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Thanks to all of you who wrote so passionately in the Guardian’s comment column on my article “Why boarding schools produce bad leaders” in Tuesday’s edition, in which I attempted to expose the Wounded Leader problem. You are really helping the public to see that this issue is real and pressing.

And thanks to the Guardian for allowing me the space to contribute. At the time of writing this blog there have been over 450 comments to the article and had almost 100,000 views.

What is so weird to me is how viscous some of the comments have been. Apparently, I am a ‘professional parasite’ practising something called ‘cod-psychology.’ Many of those complaining concentrate on how there are vested interests in making the case I make, as if there are huge profits to be made out of describing the problems of sending young children away rather that the actually send them way! Now here we are talking vested interests.

It is quite extraordinary, sometimes hurtful, and just plain absurd. Most therapists make a living; I don’t know any rich ones – do you? A few contributors felt compelled to remark on these attacks; here is one:

“Interesting the vitriol for Duffell in some of these comments. Evidently cuts close to the bone in helping people to understand a particularly British psychopathology of power.”

Of course, when I have removed the harpoons hurled at my gut it is pretty clear to see what is going on: here we have both the Entitlement Illusion bullying, exactly like the bullying that the Scottish YES campaign has been receiving, and the Strategic Survival Personality in hyper-vigilant mode.

What happens inside such people, I imagine, who have survived by being what I call Boarding School Survivor Complier Types, is that alarm bells go off when someone says it wasn’t all that great to grow up in a privileged institution. The bearer of such a message is perceived is a ghastly threat. All hands on deck and man the guns, says this alarm.

The response is a kind of fundamentalist terrorism – although I am reminded more of John Knox’s alarm at the “Monstrous Regiment of Women.” For the threat challenges the notion that everything was OK in childhood. The bearer of the the thereat must now be eliminated or the continuation of survival is at stake. So attack!

This internal dynamic is behind one of the most common and most tragic stories I hear from some ex-boarders, who can remember their Dad saying he hated boarding, but nevertheless, still sent them away. If the father takes his son’s plight seriously he has to really look at his internal world, come to terms with his past, acknowledge the reality of his inner child, not project this out onto his real child and then dump him.

I suppose this is what they call cod-psychology?

Oh, well, then it must be. Actually, I have a lot respect for cod. Once upon a time, before “greed got in the way, “ as Dylan sings, the cod were so plentiful in the North Atlantic, from Iceland to Newfoundland, that the early European adventurers said you could almost walk on their backs. The First Americans were grateful nourished on the those “give-aways” from the “cod people”, as they called them. But now, the cod people have withdrawn, and we have fished ourselves almost dry with our greed and ignorance.

I am happily on the side of the cod.


  1. I am a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in the NHS, and can hardly be accused of profiteering from (or “preying on”) others’ suffering as some commentators accuse Nick Duffell of doing in response to his article in the Guardian. In our service we daily deal with the long-term effects of horrendous childhood abuse, neglect and trauma brought to us by adult patients with severe mental health problems. Our waiting lists are growing and the stories we hear are often heartbreaking and I despair at what so-called grown-ups do to children. Fortunately the damaging effects of childhood abuse and neglect are now widely recognised and publicised, which wasn’t the case even 10 years ago. Nick needs to be applauded for shining the spotlight on a form of abuse, abandonment through boarding, that is still widely regarded not only as acceptable but even desirable. Nick convincingly describes the psychological damage it causes reverberates through British society in the form of bullying and relational incompetence by our governing elite. Just as memories of childhood sexual abuse were often dismissed as false memories not that long ago, the abuse through sending small kids off to boarding school is still regarded as acceptable and even idealised; and, as some of the Guardian comments show, even non-boarders seem to fall for it.

    Nick deserves credit for opening up this can of worms and analysing its sociocultural effects – mainly that we have a tradition of being governed by an emotionally crippled ‘bullying class’. But even worse, they bully us so convincingly that so many of us have come to see it as the norm and, sadly, turn into bullies ourselves in our own sweet ways. This is scary and so are some of the Guardian comments. WAKE UP GUYS! And I really appreciate that Nick calls his book ‘Wounded Leaders’, because it expresses compassion for the hurt children in our leaders. Things go wrong when we don’t accept our woundedness and act it out instead. For healing to happen we just need to accept how messed up we are. Can you imagine Boris and David doing that?

    Comment by Anonymous on 13/06/2014 at 6:45 pm
  2. As you quite rightly conclude, what other response would you have expected from people in denial that their childhoods were severely damaged in the name of profit and for whom the dubious privileges they now feel an entitlement to enjoy, barely fill the empty, aching, abysmal void remaining?

    The revolutionaries will recognise that these broken childhoods are our misguided leaders’ Achilles heels, but of course, would have too much compassion and mercy to further abuse these damaged, wounded leaders, by using it against them.

    Comment by Michael Topic on 14/06/2014 at 1:10 pm
  3. I was sent to boarding school at 11yo. I was told that it was so that neither my father’s career (needing to move around the UK) nor my education (disruption of moving from school to school) would suffer. Neither of my two siblings were afforded the same “privelege”. Actually all three of us are very damaged psychologically: my siblings, having been brought up in an utterly emotionally empty household and me, having survived the abuse of the boarding school system.

    This a complex issue, and Nick, over years of client-work and study, is addressing it compassionately and intelligently. The balance of vested interest is, and always has been, hugely weighted in the boarding school culture, securing economic advantage for (originally) the British empire and subsequently for the establishment. The creation of wealth, rather than the creation of (mental) health has always been the aim.

    The whole process is psychologically unsustainable and hats off to Nick who is putting his head above the parapets of all those victorian, and earlier, public-school piles – risking hurtful attacks as he does so. So, hurrah for compassion and loving parent/child relationships and boo to the sacrifice of the innocents in the service of economic gain.

    Comment by Andrew Mullis on 15/06/2014 at 1:47 pm
  4. “The psychology of any given family, community or Society is both revealed and perpetuated in how they relate to and treat the children and the most vulnerable people. Change that and you can change everything.”

    Two pertinent examples of this dynamic are The Indian Residential Boarding Schools of the USA and Canada, and the introduction of Compulsory State Education, both of which were designed to intentionally alter the students who passed through these systems.

    The former was designed to undermine the Native Cultures, the latter to create a culture of obedience, imposed limitations on thinking and inculcate a class of ‘workers’ who could be directed by management in predictable ways.

    It was understood that it would take one to three generations to alter a culture.

    Both were touted as a ‘charitable act’ and in both cases this was accepted as the truth by the population at large, which was mostly Christian and deeply conditioned. In both cases Charity was a cover story.

    The emergent psychology of a society is determined by how that society treats the children.

    If our Society would but approach children in the ways their biology and nature suggest, we could transform it radically within three generations and create a peaceful, empathic, robust, intelligent and physically healthy society that nurtures both the human being and the environment.

    This is not fantasy, it is possibility – as to whether or not the will to do this can be gathered remains to be seen.

    Comment by Corneilius Crowley on 30/07/2014 at 10:47 pm
  5. I agree with your analysis, Cornellius, and WL is making a similar case. Happily, the Canadian First Peoples are now getting themselves heard! The Interim Report on Residential Schools in Canad is available freely on the web and makes harrowing if sobering reading.

    Comment by Nick Duffell on 06/08/2014 at 4:43 pm
  6. Sir, you are a saint with an ability to turn honesty into an art form. I am married to an english man of priviledged background and have visited England many times over the years, once having lived there for a year. My observations over this time concur precisely with what you have written and I have tried hard many times to convey this to my husband, sometimes with success, sometimes without. In fairness,even when we gain insight into our unacceptable behaviours and recognise the need to change them, the road to change is long and hard.
    Thank you tthank you thank you. I can’t wait for US to read your book!

    Comment by Mrs Karyne Gough on 30/07/2014 at 11:43 pm
  7. Thanks, Karyne. Glad you enjoyed it. But I assure you I am no saint – I have been as difficult to live with as all BSS, and that road is hard as you say. Looks like you are in the OZ, so not quite sure what you mean by waiting for US to read it.

    Comment by Nick Duffell on 06/08/2014 at 4:36 pm
  8. On another tack, I take an interest in economics, Nick, and sometimes get letters in the Guardian on the subject. I was amazed to read in your book that in 1968 at Oxford you were being taught what might be termed Norman Lamont theory – a degree of unemployment is necessary to keep inflation down. At a time when the zeitgeist was still Keynesian/full employment ideology. Nothing changes; students at today’s colleges are protesting because what they’re being taught (Hayek, Friedman, perhaps) doesn’t square with what they see when they look out the window. By the way, ex-Christ’s Hospital comedian Mark Thomas is going from strength to strength. Do you have a category for rebels like Thomas and Peter Cook who compensated after school by taking the piss out of the establishment?

    Comment by David Redshaw on 06/08/2014 at 4:26 pm
  9. Yes David, that economic teaching was pretty bad and very elitist. Luckily, I still follow my heart in those areas.
    And yes, such comedian BSS rebels are discussed at some length in ‘The Making of Them’. Funny as they are, many have a heavy masochistic streak, like all BSS rebels, which can turn into self-destruction, as it did in Pete’s case.

    Comment by Nick Duffell on 06/08/2014 at 4:40 pm
  10. I am a practicing psychotherapist in the U.K. I have had and still do have clients who went to boarding school in England. My experience is that the journey to any semblance of psychological health is a long one. Denial is usually a preferred option, and is still usually firmly in place to some degree even after years of therapy. The narcissistic wounding of being sent to live in that sort of institution cannot be underestimated. And I agree with Nick that the “successes” are equally wounded as the “failures”. Well done Nick in keeping up the task of bringing this to a wider audience.

    Comment by John Shuttleworth on 20/08/2014 at 1:43 pm

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