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Since the Seventies Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller has steadily established himself as a creative risk taker, collaborating with the likes of Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Lars Von Trier, on films such as Paris Texas, Down by Law, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and Breaking the Waves; and most recently with Michael Winterbottom on 24 Hour Party People. Not bad for a man who says that he decided to become a cinematographer as a way of getting out of the Army.
Here he gives us a rare insight into his technique and why he favours black and white:
What was it like working on 24 hour party people?
“Michael (Winterbottom) had asked me twice before to work with him but I was busy on other films. Then we met up and he interested me in the story of Factory Records and the Hacienda. I was especially keen to work in this rougher and fresher style he had in mind. Shooting a film can be very mechanical, it’s all slate, camera, action, cut, then you prepare, and repeat the whole process over and over. You lose momentum, but Michael wanted all the shots improvised and we managed to keep the pace going. I got into the history behind the story too, and Manchester, but not the rain. ”
You’ve often said you like to create situations where ‘happy accidents can happen’. Why?
“These can end up helping the way the director wants to tell his story. Like in Breaking the Waves. We were very much operational with the cameras for the sex in the toilet scene, and worried we had fucked it up, but the result ending up being just what Lars Von Trier wanted, it bought about the sense of drama he was after without that polished look.”
So what is Lars Von Trier like to work with?
“Lars has a very clear idea of what he does and doesn’t want. Like on Dancing in the Dark he had us use 100 DV cameras to film the musical scenes, we all had the freedom to move 360 degrees, and all those camera shots were perfectly in synch with each other so we could easily cut between them, it was very magic. So was Björk, I liked her very much, she was a very professional woman, and a good actress.”
You also collaborated extensively with Jim Jarmusch on many of his films, what was your most memorable experience?
“There are many. I liked working on Down by Law (with Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni) where I felt it was important to be shooting in black and white. Colour should only be used if it supports the story otherwise its just exotic background wrapping, giving superfluous information. Its like a poem, you leave out what you don’t need. And because we shot in such an exotic location (New Orleans), it would have been a completely different film if it was in colour, making the audience look at the landscape and the surroundings rather than the people. Jarmusch was very receptive to this way of thinking.”
What’s distinctive about the way Wim Wenders works?
“He often barely had a script or a storyboard, and would nearly always shoot in buildings already occupied by people, never studios. So I was always working with natural light and more intimate surroundings but I like that sense of realism so if there’s not enough I would open up the lens rather than add extra lighting.”
“I also like to work chronologically as he does, without any rigid time scales imposed so you can work in more of an organic way. You can bring in new people too, you can get a feel of the film and develop it as you go along.”
What advice do you have for young filmmakers and cinematographers?
“Don’t rely on new technology, its only a tool, a means to an end, don’t let it make you lose sight of where you are going. Don’t over do it, keep things simple.”
“Don’t have a second agenda, be honest, keep the integrity, at least to yourself, and always ask yourself why you are doing a certain project, do you really like it, do you know where you stand? I try to do this on all the films I work on. But of course there were certain times when me and my gaffer have asked ourselves ‘what on earth are we doing here?’”
“Oh, and always ask the director why you are shooting in colour (if you are) then at least you know what you’re working with and you’re not just a zombie following rules.
What film has particularly inspired you?
“Fellini’s 8 ½. It was beautifully shot in black and white.”
Robby Müller’s credits include:
Coffee and Cigarettes
24 Hour Party People
Dancer in the Dark
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Buena Vista Social Club
Breaking the Waves
Beyond the Clouds
Mad Dog and Glory
Until the End of the World
Down by Law
To Live and Die in L.A.
Kings of the Road (1976)
Alice in the Cities (1974)
Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick (1971)
© Tina Bexson
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At the age of 24, Tony Kirby walked in front of a tube train in an attempt to end his life. He talks openly about past events, and the processes of recovery which led to a final state of equilibrium and allowed him to continue to work as a musician and DJ despite losing an arm.
Have you ever seriously considered suicide? Not just flirted with the idea of doing a ‘Kurt Cobain’, but actually, truly felt that you really want to die?
When it comes to ending lives, especially their own, young men don’t do things by halves. Frighteningly dramatic in their choice of method, they are three times more likely than women to succeed in their attempts to end it all. And as the latest report by the Men’s Health Forum indicates, the suicide rate of young men (15-24) has almost trebled in the last 25 years.
Most people find it impossible to comprehend why someone would want to take their own life.
The reasons are always complicated, powerful and very individual. More general problems facing men in particular are connected with the pressures to succeed in such increasingly competitive times, to still be the ones to keep it all together when everything around them is falling apart.
Methods are usually violent: shooting, slashing wrists, jumping off bridges and tall buildings. Or, walking in front of trains. That’s what Tony when he was just 24 years old. Unlike so many others though, he lived to tell the tale. He talks openly about past events, and the processes of recovery which led to a final state of equilibrium and allowed him to continue to work as a musician and DJ despite losing an arm.
“I walked to Whitechapel tube, got a ticket and went down to the underground. For some reason I got off at Tower Bridge and stood on the platform feeling trapped and very frightened. I desperately wanted to escape.
“I saw a train coming towards me, and I thought I might be able to escape to another world in some kind of magical way if I just jumped. I was urging myself to walk off the edge; it was as if there was some kind of voice in my head encouraging me to. I know that sounds psychotic, but we all have voices in our heads to a certain extent, mine were psychological echoes from the past.
“I walked off the edge of the platform onto the track. It was very much a spur of the moment thing. Looking back I think I may have thought the train would stop, but it didn’t. It carried on, and I blacked out.”
Standing at the edge of the platform, staring down at the tracks, thinking about what it would be like to jump, we’ve all been there at some point, whether in a fleeting moment of self indulgent angst or a more serious contemplation of really wanting to end our lives.
They’re not comfortable thoughts. Even when we are travelling to work and we hear that trains are delayed because someone has thrown themselves on the line, we shudder and don’t like to acknowledge that it strikes a cord within us all. Though we still wonder what powerful reasons could possibly lie behind such a violent act.
For Tony Kirby life in the mid eighties was fast. Club land was in full swing, rave culture was increasing its momentum, and like many other twenty something’s, Tony was leading a typically hedonistic lifestyle. Sure he had the usual career and financial dilemmas of someone of his generation. He played keyboards in a band and worked as a cycle courier for a London despatch company – his call name: ‘Major Tom’. But he especially loved dancing, and he loved women. His good looks and lithe physique ensured he had no trouble with either.
It was a good time: the drugs, the clubs, the ideas floating around. And on a quest for self-exploration, Tony did it all. It was fun – at first. “I was reading a lot of philosophical stuff and that did my head in a bit, explains Tony. “I didn’t have the experience or mental facilities to digest or understand a lot of it with any clarity. There were lots of different ideas buzzing around in my head, partly fuelled by drugs.”
E had just hit the dance scene, and dope and speed were in plentiful supply. Later he experimented with acid. “We all have a fantasy world we dip into every known again, but I was living it 24 hours a day. The LSD sparked off latent fears, and pushed me into some kind of temporary drug induced psychosis. Things began to take on a legendary status and I was soon running scared with this living hell inside my head.”
The living hell was connected with deep-rooted and unreconciled family problems, though at the time it was difficult for him to separate these realities from a fantasy life that was fast spiralling out of control. By April 1989, one of his flat mates, a nurse, noticed his behaviour was becoming increasingly bizarre.
Like so many men who have breakdowns, he looked to spirituality for answers. “Everything began to take on a religious meaning. I tried to get my flatmates to come to church with me. I was striving for perfection. It felt like some monumental struggle with the forces of darkness when it was actually a reflection of my own inner battle.”
At this point the flat mate got him to agree to visit the local hospital with her. He tried to leave and was sectioned. After a week he tried to leave again, this time he went unnoticed, and walked out onto the street in a pretty confused state.
“When I walked out of the hospital I was on some kind of psychiatric medication but it didn’t agree with me. I felt like I was being kicked in the head and going through everything in slow motion. Some people end up trying to attack others when they are walking around in that kind of state, they lash out at complete strangers, but I ended up turning it on myself.”
Within half an hour of leaving the hospital, he was walking in front of a tube train at Tower Bridge station. “The ambulance man later said that I had my eyes wide open throughout the whole thing. As far as they were concerned I was conscious, but I don’t actually remember anything. I do know I was quite considerate though, it wasn’t at peak-time.”
“The next thing I knew, I was waking up in intensive care a few days later, with a bandage on my face. I had lost an arm from the shoulder, luckily my left – I’m right handed. I also had a fractured skull, a broken spine, multiple fractures, and a punctured rib and lung. But I was on lots of morphine so I felt ok. It’s pretty scary how those drugs can give you such a false sense of well being. When I came round I saw my friend sitting next to the bed looking down at me, and I said ‘Oh you’re here, I’m not in heaven then?’ ”
He pauses to chuckle at the memory, then looks up and holds my gaze, admitting that he hopes that didn’t upset his friend too much. Tony is good at looking you in the eye. He doesn’t shy away from the painful and uncomfortable, and still manages a laugh, punctuating his speech with many a splattering of dark humour. Something he relied on a lot at that time.
“I tried to make my friends feel at ease by coming out with these one armed jokes, or jokes about being an arms dealer, but I don’t know if it actually worked, it was probably really embarrassing for them. But for me, humour was my saving grace.”
The process of recovery was long and arduous. “After a few days in intensive care, they took me down to the spinal injuries ward. During this time my brain shut down to a certain extent, maybe so I could cope with these very real physical injuries, and having to spend the first four months completely on my back. Then they starting putting me in a tilt machine. It tilts you up vertically; I must have looked like Frankenstein. It was the first time since the accident that I felt the effects of gravity again, it made me really sick. I thought ‘Oh God, is this how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life?’ But the physios spent many sessions with me in the gym until I gradually got stronger and stronger. They were really great. Because I’m quite statuesque, they said I looked like that armless statue, you know the Venus di Milo. Later, I was fitted for an artificial limb, but I didn’t get on with it at all, I don’t use one even today.”
As he started to get better, he began to feel guilty for the effect his actions must have had on underground passengers, the driver of the train, and all those who know him. “I didn’t realise how much it would upset my friends and family at the time.”
Whether they are influenced by drugs and alcohol or not, the suicidal are often so engulfed by depression, pain and negativity that any thoughts for how their actions will affect others are almost completely overpowered. That was the case with Tony. Cowardice and selfishness don’t come into it.
He ended up having to spend 12 months in hospital – time to try and put it all into some kind of perspective.
During this transition period he thought long and hard about what the hell was going on to make him jump in front of a tube train. “The horrors of life, I had to re-address them. I was so lucky to survive. Many die after they’ve thrown themselves under trains or off bridges, though many survive too, often with horrific injuries, it’s quite a big price to pay. It’s brought me back to my senses.”
So what was really happening during this difficult time? This becomes clearer as he
remembers that one of the first things he thought about during his convalescence was the death of his father. ” I started to think about him a lot. I never really grieved for him at the time of his death. I felt sorry for myself and cried floods of tears. It’s not something men do very often, but I needed to let it all out.”
The man, who Tony had known all his life as his father, had died three years previous to the suicide attempt when Tony was 21. It was difficult to grieve for him at the time of his death because shortly after the funeral he was given an even greater shock. His mother told him that she was actually his grandmother, and hence the man they had just buried was really his grandfather. His sister, who lived abroad at the time, was his mother. His biological father was unknown to him. He had voiced suspicions about his background in the past, but they were continuously denied.
“I just wish they had told me when I was much younger. They said they hid the truth to protect me, though I think they were also protecting themselves. They were very Victorian in their attitudes and didn’t like to think we had skeletons in our closets.”
Although both his ‘parents’ were always there for him, the implications and repercussions of the family secret had begun to take their toll. “As a child I was always told not to trust anyone by my ‘mother’, then to find out she had effectively been lying to me all along was really difficult. It turned my whole world upside down. I started to question everyone else’s motives. I started to think people were just out to get something from me. I thought ‘well if I was right about that I must be right about everything else’. I didn’t not want to trust, it just felt ingrained inside me.”
Once it became connected with other more deep-rooted problems that lack of trust had manifested itself into something much darker. By the time he was 24, and despite leading the full and varied life described earlier, he slowly began to suffer from paranoid delusions, probably fuelled by whatever drugs he was taking at the time.
“A lot of the thoughts I was having were connected with who my real father could be. Most people have at least some idea of their background. I was drawing on a fantasy world to fill in all the spaces, and coming to lots of weird conclusions. That may be great if you’re a writer, but not if you want to live in the real world. With all that going on, the input I was receiving from the outside world became distorted, it became tainted by my own experiences and it didn’t get processed by the brain in the same way as it does in the average person. I felt overpowered with information. It was very scary.”
But he also tried to make something positive out of his unconventional background by finding a coping mechanism even if it didn’t solve anything. “Jack Nicholson’s circumstances were the same as mine (his sister was his mother too). It made me different; I wasn’t from that kind of ‘ideal’ background. I mean what is a normal family anyway, does it really exist as much as we think it does?”
Though Tony’s girlfriend at the time stood by him throughout everything, he knows he should have found another outlet as well. “She was great, but she had her own problems too. Looking back that is probably what attracted us to each other. But we didn’t make it better for ourselves, we made it worse. We just dumped on each other, when we really should have found someone neutral to help us out.”
The majority of men who attempt suicide say later that they found it really hard to talk about what they were going through at the time. And often there was no one really appropriate to confide in. The Samaritans are all well and good, and have probably saved many lives, but so many man feel either ashamed to speak out or have trouble articulating and conveying their thoughts to anyone, let alone to an anonymous voice on the end of the phone. Then there’s the shame. It doesn’t matter how desperate they are, shame can hinder many an attempt to find help, especially if they also grew up in an atmosphere that stifled emotion, helping to perpetuate the stigma attached to unhappiness. Then it doesn’t seem so surprising that when they do finally ‘voice’ their torment, it is through a dramatic physical act, as in this case.
As the explanations continue to roll off his tongue, it’s not difficult to see where he’s coming from. There are no signs of embarrassment about what he went through as some may expect there to be. Nothing really is too much of a big deal to talk about. Though he is considerate of unsettling others. When Terry Jones nestles into the alcove next to us for an interview, he says: “maybe we should stop for a while?” So we eavesdrop for a bit, and continue in quieter tones.
“I’ve quite literally broken the cycle now “, he says, referring to how he finally destroyed the vicious circle with one physical act. “Of course some of it was about drawing attention to myself – ‘look at me, hear me, this is what’s happening to me’.” “Yeah, I know drugs are all about a voyage of self-discovery and all that. But they are not even a good shortcut, they just confuse you more, you end up getting very self-obsessed.”
Tony recognises the urge to go over and over the past in an attempt to understand and rationalise it more than anything else, but he knows there comes a point when you have to take responsibility for how your own life is lived and move on. “My experiences were obviously really personal to me, but there are many people who have had really bad things happen in their lives and they manage to move on. You can’t keep going on about your background, saying ‘it was because of this, it was because of that’. There comes a point when you just have to cut it off, grow up and say ‘well now is now, let’s move on’. I hope I’ve reached that point now.”
“I’m glad to be alive, though in some ways it’s harder to live since I’ve always lived in my head to a certain extent, in a way it’s my home, so I just want it to feel comfortable and not be the hell I’ve created in the past. But we all have our dark sides and we all have our bad days. Mine aren’t so intense now. ” He makes sure he has someone professional to talk to if he does start to feel depressed.
Today he is pretty sussed. He partly keeps dark thoughts at bay by seeing his regular mates, they’ve always been important to him. Although there is still a lot of physical pain in his back, in all life is not bad. He has things many men are still struggling to attain. He has a ten year old daughter who he clearly adores. “I didn’t know it when I walked in front of the train, but my girlfriend at the time was pregnant. I found this out after a few weeks of being in hospital. At that point no one knew whether I would ever walk again, but there was never any question of not keeping the baby.”
He is no longer with her mother, but he sees his daughter every week, and she often stays with him and his current girlfriend, an Australian commercials producer. “My girlfriend and I share a similar sense of humour which is a great leveller. We help each other out, relationships are all about compromising. She is also very grounded, whereas I’m a bit more up in the air, and she won’t have any of my nonsense.”
They share a flat together in Soho, where Tony has lived for the last eight years. He loves the area. He knows the people, Blacks is just up the road, the are great restaurants to go to, but as he says “it’s not like I’m out on the town every night.”
Having never really played the game in terms of being a conventional achiever, he gets by doing his own thing. Always one of the forerunners of an alternative scene, he has been involved with a number of ventures since fully recovering. BigLoud Universe (BLU), a music collective, was set up with his brother, a poet and rapper, in 1993 amid enthusiasm for a post-clubbing reaction to the all too blinkered eighties. With them he composed computerised music scores for short films and did the odd cinema commercial.
He still keeps in with the club scene by DJing on a regular basis for the Foundry, an ‘arty’ club in Old Street. “It’s just nice to see people dance to what you’ve chosen to play, old style funk, jazz, blues, that kind of thing. Music’s a great form of catharsis.”
He also DJ’s for Middlesex Hospital Radio who are always on the look out for volunteers. “The only thing about that is that you can’t say ‘get well soon’, or talk about politics or religion, which aren’t my main topics, but as well as records you can play comedy tapes and read out the more bizarre stories from newspapers, anything to help people pass the time of day.”
Joss Ackland has agreed to voice a short radio play he has recently written, ironically called Television and about a couch potato games show enthusiast who becomes obsessed with coincidences and connections. “I’m trying to write more which I find hard when nothing is structured for me, it’s really rewarding when you succeed though. The lows are lower, but the highs are much higher.
© Tina Bexson
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Drug abuse is one problem, but coming off them and going through detox is quite another, Tina Bexson Reports.
Going through detox is difficult, whatever stage of it the addict is in, but the most challenging stage of all has to be right at the beginning. Making that first step cannot be done alone. It requires both medical and psychological supervision in a very safe environment. But other kinds of therapeutic intervention can help aid that process too.
The Max Glatt Unit at St. Bernard’s Wing of Ealing hospital is a NHS Drug and Alcohol in-patient Detoxification Unit provided by Central and North West London Mental health (NHS) Trust. Set up in 1962 by Berliner, Max Glatt, one of the pioneers in the treatment and rehabilitation of alcoholics and drug addicts, it offers a flexible 10-14 day detoxification. And amongst the groups of anxiety management, music therapy, health promotion, and bingo written up on the weekly schedule, can be found both shiatsu and auricular acupuncture.
Howard Malpas and his wife Elsa were first employed by the trust to do a programme of shiatsu and auricular acupuncture in 1994. At the time they were two of only eight people in the country to get paid by the NHS to perform these services. “We had a successful private practice treating business men but I felt my skills should be used for people who were really unwell and support those who are vulnerable in society”, Howard explains.
Developed in Japan Shiatsu is a system of massage that uses finger pressure to manipulate the acupuncture meridian and points, and has been found to be especially effective as tool to aid detox.
“It relaxes the body quickly, helps to flush out the toxins that have built up in the tissues, and creates beneficial chemical reactions in the body such as raising the T cell count (good for the minority of people we have in here with Hepatitis C, and HIV), and increases endorphins, the natural opiates produced by the body.”
“For opiate abusers this is great. They often say it is better than taking drugs because it gets them into a natural high, the first many of them have had for years. But it can also help alleviate the physical pain from something called ‘clucking’, the spasms and cramps they get when coming off the drug.”
In auricular acupuncture the ear is seen as a foetus of the body, the head is the lobe and so forth. Howard places the needles into acupuncture points that are connected to those organs that help the detox process, for example the liver, kidneys, and lungs. These points also tone and strengthen these internal organs that are often very damaged due to the substance abuse. And the act of putting the needles in the ear causes the body to relax so it can then start to heal itself.
He clearly finds working here extremely rewarding, but, he says, “It can be a crying place, people come in very sad. Their self-esteem is low and its challenging for me to get myself full of vitality. Slow to anger is useful too as is being able to see people from their perspective and not your own.”
Howard’s wife Elsa agrees: “You must be able to feel an empathy for clients. If you come in with judgements you’re not going to be happy. Some of them have been abusing their bodies for many years and to have someone place their hands on them with good intention is immensely powerful.”
“One of the first things people say when they first come in feeling quite scared is ‘do I have to take my clothes off?’ and when they hear the answer is no it reassures them immediately and they relax quicker too.”
For Elsa one of the challenges of the job is seeing clients’ return to go through detox again. “That’s quite sad, but so is the not knowing what happens to everyone because we often only hear the sad endings rather than the positive endings ones.”
However one of the units roles is to organise the returning of ex patients, who have stayed clean, volunteer to do introductory programmes for new clients. This has proved very successful. And Howard and Elsa have had 18 ex patients to date complete his shiatsu training course.
One of staff nurse Mike Dune’s main tasks is to administer medication to clients to help them with their withdrawal symptoms. “We have to assess them very carefully as some need more medication than others. When they are coming off heroin or opiates we use different methods of treatment depending on what they want. They can make informed choices.”
Mike previously worked at a mental health centre in Soho where he came into contact with a lot of clients with a dual diagnosis, who had both an addictive personality coupled with schizophrenia or manic depression. “The focus was on the mental illness rather than the drugs and the patients were also sometimes seen to be untreatable because they were addicted to drugs. So I wanted to find out more about why people use drugs and I wanted to develop myself further in this field. So that’s how I eventually found myself here.”
Most clients are receptive to treatment having come in on a voluntary basis but, Mike says, a small number come on drugs testing and treatment orders and they have to comply whether they like it or not. “Some of them, especially those coming off heroin, and who have been in prison, can create barriers and make it very difficult for us to help them by treating us as though we are another agent of social control.”
“So you must be patient, think quickly and communicate at the level of the client, speak to them in their language so they understand where you are coming from. And you must know when not to say something because they are in a state due to the behaviour associated with coming off drugs or alcohol.”
Trilock Domah, team co-ordinator is responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the clinic on a daily basis. He also organises the training for staff in areas such as how to run groups, how to deal with difficult situations, innovation treatment, methadone tolerance testing, and health promotion.
“You need to be calm, knowledgeable about detox in general and government policies and new treatments. You must also listen to people and attempt to understand the reasons for their individual substance abuse in the first place and be aware of what physiological and psychological changes occur during detox. Most people need training to be able to do this.“
Trilock says he finds the whole job rewarding but especially the running of groups such as relapse prevention and the after care groups. Clients often relapse when something has gone wrong in their lives. “For example one client who had been abstinent for a few week relapsed when his wife died. He went through detox again then after a longer period someone else in his family died and he started to drink again. So we have to look at how he can deal with the emotions and fears he experiences when someone dies without abusing alcohol. Looking at how all our clients can sustain their abstinence in the future is one of the major challenges for us.”
© Tina Bexson
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ART THERAPY by Tina Bexson
I’m quizzing Art Therapist Vicky Barber in her living room before I enter her studio and take the plunge with a spot of art therapy.
I want to know how it works but most of all I want to know what I can gain from it.
She tells me that the act of creating an image will allow me to visualise then express emotion, which needs releasing. Any blocked energy, especially of the creative kind, can also be released. Most importantly, she says ‘it provides a safe place to explore your emotions and behaviour with a view to finding new ways forward. It can actually be used to promote life-enhancing change.’
Vicky’s clients have found relief from stress, anxiety, communication problems (both written and verbal) and they have even used art therapy as another way of addressing non-psychological issues. One woman had big financial problems. ‘She earned lots of money but she was always spending. She painted and created and it was like looking at the problem from a different perspective, she came up with a solution herself and went back to see her bank manager.’
A team from a leading advertising agency also used her services to help them work more effectively together especially in terms of how they communicated with each other. ‘When they had meeting to help launch a product they would rely on words as a means of explanation. I helped them devise a way of being as fluid with imaging as they were with words.’
‘Looking at things from a different angle means you can often come up with very different and quite unique solutions’, she says.
Then she asks me what I hope I will gain from the session. I say that I hope it will be relaxing, and bring about some release of emotion without me having to talk about it. My ‘problem’ you could say, is that I find talking about my feelings self-indulgent and wimpy!
Vicky says that the strength of art therapy is that you don’t need language at all. ‘You can be as articulate as you like but there are times when we lose the ability to talk, and that’s when art therapy can come into its own. You are ‘talking’ in a different way. It’s very spontaneous, you can never predict what will happen.’
Okay, but what if you’re no good at art? “That’s irrelevant. The Art is just a tool, a means to an end to externalise what is internal. You’re not being judged by what you might create.”
Remembering the mess I used to make at school in art classes, I’m very glad about that.
We climb the stairs to her studio. It’s a treasure trove filled with watercolours, crayons, poster paints, sequins, clay, felt, beads, beans, leaves, and little plastic toys. ‘I need a variety of materials, to go with peoples changing moods’, says Vicky.
For their first session she always begins in a directive way by giving her clients a focus. She asks me to think about my name. What does it mean? Do I like it? What memories do I have of it? Do people change my name at different times? What would I like to be called? ‘Think about it and get into that space so its with you when you create an image’, she instructs.
Umm. I stand poised with a paintbrush in front of an enormous piece of blank paper and think – a lot. A few minutes later Vicky encourages me to use anything I like in the room. ‘Choose your materials, there are no restrictions and you can make as much mess as you like. This is the place to let your feelings go’, she explains from her stool in the corner. Then she sits back and observes my actions throughout the session.
First off I reach for the paints and decide to paint a thick black border. Good that feels better. Then I draw the cross section of a human head and divide it into four sections. I’ll paint four different things associated with my name in each I think. But what? I think of my name, I was christened Christina, which I believe means daughter of Christ. I’m atheist and anyway I’ve always called myself Tina.
But for some reason I begin by painting Joan of Arc burning on a massive bonfire that I make from crushing up bits of twig and leaves. I love primary colours and opt for deep reds, greens, blue and black. She has great flames of fire coming out of her eyes and is shredding black tears onto a white face. I stick down two plastic flying dinosaur things in the sky.
In the square above Joan I paint a long flowing river which ends up cutting through the middle of the page into the bottom right hand corner. I think of childhood days riding in the country and surround it with fields of horses. Then it gets a bit gloomy again and I attempt to paint a winding staircase spiralling upwards towards a triangular room – it’s a recurring dream and I haven’t a clue what its got to do with my name. But it goes a bit wrong so I turn it into a bright multi-coloured snake, my biggest fear in childhood! The triangle at the top becomes its face and a forked tongue flicks out from the mouth. Facing the tongue and on either side of it I place a plastic Ninja child wielding a sword. And then drag a plane horizontally through the wet paint in the middle of it.
I’m starting to feel quite childlike myself and can’t help grinning at the image in front of me. Art Therapy is all about getting back to how we were as children, when there was no division between images and words.
The forty minutes is up. Almost every available space is covered with paint, sequins, material or plastic animals and people. I’ve painted all the gaps between the black border and the head with deep green. I’m very relieved. The overall feeling is definitely one of catharsis. Vicky gets up from her stool and comes over to have a closer look. ‘A lot has happened here, much more than you expected it to.’ That’s true. ‘I noticed you filled up all the space quite animatedly.’
I didn’t start off that way, for the first ten minutes or so I didn’t think I’d have enough ideas to create much at all. Vicky explains that most people are like that when they come to art therapy. ‘When you began the task the logical side of you linked with the left side of your brain was saying ‘oh this is just a silly exercise’. But once you got into the process the right side of the brain took over and your creative juices flowed out. When you allow that to happen it can be wonderful.’
It did feel good to rely on visual expression rather than words. In fact art therapy can be very good for people less skilled in image making than they are in language since worlds can be used to mask true feelings rather than express them. I’ve always remembered the playwright Harold Pinter saying that the most significant things about us can be found in what we don’t say rather than in what we do say.
Vicky asks me to try and explain what emotions came up whilst I painted what I did. I relay some of the reasoning behind the things I painted, and she reflects and makes some interesting comments, though she is careful not to make too meaningful an interpretation, as this is not part of art therapy. However I found her observations useful in that they illuminated some fears and things I perhaps didn’t want to admit to.
‘It’s very profound’, she says of the image. ‘you cut the neck off the head, and painted in the dripping blood, its scary.’
‘And all the different things you painted were contained in someway: first the black border, the cross section of the head, then the way you divided the head into compartments.’ I think it could be an indication that I’m a control freak but Vicky goes further, ‘It’s as though you didn’t want anything ‘spilling’ out unnecessarily. You want to keep it all contained and you don’t want to give too much away.’
True, but who does?!
I tell her that I’m sure I only painted Joan of Arc because I had seen the Luc Besson film a few weeks previously, but she says ‘why choose the image of her burning?’
‘You may be dismissive, but look at what’s come out. Things that were fearful and meaningful to you as a child. But what’s positive is that you do acknowledge the nice things, the river, the horses, and they are important to hold onto.’ I make a mental note to do so.
She asks if I ever climbed the ‘winding staircase’ in my dreams (I did) and when I describe the dream, she says ‘so beautiful, but so totally dangerous.’
‘If you want to you can explore more, you can explore why you keep having a recurring dream, or why you feel in a certain way. Exploring will never erase your memories but it will lessen the blows. Though you may never be ready to explore things because going to some places within ourselves is too much.’
She also says that when people work in this way, ‘lots of things come out, you can’t stop it, you paint the stuff you don’t want to look at consciously, that’s the magic of art therapy’.
I don’t think I want to look too deeply at anything at the moment consciously or unconsciously, but I’m sure I will do some art therapy of one form or another again soon. It was hardly relaxing but it was certainly inspirational.
© Tina Bexson
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ASTROLOGY: Tina Bexson investigates the growing recognition of one of the oldest arts
Astrology has always lured the famous and influential from the likes of Princess Diana and numerous celebrities to ageing politicians such as Ronald Reagan and, most surprisingly, JP Morgan and Margaret Thatcher. The latter apparently turned to a Daily Express astrologer to stargaze for signs of future dangers after surviving the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton back in 1984. Its success in attracting such a diverse collection of people is legendary. Perhaps you’d think the rest of us more grounded souls wouldn’t have much time for such silly speculation.
You’d be very wrong. Over 60% of us not only fail to resist taking a daily peek at our horoscopes in our favourite newspaper, but increasing droves of us are seeking out personal one to one consultations, buying books and even taking up courses in an attempt to study it. In fact plans to make astrology a university subject are already well underway. Earlier this year a mystery benefactor donated half a million pounds to make astrology respectable. The Sophia Trust will be making the money available for an MA course. Astrology was thrown out of universities 300 years ago so if successful this first step of getting it academic recognition could have wide reaching consequences in astrology being taken seriously as a career.
Why? Because as with the dramatic embracing of alternative therapies, what has been labelled as the ‘new religion’ is also beginning to fulfil our need to find meaning and understanding in our lives beyond the material and mechanical interpretations we are surrounded with. Its rich symbolism encourages us to delve into our unconscious and feed our imagination. Unsurprisingly, musicians, poets, filmmakers and novelists have all been inspired by astrological themes in creating their art.
We are undoubtedly hungry for more, much more. But Roy Gillett, President of the Astrological Association of Great Britain says there’s a vast gap between the simplified Sun Sign stuff and ‘real’ astrology. “There is a very powerful appetite with the general public for more knowledge of astrology. The problem is, the only way this can be easily satisfied is by reading the Sun Sign columns, and these are very superficial. It’s like comparing chopsticks to the world of music. But despite the lack of accessibility, the resistance from the media and scientists, those determined enough to find out more do. Perhaps there will be more opportunities in the future.”
In the meantime, the increased popularity and apparent respectability of professional astrologers of all persuasions, be they Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, or Financial, ensure they continue to make a living by offering us their pearls of wisdom.
HOW THEY WORK:
Indian (Vedic) Astrology
Vedic Astrology is taken very seriously in India – it’s akin to a way of life. More commonly known as Jyotish, the science of light, it is even used to pre-determine arranged marriages. The prospective couple’s charts are compared so the pluses and minuses can be learnt allowing the opportunity to improve the quality of the relationship. People rarely make an important decision without consulting their family Jyotishi (practitioner of Astrology). And India’s university grants division has invited its country’s universities to set up departments of Vedic Astrology leading to doctoral degrees next academic year.
Komilla Sutton, an ex Bombay film star who now lives in England is a professional Vedic astrologer who works with international clients over the internet. She says that Vedic Astrology is a path of self knowledge which harmonises our material and spiritual sides. Unlike Western Astrology, which emphasises the significance of the sun, in Indian Astrology, the moon is of prime importance.
“We use a solar zodiac (connected with the moon being in a sign for a month) and a lunar zodiac (moon being in a sign for a day), and we combine the two together. The waxing and waning phases of the moon represent the cycles of life and death, transformation and change, darkness and light. The Sun signifies the soul as well as life’s mission, our Karma of this life,” Komilla explains. In fact the whole concept of Indian philosophy is that people bring some karma into their lives when they are born as though it’s a kind of genetic code.
Komilla’s main diagnostic tool is Mahurata, the electing of auspicious times for various events. It is the moment on time when the conditions are as near perfect for the start of your venture. Marriage is the most important of the Mahurata’s to be elected. Election charts are also done regularly for start of businesses, moving homes, and travelling.
“Most people contact me because they are at a crossroads in life or are going through a tough time that they don’t feel will ever change. My job is not to tell them what to do but to give them a kind of weather report as the cycles of time touch your lives in their own unique way. The reading gives them the power to understand their lives and will make them aware of their positive energy so they can enhance their life. People often don’t look at their positive chart at all, they only exaggerate their negativity. But I can’t give them the answer to their lives, they have to find that themselves.”
For information on Vedic Astrology and on Komilla and the various books she has written, contact her website: www.komilla.com
Many people visit astrologers so they can be told what to do with their lives or how to meet their perfect astrological man. It will do neither maintains Peta High, Chair of the Astrological Association and who is both an Astrologist, and humanistic therapist. ”Deterministic and fatalistic astrology which gives people the feeling that they have no power over their lives is now very old fashioned, its completely rubbish. You might get the odd power tripping astrologer who does that but professional astrologers try to empower people with the information from their birth chart, which provides a blueprint of their psyche. It’s like being in a card game, you are dealt a hand and you play them whichever way you want. “
Roy echoes this. “Your are born with a pattern of things of things to experience but knowing what they are provides you with the freedom to master and change them. So it teaches you about what you have to challenge.
However finding out exactly what that pattern or blue print is, is a complicated process. Along with the time, date and place of birth, Astrologers take the position of the sun, moon and the 8 planets at the time of birth, along with which way around the earth was.
“This provides them with a unique series of archetypal pictures,” Roy explains. “Each concept has a meaning which tells them about the persons basic nature. They can then look at the charts for any time in the future and relate these to the chart of the birth and work out at which times in their life they have the best opportunity to really exploit their potential and over come their difficulties. That’s how it works. It’s very much like cooking the most complicated meal you have cooked in your entire life.”
Contact: The Astrological Association of Great Britain: 0208 880 4848 / http://www.astrologer.com
Financial astrologers (sometimes called mundane astrologers) claim to make forecasts on the climate, the stock markets, and the fortunes of world leaders, national and multinational corporations.
Christeen Skinner specialises in the study of planet cycles and their relationship with economic, social and political affairs. she says that correlations can offer a clear cut picture. “For example when planet Mercury is retrograde (appearing to travel backwards in relation to the Earth) there are often problems with communication, travel, postal services, and so on. But the skill lies in considering the many different cycles that intersect at any moment in any place in order to understand their combined effect.”
Her clients include international bankers, publishers, retailers, stock traders and many others. The Body Shop’s founder Anita Roddick, for whom she did a blind report for the Channel 4 Witness programme, described her as “a marketing genius”
“When I work with individual organisations, like say Marks & Spencer, I take the complex planet cycles to determine when a wave of positive energy is available to benefit them or when energy is more likely to work against them. ”
Some companies retain business astrologers to help them identify the best dates for the launch of marketing campaigns. “This approach takes into account what is happening astrologically at a given time and compares that to the cycles that were operating when the company itself was formed. The company can then convey its own mission statement at the same time as promoting a particular idea or product.”
“Styles, colours words and images can also be identified form the planets aspects, giving creative material to the industry. For example: Venus, the planet associated with fashion, makes patterns with the other planets throughout the year. Study of this cycle shows how trends are likely to develop and when a public mood might radically alter.”
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A Kurdish man is on trial for terrorist activities. His defence, say that since he is clearly mentally impaired, he couldn’t possibly have planned the crimes he is accused of. So, forensic psychologist, Professor Gisli Gudjonsson, is called in to assess the man’s intellectual ability. In an interview room at the Old Bailey he tries to determine how well the defendant can cope with testifying and whether there’s a possibility he is malingering by administering a series of performance and intelligence tests.
“One of these had an inbuilt formula or capacity to monitor whether someone was faking or not, and the results indicated that he was,” Gudjonsson explained. He also noticed certain inconsistencies in the man’s behaviour, such as his sudden ability to speak English after the interpreter left the room, even though he had previously professed to hardly know any.
Gudjonsson, who, in this case, was hired by the prosecution, concluded that the man was indeed “pretending not to be very bright.” He gave this evidence to the court and later the Kurdish man was found guilty.
This is a typical example of Gudjonsson’s work as a forensic psychologist, and assessments of mental ability, or ‘fitness’ cases, be they to stand trial (as was originally the case with child murderer Ian Huntley) or to be police interviewed, can all reveal malingering defendants. It’s a classic attempt of ‘not to face the music’.
“You have to be aware people can lie to you. They can fake a test by exaggerating problems they do have, and by making up problems they’ve never had,” he told me.
Detecting lies is a complicated business. They can be revealed by someone being inconsistent in their answers, by nonverbal behaviour (but the detection rate here is low), and by polygraph tests (which will detect beyond chance).
Gudjonsson elaborated: “A new area of detection, currently being developed, is that of ‘micro expressions’. These are the sudden expressions we emit that indicate certain emotions, such as fear or lying. Psychologists in the States are being trained how to spot them by viewing interview tapes.”
Psychiatrists, as we know, always used to look down on the work of psychologists. There was that sense of ‘we’re doctors, you’re not’, but now the role of the forensic psychologist has dramatically expanded within the legal field, and particularly within the diverse area of assessments.
Traditionally psychiatrists worked exclusively on assessments and they still do where they clearly involve a serious mental illness, but when they relate to issues of how well defendants can function in terms of listening to evidence, testifying, and instructing their lawyers, it is primarily psychologists who have stepped in to take up the work load. This involves looking at how they are functioning emotionally, intellectually, and in term of their concentration and attention.
A high profile case that illustrated just how involved the role of the forensic psychologist can be here, was in the murder of Jill Dando, for which Barry George was given a life sentence in 2001 before finally being acquitted in 2008.
Along with neuropsychiatrist, Professor Michael Kopelman and neuropsychologist, Dr Susan Young, Gudjonsson was hired by the defence to assess George before his trial to see if he was mentally fit to attend it.
After carrying out a detailed psychological evaluation the three expert witnesses concluded that George appeared to have neuropsychological problems including brain damage, epilepsy, and cognitive deficits in terms of not being able to plan or organise himself. So Gudjonsson referred him for a neuropsychological examination which confirmed their suspicions.
Despite there being “a very fine balance” and an acknowledgement that “things could trigger off a reaction that could make him unfit”, George was still found ‘fit’ to plead and attend trial.
Then when the judge allowed the media to publish photographs of him, his mental state did indeed deteriorate and the trail was postponed. Once it resumed the three professionals continued to assess him regularly. “Our job was to ensure his fitness was maintained throughout the trial,” Gudjonsson explains.
Dr Susan Young was even commissioned by the judge to sit in court and observe George’s demeanour and help him to relax and cope with the stress. And Gudjonsson helped George overcome “a psychogenic blindness” with a session of hypnosis after he complained that he couldn’t see whilst he became stressed during legal arguments at the beginning of the trial.
Although Gudjonsson is adamant that psychologists mustn’t get bogged down by questions of guilt or innocence – “We need to remain dispassionate” – he does admit that at the time he found it “difficult to imagine how someone with Barry George’s impaired brain and problems with organisation could have carried out such a well executed murder.”
“I can’t say he didn’t do it, but the picture I had of him, having spent a lot of time with him, didn’t match up with the murder and the crime scene.”
Gudjonsson has provided many types of psychological testimony in over 1,000 cases during the last 26 years, and is still as fascinated by the more cerebral side of crime as he was when he first started. The 69-year-old Icelandic came to London to learn English back in the 1960’s but decided to stay on and qualify as a psychologist. “Forensic Psychology is a hugely challenging area,” he enthused in his clipped hybrid accent.
“You’re dealing with a lot of suffering, and many dilemmas, [including false allegations, recovered memories, and “cell confession” evidence] so I’m forever learning.”
Recovered memories are relentlessly controversial, and Gudjonsson first acted as a consultant for the police, helping them assess cases of people making allegations of abuse based on recovered memories from childhood. He is currently analysing research data on the impact such allegations have on the families of the complainants.
Although he recognises the complexity of the area of recovered memories, and the “importance of approaching each case with an open mind, and to consider the possibility that the memories may be true”, he believes that we need “to be extremely cautious about accepting them without corroboration.”
But it is within the area of false confessions that Gudjonsson first made his name.
This pioneering work along with his subsequent testimony for the landmark case of the Tottenham Three and two other serious miscarriages of justice featuring false confessions (the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six), paved the way for the admissibility of psychological evidence in the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.
“Before these cases psychological evidence wasn’t so readily accepted in relation to disputed confessions, and although they were a real battle they did eventually help remove much scepticism.”
Gudjonsson’s expert testimony here was based on many years of research reaching back to the 1980s, a time when there was great scepticism among psychologists, psychiatrists and lawyers who didn’t believe that false confessions occurred with sufficient frequency to warrant attention. In collaboration with the psychiatrist, Dr James MacKeith, he finally managed to convince the judiciary that false confessions do occur, be they elicited by the police or offered voluntarily.
This research analysed how people might be induced to make confessions to crimes they had not committed. He found that a range of significant emotional and psychological factors such as how compliant or suggestible a person is under pressure, especially police pressure, are more likely explanations than low IQ, despite the view that you’d have to be stupid to own up to something you didn’t do.
“Most of the vulnerabilities have nothing to do with intelligence,” he explained. “In the cases I looked at, the people were quite ordinary and their intellectual functioning wasn’t of much relevance. Personality characteristics [including personality disorders] are more significant.”
This led him to produce the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scales (GSS), in short, a series of assessment techniques which identify compliance and suggestibility, and are used across the globe in cases of disputed confession evidence. Gudjonsson has been involved in over 20 cases in which convictions have been overturned on the basis of false confessions.
False confessions are now largely a problem of the past. This is partly due to the better safeguards for suspects in custody such as the routine use of tape recorders, and partly because the police have been forced to become aware of how suggestibility can lead to defendants falsely confessing and have made necessary changes in their interview techniques and in policing generally. And of course, the publicity generated by high profile cases getting quashed due to Gudjonsson’s evidence gave the service a long over due wake up call.
You’d have thought Gudjonsson would be the last person the police would want to approach for advice on confessions. But they regularly refer to his book ‘The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions’ (which updates all his research and evidence in the area of false confessions), for interviewing techniques as well as asking him for help.
“Now that shows a certain openness and flexibility”, he said. “It’s remarkable they don’t view me as a hostile person.”
Gudjonsson does still testify on the occasional appeal case concerning disputed confession evidence from the past. During one of these appeals the examination of psychological evidence resulted in some quite bizarre happenings in the court room. The case in question took place in Belfast. It featured the third appeal of the UDR soldier Neil Latimer who was convicted of murder along with three others (the so-called UDR 4) in 1986. Gudjonsson testified for the defence arguing that Latimer’s murder confession was unreliable because at the time he made it, he was stressed, psychologically vulnerable, and easily manipulated. The psychologist working for the Crown Prosecution Service, tried to undermine Gudjonsson’s evidence by saying that the test he used to detect Latimer’s vulnerability for giving in to stress and pressure, wasn’t very valid. As Gudjonsson revealed: “He ridiculed it by saying because he himself had taken the test and got a very high score for stress, it couldn’t possibly be valid.”
However, it all backfired later when the psychologist suddenly said he “felt faint” in the middle of giving evidence. He then collapsed in a heap at the bottom of the witness box, and had to be rushed to casualty where he was diagnosed as suffering from severe stress.
“That was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in court,” muses Gudjonsson. “It just shows you how stressed people can get, including psychologists acting as expert witnesses!”
He also testifies abroad and likens the situation in some countries – Canada, America, and Scandinavian ones for instance – as like “going back twenty years in terms of naïve attitudes and prejudices.”
Indeed, one of Gudjonsson’s cases was that of a Canadian man imprisoned since 1974 for falsely confessing to the murder of a fireman for reasons, Gudjonsson argues, were connected to his antisocial personality disorder and his “need for notoriety.” Despite “good alibi evidence”, the confession alone was enough to get him convicted at the time of the offence. However, Gudjonsson’s latest report on the man was later reviewed by the Minister of Justice who had the authority of the Criminal Code of Canada to order a re-trial.
In another of his murder cases, this time in Norway, the court decided a confession was more powerful than DNA evidence excluding the defendant from the crime.
“The man was eventually acquitted by the jury on appeal, but at the time the general attitude of the judiciary seemed to be that false confessions didn’t happen in Norway. They think it’s only a problem in Britain.”
But he believes attitudes have slowly changed and his evidence was crucial in stopping a death row execution in Texas at a time when George W Bush was Governor and infamous for his hesitancy in halting the final push of the button. Of course, other scientific advances such as DNA evidence and CCTV footage have made confessions and therefore false confessions less of an issue. For example, there have been over 300 DNA exonerations in the USA since the late 1980s. Of these over 20 percent have involved either a false confession or a false plea. However, despite these changes there has been less of an appetite in the US to address the issue of false confessions. In Britain, the situation has been different. Here few DNA exonerations have occurred, but DNA has been found to support Gudjonsson’s evidence. The Cardiff Three was a case in question. The convictions of all three defendants were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1992 based on oppressive interviewing. By 2003 the real murderer, Jeffrey Gafoor, pleaded guilty to murder and was given a mandatory life sentence after being identified by DNA evidence.
Gudjonsson says he has not been aware of a case where his evidence of unreliability was later contradicted by DNA. However, DNA evidence is only available in a minority of cases and as a result in a majority it still does not overcome the issue of false confessions. The position regarding CCTV footage is less well known. Reliable DNA and CCTV evidence is likely to encourage suspects to give a genuine confession and so can aid towards exonerating the wrongly convicted.
The ability to remain objective in each case is crucial and Gudjonsson ensures he divides his time allocated for court work equally between the defence and the prosecution so he is never “partisan for one side or the other…It’s terribly important to work dispassionately, as well as not taking things personally.”
His techniques though are “always open to abuse. Everyone wants to go on the bandwagon to use them to get their client off. You have to recognise this.”
What about your reports of ‘fitness cases’ and psychological assessments, do the defence ever ask you to manipulate your findings to their advantage?
“I was asked to do this in a murder case about five years ago,” he admitted.
“When I refused, the lawyer said to me ‘I’m not ASKING you to alter it, I’m TELLING you’. And I said: ‘that’s fine, I’ll make a formal complaint against you’. He then rang back and apologised and said, ‘could we not come to an agreement’, but I said ‘no, there’s no compromise’.”
Do these things still go on?
“Yes, though they don’t happen to me very often these days because people know my stance on it. But I do get colleagues who are put under pressure, and I support and advise them.”
A British Psychological Society survey found of the 27% of psychologists who had been pressurised to change reports in favour of the defence, over half then gave in to the pressures and made the changes. Gudjonsson said that this is more likely to happen when psychologists rely on the court referrals for their entire income.
He clearly doesn’t have to do this and says that he only takes on a fraction of the legal cases he gets referred because most of his time is taken up at the Institute of Psychiatry, and at the Maudsley Hospital where he is head of forensic psychology services. Seeing patients under a criminal section on the hospital’s medium secure unit is invaluable.
“You learn a lot from evaluating the mentally abnormal offenders, such as how far they feel remorse, and when they blame their offending on their mental state, their depression, etc, or on the victim. This is because they can’t accept responsibility for what they’ve done.”
However not all psychologists have this opportunity to work clinically or to conduct research. Some aren’t as established or have decided to purely do court work because as Gudjonsson admits, “there’s a lot of it out there. So, they set themselves up as expert witnesses in many different fields, and it’s tempting for them to take on things they aren’t specialised in.”
“But I say to them ‘if you are a real expert you should be concentrating on specific areas rather than being like a GP who takes on everything.”
Shouldn’t psychologists also keep in mind their overall limitations? They are after all, only witnesses.
“Yes”, he concedes.
“Psychologists should never be truth tellers, they know no better than the jury and the judges in terms of deciding on and determining truth.”
To find an expert witness, go to the UK Register of Expert Witnesses at: