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My witty mother

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Studying shell shock after World War I
Jonathan Miller Theatre director
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He, himself, during the war... Rivers, that is... was one of a substantial group of medical and psychologically interested people to study shell shock.  And, in fact, my father, who had qualified at the London Hospital as a doctor under the auspices and tuition of a man called Henry Head - who was rather appropriately named for a neurologist - and my father got interested in injuries to the brain and spinal cord and during the war he began to study them and like so many people at that time was struck by the appearance of people with very serious disorders without any physical injury, paralyses and blindness and voicelessness and so forth.

And both Rivers and Head and my father and many other people were studying what was then called shell shock.  And from about 1917 until about 1922 my father was interested in these disorders, which moved him away from classical neurology towards more psychiatric concerns.  And in about 1926 he established the first what was called child guidance clinic in the East End of London - called the East London Child Guidance Clinic - and became more and more interested in the jurisprudential problems of delinquency and the psychiatric problems of delinquency.  And between the wars was establishing himself as a psychiatrist with… he was, as it were, interested in Freud but not, I think, altogether persuaded of psychoanalysis, he never undertook a training analysis, but he was amenable to some of the ideas.

And by the time I was born in ‘34, he'd married my mother in ‘33, I think that… he'd had some difficulty in getting jobs in a teaching hospital, I think many Jewish professionals between the wars experienced great difficulty in getting into teaching hospitals.    And I think one of the reasons why he took up psychiatry was not only because of his interest in it but because, as for Freud, psychiatry, skins and VD were the three subjects which Jewish doctors were able to take up roles in, though not necessarily at teaching hospitals, because they were completely prevented from getting jobs in straightforward consultant medicine or consultant surgery.  So that by the time he married my mother he was, you know, a qualified psychiatrist, whatever that means [sic] in the 1930s.

I think by that time he'd got his diploma in psychological medicine, and then he joined up again in 1939, or I think in 1940, and continued the study of psychiatric disorders associated with war.  And then we followed him around the country, partly to avoid being in the Blitz but also because, you know, my mother wished to… well, wanted to be with him and so we went from one military mental hospital to another, or we didn’t go to, but where he was, and we lived in villages and towns which were near to that, and I went from one prep school to another.

Initially studying medicine at Cambridge, Sir Jonathan Miller came to prominence with the production of the British comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe. Following on from this success he embarked on a career in the theatre, directing a 1970 West End production of “The Merchant of Venice” starring Laurence Olivier. He also started directing opera, famously producing a modern, Mafia-themed version of “Rigoletto”.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Child Guidance Clinic, London, WHR Rivers, Emanuel Miller, Henry Head, Sigmund Freud

Duration: 3 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008