My Best Teacher;Interview;Susie Orbach

28th May 1999 at 01:00
I didn't like school much. I went to North London Collegiate and was quite a naughty girl, though I managed to pass all my exams to get to the School of Slavonic Studies in London, where I studied Russian history. A year before the course finished I decided to leave and went to New York to study law instead. I was more drawn to what was going on in the real world than to the Russian Revolution.

This was the Sixties, and when I first went to the States I was very politically engaged. I was involved with the anti-war movement, and the struggle for civil rights - and feminism which was part of that. By 1968-69 it was being perceived as a separate thing. Before I went to America, I think I had heard the word "feminist", but it wasn't really in my vocabulary.

I didn't complete my law training. Instead I enrolled on the women's study programme at Richmond College at the City University of New York. It was a case of third time lucky. At Richmond College I discovered what I really wanted to do with my life, and there I met Carol Bloom and Louise Eichenbaum, who were very important influences on my life and the nearest I've ever had to "best teachers". But they weren't my teachers. We were all engaged in mutual endeavour and started to study and think together. We inspired each other and became great friends.

The first person I met at Richmond was Carol, who was the course facilitator. She was then about 24, slightly younger than me. I was an incoming student looking to understand the American university system and she was the administrator of the women's studies programme. She organised the staff and students into a seminar where all the academic decisions were made and the direction of the programme decided. Carol explained to me that I could take this course and this course and this course.

Coming from England where, in my day, there was a prescribed set of courses with no deviations, being able to take modules in things you were interested in was all very unusual. A lot of the courses concerned contemporary ideas, feminism, history - all things that were just right for me. It was like an Alternative University.

Louise was another student in the programme, and right from the beginning the three of us gelled. In terms of our personalities and our intellectual and political interests, we got on well. It was a two-year course but we all went to the same graduate school together afterwards and we all became psychotherapists. So we had a trajectory together, although we have done different things subsequently.

It was the first BA honours degree that existed in women's studies and involved a very unusual method of teaching which probably bore a lot of the marks of postgraduate study. At an undergraduate level it was rare to have students in control of developing the course material and thinking about what the intellectual basis of the subject should be. If you think back to the time, women weren't all that confident then, particularly if they weren't trained in terms of being able to think that their thoughts were valid without reference to other authority. So it was very different.

While I was in New York I trained to be a psychotherapist and was part of a group working out new ideas in terms of women's psychology, which didn't exist as a field at that time. There was no particular awareness of the gender nature of psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. When I came back to the UK, Louise and I started the Women's Therapy Centre as a kind of pilot project to see whether a centre that was particularly addressed to women and the treatment of women and their families was needed. We found that it was and then set it up, both as a treatment centre and as a place to inspire others - and to study women's psychology in an ongoing way. We wanted it to be a centre of excellence.

Carol, Louise and I are still great friends. We have rare theoretical or practical disagreements. And although I wouldn't consider either of them to be "my best teacher", it was because I met them and the three of us inspired each other that I finally found out what I wanted to do with my life.

Susie Orbach is a contributor to the new magazine for women writers, 'Mslexia'. Her first book was 'Fat Is a Feminist Issue' and her latest, 'The Impossibility of Sex', was published yesterday. She is probably best known, however, as Princess Diana's psychotherapist. She was talking to Pamela Coleman

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