Blaming the messenger or herald has a long history. Throughout history and in almost every culture we find it hard not to displace on to the messenger the pain or hatred we feel when the message is unbearable or unpalatable. On a more minor everyday level there will be very few people who have not received, at some time in their lives, an angry incredulous” She/he said WHAT?! I don’t believe you!” on honestly passing on a message.
Of course, there are also dishonest messengers. Whispering games in primary and secondary school, college and the workplace of who said what to whom or who did what to whom become distorting mirrors in which primitive fears of being an outcast are hidden under the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of excited gossip. In these cases, the messenger owes his or her moment of power to being thought privy to the equivalent of a primal scene! What is going on in the parent’s bedroom or the staff common room? Here the messenger is the unresolved Oedipal outcast, pretending access and passing on a degraded message.
The messenger is inevitably involved in a triangle. There is the message, the messenger and the recipient. There is no age-limit on any of those posts. Some teachers are reporting on little go-betweens; children who take messages between warring estranged parents only to be attacked by both sides. Charlie, aged 9, was used as a messenger regarding access visit times, the most contentious issue between his parents. “My dad said I couldn’t stay next Saturday and to tell my Mum. She said I was a liar because he had told her I could stay. Then my dad said I was lying when I phoned him because he said he had never promised my Mum he could have me then.”
Work with Charlie allowed him to realise he was being asked to perform a task that the adults found too difficult. After a few months in therapy for inability to concentrate at school he was able to refuse to take messages. Charlie’s parents initially dealt with this new behaviour by ganging up against the therapist. The therapist was now the unwelcome messenger. It must have been the therapist who had delivered a false message to Charlie, their reasoning went. However, a series of family meetings was able to untangle the painful adversarial circumstances and lessen them and Charlie was no longer expected to take on such a role.
Cassie, 35, had a difficult message to deliver. “When my brother and sister-in-law came back to England and moved in the same street as me I was absolutely delighted. I have no children and my nephew and niece are precious to me. However, I found out very quickly, that my sister-in-law, has some serious problems. There are moments when she is just not normal and her kids look really frightened. Clara, aged 11, came running up to me last week and whispered to me “ What is wrong with my mummy?” I felt really concerned and I felt she deserved the truth and I said I thought that sometimes, I did not know why, her Mum just changed and went mad for a little while and then she came back to normal again. There was a long pause and then Clara said “That’s what I think too”. Now my brother won’t speak to me. It appears that Clara told him what I said.”
Signs of emotional disturbance in otherwise loving good-enough adults are a difficult sight to see. It is easier for the brother to blame the speaker, Cassie, than to focus on his wife’s problems. One person’s whistleblower is another one’s sneak. But when a child’s mental health is concerned the messenger may need to take her message to official quarters. Meanwhile, Clara has found an important ally in the truthfulness of her aunt. Children can be remarkably resilient if problems within the family, that they are witness to, are spoken about carefully.
Bombarding a child with detailed messages about all the ills in the environment and the family can engender anxiety or pseudo- adulthood unnecessarily. However, an age-appropriate comment can aid functioning. Psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s paper on “Knowing what you are not supposed to know” warned how children lose capabilities when, out of duty to their parents, they pretend to not know the difficulties that are going on.
However, the flipside of losing your intelligence in order to hide knowing something that is forbidden, is to face the pain of prophecy and not being believed- the curse of Cassandra. Those working with Aids victims, refugees, global warming, pollution and abuse, to name but a few, have often spoken with sympathy of Cassandra. Cassandra the prophetess was gifted with the ability to see what was happening but the curse from Apollo, because she refused to yield to him, was that she would not be believed.
The thought of Cassandra came from watching a superb production of Euripides’ “Women of Troy” at the National Theatre with poet and psychotherapist Jeni Couzyn. Sitting in a half-empty theatre, due to a large number of negative reviews, we both found it one of the most harrowing plays we had seen. The women of Troy, captive, are awaiting to be dispersed as slaves and prostitutes. They face loss after loss with no deus ex machina coming to alleviate the plot. Courageously political, Euripides included in the metaphor of the play, an attack on his own community for its part in a massacre of the people of Melos. The topicality it had then has not diminished and images of Bosnia and Vietnam weaved in and out.
Philip Whitchurch, who played the messenger Talthybius, spoke of the moral dilemma of his character-”the dilemma no-one wants to be in” of the man who has to pass on news of further losses until he too is traumatised by them. Actresses Jax Williams and Gabrielle Redy, part of the Chorus, also spoke of the painful journey of the cast and the play. Could it be that the small audience and the poor reviews were another way of blaming the messenger? “People are more keen to be challenged intellectually rather than emotionally”, considered Philip Whitchurch.
If the message is not bearable, then the messenger might not receive funding. Could it be that some important projects, plays, television programmes, conferences and courses fail to do well, not because they lack the right standard but because they are not bearable?
Joseph Schwarz’s book on the untold history of psychoanalysis (Penguin) is titled “Cassandra’s Daughter”. As he has commented, Cassandra did not live to have a daughter. However, it is possible to take something precious from a past tragedy - the gift of prophecy - and resolve its traumatic underpinning so that full potential is achieved. It is possible to face the Gods, parents, family, community and not give in to something corrupt. It is also possible to deliver the message, be listened to and change personal, family and social history into a healthier direction.