Several students who intercalated a B.Sc en route to qualifying in medicine found their year away from laboratories and lecture theatres a relief, an opportunity to reflect on their futures. Inevitably, a few of them had deeper problems to confront. Because they comprised a small group we got to know them well and became sounding boards, advisers, counsellors. I have changed all names in this fragment.
Josie’s father had schizophrenia. One afternoon, after a seminar on Weber’s concept of rationalization, she asked to speak to me in my office at the Middlesex. She sat silent for a while, trembling slightly. Then she told me of her father’s condition and of how, on her last trip home, he had scampered about the floor barking like a dog. She cried until there were no more tears. She wiped her eyes, rediscovered her equilibrium, we hugged briefly and she left. Neither of us could think of anything practical I could contribute. Maybe talking about it had been a therapy of sorts. And no, I did not keep my office door open while we talked. I appreciate that this is the advice nowadays, and for a reason; but I have four daughters and – well, sod that!
Jack’s issue was more transitory but, for a while, compelling. He had arrived unexpectedly and distressingly at the conclusion that because human life was finite – he ‘must’ die – it was fundamentally pointless. I told him that such sentiments were not uncommon and promised him that his Larkin-like sense of dread and futility would pass. Less helpfully perhaps, I added that it was a philosophical error to get stuck trading in absolutes, whether birth and death, or foundationalist epistemologies: we muddle through, occasionally even tweaking our biographies, on a living, non- or post-foundationalist middle-ground. I told Jack he could ring me any time day or night, and for a wile he did. As the months went by, so his phone calls and problem faded until one day he turned up with a smile, a handshake and a bottle of malt whisky. After her grandmother, I was the second – or come to think maybe the third – person to learn that Jane was gay … and I could go on.
For several years from the 1980s I acted as a personal tutor at the Middlesex/UCL. Half a dozen students were allocated to me and I served as a listening ear, informant and adviser during their two pre-clinical years. Like other tutors I invited them for coffee and an informal introductory chat early in the first term. Not all turned up, which was understandable: how many in carefree late adolescence are tuned in to possible crises? It transpired that this well-intentioned institutional support system delivered in unanticipated ways. Those few of my tutees who came to me and judged it useful spread the word. I saw more of other tutors’ students than I did of my own.
Two quite dramatic cases have remained with me. Susan was a delightful student and tutee who kept in touch more or less permanently after our initial group gathering. She struggled early on with her exams but was shown compassion that carried her through and beyond her re-sit results. Then she left a note on my office door: ‘can I come and see you?’ Her narrative was the stuff of nightmares. Her father, she said, had sexually abused her as a child. Suddenly this mattered to her, and mattered hugely and undeniably. She had anticipated the likely consequences of bringing his past to book. I let her talk, recognized the limitations of my own training and expertise and found her a colleague outside the Middlesex/UCL, actually at the Institute of Psychiatry, to consult. She updated me regularly. Her boyfriend, whom I never met, was in the picture and totally supportive. As her secret was aired she discovered that her brothers too had been abused; they fell in behind Susan. Their mother, on the other hand, went into denial, rubbished her offspring’s story and heaped blame on Susan. I am not privy to the final resolution to this intra-familial conflict; but I did bump into Susan at the Mortimer Street entrance to the Middlesex Hospital many years later and she had married her boyfriend from those dark days and looked and sounded like a contented, first-class paediatrician in-the-making.
The second case illustrates earlier comments. Tony was my tutee and he came by my office in Riding House Street to unburden himself. His Indian girlfriend, Anita, had been pregnant. They were as one in opting for a termination and had diligently and aptly sought and attained advice courtesy of the Margaret Pike Centre prior to making a genuinely joint decision. The decision to abort was not the problem however. Anita had booked in and it was done. Now she was distraught. It was not a matter of regretting the decision. It emerged that Anita’s parents had not known and would not have approved of her ‘seeing’ an ‘white’, ‘indigenous’ Englishman, let alone of having sex and becoming pregnant by him. Her termination had taken place just before the Christmas vacation, and she had returned to the family home disorientated, bleeding and tormented. Let nobody tell you that a woman who has an abortion is ever relaxed about it (okay it may happen, but only rarely).
I tried hard and was ultimately successful in persuading Tony to get Anita, a non-medical UCL undergraduate, to come and see me. I wanted to know if she was coping and if she needed extra-UCL advice, again beyond my own competence. We met briefly and she said she was okay but would appreciate staying in touch. She kept and sent me a diary of her Xmas sojourn in the family home and for some months after. I think I ‘bled’ almost as much as she did as, closeted in her bedroom, she hid her suffering from those who mattered most to her. But, like Jack, she moved on.
Can universities rationalize their pastoral responsibilities? They have to try. But at the end of the day what we all have in common – teachers and students alike – must surely outrank any tick-box, League-oriented expedient. Like my medical-school-based colleagues in sociology, and of course elsewhere, I like to think I pitched in; although I suspect we caught less than we dropped.