Dr. Alan Corbett: A Man Enormously Loved
Christmas of 2016 proved to be a very heavy-hearted one for literally hundreds, if not thousands, of mental health professionals around the world, who have had to mourn the loss of our dear, dear friend Alan Corbett, who has died at far too early an age.
A psychotherapist, author, researcher, and teacher of tremendous compassion and deep intelligence, Corbett devoted his professional life with complete absorption to the care of his many patients, most of whom had suffered from a lifetime of disability and trauma. As many will know only too well, Corbett specialised in work with the intellectually and physically disabled and with those who had survived early experiences of gross sexual abuse. A consummate clinician, he helped a very large number of deeply tormented souls to live much more peaceful lives.
Born in London on 17th February, 1963, Alan Corbett began his career in social work. In 1991, eager to provide psychological treatment for those struggling with disability, he co-founded a charity called Respond, based initially in South London, and then, more recently, in Central London, quite close to Euston Station. Respond, which only recently celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday, may well be the first institution devoted entirely to the provision of psychoanalytical psychotherapy for men, women, and children who struggle with intellectual disabilities – what we used to call “mental retardation” or “mental handicap”. A passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, Corbett worked closely with Valerie Sinason, then head of the Mental Handicap Team at the Tavistock Clinic in London, and with fellow psychotherapist Tamsin Cottis and a small band of colleagues, to develop Respond into a nationally recognised and admired institution. Corbett and Cottis undertook some of the first psychotherapeutic work at Respond, and Sinason served as the first clinical supervisor. Collectively, they provided a strong foundation for the development of this important and pioneering body of work.
Respond really constituted the backbone of Alan’s distinguished career, and the organisation flourished under his leadership. Corbett forged alliances with senior mental health professionals such as Anne Alvarez, Sheila Hollins, and Earl Hopper, all of whom became key supervisors or supporters of the work, and facilitated Alan as he and Tamsin Cottis developed Respond as a premier institution, much used by social services and the probation services and by many other professional bodies over a long period of time.
Although many colleagues refused to believe that people with severe or profound intellectual impairments could be helped in a substantial way through the classical “talking cure”, Corbett knew from his lengthy experience that sustained, devoted, and creative attempts at understanding the often “bizarre” behaviours of his patients would result in great improvements, not only in terms of symptom reduction but, also, as a means of enhancing the patient’s intelligence. Once many of these traumatised, abused, disabled people could begin to narrate their stories, their levels of handicap would frequently diminish.
A leading pioneer of the field of “disability psychotherapy”, Corbett began to develop a sub-specialism in working with handicapped men and women whose early abuses propelled them to perpetrate various offences, becoming rapists or paedophiles or genital exhibitionists. And before long, Alan became one of the principal theoreticians and practitioners in the field of “forensic disability psychotherapy” as well, long before the foundation of the Institute of Psychotherapy and Disability.
Exactly twenty years ago, Alan Corbett, in collaboration with Respond colleagues Tamsin Cottis and Stephen Morris, published his first book, entitled Witnessing, Nurturing, Protesting: Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Abuse of People with Learning Disabilities, which became a veritable manifesto, alongside Valerie Sinason’s Mental Handicap and the Human Condition: New Approaches from the Tavistock, which provided the foundations for the creation of the field of disability psychotherapy. Extraordinarily, Alan co-wrote this thoughtful book at the age of barely more than thirty years. Like many brilliant people, he did not make his great discoveries in the classroom. He crafted them instead from the depths of his own very loving soul by spending time with patients whom other mental health professionals simply refused to treat.
In spite of his clinical brilliance, Alan comported himself with extreme modesty. I never heard him utter a single grandiose word. Humble enough to learn more, and always keen to sharpen his mind, he underwent further extensive training, qualifying as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist from the Guild of Psychotherapists and completing a doctorate in clinical science from the University of Kent.
Deeply attached to Respond, and eager to develop competent successors, Alan trained a new generation of talented and sensitive young clinicians, while he began to pursue more extensive pastures, developing a very satisfying independent psychotherapy practice. He also worked selflessly for various professional organisations in both London and Dublin as a teacher and supervisor.
As a clinician, Alan earned the admiration of absolutely every one of his close colleagues. He soon developed a reputation as being a “safe pair of hands”. Each one of us who referred patients to him knew that these men and women would be looked after very well indeed. I worked closely with Alan when I coordinated a psychotherapy service for the School of Life, and he became one of our most stalwart Staff Psychotherapists. As colleagues will know, when we refer patients to a fellow clinician, we do not always receive any feedback from the patients themselves. We hope and pray that the referral has proved to be a helpful one. But on many occasions, patients contacted me years after the referral to thank me for having pointed them in the direction of Dr. Corbett. One person recently telephoned me and declaimed quite simply, “Thank you for sending me to him. That man saved my life”.
As a colleague, Corbett applied himself with unbelievable generosity, helping to grow numerous important mental health institutions in the United Kingdom and in Ireland as well. I cannot hope to do justice to all of Alan’s organisational work, as he enriched so many institutions. I know that he made huge contributions to both the disability psychotherapy and the forensic psychotherapy professions and, also, to the study of traumatology. His roles included his selfless service to the Board of Trustees of the Institute of Psychotherapy and Disability, developing a training programme and a monograph series; to the Board of the International Association for Forensic Psychotherapy, championing the needs of the disabled forensic patient; to Survivors UK, providing tireless support to staff members working with men who had suffered from sexual abuse; and to numerous organisations in Ireland, including C.A.R.I. (Children at Risk in Ireland), the Children’s Therapy Centre, as well as Disability Psychotherapy Ireland, and the Irish Institute of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, among others. And he made huge contributions to the work of I.C.A.P. (Immigrant Counselling and Psychotherapy), and to the Clinic for Dissociative Studies and, also, to the Guild of Psychotherapists – all most dear to his heart.
As the age of fifty beckoned, Alan rang me and asked whether we could meet for a cup of tea. We struggled to find a free fifty-minute window amid the complexities of our diaries, but we succeeded in doing so. Alan told me that, having spent nearly thirty years working full-time as a clinician and organisational leader, he wished to devote more of his energies to writing. This pleased me greatly, as I knew only too well how much we would be able to learn from him. He explained that he hoped to write a textbook on “forensic disability psychotherapy”, the very specialism that he had pioneered. With tremendous enthusiasm, we instantly arranged a contract with Karnac Books to publish such a book in the “Forensic Psychotherapy Monograph Series”.
Most prospective authors labour over their manuscripts interminably, and as series editor, I must devote a great deal of effort to chivvying them along. But within only a few months of having received his contract, Alan submitted a completed typescript for his book on forensic disability psychotherapy. Although most final drafts arrive in a rather messy state, Alan sent me a virtually perfect text: stunningly well structured, beautifully written, and completely free of even the tiniest of spelling mistakes or bibliographical infelicities. When I forwarded Alan’s PDF to the staff at Karnac Books, they could not believe their good fortune. Oliver Rathbone, the publisher, confessed that he could not remember a title which cost him so little in copy-editing fees, and all because Alan had prepared his book with such meticulous care. Indeed, he applied that same meticulous care to his patients, to his organisations, to his students and supervisees, and to all of his colleagues and friends.
In 2014, we published Alan’s magnificent book Disabling Perversions: Forensic Psychotherapy with People with Intellectual Disabilities – a true masterpiece. But although we had hoped to host a book launch for Alan, we had to wait approximately one year before doing so.
Round the time of publication, Alan received a diagnosis of cancer. Knowing that he would require both surgery and chemotherapy, and that he would not be able to undertake sessions with patients for some months, he created a structure to ensure that the men and women who worked with him would be well supported psychologically.
Upon recovery from his medical treatment, lovingly cared for by his husband Peter McKeown, Alan resumed work with his patients, and he immediately began to write another book. This time, he decided that he would consolidate all of his hard-earned knowledge about the treatment of male survivors of sexual abuse. He produced his next book in record time – the stunningly written Psychotherapy with Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse: The Invisible Men, published in 2016. He also began to edit a book series of his own for the Institute of Psychotherapy and Disability, commencing with the preparation of a Festschrift for our dear colleague Valerie Sinason, whom Alan admired immensely across the whole of his professional lifetime.
Tragically, although the surgery and the chemotherapy proved successful at first, and Alan’s doctors hoped that he might make a full recovery, the cancer recurred, and during the summer of 2016, he learned that his medical team could do no more.
Alan prepared for the end of his life with the same honesty and modesty and straightforward forthrightness that his patients would have known from their work with him in the consulting room. He told all of his friends and colleagues the truth in a calm and non-catastrophising manner, and explained that he would devote his final months to writing and to the preservation of his professional legacy and, of course, to his most personal family relationships.
Not long thereafter, Alan entered a hospice, and in his characteristically appreciative manner he praised the staff for their attentive caregiving. His capacity for gratitude seemed to know no bounds.
When it became clear that Alan would not have much longer to live, a group of close colleagues mobilised ourselves to plan a launch party to celebrate his newly published book about male survivors of sexual abuse and, also, to pay tribute to Alan’s many achievements. On 22nd October, 2016, an enormous throng of Alan’s family, friends, and colleagues filled the Freud Museum to capacity to celebrate the publication of his book and, of course, to express our love and respect for this unique man. Large numbers of colleagues flew in to London from Ireland, and virtually everyone else cancelled their pre-existing arrangements for this Saturday night (whether theatre tickets, trips, or family gatherings) to be there in person to cheer Alan. So many people crowded into the Freud Museum that we could not hold the speeches in Freud’s dining room – the traditional location for such events – but rather, the caretaker Daniel Bento suggested that we host the evening in the very large entry-hall adjacent to the capacious staircase. Colleagues stuffed themselves into Freud’s foyer, or stood on the stairs, or the landing, and or on the upper balcony, as we all enjoyed hearing some of Great Britain’s most distinguished mental health professionals pay tribute to our dear friend.
Rod Tweedy, the Editor at Karnac Books, praised the scholarly merits of Alan Corbett’s newest publication. And Tamsin Cottis spoke about Alan’s pioneering work at establishing Respond. She also read out a glowing testimonial from Anne Alvarez, who had supervised much of Alan’s challenging clinical work over a long period of time. Estela Welldon, founder of the International Association for Forensic Psychotherapy praised Alan’s enormous labours not only on behalf of the I.A.F.P. but, also, for having become the progenitor of “forensic disability psychotherapy”. And Valerie Sinason, founding President of the Institute of Psychotherapy and Disability, delivered a beautiful speech about Alan’s pioneering work in caring for those patients whom everyone else thought untreatable and unhelpable.
I must confess that among the many touching moments of this special evening in Sigmund Freud’s old home, one stands out above all others. Alan’s dear colleague from the world of disability psychotherapy, Professor the Baroness Hollins, a member of the House of Lords, and a huge supporter of Respond over many decades, spoke glowingly about Alan’s newly published book. She then told the audience that not long ago, she had received an invitation from The Vatican to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to fight ecclesiastical sexual abuse. In view of her roles as Professor Emerita of Disability Psychiatry at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in the University of London, and as past President of both the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the British Medical Association, as well as her work as a mental health campaigner and politician, one understands only too well why the Pope requested Baroness Hollins’s contribution to this commission. Sheila concluded her speech by explaining to Alan that she would personally deliver a copy of his book about the need to eradicate sexual abuse directly to The Vatican, and she beseeched him to autograph a copy to His Holiness the Pope.
As Alan signed his name on the title page of his book, the entire audience of admirers either fought back tears or wept overtly, delighted to know that his work would have such a far-reaching impact, and that Pope Francis, the sovereign of the Vatican City, would be able to draw upon these hard-won clinical findings about the causes and consequences and treatments of sexual abuse.
It speaks volumes about Alan that no fewer than sixteen organisations co-sponsored this evening at the Freud Museum. If we had had more time, I suspect that many other institutions would have wished to express their formal support of this very special man and his very special work.
Alan responded to the testimonials and he thanked everyone in his characteristically humble and modest and gracious manner. We did not know beforehand whether Alan would have the energy to stay at the launch for more than a short while, but so many friends and colleagues kept talking to him, hugging him, and insisting upon an autographed copy of his book, that he stayed for hours and hours.
The much-loved Dr. Corbett spent the last weeks of his life with his family and a few old friends, and devoted his final efforts to ensuring that he completed as many of his writing commitments as he could possibly manage. Extraordinarily, during this time, he finished the editorial work on a special section of papers on disability psychotherapy for the British Journal of Psychotherapy, and he undertook an immense amount of editorial work on his Festschrift for Valerie Sinason so that his successor would be able to inherit the typescript in the tidiest and most carefully prepared form possible.
He also managed to mobilise the physical reserves to attend the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations of Respond to the delight and privilege of his many long-standing disability colleagues.
And, to crown it all, when the landmark BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour approached Alan for an interview about male survivors of sexual abuse, including clerical abuse, he responded to this invitation with gratitude and spoke on-air to the presenter Jane Garvey, from the BBC studios in Central London. Listening to the broadcast, one would never have known that the clear, sensitive, intelligent, and calmly spoken Dr. Corbett did so while facing his own imminent death.
With great boldness, Alan talked to the millions of listeners of Woman’s Hour about his work with survivors and about the devastating consequences of sexual abuse, describing it as a veritable “grenade” thrown into someone’s life. He underscored that women, as well as men, commit sexual crimes against children, including the mothers and grandmothers of these victims. Alan also spoke about traumatisation more generally, noting bravely that, “a lot of the psychiatric cases that we see that baffle us are to do with very, very early sexual trauma”. Although Ms. Garvey asked Alan some challenging and provocative questions, he answered these in his characteristically professional and comforting and non-defensive manner. And in spite of the fact that the interview engaged with the awful nature of sexual abuse, Corbett ended the broadcast hopefully, underscoring that if survivors can be supported with long-term psychotherapy, then such brave people could begin to find a way of managing life with far less internal persecution.
(This programme, broadcast on 21st November, 2016, may still be available on-line for a short while on the iPlayer website of the British Broadcasting Corporation, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b082vys4).
During recent months, many of Alan’s colleagues have rallied to ensure that his legacy will be remembered for a long time to come. The Institute of Psychotherapy and Disability appointed him as a Fellow. The International Association for Forensic Psychotherapy resolved that a special panel will be devoted to Alan’s work on forensic disability psychotherapy at its forthcoming international conference. And Respond, the organisation that Alan loved and cherished so very much, established an Alan Corbett award in his honour, for young colleagues in the field of disability psychotherapy. Happily, Alan managed to attend the ceremony in November, 2016, and he presented the inaugural eponymous award to two staff members: Liz Gow and Luthfa Khan.
Sadly, Alan died early on the morning of Thursday, 22nd December, 2016. Our hearts go out to his husband Peter, to all the members of their family, and to Alan’s friends, colleagues, students, and to the many patients whose life he helped to make more worthwhile. Certainly, he made all of our lives more worthwhile.
Upon hearing of Alan’s death, his most long-standing colleague from the early days at Respond, psychotherapist Tamsin Cottis, shared her immediate thoughts, noting that, “Alan Corbett was a wise and humane colleague and friend whose passing is a terrible and untimely loss to our profession. A truly gifted therapist and supervisor, his pioneering work with men with learning disabilities, at Respond in London, and also in Dublin, is unparalleled and reflects his profound and long-time commitment to both quality and equality in psychotherapy. We are immensely poorer without him but lucky to have his legacy. This lies in his writing and, also, in the hearts and minds of those traumatised and complex individuals whom he has supported with such sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. I feel privileged to have worked alongside him”.
Dr. Noelle Blackman, Chief Executive Officer of Respond, reminisced that, “Alan has defined what it is to work as a therapist with people with an intellectual disability. His writing lays this out with great clarity, each book sharpening our understanding of the complexity and painfulness of the work. The beauty of his writing is the compassion and empathy that he has for his clients, always seeing their humanity before their disability. As one of the early directors of Respond, Alan left his imprint there in many ways. He ran the organisation with a mixture of great thoughtfulness and gravitas, and set the pattern for how Respond operates today. We were lucky enough to have Al back as a clinical supervisor in recent years and to have the opportunity for our therapists to develop their practice under the guidance of his warmth and brilliant thinking. He has touched many lives and changed them for the better”.
Dr. Valerie Sinason wrote that Alan will be remembered by us all as “a fine man, thinker, clinician, theoretician, and friend who has worked hard to make the invisible visible, and who has worked to eradicate the stigma of disability and abuse”. Professor the Baroness Hollins expressed her thoughts likewise, underscoring that, “Alan was a great listener, and had the skill and patience to listen to people regardless of their intellectual ability or the nature of their trauma. His clinical insights are the more profound because of this breadth, and his published writing will inspire clinicians for years to come”. And Dr. Estela Welldon reflected that, “elegance, expertise, and immense care for others in most subtle, although profound, ways were the key characteristics of Alan Corbett’s professional and personal life”. Valerie, Sheila, and Estela could, of course, elaborate upon their love of Alan at much greater length and have done so on many occasions. These remarks represent merely their first thoughts and reflections on a life well lived. Any mental health professional would be very blessed indeed to receive such tributes from these remarkable leaders in our field. One could readily print many, many more.
Alan Corbett has bequeathed an enormous legacy through his psychotherapeutic endeavours, through his writings, through his teachings, and through his extensive collaborations with colleagues within a multitude of organisations. Naturally, we reserve our greatest sadness and sympathy for his most intimate family and friends, but all of us who knew Alan will share in that sorrow, for we have lost one of the really great men of our time who, happily, will be remembered and cherished.
London, 12th January, 2017
Corbett, Alan (2014). Disabling Perversions: Forensic Psychotherapy with People with Intellectual Disabilities. London: Karnac Books.
Corbett, Alan (2016). Psychotherapy with Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse: The Invisible Men. London: Karnac Books.
Corbett, Alan; Cottis, Tamsin, and Morris, Stephen (1996). Witnessing, Nurturing, Protesting: Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Abuse of People with Learning Disabilities. London: David Fulton Publishers.
Sinason, Valerie (1992). Mental Handicap and the Human Condition: New Approaches from the Tavistock. London: Free Association Books.