Terence Blacker: Divorced, and back on the couch

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The co-author of Families and How to Survive Them has embarked upon his Alimony Tour. One of the comic themes of this travelling one-man show derives from his divorce from his third wife Alyce, and the expensive settlement which followed. It could have been worse, one gag goes. "Imagine how much I'd have had to pay Alyce if she had contributed anything to the relationship – such as children or conversation."

The world has much to thank John Cleese for. He was a guiding light behind a history-changing TV sketch show. He co-wrote and starred in the funniest and most painful situation comedy ever created. There are many who loved films like A Fish Called Wanda and Clockwise. The guide to surviving family life, which he wrote with the psychotherapist Robin Skynner, is full of sanity and commonsense.

As a public figure, though, Cleese has become a scary reminder of the limitations and perils of therapy. With an emotional openness which presumably derives from thousands of hours talking about himself to various shrinks down the years, he has shared with interviewers the details of his own psychodrama.

His mother was a severe disappointment. "Dreadful," he says in the new show. "Classically self-centred. And she lived to 101 – I thought I'd never get rid of her." His father was a conventional, repressed, lower middle-class Englishman of the type Cleese has used to great comical effect throughout his life.

The problems in his marriages can be traced back to his mother. "I have a history of being rather placatory with women," he just told The Sunday Times. "If you have a mother who is very selfish and you don't get much attention from her, it sends you the message that you're not worth it... I think all my wives and girlfriends have had aspects similar to my mother."

Therapy had brought Cleese and his third wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger, together – she was in the trade herself – but had failed to save it. Why, Cleese was asked, did he agree to see a therapist with his wife after the relationship had broken down? "It's because I had become placatory."

A simple, familiar message emerges from these various accounts of his own emotional history: the fault is apparently always someone else's. The past provides a moral get-out-jail-free card.

There is a problem when shrink sessions morph into press interviews and comedy shows: certain inconsistencies become rather obvious. The joke about his third wife failing to provide children or conversation, for example, is more than merely unkind – when they married, Alyce Faye was 48. Their conversational life those days seemed pretty good, too. In one profile, they revealed that they read the same books together so that they could discuss them at the end of the day.

Blame others, air your emotional problems in public, be openly cruel to those you once loved: are these really the lessons that psychotherapy teaches? I wonder what a family therapist would say about this kind of behaviour. To the naïve and unshrunk, it would seem obvious that, while acts of public cruelty towards ex-intimates may be satisfying at the time, they will be more harmful in the long-term to the hater than the hated. Access to public curiosity and sympathy may give a celebrity power over a civilian but, as Gordon Ramsay will surely discover in time, it is never wise to use fame to resolve private agonies.

In an age of emotional spin and games-playing, John Cleese's habit of public candour has the merit of naked honesty. There might even be more to be learned from his enraged autobiographical riffs than from the rather gentler guide to family life which he once wrote with Robin Skynner.

The moral they offer to the world is plain: beware of an over-dependence on psychotherapy.


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