Last week I found out that my dear friend, colleague and mentor, Trevor Butt, had died. It’s still very hard to believe that he is gone. I feel terribly sad that he didn’t have the time – freed up from work by his retirement – to explore the projects he was passionate about, and to get more of his wonderful writing out into the world outside of the constraints of academic frameworks.
Trevor had a huge impact on my life. It’s not exaggerating to say that I wouldn’t be where I am here, now, if it wasn’t for him.
Back in the early 2000s I had given up on being a researcher or a writer. I had done a PhD straight after my degree, mostly because I wasn’t sure what else to do, being too young to go straight into counselling. But a critical response in my viva, and on submission of my first publication, convinced me that I was no academic. I got a job teaching psychology and decided to stick with that.
Wandering around the second hand shops in Malvern one day I picked up a book called Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology, by Trevor and his close friend and co-author Viv Burr. I read it and re-read it. I still have the copious notes that I made on it filling much of my first ever journal (which now line the whole back of my wardrobe).
That book shaped everything that I’ve done since. It showed me that it was possible for academics to study what they’re passionate about. It introduced me to the constructionist/constructivist study of marginalised sexualities, genders and relationships, and gave me a kind of permission to explore those areas myself. It broke down the false boundaries I’d grown used to between psychology, sociology, philosophy, and psychotherapy. It demonstrated how our own personal experiences can be woven into our writing in ways which bring it to life. And it convinced me that academic theories can be deeply useful and relevant to the questions that I care most about, such as how to live our lives, and how to relate to ourselves and other people.
On a personal level, the questions that Trev and Viv raised about why we distinguish – in hierarchical ways- between lovers and friends has impacted hugely on the ways in which I navigate my own relationships, as well as making their way into much of my writing. Two of the most important people in my life – who I’ve had the longest relationships with – have been people I met through the connection with Trev: Alex Iantaffi and Darren Langdridge (who researched and wrote with Trev long before he and I researched and wrote together). Those relationships have also complicated all of the clear distinctions between friends, colleagues, partners and other kinds of relationship, which seems fitting really given where they began.
As I often told Trev, the only thing that saddened me about Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology was that this book that had helped me so much wasn’t in the self-help section of the bookshop, but the academic psychology section, where I found it. This meant that far too few people were likely to pick it up. That realisation was the first flicker of my own ongoing project to get these kinds of ideas out there more widely.
A few years after I read that book, Trev and others at the University of Huddersfield put on a conference on personal construct psychology. I went along and presented a paper, and met Trev in person for the first time.
I’ll never forget that moment. So many times in my life I’ve finally had chance to talk to a hero of mine, or even work with them, and it’s been a painful experience. Often I just haven’t felt met by them: it’s seemed like a one-way encounter. And there’s frequently been a sense of somebody who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk of what they write about which so inspired me.
Of course it’s important to remember that our heroes are also human beings. It’s a kind of objectification to put them on a pedestal and to expect them to be perfect, or to assume that they will be able to be something for us simply because we admire their work. We can easily hurt them if we set them up to fail with all our expectations on them. Also life is a lot messier than writing. None of us can walk the walk all the time, or step outside of culture and completely live in the ways that we might advocate.
However, with Trevor I felt properly met. He was so warm and open and welcoming: so fascinated to hear what I thought about things rather than just telling me his opinions. As a junior academic it felt amazing to be instantly embraced and invited to join the conversations with Trev and his colleagues. That was the conference where I also met the wonderful Alex Iantaffi for the first time, and I have a strong memory the three of us sitting around in a halls of residence kitchen with Trev asking us enthusiastically all about our research and activism.
So another way that Trev has inspired me is in how to be as a person, particularly as I now reach a phase of my life where some people respond to my own writing, and perhaps see me as a mentor figure. I certainly don’t always get it right but I try hard to have time for people and to commit to listening to them even (perhaps especially) when they are making criticisms: to recognise that they will always have areas of expertise to offer which I can learn from if I can stop and listen.
Trev is one of the – relatively few – people in my life who I’ve always felt able to be whoever I am with, rather than getting any sense that he wants me to be something for him. He also always showed total confidence in me, encouraging me to do what I cared about rather than suggesting that I should focus on this or that. I think that’s an incredibly rare skill and one I that I really hope to cultivate myself.
One of Trev’s more recent books is called Understanding People. You can read my review of it here. In it he explains some of his own research about people’s sense of self. He found that we experience ourselves in very different ways in different relationships, and yet we can feel that we are authentically ‘being ourselves’ in all of them.
I think this is such an important piece of research because it demonstrates clearly that our self, or identity, is not fixed and static, but rather fluid and ever-changing. That can be a huge relief in a world where we’re constantly encourage to scrutinise and monitor our self and find it flawed and lacking: where self-criticism is a – perhaps the – major component of so many mental health problems. You can read a blog post that I wrote about some of Trev’s further ideas on this here.
I drew heavily on these ideas and findings in the first chapter of Rewriting the Rules. Indeed they were probably a big part of the reason that I began that book with people’s relationships with themselves. I reflected there that it is often at funerals where we finally get to see all of the different selves that a person was: as we hear stories from the person who knew them as a parent, a sibling, a colleague, a friend, a mentor, a critic, a superior, a junior, and all of the other ways in which you can know someone. I look forward greatly to hearing about some of Trev’s other selves at his funeral next week and putting together a fuller, and more complex, picture of this person who I love.
The other way in which our selves are fluid is in how they change over time. Personal construct psychologists – and others – have written that we are like a flowing river, or a journey, rather than a static individual or identity which is fixed throughout time.
In this way, there is also a sense that we are not just a person who exists and then – at the moment of death – ceases to exist. Rather life is a series of births and deaths, as parts of us come into being and parts of us are lost. For example, certain versions of Trev came into being when he collaborated with Viv, or Darren, or me. And certain versions of him ended when he stopped clinical work, published his last book, or retired, for example. All of this starts before we are born, perhaps as our grandparents begin to imagine their kids having kids, or even when an ancestor imagines their impact on future generations. And it finishes long after we are dead, because we continue on in the memory of others and our impact upon their lives, and the lives that they touch.
That way of seeing things gives me something to hold on to through the waves of sadness that I’m feeling about the suddenness of Trev’s death, and the sense of an ending that came before he – or anyone else – was prepared for it. I know that I can have a role in keeping the memory of Trev alive, both in what I write and in how I – myself – live and relate to others.
Addendum: I also intend to start saying ‘nosebags’ whenever it’s time to eat in memory of Trev 🙂
Below follows the Eulogy that our mutual friend and colleague, Darren Langdridge, wrote for Trev’s funeral:
I first met Trevor when I joined the University of Huddersfield in 1997. For some seven odd years I started most of my working days having tea and toast with him, which made my 5 am start a lot easier. We bonded quickly after I told him of how Dallas (the then Dean) had tried to ‘warn’ me – in the nicest possible way – about someone who was transgender in the staff canteen so that I was not surprised by this encounter. Like me, Trevor revelled in this hilarious and entirely inappropriate – though well meaning – intervention. Laughter featured strongly in our friendship and will remain an enduring memory. I will remember, amongst many other things:
- How Trevor wanted to write a paper with a member of social work staff called Mansoor Qazi, just so he could have a paper written by ‘Butt and Qazi’
- His conclusion that there was a secret genetics laboratory in the basement of the Ramsden building that was trying to clone people (albeit imperfectly) following the sight of someone on campus who was the spitting image of the VC but a good foot shorter. Once you spot a flawed clone you can never stop seeing others.
- The rumour that he started that Graham (who was then Head of Department and a good friend) went around at night lifting up all the toilet seats in the ladies toilets.
Trevor had a keen eye for the pompous, which he would never tolerate. He was fiercely loyal and had a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. He also had a strong sense of social justice, which fed into much of his life and his lasting contributions to academia. Much of my own work was inspired by Trevor. He introduced me to the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, and also inadvertently started my own lifelong interest in the work of Paul Ricoeur when he gave me one of his books that he thought was utterly impenetrable. He was the most generous man you could wish to meet and someone who walked halfway across Huddersfield to save 2 pence on half a dozen eggs. He adored his family and friends.
I’d now like to read a short extract on the concept of ‘closure’ from a book by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz called ‘The Examined Life’. Trevor and I talked about this book the last time we met for a beer at ‘our seaside’, the South Bank in London.
My records show that I saw Alice P for a consultation in June 1988. She began our meeting by telling me, ‘I haven’t felt myself for years. I don’t know how to pull myself out of it.’ She wanted to give their two daughters a good start, and ‘the girls’ had done well this year, their younger daughter would get her degree in medicine from Oxford. Towards the end of the consultation, Alice sat forward in her chair. She told me that nineteen years earlier, their third child, Jack had died unexpectedly. He was three months old. ‘It was a Friday – the 27th of June, 1969 – just after lunch. I fed Jack and put him down for his nap. When I came back he was dead.’
I listened as Alice then described a passage from C.S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’, in which Lewis fears that, bit by bit, he is losing the memory of his dead wife: ‘like snowflakes settling down on his memory of her until her real shape is hidden, is how Lewis puts it. It’s not like that for me,’ Alice said, ‘I remember everything about Jack – the smell of his skin, his smile, everything’.
Six months ago, Edmund K asked to see me for a consultation. At twenty-nine, Edmund was already the director of an international humanitarian aid organisation. During the previous five years, he had visited over thirty countries, supervising relief work in Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. He had been on antidepressants since the age of nineteen, when his father committed suicide. ‘I shouldn’t have to be on anti-depressants,’ he said to me. ‘But every time I start to come off them, I find myself back where I was when I was nineteen – angry with my dad for killing himself. It’s so stupid. I should’ve had closure on this thing years ago.’
Alice P and Edmund K are grieving, each in their own way. What they have in common is this: they suffer more because they’re stuck on the idea of closure.
They suffer more because they both expect to make progress, to move through certain stages of grief. And when they don’t, they feel that they are doing something wrong, or more precisely, that there is something wrong with them. They suffer twice – first from grief and then from a tyranny of shoulds: ‘I should have pulled myself out of this,’ ‘I shouldn’t be so angry,’ ‘I should have moved on by now,’ and so forth. There is little room here for emotional exploration or understanding. This way of being leads to self-loathing, despair, depression.
Each of us mourns differently, but in general the initial shock and fear triggered by a death does diminish with time. Through the work of mourning, we gradually feel better, though some heartache remains. Holidays and anniversaries are notoriously difficult. Grief can ebb and then, without warning, resurge.
My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.
Trevor and I thought along these lines, with him describing the experience of grief like being in the sea, with us buffeted by wave after wave until the power slowly reduces as we find our footing or learn how to ride the waves. Those waves can, of course, surface again at any time and surprise us, even knock us off our feet. But we recover if we remember that we need the sea – like we need our memories – and should not seek to avoid it but instead embrace it for how it has and continues to shape our world. To paraphrase Iris Murdoch, the sea may be ‘turbulent and leaden, transparent and opaque’ but it is also ‘magician and mother’.