chapter  1
14 Pages

An encounter with John Bowlby

The call came from Skye. It was the voice of John Bowlby’s younger daughter, Pia Durán, with the news I had been dreading. Earlier in the day, her father had died peacefully at the age of 83 following two strokes. He was surrounded by his widow, Ursula, with eight close family members. I felt hugely sad; but also experienced a powerful sense of closeness with him. I had a strange thought that, in dying, he had given me a gentle push to grow as a full professional adult. I felt increasingly able to explore uncharted territory in a foreign land and, soon after his death, I became a consultant psychiatrist in psychotherapy, working in the National Health Service (NHS) – the largest provider of healthcare in Europe. Bowlby died on 2 September 1990, but he still is very much alive in my mind. I

held my first one-to-one meeting with him in his office at the Tavistock Clinic on 17 January 1985. We arranged hour-long individual supervision on a fortnightly basis, which he provided until he died. I had met him at the beginning of October 1984 at the seminar on attachment theory that he conducted at the Tavistock. This was attended by some twelve trainees in child and adolescent psychiatry. Despite my appalling English and my poor knowledge of the theory, I took an

active part in the seminar; I sometimes asked silly questions, which exposed my ignorance. Quite a few times I saw him smiling spontaneously after my questions. However, he never made me feel stupid or inadequate. Being the only foreign student in this group, I was able to have the naturalness or impudence that my British peers felt unable to display. They were all senior registrars on their way to becoming consultants and could not really afford the luxury of formulating silly questions in public. Anyway, they appeared to be more knowledgeable than I was. Bowlby was going through his very creative, late golden years. At the seminar, I

was haunted by the strangely precise and transparent nature of his thinking, as well as his gentleness and encouragement to us all in the group to develop our own ideas. The way he formulated the concept of a secure base, and its link to the quality

of exploration, had a strong impact on me: it made a lot of sense. When the seminar came to an end, just before Christmas, I approached him in the group room and said that I wanted to know more about attachment theory. I was expecting that he would provide me with a reading list. But he gave me the gift of an appointment to meet him in the New Year, he said: “For a chat”. Retrospectively, I realise that my rather bold approach and his more than positive

response were to make one of the most significant happenings in my life; certainly the most important of my professional life. As his mentorship developed, he gradually became a secure base for me. Now that, in retiring from the NHS I have started my own golden years, I feel able to tell a story about Bowlby’s life and work, and about the impact he had on me and many other people. I hope to involve you, the reader, in this journey of exploration. At a mentoring session, in April 1990, Bowlby told me that he would soon need

to have bowel cancer surgery. He was reasonably relaxed and added that he was hoping to resume our supervision shortly after. During his hospital stay, I sent him a bunch of flowers with a message: “John, I hope you score one hundred”. This was the first and only time I addressed him by his forename. During the brief separation, I was sensing his mentorship might soon come to an end. Part of me was anxious about it, but a larger part of me was feeling confident that no one could take away what I had learned from him in the previous six years. Our relationship had become a big part of my world. Bowlby belonged to my grandparents’ generation; my relationship with him was frank, painless and conflict-free. At the Tavistock’s book launch of Charles Darwin: A New Biography, Bowlby’s

(1990) last book, he was in a wheelchair recovering from his recent operation. It was May 1990. I looked for him and smiled into his eyes; he smiled back with warmth and pleasure, while saying: “Thank you, Arturo, for the beautiful flowers”. He was physically frail and pallid, though full of contagious vitality. Paradoxically, I could still perceive him as stronger, wiser and more able to cope with the world; a firm and caring secure base, which would stay with me after his departure. From this base, I was able to safely explore and navigate through feelings of frustration, even anger, and love towards both my patients and colleagues. I knew his time would come at one point in the not-so-distant future, but I

could also see that he was larger than life. In the next couple of months he continued supervising me at his London home until his last trip to Skye.