Permission to Narrate: Explorations in Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis, Culture, by Martin Weegmann

The Origins of Permission to Narrate

Vintage microphone

I’d just finished The World Within the Group (2014) and had several lines of research and chapter drafts that did not find a home in that book. So, without too much of a leap, I thought, why not give birth to a new set of essays?  The more I looked over what I had, I saw an emergent theme, that of human narration and voice, both within psychotherapy, and without, in the wider domain of culture. I just love the general idea that human beings are inherently literary creatures, whose motives, passions, and reasons are expressed in wonderful spontaneous metaphors, analogies, speech acts and stories. So, I guess, I granted myself ‘permission to narrate’, to explore such questions.


“Edward Said, who appreciated the vital importance of speaking out”

The phrase ‘permission to narrate’ originally comes from Edward Said, who happens to be a hero of mine. Said contributed to so many areas, and appreciated the vital importance of speaking out, to challenge received scholarship, or just plain prejudice. In so doing one can help create counter-narratives. Said was an outstanding essayist and, increasingly, I enjoy the art of the essay, where an idea can simply be put to trial, leaving the reader to judge if it works or not. In fact, ‘the essay’ describes my work more so than the formality of ‘the chapter’.  And I use the expression ‘permission to narrate’ as my summary phrase for the enterprise of psychotherapy. How do any of us find an authentic ‘voice’ and change our sense of authorship in relation to our lives?

The book begins with a consideration of the ancient art of rhetoric. This might perhaps seem an odd place to start, but in fact I found that there’s a lot in old wisdom and in the book I trace how that practice was defined – as an ‘art of persuasion’ for example – and the interesting twists and turns in its history. Aristotle was positive about this art, noticing how an audience can be deeply affected, and the important triad of speaker, subject and the person addressed. Plato, by contrast, was negative, and pointed to the dangers of ‘misleading speech’ or sophistry.  I think it has both these dimensions, and that we can still learn a great deal from ancient and modern theories of rhetoric. One example is John Austin’s brilliant elaboration of ‘speech acts’ and how language is used to persuade, influence, promise, refuse, demand, request, appeal – all those ‘hows’ of actual language use.


‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael, depicting the contrary positions of Plato (middle, left) and Aristotle (middle, right)

I think it offers a lot to our understanding of how clients communicate – their speech styles, their ‘voice’, and their interesting, spontaneous metaphors. Therapists are no exception – our language is hardly neutral, we too have our ‘persuasive’ words and preferred metaphors – and even have our particular repertoires of response, such as, ‘I see’, the ‘hmms’, and ‘ah ahs’ etc.  In my view, ‘interpretations’ are not privileged, as they were/are often thought to be, and can run the risk of producing an opaque analyst, who is in possession of some special art. I try to cultivate a more democratic, collaborative model of communication. In therapy groups, there’s a whole symphony of speaking – Foulkes, the founder of group analysis, says that the therapist ‘orchestrates’ the communications, allowing then to come out more fully.


The efficacy of Speech Acts: ‘Keep Out’ is a speech act (in this case a written phrase) which does what it says. Another example is saying ‘I do’ in a marriage ceremony

The idea of ‘positioning’ is central in this. There’s a whole range of ways it can be used, and it links again to speech acts. When we speak, we always address someone (or are addressed by them) in some position or other – e.g. defensively, in relation to an authority figure, confidently, in a known situation, with a feeling of class inferiority, as a humorous equal with our peers, etc.  Malignant positioning can occur, when we (as individuals, or as members of a group) find ourselves marked by a stigma that is hard or impossible to be freed from. Of course, this has a great deal of relevance to mental health.

As for psychotherapy, I find it helpful to consider the question of whom, and what, do we carry within and about ourselves?  It tells us a lot about how we position ourselves, how we are positioned, throughout life. Psychoanalyst Henry Rey once posed, ‘that which patients bring to the analysis’. His conclusion was a bit on the dim side – our damaged objects, for whom we seek repair. Liesel Hearst, a group analyst, spoke more broadly, positively perhaps, in terms of our ‘cultural cargo’. Literally, cargo means goods, a consignment or haul, and in the metaphorical way in which she uses the term, refers to those symbolic possessions which we carry as part of being who we are.  We can re-position ourselves too, and that is a big part of what psychotherapy is about.


The first episode of Dr Who, showing how monsters tend to “hover around the margins, in undiscovered worlds”

There’s also a chapter on monsters. I loved Dr. Who as a youngster, especially when it was still black and white and you could see how they were made!  But monsters are of great cultural interest, in how they warn, reveal, and disturb our comfortable assumptions. And how they hover around the margins, in undiscovered worlds, in woods, fens, in those ‘other places’. I recently read Seamus Heaney’s beautiful rendition of Beowulf, the Anglo Saxon long-poem, with its creature, ‘In off the moors, down through the mist-bands. God-cursed…..’ And yet the story of monsters does not stop there, as they can also inhabit ‘our places’, rooted out perhaps in a neighbour or fellow parishioner, and in groups that defy convention.

In my earlier book, I devote a section to the witches of early modern Europe, and there’s a chapter on Stevenson’s magnificent Jekyll and Hyde. On a personal note, I feel an anger that there is still no national monument to the witches in the UK – a few plaques here and there, but nothing that might draw too much attention. And where are the apologies from the churches, or secular authorities? And yes, I think there’s a whole amount to be learned from historical patterns and practices of persecution.

In Permission to Narrate, I say that the study of monsters tells us a lot about how human beings narrate themselves, their imagined relationships to the world, and how we position our status. Human groups, too, can be monsterised. One example from the book is that of the 19th century ‘freak show’, which had a remarkably long run in terms of being a popular form of entertainment.  Why might that be so? There’s wider conditions, such as economic expansion and increased urban centres, so that entertainment became more mobile, and less dependent on, say, the village or market place. And the freak was no monster in, say, the medieval sense, but was still a powerful marker of aberration, curiosity and ugliness.


In Shelley’s original book, she makes it clear that it’s ‘society’ who makes the creature monstrous through the way it treats him

The religious connotations had effectively died (although, as disability theory shows, lingered on in some notions of degeneracy), replaced by fascination in the anomaly and physical pathology.  Some became famous, in their times and long after, such as John Merrick, the Elephant Man.  Sympathetic identification and reversals happen, and so the owners and showmen were sometimes re-cast as the real ‘monsters’.

One thing I suggest is that the freak show had an important role in establishing a new gaze of entertainment, with its aberrations ‘on show’, decisively ‘out there’, reassuring those doing the looking of their own normalcy and superiority in some imagined scheme of order.


“Revolution is an overthrow, a fundamental revision, a break with the past”

Another chapter addresses the subject of revolutions, their bodies and crowds. Revolution is an overthrow, a fundamental revision, a break with the past. It’s ‘promise’ is envisaged in some way or another – just as the past it displaces is also envisaged – as the old order, an ancien regime, earthy tyranny and so forth. I got interested in the powerful rhetoric and evocative imagery of revolutions, as all change requires forms of justification and imaginative re-ordering. They inaugurate new narratives, so that things are never quite the same again.  The 17th century English ‘True Leveller’ (all revolutions breed their purists), Gerrard Winstanley, used the expression, ‘the world turned upside down’.

I was also myself once in the Communist Party, way back in University, which may explain something of my interest. We felt a noble lot. But that’s one point I make, that revolutions require a ‘noble’ revolutionary body – the people, citizens, partisans, cadres, and others, who express its spirit or who are at its vanguard.  I don’t pre-judge the nature of revolutions in what I write, with all their unforeseen consequences, but analyse their inspiring and mobilising powers.  And, however sophisticated ‘we’ liked to think that we were (how doesn’t?) during my personal revolution at University, there’s a process of revolutionary simplification involved.  I guess we all like our certainties, and to feel our convictions are fully justified – and that includes those of conservative persuasion, just as much. Just look at some modern, right-wing populism with its appealing ‘strength’ metaphors and nostalgia for ‘simpler times’.  I find it frightening, but it’s a challenge to liberals, like myself.


“the powerful rhetoric and evocative imagery of revolutions”

The chapter on Alcoholics Anonymous links back to the field of substance misuse services, where I used to work. Indeed, I’ve just finished 5 years as a ‘non-alcoholic trustee’ with the AA General Service Board, which was a great experience. I’ve got more and more intrigued by the process of recovery, in those who ‘make it’ and whose lives are transformed. I think psychotherapy and group analysis can learn a lot from AA, which is a mutual-help fellowship.


AA: “the importance of the ‘narratives of recovery’”

I explore the importance of the ‘narratives of recovery’ that support and feed into psychosocial recovery. There are many ingredients of change in AA, of which taking responsibility and giving oneself permission to change are fundamental; but mutuality is the condition, of seeing beyond oneself. There’s a great saying, about the importance of moving away from ‘the committee of one’. Does not group analysis say something similar, but without the memorable saying?

The penultimate chapter, ‘Psychoanalytic fascinations: My Seven Freuds’ is essentially an auto-biographical tour through the years and the various ways I’ve read and viewed Freud. I start with my first encounter with him -and first purchase- in a grubby anarchist bookshop in Leeds. Then I follow various ‘serious flirtations’ (this is not to belittle them one bit, merely to say that they were relative to time and place) – with Lacan, a political Freud, a feminist reading, and with textual theory and the historical Freud that Foucault delivers up.


‘My Seven Freuds’

I situate things further by looking at my personal identifications as an ardent ‘psychoanalytic psychologist’, and my idealisation of various supervisors and theories. The point of it all is to look at how we come to identify with particular traditions, the rhetoric that adds to their appeal and the passions they draw. In a small way, it offers a theory of group fascination, or of fascination within groups. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not turned my back on psychoanalysis, merely that I have much expanded my horizons and no longer think, as once I did, that psychoanalysis has monopoly rights over an understanding what is ‘deep’ about us.  Being a psychologist helps, in that I am immersed in a whole range of different traditions and approaches.

The last chapter provides a form of critique of group analysis. ‘Critique’ might put some people on edge and I don’t wish to be dramatic – let’s just say that it is critique in the old sense of that word, as art of criticism, and a necessary questioning of received authority. I joke at one point (serious joke, that is), that we need to go beyond ‘eminence-based practice’. Jean Knox has rightfully argued that over-use of quotations and dependence on old authorities, proves nothing in itself, even if it might serve a reassuring function. Also, that psychoanalytic institutes do run the risk of becoming conservative ‘retreats’ from the changing world outside.  I won’t go on, but just say that I think that group analysis needs paradigm changes, not to mention more original and innovative research, and to connect in more interesting, creative ways with other disciplines – social psychology is just one obvious area. And the psychosocial field too, which is already happening. I’d love group analysis to have a stronger profile, culturally and not just clinically. I guess I’m trying in my own way to develop new narratives on what we are about.

Martin Weegmann is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Group Analyst, with thirty years NHS experience. He is a well-known trainer, delivering workshops and lectures throughout the UK to a variety of psychology and psychotherapy organisations. Martin has written or co-edited four books, and published many book chapters and papers in a range of journals.

His latest book, Permission to Narrate: Explorations in Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis, Culture, has just been published by Karnac.


Reviews and Endorsements

37558‘These excellent and elegant essays extend the frontiers of group analysis, adding further depth and breadth, not to mention innovation, to our discipline and researches.’
Malcolm Pines, group analyst, author of The Evolution of Group Analysis

‘Very original, imaginative and striking – a different point of view on what we do.’
Liesel Hearst, group analyst, and co-author of Group-Analytic Psychotherapy

‘This book is a fascinating account through a series of essays, made more interesting still by its courageous self-disclosures and glimpses into the author’s own history.’
Professor Edward Khantzian, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Harvard Medical School

‘Martin Weegmann further develops his acute understanding of analogy, rhetoric, metaphor and symbolism and the ways in which group and individual narratives interweave and influence each other, including novel insights into the formation and lure of psychoanalysis.’
Alistair D. Sweet, psychoanalytic psychotherapist, Belfast

‘This beautifully written book is dizzyingly wide-ranging, its span including narrative and dialogical psychology, group analysis, rhetoric, literature, historical and political analysis, and even an excursion into the world of monsters, as well as the author’s own clinical and personal experiences. We should be grateful to Martin Weegmann for giving himself the permission to narrate so broadly because the result is not just an invitation for a paradigm change in group analysis but a fine and evocative demonstration of the power of words.’
David Winter, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Hertfordshire

‘In recent years Martin Weegmann, a distinguished clinical psychologist and group analyst, has begun to share his rich clinical voice with colleagues in a host of intriguing and wise publications on the addictions and related topics. His most recent book explores the necessity of granting not only our patients but, also, ourselves the permission to transform our hidden narratives into words in order to obtain relief. Weegmann illustrates this most powerfully through a series of intelligent, literate, and historically deft chapters which range from a study of Alcoholics Anonymous, to the language of group analysis, to the life and work of Sigmund Freud. The author writes in a clear and inviting style – never pompous or bombastic – and one imagines that he creates a similarly welcoming atmosphere in his consulting room. One will finish reading this book feeling rather better educated about the entire panoply of psychotherapy.’
— Brett Kahr, Senior Fellow at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, in the Tavistock Institute of Medical Psychology, London, and, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Psychotherapy and Mental Health at the Centre for Child Mental Health


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

Gravatar Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s