I am a writer with roots in evolutionary anthropology and a deep curiosity in the dynamics of the human psyche. The questions that engage me are,
- What makes us who we are?
- How are we shaped by the particular emotional, relational, cultural and physical world in which we live?
- How are we shaped by our evolutionary heritige?
- How does that shaping play out in our experience of ourselves, and others?
- How does that shaping play out in our relationship to ourselves and others?
- How can we expand and change the way that we experience, and relate to, ourselves and others?
My exploration takes the form of both scholarship and paying attention to what I am living in my own life.
I grew up partially in London, and partially in the countryside, where I began to explore different ways of experiencing myself through horse-riding. I did not know what I was doing at the time; all I knew was that I loved my horse, and was passionate about competing in horse trials, galloping across country and jumping obstacles. However, not only was the horse-world very different to the world in which I was growing up, but riding depends on non-verbal, embodied communication, and that was a completely different world to the one in which I was being educated where what mattered were words and intellect.
I studied Human Sciences as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford – an interdisciplinary degree that considers humans as a biological, social and cultural species. Discovering how our species came into being, and the evolutionary forces which have shaped us, was particularly exciting. It added new layers to my experience of what it means to be a human being.
Fuelled by a desire to learn more I went to the University of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to complete a joint master’s degree in anthropology and psychology. Keen to do my own research, I then returned to Oxford to embark on a PhD in biological anthropology. I focused on evolutionary anthropology, which explores how evolutionary processes contribute to shaping aspects of human social behaviour.
My research took me to a wilderness region of Tanzania to work with the Datoga, a traditional cattle-herding people. I studied what families needed to survive, as well as the costs and benefits to women of being married to men who have several wives. (Click here for more photos, or go to ‘galleries’).
Living in the world of the Datoga brought deep learning, both academically and personally. It gave me extraordinary insights into lives which were both profoundly different to my own, and which had significant underlying similarities.
However, living with the Datoga was also very tough. Daily life for the Datoga revolved around looking after livestock, collecting water and preparing food. There was time for resting and socialising, dances and rituals, but the tasks required for survival took priority. Forty five per cent of children born died before their 15th birthday – a mortality rate that is common among traditional peoples and which was the norm in the West before modern hygiene, sanitation and medicine. It was hard to witness and record that reality.
Whilst living with the Datoga, home was my Land Rover. I carried 200 litres of drinking water, a small solar panel to run my lap-top, and I slept in a tent that folded out from the roof. The roof-tent was my luxury – it kept me safe from insects, snakes and other animals, yet at the same time it allowed me spectacular views of the rift valley and of the night sky. On a couple of occasions the full moon was so bright that I could read and write without needing a torch.
To get to where I worked was a six hour drive from the nearest town – the last three hours of which were along a cattle track. The track was littered with acacia thorns as large as masonry nails, and my tyres would suffer several punctures on each trip. I learnt how to mend punctures, and became a half-decent amateur mechanic. During the rainy season I spent many hours digging my Land Rover out of mud-holes!
By the time I finished my PhD I knew that a life in academia was not for me. My then partner worked for the renowned wildlife film-maker Hugo van Lawick, and for two years my home was a tent at Hugo’s campsite, on the border of the Serengeti National Park. To live in one of the most awe-inspiring wildlife areas of the world was a huge privilege. It also gave me a sense of the lives of our ancestors who were not only gatherers and hunters, but who were also hunted. At night we were visited by hyenas who stole meat from the freezer and soap from the wash-basins just outside our tents (soap contains fat). One morning we were unable to get to the long-drop (toilet) because a lion was eating a gazelle between our bedroom tents and the toilet tent. Living amongst wildlife brought a consciousness of my own animal body: as I walked from one area of camp to another I became aware that my body was instinctually alert to possible dangers, and constantly on the lookout for snakes or scorpions, buffalo or elephants, hyenas or lion.
When I returned to live the UK after seven years in Tanzania, I began working in television and co-produced a couple of documentaries. I loved the challenge of making ideas accessible to a wider audience, as well as the process of interweaving the expertise of different individuals to create a coherent film. However, I discovered that I do not think in visual pictures, and so realised that documentaries were not for me and that writing was a better medium for my work.
Around that time I also realised that I needed to explore my own internal world. What I had lived in my external world had been rich; what I had lived internally, and in my relationships, had often been painful. I wanted to change that, and sensed that I first needed to understand what made me who I was, and what I carried deep in my psyche and body. As I began to venture into my internal world, I underpinned what was happening in a therapeutic process, by reading widely around emotional trauma, by going to lectures and by participating in workshops.
Discovering the phenomenon of ‘shame’, as well as the writing of Jungian analysts Donald Kalsched and Marion Woodman, was a revelation; it encouraged me to connect to what I carried in both my mind and body. I embarked on a series of BodySoul Rhythms® intensives taught by Marion Woodman, Mary Hamilton and Ann Skinner, followed by a three year training program which they facilitated. Through the work of pioneers like Ellert Nijenhuis, Allan Schore and Daniel Siegel I learnt about attachment theory, dissociation, and how childhood experiences shape our nervous system; that helped me to experience myself differently. Evolutionary anthropology also contributed an important piece of the puzzle; it enabled me to understand why certain ways of being and responses came to exist in the first place.
My book, Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma: Conversations with Pioneering Clinicians and Researchers, was born out of this journey. It took nine years from conception to publication, and was published by Routledge in December, 2014.
When I embarked on my therapeutic process I imagined that I would get a few things ‘sorted’, and then my life would be fixed and I would not have to think about it anymore. Fifteen years later I know that it does not work like that! We do not get ‘fixed’ – at least not in the way that I envisioned back then. What I carry in the depths of my mind and my body will remain with me. However, what has changed is my relationship with what I carry, and thus how I experience both myself and other people.
Additionally, what began as a desire to ‘sort out a few things’ has morphed into an on-going search for deeper understanding and a continuing process of learning, change and growth. As a result, although my life is nowhere close to being fixed, I now live in a world which is infinitely richer than anything I could have imagined when I started on this journey. I am grateful for that reality.