1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame


Red Therapy

‘We didn’t believe in the group leader as a kind of infallible authority; we didn’t believe that you had to define yourself as sick before you could get benefits from doing therapy; we didn’t believe in the ‘stand on your own two feet’ ideology which seemed to us basically liberal individualism; we didn’t want to take sex roles for granted.’

an ideal group in society cartoonWhy we did it

We all seem to have come to Red Therapy for different reasons. Some of us were angry; some were in distress because of our histories; some were trying to change our lives, gender roles and relationships and found we couldn’t do it through will power; some were influenced by current critiques of the family, e.g. at the Dialectics of Liberation Congress (see Influences); some had studied psychology; some were worried about burn-out from all the activism. All or any of the above. One thing we all agreed on was that you don’t have to be mad to do therapy and that conventional therapy made you think you were.

Some of us – through training, need or concern – had come up against the conventional forms of psychiatric and psychotherapeutic treatment that were available in the 70s. Largely these were pills or electric shocks (ECT) for the poor, and expensive  professional psychotherapy or a ‘shrink’ for the better off. All of these aimed to return people to a ‘normal’ state of functioning within the status quo. In our activism we were questioning those norms and trying to find new ways of behaving and relating; we wanted to develop an alternative therapy that was free, non-hierarchical, self-organising, and based on different ideas about what a ‘healthy’ person could be. We wanted to take over the process ourselves.

What were the issues?

“You can change your mind in a minute, but it takes your feelings and body a bit more time.”

“The policeman in the street is why we need a revolution; the policeman in your head is why it doesn’t happen”

Many of us felt that the personal was political: the struggle against competitiveness, authority relationships and ‘emotional plague’ was at the heart of any struggle against for instance wage relations or fascism. To live within a different society we would need to change ourselves. We were already feeling the need to change in order to live and work collectively in the shared houses and activist network we were involved in. Patterns of selfishness, possessiveness and individualism were being confronted daily and we felt we needed to learn new ways of being.

Our understanding was that under capitalism people are controlled not only by external forces but also by disabling and demoralising internal conditioning –‘the policeman in your head’. The women’s and students’ movements had highlighted ways that capitalism seeks to control our minds and emotions which are as crucial to its survival as its more obvious external forms of control over our lives. The process starts in childhood: Wilhelm Reich’s books describe how inhibitions and patterns of conformity get built into muscle structures of the body to suppress feelings like grief and anger. The involvement of the body was crucial to us, and some of us felt strongly that therapeutic body work was the best way to unlock and free ourselves from that conditioning.

We criticised conventional psychotherapy that used tranquillisers or unequal therapy relationships to re-inforce ‘normal’ behaviour. These practices were already under fire  from the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement (R.D.Laing and David Cooper). In response we wanted to set up our own peer-to-peer radical group therapy using new methods developed post-psychoanalysis. The ‘growth movement’, based in the West Coast of USA, offered new, more accessible techniques, although often still dominated by charismatic/‘macho’ male therapists. We wanted to use those techniques to develop a new, politically-aware, practice.
Valium at Fords cartoon

What we did

In 1973 some of us set up a collective living situation in Mile End. Some others were already involved in collective arrangements further north in Hackney. We set very seriously about building alternative ways of living that involved sharing cooking, housework, childcare, and sometimes relationships. We criticised the structures of family life considered ‘normal’ under capitalism, and wanted to relate to each other in less competitive, privatised, exclusive and hierarchical ways. This was a challenging project (see A Collective Nightmare) and we felt we needed to undo our past conditioning and make internal changes in ourselves to be able to cope and relate differently.

In 1974 we started our own therapy group. From June of that year we borrowed or hired rooms and invited friends to join us in starting up leaderless group therapy sessions. Not everyone in ELBF was involved, and a number of people outside ELBF were. We had difficulty finding premises where we could yell: one growth centre ejected us because we were ‘too angry’; maybe we were, but we felt they weren’t angry enough.

The sessions were chaotic at first, but people read books and went on short courses to learn skills to share with the others. Eventually the membership settled at around 12-15 people, and as we got more grasp of what we were doing sessions became more purposeful and effective. We used a range of techniques including co-counselling, Encounter, Reichian regression, Fritz Perls-type Gestalt and Psychodrama. By early 1975 we were holding regular evening sessions under the name ‘Red Therapy’.

In August 1974 we set up a spin-off women’s self-help therapy group with two women from the Lincoln Estate Food Co-op and another local comrade (see article What some women did). By May 1975 the main Red Therapy group evolved into women and men each holding separate sessions regularly in members' homes (see Excerpts from Red Therapy). We all joined up for occasional all-day sessions and, over the years, four week-long ‘intensives’. (For more on our ideas and development, and how the therapy related to our activism see Red Therapy)

Few people in Big Flame nationally understood or agreed with this aspect of our practice (hence the need for the document This is a letter about personal politics). Nor did everyone in ELBF itself.

In early 1976 we started work on writing the pamphlet Red Therapy, a collective process that took over two years. It describes in detail our ideas, the social context, and what we actually did in the sessions.

Both the women’s self-help therapy groups were still meeting in the summer of 1978, when the Mile End collective physically broke up and people moved to different parts of east and north London and Sheffield.  We had been using what we’d learnt to travel round the country helping set up other leaderless therapy groups, and in 1977 some of us started running workshops at the Women’s Therapy Centre in north London.  

In 1979 some of us produced a pamphlet Women and Migraine about using emotional release to relieve migraine headaches. In 1981 two of us published a book In Our Own Hands: A book of self-help therapy based on the group’s experiences. Later, another woman from the Red Therapy group (not ELBF) published Men, Women, Passion and Power: Gender issues in psychotherapy. And another group member co-edited an anthology on Sex and Love, and co-authored Wild Desires and Mistaken Identities: Lesbianism and psychoanalysis, re-examining psychoanalytic attitudes to lesbians and developing new theoretical approaches.

Looking back…

We are still convinced and committed to the idea that a new world calls for personal changes that are more than a matter of will. And that it’s worthwhile to engage with activities that are not knocking capitalism direct, but are destroying the fabric of the conditioning and social relationships on which capitalism depends.

We made mistakes. We were rather angry and raw and hooked on ‘letting it all out’ rather than processing, containing, healing and bringing past feelings appropriately into effective political action and compassionate living in the present.

But we did show that it was possible to establish a free leaderless therapy practice that worked and endured, one that reshaped our view of our internal landscapes and was not to do with ‘adjustment’ to ‘normality’ and the status quo. Despite problematic differences of skill and confidence within the group, we did manage to find a way to work collectively. The whole experience did help us become fuller, more honest people. It helped us understand ourselves and other human beings better, and it did not diminish our hunger for social justice.

And from our experience we were able to share/teach our practice and – as an extension of consciousness-raising – help other similar groups to form around the UK. Later on some of us took their skills into professional contexts, undergoing further training and joining established institutions where we brought in our values to confront issues like sexism and homophobia within current psychotherapeutic practice.

Forty years on one of us recently had the experience of finding that a group of Moslem women found Reich’s ideas very relevant. Another worked with Dance Movement Therapy with women in a prison de-tox unit. Of those of us making this web site, most of us are still involved in therapy in some shape or form; we don’t associate it with the language of ‘sickness’ but see it as a tool for life, happiness and energy.