October 1, 2008

Surviving Families

Families and How to Survive Them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese (Oxford University Press, 1984, ISBN: 0-19-520466-2)

This book was written by: Psychiatrist Robin Skynner and one of his former patients, John Cleese. They collaborated on the book because most people have “neither the need, the time nor the inclination to bother with therapy itself,”(p.10) but Cleese notes that “even if these ideas are only one-hundredth as intriguing to you as they were to me, I shall still get the royalties”(p.11).

What is in this book: A transcription of the two authors (Skynner and Cleese) discussing behavioral and relationship difficulties experienced by families. The “script” format was the clear choice because the best medium for exploring the delicate nuances present in the full range of human emotion is obviously a 285-page dialogue between two Englishmen.
The authors assert that most family issues stem from the fact that people seek out partners who have similar personalities developed through similar upbringings. “We signal, by our expressions, postures, and ways of moving, certain habitual emotional attitudes we have, which we share with other members of our family. And people from similar families will pick them up and respond to them”(p.22), which will cause problems because “All those people who used to get married – and still do – to escape from their families are in some way taking their families with them, psychologically speaking”(p.16). You may not marry your mother, but you will seek out and marry the sister you never had.
After establishing this premise, they continue on to discuss relationships between family members on every level, breaking down problems and their solutions by using helpful metaphors--such as their explanation of sexual dysfunction as a situation where “the man is like the driver of a car who has taken his hands off the steering wheel and climbed into the back seat – the car being his penis and the steering wheel being his connection with it”(p.289).

What is not in this book: The dead parrot sketch. A heartfelt plea not to beat your children. Cleese writes that when his daughter “was about four, she was getting very, very difficult and I finally lost my temper and I smacked her hard for the first time. And to my absolute amazement I could sense that our relationship immediately got better. I had to smack her again sometimes, but the intervals between the smackings were getting longer and longer. So that after she was six, I hardly ever had to do it”(p.184).

Would you recommend this book to Andrew Dice Clay? Probably not. The subject matter would be unlikely to interest him, and he may take issue with Cleese’s claim that “I have heard several hundred thousand dirty jokes in my life, and only seven of them were funny”(p.236).

Would you recommend this book to that guy who won't stop quoting Monty Python lines (especially the ones from the Knights of Ni)? No. While that guy could definitely benefit from some quality time with a psychiatrist and/or psychotherapist, having him read this book would be like giving an antacid to someone with the Ebola virus.

What was interesting about this book: While Robin Skynner (1922–2000) went on to become physician in charge of the Department of Psychiatry at Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children as well as founder and first chairman of the Institute of Family Therapy before his death, his co-author has found employment as a motivational speaker who notes that the transitional object bringing comfort and support to his infancy “was a stuffed rabbit called Reggie”(p.143).

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