Chapter Nine – Fraser House Transitionary Processes






This chapter looks at Fraser House small group process and the many other change processes evolved at Fraser House. Margaret Mead’s visit is discussed and Neville’s adaptation of Keyline to Cultural Keyline is analysed. 




Just like Big Group, Small Groups were run like meetings. Typically, one staff person ran the Small Group and another staff person was a process observer, on-sider and trainee. Small Groups were mainly conducted by the nurses, with some groups being lead by medical officers, the social worker, and the chaplain. The chaplain ran some spiritual groups at Fraser House. The Fraser House Handbook specifies the nurse therapist role in Small Groups (refer Appendices 7 & 8):


The role of the Small Group therapist and observer has always been the province of the nurse in Fraser House, and represents part of the rise in therapeutic status. Nurses have become therapists in their own right.


The first essential in taking a group is to see it as a meeting, and like all meetings, there is a need for a chairman to conduct affairs and keep issues to the point.


The initial function of the therapist is to see that the group functions as a group (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 4, p. 18).


The Handbook then gives detailed specifying of group process. Sections of the Handbook on the Nurses Roles and Big Group process are shown in Appendices 7 and 8.


Small groups were held from 11 AM to 12 Noon after a half hour refreshment break following big group. They were preceded by the staff discussion over morning tea. After evening Big Group and a similar thirty-minute staff discussion period, Small Groups were run from 8 PM to 9 PM. During the staff discussion, patients and visitors had an informal morning tea together separate from the staff. All groups and the refreshment break ran strictly to time. Another staff discussion meeting took place after Small Groups to ensure all staff was well briefed on unfolding contexts.


In an April 2003 email Phil Chilmaid wrote:


There were several ways to follow up progress and issues: inter-staff verbal exchange at shift change, ward report books, patients’ progress notes, and at various times, small group report books, and a large sheet of butchers paper ruled up with boxes for all the weeks programs and events so staff could come in after a gap or next shift and follow themes and developments.


Generally, nearly all the outpatients (typically, friends, workmates and relatives of patients) attending Big Group stayed and were allocated to the various Small Groups in both the morning and evening sessions. It was expected that outpatients attend both Big and Small Groups. There were ten or more concurrent Small Groups typically made up of between 8 to 12 people, or more per group.



Drawing 1 A Sketch of a Fraser House Small Group by Harry Campbell


The above illustration by "Sun" artist Harry Campbell of patients at Fraser House was published in The Sun Newspaper, 17 July 1963, p.28 [Also included in Neville’s News clippings (Various Newspaper Journalists 1959-1974, p. 33-34)].


Recall that upon Tikopia there was constant linking within and between people of differing generations, gender, clan, village, locality, status (chief/non-chief families) and occupation, that is, between differing sociological categories. Similarly, Neville cleaved Fraser House family-friendship networks and inter-patient factions by sociological category.


Neville’s aim was to create self-organizing communal living, which may impact upon and create shifts away from isolation and destructive cleavage, or make functional cleavage in entangled pathological networks.


In supporting mad and bad people with their dysfunctional family-friendship networks live well with each other, Neville’s view was that one of the primary healing processes that was both structured into and continually and pervasively at work within Fraser House, was the day-to-day lived-life dynamic healing interplay of social cleaving and unifying processes – the same processes that have been discussed in talking about Tikopia. Neville would set up scope for micro-experiences creating very strong forces cleaving pathological entanglements, as well as forces forging functional bonds within and between people. Typically, patients arrived with a very small family-friendship network.


Both the sociological category and the composition of small groups varied daily. All the small groups at any one time were based on the same category.


The social categories were:


(i)            age

(ii)           married/single status

(iii)          locality

(iv)         kinship

(v)          social order (manual, clerical, or semi-professional/professional) and

(vi)         age and sex.


Friday’s Small Groups were made up according to both age and sex for both staff and patients. This was the one exception to the non-segregation policy. Often inter-generational issues, including sexual abuse issues, were the focus of these Friday groups.


People in pathological social networks would be all together with everyone else in Big Group. However, because of the continual changing composition in small groups, the members of these pathological networks were regularly split up (cleavered) for the small group sessions. Age grading was deemed very important, as it is one of the basic divisions in society. Neville told me (July 1998) that the thinking was that age grading sets a context for the production of personality changes to prepare the client for life outside Fraser House. Age grading also allowed space for sorting out inter-generation pathology that was very prevalent. For example, Appendix 13 contains a note that at one time the Canteen was staffed only by people under twenty years of age. This would have created scope for sustained inter-generational relating with suppliers and customers.


Because of the number of categories, any visitor coming regularly on certain days of the week would find that they would be attending groups based on differing categories. For the small groups based on locality, Sydney was divided into a number of regions. In most cases, groups of people came regularly on the same trains, buses and each other’s cars so they all got to know each other. Patients and Outpatients would attend the small groups allocated by locality for their region of normal domicile. The Unit’s aim was to increase the patients’ role-taking functionality and psychological comfort towards their returning to functional life in their local community with an extended and functional family/friendship/ workmate network, typically of around seventy people. This meant that people who may have previously had a social network that was smaller than typical in society, ended up having one that was typically larger in terms of the number of people in the ‘closely known and regularly interacting’ part of their social network.


After a time at Fraser House these individual patient family/friendship networks would expand to have members with cross-links to other patient’s networks, and with a continual changing Unit population with overlap in stays, these nested patient-networks became very extensive. As well, all these people had Fraser House experience in common, and a common set of mutual support skills. The critical role of locality and Neville’s use of locality in this increase in the size and functionality of patient’s social networks is entirely resonant with Indigenous links to place, and the significance of place and placeform in Keyline.




Webb and Bruen (1968) wrote up research relating to the first 13 weeks of Multiple Child-Parent Therapy in Fraser House – called by some, ‘the mad hour’. Median attendance was 15 parents and sixteen children (aged 14 and under). This therapy was held in the same room as Big Group. All chairs were removed and ‘free play’ items were provided - including saucepans, games, balls, clothes as well as chalk and a blackboard. Attendance for parents and their children under 14 was compulsory and doors were looked to prevent people leaving; although parents with unproblematic relations with young infants were not required to bring them. Outpatients visiting Fraser House with children under 14 also attended the parent-child groups. As with other groups at Fraser House, there was a spread of diagnostic categories[1] among the people attending, as well as a spread of under-actives/over-actives and the under-controlled/over-controlled (Bruen Dec, 2005).


The first half hour was a free period. Parents asked what they were supposed to do. The only instruction was ‘parents are free to play with or discipline their children as they see fit’. Staff were told that during the free period they were to observe but not intervene unless physical damage seemed imminent. Staff could move around and talk to parents or play with children; however, staff were not to organize anything.


In the first few weeks these groups were extremely noisy, rowdy and stressful for parents, staff and children alike, especially the free period where staff were almost as overwhelmed as the parents.


The second half hour was usually structured with finger painting or routine group therapy. The third half hour was a reporting session. After that session the attendees were divided into three groups run by staff - parents (one hour session), children 8-14 (one hour session) and younger children (half hour session). The half hour with the younger children was described as ‘utter chaos’. There was then a final reporting session for staff for a half hour.


Initially, nearly all parents expressed considerable hostility towards the group and towards the staff who set up the group. During subsequent groups, parents grudging acknowledged that children enjoyed it. In an email exchange Bruen stated (December 2005) that:


Even having parents become hostile towards us succeeded in bringing them closer to their children.


The free period was originally an arena for staff to watch interactions that emerged. Initially parents were unable and unwilling to go near or engage with their children – they were emotional strangers. ‘Getting together’ as a family was a rare event in these people’s lives.


For six weeks the group was a provoking agent. After six weeks parents grudgingly admitted that the children enjoyed the sessions (Webb & Bruen, 1968, p. 52). After 9 weeks, successful whole family discussions were starting. Parents began playing with each other and play was being organised by parents with and between whole family groups. Whole families began to get together and enjoy each other’s company. A major therapeutic role of the groups was having parents showing pleasure and amazement in having for the first time their children approaching them to play with them, and if parents did this, that it would not have disastrous consequences.


During the thirteen weeks covered in the Web-Bruen research, the attendees were also attending Big and Small Groups, and discussion about the Child-Parent Groups was often raised in both of those forums.


Terry O’Neill used to facilitate this upstairs child-play segment as a volunteer psychologist after Warrick Bruen left. (I received my counselling skills training from Terry in the late Seventies.) Terry told me (Oct 1998) that on his first evening alone with the children (8-14), so much emotional energy had been generated during the first segment, ‘playing’ with their parents, that the nature of the frenzied play upstairs was scary. Some of the older children were kicking a soccer ball round like a deadly missile. Everyone had to be super alert not to get his or her head knocked off. Terry said (Oct 1998) that having a number of disturbed children in play therapy in these evening sessions stretched his skills to their limit.


The substantial change towards good parent-child relations during free play in these child-parent groups is another example of ‘provoking’ or ‘perturbing’ the families and tapping into functional self-organizing aspects in the context of all of the other Fraser House changework.




When deemed appropriate, face-to-face therapy between two patients, a patient and a nurse, or a patient and a doctor was held. Even in this individual therapy, the central focus was inter-patient relationships. Encouragement was continually given to ‘bring it up in the group’.


While it was recognized that during some crisis times a patient may need support by a doctor or nurse, most face-to-face therapy was informally between patient and patient as they went about everyday life, with the wider community always a background.




Neville commenced his postgraduate diploma in sociology shortly after Fraser House started and completed it in 1963. Neville spoke (July 1998) of Fraser House being an informal Post Graduate Research Institute, and of the Unit being the most advanced Social Research Institute in Australia.


Neville had pointed out to me that Franz Alexander had observed the potential for healing of the caring relationship between Freudian analysts and patients (Alexander 1961). Similarly, Elton Mayo (Trahair 1984) had found in the Hawthorne experiments amongst workers in the early part of this century, that the change component was not so much the various ‘treatments’ of the research - rather that it was that the researchers were acknowledging the workers’ dignity and worth and showing an interest in them. Change was linked to the emotional experience of being research subjects. Similarly to Mayo’s work, Fraser House patients and staff were the focus of continual research by Fraser House researchers and the outside research team headed up by Alfred Clark. Patients were being continually asked to reflect on themselves, other patients, other staff, Big Groups, Small Groups and on every aspect of Fraser House and aspects of wider society. Through all of the research, patients learned about the difference between quantitative and qualitative research as well as about the notions ‘validity’, ‘reliability testing’ and ‘trustworthiness’, and how these are very useful notions as part of living in a modern community, especially one with extensive pathology. Patients also became involved in both qualitative and quantitative research data gathering as well as discussing the results and implications of the research.


During 1963-1966, research by nurses in Fraser House was supervised by Neville (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 12, p. 69). Neville gave preliminary training to nurses in research methods and also trained the social worker in research methods. At one time Neville arranged a Fraser House Research workshop with 25 associated projects (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 12, p. 86-99). As an example, Fraser House residents were involved in rating patient participation and improvement (refer Appendix 16). In answering, patients were not only being encouraged to notice healing micro-experiences (experience of little bits of behaviour that may contribute to healing), they were receiving the strong positive emotional experience that what they thought and felt about things mattered and was of value. Having come from conflicted family environments where contradictory communication (Laing and Esterson 1964) was the norm, doing reality testing and checking the practical usefulness, validity and relevance of their observations was valuable. Patients and outpatients would start discussing a very diverse range of topics and in the processes evolve their capacities in forming, expressing and evaluating opinions and making insightful and useful observations about human interaction.



Another example of treating patients with respect, dignity and worth was asking them to explore and give answers to questions about their value systems. Neville carried out extensive values research (1965a) based on the concepts of Florence Kluckhohn (1953, p. 342-357). A list of the questions that were asked in Neville’s Values Research is in Appendix 17. This Fraser House values research was followed up by questionnaires being completed by over 2,000 people in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane - the three largest cities in Australia. Neville had placed a Survey called, ‘The Survey of the Youth of Victoria’ in his Collected Papers Archive (1965a, Vol. 13). This survey (using Neville’s values questions as one part of the survey) was conducted by the Good Neighbour Council and the Commonwealth Department of Immigration Survey Section, Canberra during 1967. There were 1035 informants and 1017 used in final analysis.


In Neville’s view (Dec 1993), substantially shifting core values amounts to shifting culture. Neville also stated that at the time, this values research was, in all probability, the most extensive research on values that had been done anywhere (Clark and Yeomans 1969, p. 20-26).


Appendix 18 and 19 lists inventories developed and used at Fraser House (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 4, p. 43, Vol. 11). These inventories enabled the putting together of a holistic psycho-social emotional mindbody portrait of each patient and outpatient’s whole life, covering presenting matters, recent past, post-school period, childhood, as well as work history and recreational activity. This is consistent with the holistic socio-emotional focus of change at Fraser House. Reflecting these stories back to patients engaged in reconstituting their unfolding story had functional value.


Despite being extremely busy with every aspect of Fraser House and its links into the community, Neville was very active in research and writing up papers. He was an active presenter at conferences and other professional meetings. Appendix 20 contains three Tables (A, B, and C) listing fifty seven of the extensive body of Neville’s research papers and monographs mentioned in his collected papers in the Mitchell Library. Many are undated though come from the 1959-1965 period.

Group and crowd behaviour during big groups was a constant research theme. For example, in a filenote called ‘Colindivism’ (1965a) Neville describes the interactive nature of collective and individual behaviour in Fraser House.


Patients knew that all manner of data was being collected about them relating to demographic and socio-economic data, length of stay, participation by their friends and relatives and the like. Research outcomes were discussed with patients.


Within a connexity based Cultural Keyline frame it made absolute sense to connect patients to the interconnection and inter-dependence of aspects of society at large. Psychiatric patients and ex-prisoners were asked their attitudes towards overseas trade with SE Asia, or about landscape planning and urban renewal in Sydney, NSW, and their thoughts and attitudes about crime and substance abuse (refer Appendix 18). If they had no thoughts, beliefs or attitudes they formed them in community discussion. This is consistent with the Mayo’s Hawthorne effect (Trahair 1984). It engaged them as people of worth and encouraged them to see their place in their local place linked to the Region. Neville told me (Aug 1998) that patients did respond well to this research and that this contributed to many of them becoming active in a wide range of grassroots community action.


Neville told me (Dec 1993, July 1998) that a process he used to protect Fraser House was that a number of research workers from Sydney Universities carried out research at Fraser House towards obtaining higher degrees. To close Fraser House would have meant closing many students’ research. Alfred Clark had his PhD on Fraser House under way. Margaret Cockett was doing her Masters research in Anthropology when the keeper of Unit’s records discarded all of her material and they were burnt, therefore aborting that degree (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 12, p. 68). Margaret (April 1999) suspects this destruction was deliberate, because of a sustained and pervasive dislike of Fraser house by elements within the wider North Ryde Hospital. Margaret later obtained her masters based on different research. I have found no records of Fraser House in Health Department Records. It is as if the Unit never existed. It seems that Neville’s Mitchell Library Archive (including the closed section in that I have been given access to) is the only Fraser House records available. A photocopy set of these archives are held in the James Cook University Library.


Bruen told me (Aug, 1999) that Margaret Cockett made sociograms of networks within Fraser House using the concepts of ‘power’, ‘opinion leaders’, ‘leaders’ and ‘influence’. The conducting of this research was later confirmed by Margaret Cockett (April 1999). Regrettably, this research was among the materials discarded by North Ryde Hospital. Like all of the other research, the results were discussed with staff and patients, within groups and the progress committee (separate discussions with Neville, Bruen and Chilmaid April, 1999).


Sociogram based research in Fraser House recognised that P.A.’s three primary landforms (main ridge, primary ridge and primary valley) embody horizontal unity in the context of vertical cleavage though no reference to Keyline is made. Neville and other researchers at Fraser House used the above notions of horizontal unity in the face of vertical cleavage in doing sociogram research into the friendship patterns among staff and patients in Fraser house (Clark and Yeomans 1969, p. 131). A ‘glimpse’ of Neville’s use of Tikopia’s cleavered unities is in Clark and Yeomans’ book, ‘Fraser House’ under the subheading ‘Cleavages’ relating to the sociogram research (Clark and Yeomans 1969, p. 131). Not surprising, this sociogram based research showed that Neville was only staff member:


with a link, by means of a mutual tie, into the genotypical informal social structure….  (Clark and Yeomans 1969, p. 131).



Sociogram 1 Sociogram Showing the Friend Network in Fraser House.


This finding is fully in keeping with Neville’s notion of devolving responsibility and reversing the status quo. It was also in keeping with Neville’s hands-off though being profoundly and sensitively linked that he was enabler on the edge of the informal social structure.


Apart from research as therapy, Fraser House research served at least two other functions. Firstly, the results were fed back in to modify the structure, process and action research in the Unit. For example, the critical and destructive role of extremely dysfunctional families and friends in holding back patient improvement became clearer to staff and patients alike from both experience and research over the first three years. Greater efforts were then made to involve these networks. Secondly, the research was used to protect the Unit and ensure its survival, at least for a time.




Neville set up the Psychiatric Research Study Group on the grounds of the North Ryde Hospital adjacent the Unit. The Group was a forum for the discussion and exploration of innovative healing ideas. Neville and the study group networked for, and attracted very talented people. Students of psychiatry, medicine, psychology, sociology, social work, criminology and education attended from the University of NSW and University of Sydney and other places. The Psychiatric Research Study Group became a vibrant therapeutic community in its own right with a connexity relation with Fraser House. Prison officers and parole officers with whom Neville had been working within the prison and corrective system attended the Study Group. A 1963-65 Research Report states that, ‘Tony Vinson and his team of Social Work 11 students from the University of NSW, with the Fraser House research Team, for a time acting in an advisory capacity regarding research design and field work methods, carried out a study to assess the effectiveness of the Lane Cove Community Aid Service and the Fraser House Community Psychiatric Programme’ (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 12, p. 45-90)[2].


The Study Group provided a space where ideas were enthusiastically received and discussed. Some participants had been finding it hard to get an audience for their novel ideas within the climate of the universities of the day. The Study Group was another cultural locality. Anything raised in the Study Group that seemed to fit the milieu in Fraser House was immediately tested by Neville in Fraser House. In trying something to see if it worked, Neville spoke (July 1998) of ‘the survival of the fitting’.


At one time there were 180 members on the Psychiatric Research Study Group mailing list. Neville wrote that the Study Group:


…represents every field of the social and behavioural sciences and is the most significant psycho-social research institute in this State.


The Psychiatric Research Study Group maintains a central file of research projects underway throughout NSW and acts in an advisory and critical capacity to anyone planning a research project’ (Yeomans, N. 1965a, vol. 4, p. 24).


Meetings were held monthly at first at Fraser House and then elsewhere.



The canteen provided one context for using work as therapy. Another example was the patients winning a contract to build a bowling green against ‘outside’ contractors. This involved the tendering against outside builders, winning the tender and carrying out of a construction/landscaping contract to build a bowling green for Fraser House. The patients controlled every aspect of the tendering and work (refer photo below). In 1964 patients won a contract to pack light globes (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 4). These are examples of the therapeutic use of an actual economy.



Photo 1 Patients building the Fraser House bowling green in the Sixties - a photo from the Sydney Morning Herald (11 April 1962).


The above photo accompanied an article entitled ‘The Suicide Clinic’.


Photo 2 I took this photo in June 1999 showing brick retaining wall and Bowling Green behind the wire-mesh fence


The above photo shows the Bowling Green area behind the fence that was levelled out by patients with hand tools. The retaining wall was also built by the patients and it has stood the test of time - still vertical.  To reaffirm, a very important type of work that some of the patients became very adept at was being therapists and co-therapists in group and everyday contexts. All my Fraser House interviewees confirmed (Aug, 1998 and April, 1999) that often the most insightful therapy in everyday life and groups within the community was by patients.


Patient based therapy was offered though the letter from the President of the Parliamentary Committee (the letter is included as Appendix 11) (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 2, p. 11).




The Anthropologist Margaret Mead visited Fraser House as the Co-Founder (1948) and ex-President (1956/7) of the World Federation for Mental Health (Brody 2002). Separate discussions with Margaret Cockett and Neville (Aug, 1999) cross-confirmed the following material about Mead’s visit. Margaret Cockett informed me that Margaret Mead was introduced to Fraser House by an anthropologist friend of Margaret Cockett in the NSW Housing Department who had told Mead about Fraser House when Mead came to visit her. Cockett told me that initially Margaret Mead could not believe what she was hearing and came to Fraser House to check it out for herself. Mead was escorted throughout the day by Margaret Cockett, the Fraser House anthropologist psychologist. Margaret Cockett recalled Margaret Mead saying that she was very taken with the concept of therapeutic community and had visited many such communities in different places.


Mead very ably conducted the morning Big Group and ran a small group when she visited Fraser House (discussion with Neville, April 1999 and Margaret Cockett April 1999). Margaret Cockett described Mead as being ‘absolutely on the ball’ in the role of leader of both Big Group and one of the Small Groups. Margaret Mead also took the regular half hour staff group meeting that followed the Big Group.


A number of senior people from the health department joined Margaret Mead for lunch where according to Margaret Cockett, Margaret Mead held court and demonstrated that she was clearly ahead of every one of them in their respective specialist areas. Margaret Cockett suspects that it was Margaret Mead’s glowing report to these people in the NSW health establishment hierarchy that made things just a little easier for Fraser House for a while. Neville said (April 1999) that at that time Mead visited Fraser House, the medical and psychiatric profession saw no relevance whatsoever for anthropology in their professions. Margaret Mead gave the ‘big thumbs up’ to Fraser House to these Department Heads, ‘heaping praise’ on every aspect of the Fraser House therapeutic community.


Margaret Mead also chaired the Psychiatric Research Study Group when she visited Fraser House (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 12, p. 68).


Dr. Margaret Mead, world famous anthropologist who visited Australia last year attended a meeting of the Psychiatric Research Study Group and also stated that she considered Fraser House the most advanced unit she had visited anywhere in the world (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 12, p. 69).


All of my informants spoke of the dense holistic inter-related ‘total’ nature of Fraser House. Neville (Aug 1999) told me that Mead also stated that Fraser House was the only therapeutic community she had visited that was totally a therapeutic community in every sense. Cockett, in talking about Mead’s feel for Fraser House’s totality and completeness said that Mead spoke of Fraser House as the most total therapeutic community she had ever been to. (Note that the above sense of ‘total’ differs from Goffman’s use of ‘total’ as a term describing entities like monasteries, prisons, asylums, and warships that bracket people off from everyday life. While a ‘total institution’ in Goffman’s terms (1961), Neville said that Mead was particularly taken with the fact that important others were required to regularly visit patients in Fraser House, and that one patient, having a horse as the only ‘important other’ in her life, was allowed to have the horse tethered grazing on the lawns of the hospital just outside Fraser House. A few other patients had a cat or a dog as their ‘important other’. I took the photo below in August 2000. It shows Fraser House through the trees and the grounds outside Fraser House where the horse grazed.



Photo 3 A photo I took in June 1999 of the place where the horse grazed at Fraser House


Reading the Fraser House Committee Structure (Appendix 13) may give a further feel for the totality and completeness that Margaret Mead, spoke of when describing Fraser House as the most Total therapeutic community she had ever been to.


Margaret Cockett (Aug, 1999) and Neville (Dec 1993 and August 1999) confirmed that Mead also stated that Fraser House was the only therapeutic community that was totally a therapeutic community in every sense. Similarly, in the forward of Clark and Yeomans’ book  about Fraser House, Maxwell Jones, the pioneer of therapeutic communities in the United Kingdom wrote:


Throughout the book is the constant awareness that, given such a carefully worked-out structure, evolution is an inevitable consequence

(Clark and Yeomans 1969, Forward, p. vi).


It is this ‘total’ aspect of Fraser House (and Callan Park and Kenmore Therapeutic communities where Neville worked closely in their set-up and design) that most sets it aside from other therapeutic communities. So many complementary processes were densely interwoven and mutual supporting in such a sustained way, just like the self-organising web of life richness on the Yeomans farms. Neville so set up Fraser House in 1959 to be self-organising, that in 1963 he could go overseas for nine months and it worked the same in his absence. Just as the Yeomans designed their farms so that evolution was an inevitable process, ‘inevitable change’ was woven into all aspects of Fraser House action.


Recall that Maxwell Jones had said of therapeutic community in the UK:


It does not amount to a treatment methodology in its own right but complements other recognized psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatment procedures (Jones 1969, p. 86).


Neville had created a total therapeutic community where every aspect was transformative.


To continue the theme of setting up inevitable change in self-organising systems, I will now detail my findings about Cultural Keyline.




Margaret Cockett (Sept 2004) told me that Neville and everyone connected at Fraser House where constantly trying out new things. Everything was extremely fluid. Someone would come up with an idea and it would be immediately woven in. In Margaret’s view Neville tended to make connections between some new thing they were trying out and what they did on the farm.  It seems that Neville’s sensing of what Keyline adapted to the psychosocial may be, emerged out of Fraser House’s dynamic eclectic process rather than being an intellectual exercise imposed on Fraser House. Theory emerged from theorein (pretheoretical theorising) (Pelz 1974) and process.


Neville first mentioned the term ‘Cultural Keyline to me when I was staying with him in Yungaburra in December 1991 and when I asked Neville to expand on what he meant by the term, Neville changed the topic saying that I already knew all about it. I was puzzled by this. I again asked in December 1993 and he told me to read all of his father’s Keyline writings and then I may discover Cultural Keyline in my own actions. After his death in May 2000 I realised that Neville was aware that through his subtle modelling of his behaviour in my presence, I had absorbed aspects of his way and regularly used Cultural Keyline in my action research in his presence, even though I did not know my actions were consistent with Cultural Keyline. I sense that Neville’s view was that head knowing alone will limit understanding of Cultural Keyline – understanding has to emerge through the embodiment of values-based relevant experience.


My sense of ‘Cultural Keyline’ is that it is of a matching form to the enabling interaction the Yeomans family had with all of the myriad interlinking aspects of the soil, air, water, nutrient, and warmth on their farms. Every aspect of the design and redesign of the Yeomans’ action on their farms was pervasively integrated. It was, to use Neville’s phrase again, the ‘survival of the fitting’. Neville and his father knew that it was virtually impossible to control a living system. Neville and his father keenly attended to how the natural systems ‘worked’ on the farm and designed their interventions to maximally fit with nature and allow nature’s emergent properties to do what they do so well. P.A. and sons Neville and Allan (and later, Neville’s younger brother Ken) would give the soil subtle enabling interventions and perturbations, and then they would let the system self-organize towards thriving. Living systems have self-organization as an inherent property (for example, the ‘informal organization’ and the ‘grapevine’ in bureaucracies).


Neville knew (June 1998) that living systems can reach a point, called in complexity theory (Capra 1997, p. 167), a bifurcation point, where there can be a sudden system negentropy (the opposite of entropy) leading to the potential and emergence of sudden whole system transcending transition to higher and more unpredictable complexity and improved performance. The Yeomans had first-hand experience of how perturbation and bifurcation work in nature in producing sudden whole system shift to a new order of higher complexity (Capra 1997, p.28). The massive increase in detritivores in their soil was one example. In the Fraser House context two examples of a birfurcation point was firstly, when Neville went berserk in Big Group such that the Unit survived well in his absence (Appendix 14), and secondly was when Neville geared up the Frazer House community to support the 12 year old girl (Appendix 15). In both cases Neville created a rich context where the Fraser House social system jumped to a far richer mode of interacting. In each of these cases Neville’s action was consistent with Pascale, Millemann and Gioja’s (2000) behavioural pattern in their book ‘Surfing the Edge of Chaos’:


Amplify survival threats and foster disequilibrium to evoke fresh ideas and innovative responses (2000, p. 28.)


Creating contexts rich with potential for self-organising negentropy is very different to laissez faire management where there is a hands-off approach.


Neville applied these Keyline understandings in evolving Fraser House. In mirroring Indigenous way, Fraser House was about fostering respectful co-existence and meaningfully surviving well together. Everything Neville did in Fraser House was designed to fit with everything else - naturally. Everything complemented and supported other aspects. Things that did not work were fine-tuned or discarded. Issues that arose in one context were resolved, or passed on to other contexts. In Fraser House, what worked (as well as problematic aspects) was discussed with everyone in Big Group. Issues not resolved in Big Group were passed on to Small Groups and vice versa. Issues within Committees were resolved, or passed on to Parliamentary Committee. Issues within the Parliamentary Committee were reviewed by the Pilot Committee. This pervasive inter-connected weaving of everything with everything is why Margaret Mead said it was the most complete therapeutic community she had ever seen, and why Maxwell Jones said that participants in Fraser House had to change.


Subsequent to Neville’s death in May 2000, l identified four non-linear interconnected inter-related aspects of Cultural Keyline:


1.    Attending and sensing self organising, emergence, and Keypoints conducive to coherence within social contexts

2.    Forming cultural locality (people connecting together connecting to place)

3.    Strategic design and context-guided perturbing of the social topography

4.    Sensing and attending to the natural social system self-organising in response to the perturbing and monitoring outcomes


Keyline is a model of sustainable agriculture. Cultural Keyline is model for sustaining wellbeing based human inter-acting and inter-relating. As Keyline fosters emergent farm potential, Cultural Keyline is a rich way of fostering emergent and thriving potential in social systems. A short summary of my findings relating to Neville’s Cultural Keyline process in action follows. The following process is non-linear with connexity between all of the following aspects. Some repetition reflects fractal aspects, for example between sensing and designing.


Attending and Sensing


·         Attending very closely to the features of the ‘social landscape’ in unfolding social contexts

·         Being open, surrendering and receiving all aspects of the social topography - sensing the information, meanings and the issues in the forms, and not laying on it any of our own projections

·         Sensing each person, family, network and community as a self-organizing living system

·         Sensing the connexity (interconnected interdependence) in the psycho-social topography

·         Sensing the free energy and context role-specific functional behaviours in everyone involved

·         Sensing the information distributed throughout the system and recognising how this information is concentrated and merges at the Keypoint – information about mood, theme, value, interaction and unfolding outcomes - sensing their inter-connectedness within the whole of what is happening.

·         Sensing the fractal Cultural Keypoint(s) in the unfolding context - where these energies and information (mood, theme, value and interaction) meet and concentrate (just like the fractal quality of discrete information distributed in each of the three land forms all meeting at the Keypoint), and have emergent potential for social cohesion – and sensing the connecting theme(s) that merge(s) from the concentrate – the theme(s) that has/have potent significance for all in the unfolding context (whether participants realise it or not).


Forming Cultural Locality


·         Interacting with the surrounding locality as a living system

·         Offering to support people as a resource

·   Enabling cultural locality – first the gathering, then the nexus towards community and placemaking

·         Enabling and fostering self-help and mutual-help

·         Enabling others to tap into personal and interpersonal psychosocial and other resources


Strategic Design and Context-guided Perturbing of the Social Topography


·         Unfolding contexts telling us what to do next

·         Enabling contexts where resonant people self organize in mutual help

·         Fostering and enabling resonant grassroots networking in the region

·         In the unfolding context, sensing the inter-connectedness of mood, theme, value and interaction; sensing the Keypoint where these meet and concentrate – and sensing the connecting theme that merges from the distributed information

·         Engaging in context appropriate perturbing at the Keypoint – from gentle to full on perturbing - to evoke Keylines of interaction on the theme and associated mood, values and interactions

·         Taking the time and ensuring the sustaining of the Keypoint theme along the Keyline till the turning point (potentially towards a new Keypoint theme), and then recognizing and shifting to that Keypoint theme. If no Keypoint theme emerges, then working with the free energy, or

·         Using the Keylines of interaction as a guide to further engaging in action


Leaving Nature to do the Work


·         Sensing and attending to the natural social system self-organising in response to the perturbing

·         Honouring, respecting, holding and leaving free the space and place for individual, family-friendship networks and community re-constituting to happen

·         Having faith in the thriving of living systems and knowing when to leave it to self-organize and naturally do what it knows best - towards constituting/re-constituting wellness


A case study of Neville using Cultural Keyline is Appendix 14 (Going Berserk).


Neville and his father were never into laissez faire management – having a non-involved hands-off approach. When Neville travelled overseas he left in place a system operating on the above four Cultural Keyline aspects. A group of people had taken on his enabling role that entailed context specific tight control and freedom and pervasive attending and sensing.


Neville turned himself into a Keypoint. Metaphorically Neville placed himself in society at the junction of three forms of social topography – the psychiatric bureaucracy, the media, and the marginal fringe from the backwards of asylums and no-parole prisoners. Within three years, Fraser House marginal residents were training trainee psychiatrists in the new area of community psychiatry. Neville became a zoologist, doctor, psychiatrist, sociologist, psychologist, and barrister. Placing all this academic reflection within himself he placed himself as head of the psychiatric study group associated with Fraser House. He positioned the Study Group linked to Fraser House as the premier social research facility in Australia at the time. People from all of the social sciences attended the Study Group and Fraser House. Neville as a personal meta-Keypoint could then scan the unfolding social topography in his life for the Keypoints and the free energy.


My understanding of the links between the farms and Fraser House are set out below:


No one I interviewed for this research knew anything about Cultural Keyline; Neville had never mentioned the term to them. While Neville never specifically mentioned Cultural Keyline in any of his writings, the concept is implicit in many of them; as an example, refer Appendix 4 – Neville’s forward to his father’s book ‘City Forest’.


Cultural Keyline themes implicit in Neville’s Forward:


·         Change in values

·         Bio-social survival depends upon harmonious working with nature

·         Australia’s strategic locality

·         Landscape must be husbanded with loving care

·         The beauty and freedom of personal space depends upon caring for the integrity of all our environment


   Yeomans Farms                                     Fraser House



  • Keyline
  • P. A. Yeomans and Sons
  • Host:  P.A’s wife Rita
  • Topography
  • Three Landforms
  • Keypoint
  • Keylines
  • Making functional use of Connexity
  • Transitional organic community
  • Organic turn-over
  • Design guided by bio-geo nature
  • Warmth of the Sun
  • Chisel ploughing of compacted soil
  • System self organising
  • System self-governance
  • Fostering emergent properties
  • Increase air flow in compacted soil
  • Water storage and flow
  • Using the free energy functionally
  • Using perturbation
  • Supporting bifurcation
  • Guests and visitors
  • System thriving


  • Cultural Keyline
  • Neville and Staff
  • Host: Longer term patients
  • Social topography
  • Social topography forms
  • Keypoint themes, mood, values and interaction
  • Key lines of discussion on themes
  • Making functional use of Connexity
  • Transitional organic community
  • Nurturing relational exchange in community
  • Design guided by bio-psychosocial nature in geo context
  • Humane caring warmth
  • Cleavering of dysfunctional networks
  • System self organising
  • System self-governance
  • Fostering emergent properties
  • Clearing Air - breathing well together
  • Emotional potential and flow
  • Using the free energy functionally
  • Using perturbation
  • Supporting bifurcation
  • Guests and visitors
  • System thriving





In socio-morphological terms, a key role of the group facilitator was to constantly scan for the ‘lay of the land’ in the group. This section extends the above material on the use of themes as Keylines of discussion in Big Group. A group of Fraser House patients wrote about how interest in themes was used in groups – one version of this text included as Appendices 7 and 8 (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 4, p. 17-20). Big Group and Small Group themes emerged from the unfolding social topography in the group. Themes were not concocted by group leaders and imposed. Themes are where key issues for all in the group coalesce. Themes, as social coherence amidst chaos, would arise from the context and often be self starting, or only needing the slightest nudge to get underway. Once started on a coherence theme, all participants tended to be hooked into their links to the theme. Neville would place a metaphorical dam just below the Keypoint that would hold the energy on the theme, and let the interaction move, as appropriate to context, along the Keylines of discussion (metaphorically just downhill of the contour as in Keyline ploughing) so that it moves with assistance of group momentum (gravity).


Once a theme was energised in Fraser House groups, and the theme was considered to be not too superficial or inappropriate, the group may pay some attention to it, and the suggested or emergent theme may be selected as ‘the Big Group theme’ for an ensuing period during that hour. This theme would then not be changed to another without good reason (Appendix 8). Interest in a theme may be viewed as an attractor that determined the ‘flow’ of attention from ‘all directions’ near the ‘ridges of high potential energy’ to the ‘Keypoint’. Within Fraser House Big and Small Groups, both interest and theme were emergent phenomena. Interest (from the Latin: ‘to enter into the essence or God energy’) in the theme becomes the Keypoint (literally and sociomorphically) for a time in the Big Group social topography. The theme becomes the Keyline of discussion for a time, and thematic psychosocial emotional energy in flow may be transferred through the Big Group topography via ‘individual channels parallel to the Keyline’ through the people topography. The word ‘theme’ is from the Greek ‘thema’ meaning ‘motif; recurrent idea; topic of discussion or re-presentation’.


The following notes on interest in the theme is from the Fraser House Staff Handbook (Appendix 7):


If most of the group is involved in interaction, it goes without saying that they are also interested. However, interest can be very high even though there is not much interaction. Look at their faces, their feet, their hands, their respiration, the way they sit, and it will be known if they are interested or not (Yeomans, N. 1965a, Vol. 4, p. 17-20).


The Staff Handbook (Appendix 7) also notes the interaction between the facilitator’s process and the theme, mood, interest, tension and the unfolding interaction.


Resonance between all attendees and the theme flowed from the theme having the inherent property of being conducive to social coherence. To put this into context – this was with a group of people who were the very mad and the very bad. The group was filled with polarity – the under active and the over active, the under controlled and the over controlled, as well as the under anxious and the over anxious. There were colluding factions and unreachable isolates. In this dysfunctional tangle there continually emerged themes that held everyone’s interest – that everyone resonated with – that is, themes ‘conducive to coherence’. Attendee resonance was supported by the theme-based connexity in the cultural locality topography.


Group facilitators would specifically watch for attempts to change the theme. In the patient’s write-up about the use of interest in themes in Fraser House they wrote that attempts at changing the theme:


……may be done deliberately by a patient for a fairly obvious reason (such as a personality clash with someone involved in the current theme), or a less obvious reason such as an unconscious identification and a consequent wish to avoid the theme. It may also be done through plain insensitivity on the part of the person making the attempt at the change. There are many reasons for these moves, and it is the therapist’s role to decide on the dynamics of the situations and then to make use of them by feeding them straight back into the group at the time, and if necessary, to make an interpretation of the dynamics operating in the events and occurrences’ (Appendix 7).


As more than one Keyline theme may be either jostling for attention or potently latent in the ebb and flow of Big Group energy, Neville’s skill was to identify the most potent one in the unfolding context – perhaps the one that subsumes a number of the other presenting Keypoint themes that then may become sub-themes as Keylines of engagement. Neville passed on this skill to other Big Group facilitators and to me and others who worked with him in action research.


Recall that there is only one Keypoint per primary valley. Diagram 2 shows that Keypoint in different primary valleys are often on different contours with different potential energies in the respective valley systems. The Keyline only goes along the contour through the Keypoint till the change of curve (refer diagram 2 in Chapter Five). Isomorphic with Keyline, the next Cultural Keypoint theme may be at the same, or a higher or lower contour and associated level of potential energy - so the group facilitator would note this information in the social milieu in shifting themes and work with the new energy. There were all manner of competences and nuances associated with the shift of thematic keypoint in Fraser House groups and how to work with the change in energy.


Peopling the Topography – Sensing Cultural Keyline at the Keypoint


In 2006, I spoke with Terry Widders about visiting Watsons Bay to sense Cultural Keyline at a Keypoint. Terry spoke of ‘peopling the topography’ and exploring the ‘contours of peoples’ minds’. Taking up Terry’s suggestion I went to Watson’s Bay (refer Photo 24) with my son Jamie.


wb compile



Photo 4 Watson’s Bay Topography - compile made by me from photos taken by tourist and sent to me October 2005 – used with permission


Recall Neville’s strategic use of locality mentioned in Chapter Seven. Photo 2 reveals Watsons Bay’s topography. The Watsons Bay Festival was in the park (The green area in the centre right of the photo). The park is located in a primary valley below the main ridge and between two primary ridges. The festival focal point was at a Keypoint in the primary valley. The festival’s Keypoint theme was ‘celebrating life”. Neville intentionally placed this celebration of life sixty metres below where Sydneysiders go to suicide at The Gap. The bus in the photo is parked where the Fraser House little red bus used to park two years earlier when the Fraser House patients made crisis calls to stop suiciders.


Jamie and I came to Watsons Bay Park by ferry and walked up to the Keypoint which is to the right of the path walking up. Following Terry Widders suggestion, we decided to people the topography by role-playing potent scenarios from our lives together. We did this while standing at the Keypoint. In this we were modelling the position Neville took when he was for instance leading Fraser House Big Group. Jamie and I separately found where the different players in these re-enactments were located in the Watsons Bay topography. When we compared where we sensed people were, we found that we had complete agreement. For both us, our clarity about people’s placement was inexplicable. Where we sensed them was definitely where they were; people were definitely not in any other place in the surrounding topography. Some were in the middle of the bottom of the valley. A few were above us on the main ridge. Some were on one or other of the primary ridges. Most were some distance from the Keypoint.


We sensed the themes that were conducive to coherence in these people. We sensed the located people’s differing energy, emotion and interest, and how these were linked to the Keypoint theme in the scenarios. We sensed the nature of the interaction, mood and value mix that may sustain interest and cohesion.


We also sensed the compaction in the social topography, and how this compaction was sustaining fixed patterns of dysfunction. We sensed the possible role-outs from perturbing the compaction, from chisel ploughing the social terrain. We sensed the effect of this on ‘water’ flow as energy exchange. We sensed how this may flow gently through the social system without eroding rush from the main ridge, and gently flow out towards the primary ridges and be received throughout the system. We sensed the effect of this dynamic on the unfolding of theme-based interaction. We noticed how some people changed their positions as the scenarios unfolded, and the effects of this change on the person and his/her interactions with self and others. We then moved to the high point on the ridge (where photo 24 was taken) to get another perspective. Neville would also do this to get the big picture. We returned to the Keypoint and walked and sensed the Keyline. Then we descended along one of the primary ridges to the bottom of the valley, sensing the scenarios from the different locations, and as we placed ourselves on others’ places.


I understand the above process has resonance with Indigenous way. The richness of this embodied sensing of located interactions only comes from doing it at a Keypoint and in and around the topography.




This chapter has explored the many change processes evolved at Fraser House. Neville’s adapting of Keyline to Cultural Keyline has been detailed. The next chapter introduces criticisms of Fraser House and Neville, and includes a response to these. The processes Neville used to spread Fraser House way into the wider community and to phase out Fraser House are described. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of ethical issues in replicating Fraser House.


[1] Schizophrenia 2, Personality Disorder 6, Personality Disorder with Alcohol and Drug Addiction 4, and Neuroses 3.

[2] Tony Vinson also attended the study group. He is now Emeritus Professor at the School of Social Work at the University of New South Wales. Neville spoke of Tony Vinson doing sociology studies in the early Sixties, obtaining his PhD in 1972 and becoming the Foundation Professor of Behavioural Science in Medicine at the University of Newcastle in 1976, and Chairman, of the NSW Corrective Services Commission in 1979.