Book Review: Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand

It was with considerable surprise when, browsing the shelves of our favourite used bookstore, Balfour Books, I was handed a book by my wife. “Did you see this?” It was purporting to be about a massive psychoanalytic commune which had its roots in downtown Toronto during the 60s and 70s. I was surprised because I’d never heard of it before – the group was called Therafields. I was immediately struck by the communal angle, the era, the emphasis on psychological investigation – it was like being handed a screenplay by David Cronenberg. The fact that I am studying psychotherapy and its theoretical/historic development made it irresistible.

Subtitled The Rise And Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalysis Commune, Grant Goodbrand’s Therafields is just that. From the mid-60s till the early-80s, what was eventually coined Therafields, became one of the largest active communes in North America (significant considering both the era and that it happened with virtually no physical or cultural traces left in this city), owning as many as 35 houses within, and 400 acres of farmland just outside Toronto. At its apex it had over 900 members.

Starting out with a modest practice in the Annex, Welsh émigré Lea Hindley-Smith began by seeing people in her home. Her open embrace of students combined with an uncanny ability to get to the bottom of her clients’ problems (not to mention her real estate acumen) conspired along with the socially progressive ideals of the 60s to develop a remarkable experiment in psychotherapy: a live/work environment which operated also as an ongoing group-process for its members, all under the auspices of Hindley-Smith who became their professor, CEO, and den mother. More houses were bought so that more living spaces could be added to accommodate new members, and new groups were developed. The story of Therafields is an account of how this creative hive eventually became an unmanageable empire. It is also an invaluable reflection of the changes happening at the time, guest-starring those stranded by the revoked promises of Vatican II, the back-to-the-farm movement, and the idea that psychotherapy could be about society rather than the individual.

I am a child of the 70s. Nothing could possibly be less meaningful than that statement. However, culturally speaking, I was surrounded by the 70s. The mid-70s to mid-80s were a formative time in Canadian television. In other words, we saw a lot of ourselves. And what we saw was produced and inflected by those who came of age in the 60s and early 70s (that’s the way it always worked until recently, by the way – the older generation helped the younger generation identify with their own generation). In other words, I can imagine Therafields, while reading about it. Goodbrand has done a good job of contextualizing the era in which his book takes place. It also helps that Goodbrand was a key member of Therafields himself, and as such is gifted with a familiarity which an outside author would struggle to develop. The flip-side to that statement is that an outside author might have had a better chance of keeping the rhythm of the book’s story consistent: there is a habit of temporal back-and-forth which does not make for smooth comprehension at times.

Considering Goodbrand’s credentials, Therafields unfortunately suffers from a detached perspective. He is as qualified as anyone to write about Lea Hindley-Smith and those who were key to the group’s skyward development – like esteemed poet bpNicol, for example – yet it seems only an accumulation of actions, the plotline of a biography, which gives us clues to the hearts beating behind the cast of characters. Goodbrand’s book sometimes reads like an account rather than an experience.

And here we come to a marketing dilemma: I’m not sure who the intended audience is. I am thankfully, luckily, well-suited to read, understand, and enjoy Therafields. Yet… With its insistence on differentiating what Hindley-Smith practiced (Kleinian) from classical psychoanalysis, without necessarily providing a debriefer for the reader on what makes Kleinian psychoanalysis different from it, I cannot imagine the “average reader” walking away knowing what that all should mean. Perhaps that won’t matter if they are keen on digging into a prime slice of Toronto history – complete with addresses, one could conceivably operate a motor-tour of where Therafields took place.

It is, nonetheless, an insightful read and an invaluable chronicle of a peculiar social/cultural phenomenon. Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand (ISBN: 978-1-55022-976-9), is available (evidently) from a used bookstore near you, and also online.

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