halse Rivers of WW1, well-portrayed in Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy. Rivers noticed that only enlisted men were ‘struck dumb’ when encouraged to recall memories; officers, public-school boys, were ‘already practised in the art of dissociation, learned at school’ (p37-8).

Next comes a section on Filling the place created by loss (p 38-40), describing how ‘amputating’ feelings leaves a void that each child must somehow fill (p 39). What follows is a chilling insert from the wife of a ‘very corporate, highflier…. I have a husband who has no concept of or apparent need for relationship of any kind other than those which can bring him short-term business benefit how all relationships can be strategic. He has no ability for intimacy and no perceptible sex-drive’ (p 40).

As a prelude to Chapter 5, Signs, symptoms and relationships, an alert is given to therapists who ‘are overly prone to seeing client’s more attractive and vulnerable sides’ than the darker side, that they may end up ‘colluding with the client’s tendency to split rather than reveal’ (p 51); and ‘how clients come to therapy to look at everything-but-boarding issues and how vital it is for the therapist to keep boarding in awareness, persistently naming (p 63).

Chapter 4, Survival, offers therapists, clients and all interested parties an informative typology of three survival personas: ‘Compliers or Conformists, Rebels, Casualties or the Crushed’ (p 54-55). As another aid to the therapist, on p 186, the authors stress the value of ‘the therapist’s main task is not to miss clues, and if possible, to prevent the client from leaving therapy too early’.

Chapter 8 comprehensively covers not only What is trauma?, with reference to the work of Martin Pollecoff ‘who runs a therapy service for ex-servicement called The Long Boat Home’, but also Developmental trauma, paying attention to ‘the context in which the trauma happens is the key’ with reference to the work of Dan Siegel (p 109).

Chapter 9 explores Sex – puberty, gender and abuse. The trauma of boarding is not, as sometimes supposed, limited to young children: the authors cover all aspects of maturation: latency, puberty and Boarding School attitudes to sexuality. Many moving personal contributions demonstrate and illustrate Boarding’s sexual legacy (p 130).

Then, Chapter 10, The Healing Process. Normalisation and ‘the will not to change’,  with reference to the work of Roberto Assagioli, are two of the resistant-forces at work. To ‘let go’ not only strategies but the entire persona who got the child and/or teenager through can be re-traumatising. ‘If, phenomenologically, change is inevitable, trying to intentionally change the self is not’ (p 148). It is a mysterious, complex process, beset with hard work, highs and lows, gains and setbacks, and surprising reserves of inertia.’

The process is one of ‘acknowledging being wounded’ to ‘experiencing and accepting feelings about being sent away, and about what happened at school’, to ‘seeing that they have survived their wounding and understand how they did it’, to moving into ‘acceptance… that in developing their strategic survival personalities they did the very best they could to protect themselves when they were unprotected,’… and that ‘they inadvertently betrayed themselves. If they can truly forgive themselves for this, and have compassion, and make amends to those whom they may have harmed while surviving, then they will be able to move on. Finally, …. monitoring their strategic survival personalities and beginning to substitute more healthy behaviour patterns’ (p 149-150).

Throughout ‘Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege’, the text is brought to life by contributions from many sources which serve to weave together narrative, context, emotion and meaning into an integrated whole.

A powerful book, much needed and to be overlooked at peril: to therapists, clients and the wider world.




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