Well read: Literature is being used as part of revolutionary therapy to transform people's lives

Brian Viner
Saturday 14 August 2010 00:00 BST

Betty's divorce came through on the day of her golden wedding anniversary. She had lived overseas for 50 years, married to a domineering Frenchman who earlier in their marriage had fathered a child with another woman. When finally she called time on the troubled relationship, she decided to return to her native Liverpool, yet her self-confidence was completely shot. Betty is 79.

Sue lost both her husband and her father within 12 months. She, too, found herself bereft of confidence, and couldn't bring herself to leave the house. She became introverted, introspective, and stopped reading anything, even newspapers.

Margaret suffered from depression. Her sister's health was poor and her son, too, had been ill. A devout Catholic, she found solace in prayer, but still suffered from panic attacks and needed anti-depressants.

Pip, aged 58, and once the regional sales manager for the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo, has suffered nine strokes, all stress-related. He no longer works.

Louise has Asperger's syndrome. She has difficulty following conversations, but is fed up of being "treated like an idiot".

Noelene rarely left the sanctuary of her home. Her mother said to her, "What you need is some friends to hang out with". Noelene replied, "Well, do me a favour, go and find me some. And when you find them, I'll hang out with them."

Noelene has friends now. Louise relates better than ever to other people. Pip's health has improved. Margaret and Sue are cheerful, outgoing and chatty, while Betty positively radiates charisma. And they all owe their transformation to a Friday-morning reading group at a community centre in Birkenhead, led by Kate McDonnell, a serene, softly-spoken, middle-aged Oxford graduate who suffers badly from rheumatoid arthritis.

McDonnell works for Get Into Reading, an initiative started nine years ago by Jane Davis, an English lecturer at Liverpool University. This is principally a story of inspirational women, none more so than Davis, whose original motivation was to introduce great literature to people who would never otherwise encounter it. That is still one of the principles of Get Into Reading, and the charity to which it gave birth, The Reader Organisation. Yet along the way, the goalposts shifted. Davis has effectively turned William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Emily Brontë, Alfred Tennyson and WB Yeats, into therapists.

Her own background is key to the whole remarkable enterprise. Davis left school in Liverpool at 16, with two O-Levels. By 19, she was a mother, living in squats. Yet she had always read to keep herself company. Part of her childhood had been spent living above a pub, surrounded by drunk adults, so she would escape to the local library to immerse herself in what she now describes as "another universe, where your parents look after you, and you have a pony".

In her early twenties, Davis re-entered the world of education. It wasn't quite the same scenario as that imagined by her fellow-Liverpudlian, playwright Willy Russell, who called his literature-hungry heroine Rita, but it wasn't that different. She became a mature student at Liverpool University and left with a first-class degree. Then she became an English teacher. For Davis, reading had never been an intellectual exercise, and nor was teaching. Studying Paradise Lost, her priority had been to find "any useful information that will help me to stay alive", and she applied the same philosophy to teaching, using books to nudge students towards a better understanding of their own lives.

Something was nagging at her, however. It was the popular notion of great works of literature as being somehow elitist; for clever folk, for middle-class folk, for students. This wasn't what Shakespeare or Dickens had intended, quite the reverse, and yet that is what society had done to literature.

Driving one day through a particularly bleak part of Birkenhead, she resolved to address the issue. With a small amount of university funding, she started her first Get Into Reading group, not for people who were physically or emotionally unwell, but for people who hadn't had much formal education. There were 14 of them. She read them contemporary short stories, until a man called Frank, who had been a welder at Cammell Laird shipyard, said, "That was fine, Jane, but when are you going to bring out the good stuff – Shakespeare, Tolstoy, the stuff the posh nobs have?"

Frank is dead now, from a brain tumour, but his legacy endures in some of the texts read every week in 220 Get Into Reading groups throughout the country. As for that shift of the goalposts, it happened when people in the early groups started saying how good the exercise had made them feel, how it had alleviated their physical or emotional troubles. The road through Birkenhead had taken a diversion to Damascus. Davis gave up teaching, managed to get an £89,000 grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to run a year's pilot scheme, and has never looked back, except in ceaseless search of other sources of funding.

On a sunny midsummer Friday, I go to Liverpool to meet her. First though, across the Mersey in Birkenhead, I sit in on Kate McDonnell's group with Betty, Sue, Margaret, Pip, Louise, Noelene and eight or so others. Today's chosen text happens to be a short story, Old Man Minick, written by Edna Ferber in 1922. McDonnell starts reading it herself, aloud, and then stops, to ask what the group think of the relationship between the elderly Mr Minick and his wife. This gets some of them talking about their own relationships; it is easy to see how, by discussing fictional characters, they are able to unload their own stories.

The responsibility for reading then passes around the table, although anyone is at liberty to refuse, and several do. Most of them read fluently but one or two struggle, which of course makes it laborious listening, yet at no point does McDonnell correct them. When one woman trips over her umpteenth word and looks up hesitantly, saying, "Do you want me to carry on?", McDonnell says gently, "If you'd like to". The woman duly continues. This, McDonnell later tells me, is a deliberate policy. "The idea is to make people feel good about themselves," she says. "Our job is not to be teacherly, but enabling."

She also leads groups in hostels for the homeless, drug rehabilitation centres, and even in homes for people with dementia, where of course she does the reading. "I've read to people who can't remember their children's names but can remember 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud'," she says, recalling the old lady hunched almost double in a wheelchair, who on hearing a familiar line of poetry turned her face towards the light and "beamed from ear to ear".

She has chosen Old Man Minick, she tells me, because she thought there would be something in it for everyone, and indeed the ages around the table range from Noelene, in her mid-twenties, to Betty, pushing 80. It is a terrific piece of writing, about an old man who on his wife's death moves in with his childless son and daughter-in-law, but eventually realises he will be happier among his own sort in a retirement home.

All the way through, McDonnell unobtrusively finds reference points applicable to everyone in the room. Some lively conversations ensue, from trivial matters, like whether or not people prefer the bedroom window open or closed, to more weighty issues, like the difficulty of sharing a roof, in adulthood, with an aged parent. A couple of times, McDonnell sums up the story so far for a woman who seems to be having trouble following it, and yet from this same woman there later comes a flash of psychological insight. "Is this Mr Minick looking for his wife in his daughter-in-law," she says, astutely. At other times there is much laughter. "He sounds like a bit of all right," says a woman called Elsie of old man Minick, who to his daughter-in-law's consternation spends hours in the bathroom. "I like 'em nice and clean."

The session lasts for almost two hours, and, afterwards, over a sumptuous but I'm told atypical spread of sandwiches and cakes, I get some further insight into the ways in which Get Into Reading has been therapeutic. Louise tells me about a production of The Winter's Tale they did in Birkenhead Park two years ago, to tie in with Liverpool's European Capital of Culture celebrations. As a child she had been an elective mute, and at first in the play readings that old sense of isolation came flooding back. She stayed silent but she kept attending, and one week she suddenly offered to read out loud. Afterwards, she skipped all the way home. "Reading Shakespeare," she has since said, "has helped me to connect to other people in a way I couldn't imagine. It is the best thing I have done. Having Asperger's is like having jelly with fish. But I feel I have found my jelly and ice-cream here."

As for Pip, he tells me that his health problems had made him suicidal; standing at the kerb of a busy road one day, he'd felt a strong urge to step into the traffic. But these gatherings have given him a new lease of life, and have led him towards other communal pursuits. "I now belong to a singing group that came out of Get Into Reading," he says, cheerfully. "I'm not much good at singing, but I stand at the back and mime. And I also help read to Alzheimer's patients, which is a two-way thing. They seem to like it and it makes me feel good about doing it."

One of Pip's favourites among all the books they have read in the Get Into Reading sessions is Great Expectations, and not merely because he shares a name with the story's main character. Kate McDonnell confirms the novel's impact on her readers. "There is a wonderful line in it," she says, "something about there being one day in every life, and from that day is spun a chain of gold or a chain of iron. After we read that there was complete silence. You could sense everyone finding that day in their own lives."

Later, I look up Dickens' line for myself. "That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

Talking to Pip, Louise, Betty, Margaret and the others, it is not too fanciful to think of them being bound, as Dickens would have had it, by a chain of gold or flowers, the first link having been formed on the day they joined this Friday-morning group. Its benefits to them are manifest, and there are many people like them not only all over the United Kingdom, but elsewhere in the world.

A couple of hours later, I am sitting in Davis's office in one of Liverpool University's marvellous, rambling, rather shabby Georgian buildings, and she is telling me about the e-mail she has just received from a doctor at a hospital in Chile. He has heard about Get Into Reading, and wants to take it to Santiago.

Davis is a forthright, engaging, formidably intelligent woman in her early fifties, clearly one of nature's pioneers. Nevertheless, she assures me that there are plenty of precedents for literature acting as a catalyst in the healing process, and cites John Stuart Mill, who, having suffered a nervous breakdown, found comfort in Wordsworth's Prelude, the poet's semi-autobiographical epic. "That's the classic case," she says. "John Stuart Mill wrote a heartbreaking account of what it was like not feeling able to be bothered with anything, until he read The Prelude. George Eliot, after her partner George Lewes died, began to read The Divine Comedy with John Cross, an American who became her second husband. That's what helped her get through her grief. Her doctor had prescribed her a pint of champagne every day."

We should all have such doctors, I venture, and Davis obliges me with a big laugh. But the point remains, that words on a page can sometimes reach the parts the medical profession cannot. It is poetry, she adds, which from the start of the project has packed the strongest emotional punch. She recalls one of the earliest meetings, in which she read Tennyson's poem Crossing the Bar, and while she was doing so, a woman began to cry. "That had never happened to me in 15 years of university teaching," Davis recalls. "She'd had a bereavement and the poem really touched her. The power of poetry to people who are not deeply immersed in the literary universe is astonishing."

Davis has convinced many people of this over the past nine years, few more supportive than David Fearnley, a man she describes as one of the scheme's greatest champions. Fearnley is medical director of Mersey Care NHS Trust and also a consultant forensic psychiatrist at Ashworth high- security psychiatric hospital, home of the moors murderer Ian Brady. There are now seven Get Into Reading groups at Ashworth, and Davis is excited by the impact they continue to have.

"Many of the people Dave works with don't have the human equipment to have a therapeutic conversation," she says. "But once they start talking about Wuthering Heights, for example, it's a fantastic opportunity to discuss people behaving very oddly without talking about yourself in any way. 'What's the matter with Cathy, she's off her chump!' Those thoughts can get you to a place where you can talk about yourself."

A few days later I talk to Fearnley on the phone. The objective at Ashworth, he says, is to rehabilitate people to the point where they no longer present a "grave and immediate danger" to the public, and those who have come from the regular prison system can be safely returned. He cites Wuthering Heights, George Orwell's 1984, and the poetry of the First World War as particular favourites of his patients, and I ask him the all-important question: have these collective reading sessions demonstrably helped in the rehabilitation of these very troubled people. "So far," he says, "they have."

It is a guarded endorsement of the extraordinary power of Get Into Reading, and yet perhaps the sweetest one that Davis and her committed band will ever hear.

For more information visit thereader.org.uk, or call 0151 794 2830

Read yourself better: Books prescribed by Ella Berthoud, 'bibliotherapist' at The School of Life

For heartbreak

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

In 'One State', every man and woman is entitled to the right of sexual activity with any other citizen, but romance is not allowed or acknowledged. This novel tells of the doomed love affair of D503 and I-330 who live there; through their story Zamyatin charts the terrifying demise of mankind's imagination alongside the death of romance. Your own heartbreak will pale in comparison.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Read Tolstoy's tale of ultimate heartbreak to salve your own pain. Anna Karenina passionately and irreversibly loves handsome and romantic Vronsky, despite being married to stolid Alexei Karenin. The intense emotion, near-death experiences, birth and suicide will purge you of your pain through catharsis.

For depression

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Swap your 21st-century trials for more rural concerns as you revel in Hardy's captivatingly sensual descriptions of the struggles of Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene and their life in pre-industrial Wessex. Depression is explored explicitly through one of the main characters; Oak's steadfastness and Bathsheba's vanity are also exposed. But the overwhelming tranquillity of the book, and its satisfying conclusion, are the perfect antidote to depression.

For bereavement

Ovid's Metamorphoses

This incredible collection of myths concentrates on the endless cycle of rebirth and change. Written in 8AD, there are tales of nymphs turning into fountains or trees as they escape lecherous gods and people fading into echoes and shrinking into flowers, rather than dying. This is a joyous, rollicking take on the game of life that will reassure you that life continues in other forms.

For loneliness

The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann

Gregor could be the loneliest man in the world. Born of a brother and sister's union and brought up by a fisherman, he is exiled to a rock where he lives alone for 17 years. During this time he shrinks to the size of a hedgehog. You will be comforted by Gregor's spiritual journey, and his eventual return to humanity.

For fear of failure

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Santiago has failed to catch a fish for 84 days. On the 85th day the old man pursues a giant Marlin and hooks it. For three days he is towed by the fish. Finally he kills it and lashes it to his boat, but it is eaten by a shark on his way home. Be inspired by the phenomenal perseverance of the old man, then get out there and catch your fish.

Make an appointment to receive your own reading prescription at theschooloflife.com/ bibliotherapy

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