My brother had been sent by a doctor to see a therapist. Or maybe an analyst. He doesn’t remember. We are not sure of the difference.

He was a very unhappy person. He had done himself considerable damage with drugs. He had crippling panic attacks and couldn’t travel. He didn’t sleep. He was clinically depressed.

He was prescribed pills and told to see this therapist.

After a few weeks he asked if I would go with him.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘She wants to meet you. Don’t get stoned before you come, it won’t help.’

There was a circle on a whiteboard in her office and the circle represented my brother’s life.

Around the circle were names. Close to the line were our mum and stepdad, our dad (in parenthesis, because he was dead), our half-siblings, our grannies, grandads, cousins. A lot of his friends peppered the space around the circle. It took many years before he liked himself, but my brother has always been adored by those around him. He had many friends to plot against his circular self on that board.

In the middle of the circle was his name, and my name.

I was moved by this.

The therapist asked him to tell me why I was in there with him. She asked my brother to tell me why we were encircled together.

My brother explained that we were a unit; we were one. His earliest memory is of me, his ultimate responsibility is to me. I am less a brother to him than a part or extension of him.

As I say, I was moved by this. A self-defining myth of solidarity that I had assumed to be part of my own sentimental little-brother complex turned out to be shared, and central to my brother’s sense of self. This was significant, and pleasing, and unlocked a candid exchange, the like of which neither of us have experienced again.

We spoke for an hour, fast, with little or no prompting or interruption from the therapist. The clinical setting meant we spoke more clearly than normal life allows, and with unrehearsed honesty. We talked about fear and anxiety and shame. I told him how it felt to lie for him. We talked of abandonment and protection, guilt and complicity. I tried to get him to see how scared I had been for him at various times, and he was amazed and tried to explain how lost he had been, for so long. I spoke of my wave-like anger, year after year, at being kept away from my father’s funeral. He described his utter dejection at being there without me.

We were like two sweaty businessmen playing squash, thrilled at the release of pent-up energy. We smashed stuff back and forth and it felt almost ecstatic, this exchange of difficult truths, this almost theatrical display of complex brotherly stuff, all for our audience of one.

I had no idea you felt that way, we both said.

Well now you do, we both said.

Well, said the therapist. Gosh. Shall we get everyone out?

My brother had neglected to tell me, and then forgotten, that fifteen students were watching from behind the mirror.

Out they came, one by one, with their clipboards.

Their leader spoke first.


Wow, they all said. That was the most extreme hour ever. That was the most incredible thing we’ve ever seen.

And we were chuffed to be thought of as incredible. We felt flattered (we had given a cracking performance!) and validated (our story was moving! We made hardened clinical psychology students weep!) and then we left.

We stood on the street and hugged.

That was fucking crazy, we agreed.

We should do that again, I said.

Nope, I reckon one time is enough, said my brother. It’s not like we never talk or anything.

And off we went to live our lives, and we added the names of lovers and wives, babies, friends and colleagues to our circle.

We don’t often talk seriously or in depth about our childhood these days, but we know we could, and we know what good it did us.

The metaphor that best describes the process of turning a manuscript into a book is of an editor blowing up a writer’s work like a balloon and holding it so the writer can see it clearly, walk around it and consider it whole from a distance. And this is what that diagram on that whiteboard, that hour in a little stuffy room, did for us. The setting represented official encouragement and implicit security. It was a stage for us to act on. It was permission to be truthful in what we performed. It was, therefore, an act of love.


Photograph © timlewisnm

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