Emotion without tears

Profile: Susie Orbach; Geraldine Bedell on the psychotherapist who gave the Princess a new language
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THE best-selling author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue seemed at moments on Monday night to be an unseen presence on the nation's television screens. Princess Diana's Panorama interview was steeped in the language of psychotherapy ("I knew I needed space and time... you have so much pain on the inside that you try and hurt yourself on the outside... I was actually crying out..."). More specifically, it was steeped in the language of Susie Orbach, whom Diana has been seeing up to three times a week for the past 12 months. Another therapist who knows Orbach's work well said she felt at times she almost knew what was coming next.

Poised and, to use one of her own favourite words, strong, Diana looked a good advertisement for psychotherapy. Here was a woman who formerly had so few words for her emotions that she had been driven to express them through bulimia and self-mutilation, articulating clearly how she felt.

Nicholas Soames, in his different way, looked like another good advertisement for psychotherapy. By recognising no emotional state between heartiness and the advanced stages of paranoia, he unwittingly confirmed the Princess's implied contention that the British establishment was chronically emotionally constipated ("I suppose you're going to waste that food later on?"). The Spectator magazine did its bit for insensibility by dismissing Diana's desire to "chatter" about her feelings. "Do we want our children to grow up," it demanded loftily, "endlessly to emote?"

Yes we do, is Susie Orbach's response. In her most recent book, What's Really Going On Here? she argues that "we need to challenge our culturally- transmitted fear of emotions ... To recognise a feeling is not, as so many fear, to succumb to it ... A fear of emotions exploits and distorts people's longings and desires. A fear of emotions curtails our health, our marriages, our relationships with children as well as our capacity for citizenship."

The last part is no mere rhetorical flourish. A consistent theme throughout Orbach's many books and her column in the Guardian is the need to associate psychotherapy with social issues. She sees herself as bringing emotions out of the kitchen, bedroom and consulting room into public life. Perhaps this looks less like hubris when you consider her own history as the writer of the book now affectionately known as FiFi - which, as its publisher Gail Rebuck recalls, "genuinely did change lives". Orbach's argument that women's attitudes to being fat had little to do with food had enormous impact when it was published in 1978. It was, as Rebuck says, "an Event".

Orbach's argument - that women were using their bodies to express emotions about their powerlessness - changed perceptions of dieting, food disorders and women themselves. Excavate the emotions and understand the oppressions, Orbach claimed, and some, perhaps much, of the pain would go. You might even find you got thinner.

She has since applied variations of this theory to a range of situations. Recent columns have considered the divorce bill and the Blairs' decision to send their son to a grant-maintained school; her theme remains the need for emotional literacy. Sometimes she seems almost to be suggesting that if we could get our emotions sorted out, we'd all be (as she is) New Labour: "Desperation, anger and hopelessness are some of the emotional states right-wing politicians have relied upon in their quest to underpin authoritarian policies," she wrote recently.

Is she right about the national blight of emotional illiteracy? Can a culture that has Shakespeare at its core really be said not to understand the relationship between public events and private feelings? or a nation that watches Pride and Prejudice and EastEnders be thought uninterested in feelings? Perhaps the reason Orbach's writing often sounds superficial is that a lot of it is rather obvious, and - what's more - couched in the ugly, imprecise language of therapy.

IT IS difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about Susie Orbach. Fellow psychotherapists pay tribute to her talents as a populariser and her influence in relating psychotherapy to women. Her friends speak of her incredible generosity, warmth, femininity and wonderful cooking.

She was born in Chalk Farm in 1946; her father was a Labour MP, her mother an American who came to England to study law and ended up teaching English to foreigners. Both were Jewish. (Orbach is self-mocking about her tendency to be a Jewish mother). She attended the very academic North London Collegiate School, which she remembers as horrible - full of stuck-up girls who despised her for being Jewish and not posh enough. She claims to have been the only Jewish girl in the school, though North London Collegiate is one- third Jewish now, and one wonders if she has got this quite right. At any rate, she was expelled when she was 15 "for having sex", as she puts it - an experience which she says has left her with an abiding sympathy for teenage girls.

At 21, she abandoned plans to become a lawyer, decamped to New York and enrolled on a university women's studies course. It was 1968. "There had been no attempt till then to bring together modern psychoanalytic theory and feminism. We were innovating it." She attended her first discussion group on compulsive eating and selfimage in 1970. In a rare flash of humour (in her writing at any rate, though it is evidently there in person) she has described her dismay on discovering that this group did not, as she had expected, involve discussion of nutritional habits in the United States and the Third World. Instead, feminists were actually thinking about their bodies. Unpolitical as this seemed, she went back; within months she had broken a 10-year cycle of compulsive eating and dieting. The experience led directly to Fat Is A Feminist Issue, published when she was 32.

In 1976, Orbach returned to London with her great friend and colleague Luise Eichenbaum and founded the Women's Therapy Centre, to offer feminist therapy (largely based on the work of Melanie Klein and Nancy Chodorow) for women, by women. Later they would set up the Women's Therapy Institute in New York, a postgraduate training institution.

There are now 20 therapists at the Women's Therapy Centre - and waiting lists. Orbach is these days only a consultant; she left, says psychotherapist Stephen Frosh, partly because of theoretical disagreements. "Feminist psychotherapy went through a phase of being influenced by ideas of the destructive urges of women. Susie was always more nurturing and supportive." Stories abound of this being the case outside work as well, so that she will struggle to find topics of conversation that appeal to the other person.

She has lived for 23 years with Joseph Shwartz, a physics and psychology professor turned psychoanalyst. They are described as "a complementary couple: he is a sturdy academic, she is very lively". They have two children, Lukie, 11, and Lianna, 7, and "are proper parents - none of this two hours a week quality time, though they both work hard". They entertain enthusiastically: they had a large party last week for Thanksgiving.

Orbach has sometimes been described as a 1960s person - by which people mean she hasn't lost any of her youthful idealism, her belief that it really is possible to change the world. "She is very serious about her role," says her publisher at Virago, Lennie Goodings. "She's not afraid to be strong or to assume the mantle she has been given, even though she understands the ambivalent feelings that are aroused by powerful women; and even though, when she's not working, she's perfectly capable of being silly and funny and giggly."

Most recently, her idealism has led her to co-found Antidote, an organisation which, in the words of its director James Park, will "research the emotional consequences of political decisions", and "campaign for emotional literacy". There are plans for "educational projects to enable people to deal with their emotional reactions to politics".

Park has no very convincing response to the objection that emotions are not that easy to legislate for, being essentially individual, subtle and shifting. He sends over Antidote's mission statement, which claims the organisation will "look at the diverse formulations [people] grapple towards in their attempts to understand the inner conflicts that simmer or rage beneath".

If this sounds rather inchoate and unfocused, then it's not unlike Orbach's writing, which suffers from the serious drawback of having to deal with something essentially personal - character, feelings - in a generalised way. Diana's emotions are fascinating because we know her history. But a paragraph-long case-history does not an interesting character make.

Fellow psychoanalysts say Orbach is significant less for her innovative thinking than for her work with clients, relating esoteric theory to issues such as eating disorders and envy. There is no doubt that she is a great populariser.

What, though, does her popularised thinking amount to? Broadly, that our culture militates against the expression of feeling, and if we don't recognise and articulate emotion, it will come spewing out somewhere else. Occasionally this leads her to an interesting observation; rather often to a trite one: "bad relationships hurt everyone involved." For a person suffering from a cycle of self-hatred and punishment, as Princess Diana was, Orbach's ability to shift the focus away from symptomatic behaviour to underlying causes is clearly extremely useful. But for the rest of us? Diana's triumph on Monday night was to appear normal, certainly by comparison with the Palace establishment. She did that by showing that she - like us - has emotions.