Book Review: Out of the Forest by Gregory P. Smith

Over Christmas a biography came to me which is one of the most compelling and moving accounts I have ever read. Out of the Forest by Gregory P Smith with Craig HendersonOut of the Forest (published by Penguin Australia) is the memoir of a man who spent ten years living as an alcoholic drug-crazed recluse high in the New South Wales forest, (with occasional forays down the mountain to the local hippy community to sell his crop of marijuana, and spend his income on  alcohol).

This man now holds a PhD and is an academic at the Southern Cross University at their Lismore campus in New South Wales, where he teaches Social Sciences. His name is Dr Gregory Peel Smith, and his story takes him from a severely abusive childhood and period of torment in a Catholic orphanage, through years of mental suffering, self-destructive behaviour, alcoholism and drug addiction and self-imposed isolation, to his present life.

Partly because I know the area Gregory is writing about (having lived in Brisbane for four and a half years myself, and having visited the areas of the New South Wales coastline, and spent time in the very mountains of which he speaks) I read this account with intense interest. But as Gregory describes his journey through the depths of human anguish, into self-imposed exile from human society, and all the gruesome details of what it takes to survive in isolation in the wild, I was totally captivated. This book has a strong spiritual character, despite Gregory’s disavowal of the Christian religion (not surprising when you read of the physical and spiritual and psychological abuse he received from the Catholic nuns in the orphanage.)

And the way in which Gregory rehabilitates himself, upon emerging from ten years in the forest, is deeply moving and inspiring. Although later on he is greatly helped by certain individuals whom he identifies as angels, in the early stages he transforms his life solely through his own inner resources. He describes in detail his method for “mounting a mental counter-insurgency” against his inner demons which I believe would be immensely helpful for anyone who has gone through any experience approximating to his kind of mental suffering and turmoil. Though his case was extreme I believe it will be of great value to many, and not only those who have been through comparable extreme experiences.

Naturally I highly recommend this book, and not only to a general readership but to those interested or engaged in psychotherapy and personal spiritual transformation.

The Therapeutic Journey of the Fictional Hero or Heroine

Recently I came upon an article in The Psychotherapist magazine which highlights the close parallels between the novel and the process of psychotherapy.

In her article Psychotherapy and the Novel, in issue 56 Spring 2014 edition, the author (therapeutic counsellor Rosamond Williams) makes the point that only the novel (of all the narrative art forms) offers a parallel detail to the process of psychotherapy, in the exploration of relationships, thoughts and feelings.

Rosamond Williams cites as examples the following novels: Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Dickens David Copperfield, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

In all of these we can trace the hero or heroine’s  learning curve through their confusions and unsatisfactory relationship to resolution: a very therapeutic experience for the reader as well as for the main protagonist.

I can bear out everything she says not only in my reading, but in my own novel-writing.

In Jane Austen’s Price and Prejudice for example, I believe there are many other universal truths, equally valid for our own lives in 2014 just as they were in Regency England, that  we can learn, well beyond the ironic and flippant one in the first line: that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.

Here’s just a small selection of the truths, helpful for a therapeutic journey, that I’ve picked out from Pride and Prejudice:

1)  even the most outrageous person, behaving badly, can end up getting what he or she wants;

2)  no matter how mortifying and objectionable, that person can still be playing a vital part in the chain of events leading to a final positive outcome;

3)  when you’re at your saddest and most disappointed, convinced you’ve lost all your hopes and dreams, you don’t know what is going on behind the scenes;

4) when all seems lost, help can sometimes come from the most unexpected quarter;

5) sometimes people do the most disgraceful things and end up triumphing through it, because of the links and connections they’ve unwittingly set up between other people;

and

6) sometimes you can, through your own wrong-headedness and flawed attitude, interfere to try and stop a certain event happening, and end up being the vital factor that facilitates it.

I can identify, too, with the psychotherapeutic  journey in my own fiction-writing. In my upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit, my heroine, Zoe, sees her situation as perfect and ideal; when negative influences start to creep in, she denies them; through her stubbornness she continues her denial until she is goaded by a friend with a totally different outlook on life to recognise the threat for what it is. Only when the antagonism has become too great for her to ignore, she makes a critical choice to take responsibility and act to oppose the menace which is engulfing her life.

To me this closely parallels the journey one may take in psychotherapy.