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A Prophet in the Group
‘AND when he was come into his own country. he taught them in their
synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this
man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is
not his moiher called Mary, and his brethren, James and Joseph and Simon
and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this
man all these things? And they were offended in him, but Jesus said unto
them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country. and in his
own house’.
Matthew. 13. 53-57
It is a characteristic of prophets that they are more easily recognized in thc
past. Few of us would quibble over applying the term to Isaiah, Jesus. or
Mohammed. Some scholars would even restrict it to these religious leaders
(Lindblom, 1962). However the Oxford English Dictionary defines a prophet
as “Someone who speaks with foreknowledge” as well as “Someone who
spcaks for God”. This wider use of the term therefore encompasses some
secular figures. Marx, for example, was hailed as a prophet by Engels in his
funeral oration (McClellan. 1973).
Possibly Engels had in mind Marx’s ability, commonly associated with
prophecy in both the Judaeo-Christian tradition and that of classical Greece.
to make authoritative predictions about the future consequences of present
behaviour. Prophets are not necessarily seers, however. Biblical scholars
consider that the term was first used with reference to the disturbing
outspokenness of prophecy (Muilenberg, 1962). Marx spoke out against the
economic conditions of his day, daring governments to try and muzzle him
(Paync. 1971) and had to leave Germany hurriedly in consequence.
TANTAM’S interest in groups dates from an elective period as medical student
i n :I unit treating Vietnam veterans addicted to heroin. He is a membcr of thc Institute
o f Group Analysis and works as Consultant spccializing in the treatment of patients
with long-standing psychiatric disorder and young patients who mutilatc thcmsclvcs.
His rcscarch interests are autism, non-verbal communication and evaluation of hcalth
Prophets deliver their judgements with an authority which converts rather
than convinces. They know with a compelling inner certainty that they speak
the truth. Religious prophets attribute this authority to God, secular prophets
to some impersonal power within themselves. Marx, for example, knew within
himself that the proletariat suffered because of their alienation from the means
of production.
Despite differences in the source to which prophecy is attributed in many
different cultures, there are similar features in the psychological experience of
the prophet and in the social consequences of prophecy.
Two outstanding characteristics of the experience are that the prophet is
utterly cdnvinced of the truth of his prophecy and that it is not felt to originate
from the prophet’s own person in the same way as a thought or a personal
bclicf. Prophecies seem to ‘just come’ and to take the prophet over. so tlinr he
stands outside his normal self, in ecstasy.
Proplicts are rarely recognized except at a distance, as the familiar
quotation from the Gospel at the head of this paper suggests. Nor are they
looked for in the mundane circumstances of everyday life. I have becn
impressed however by a number of patients that I have treated in
psychotherapy groups who have expressed themselves with the same incontrovertibility but yet detachment that is so characteristic of prophets.
Although there are other constructions which can be put on this behaviour.
these accentuate its diseased nature and d o not recognize its potential
contribution to other group members. 1 have found it useful to think of these
patients as prophets and therefore as truthful commentators on the life of the
A Clinical Example
T w o women and four men (including the group conductor) were present at a
session of an outpatient psychotherapy group. One of the women, Mary. had
newly joined the group. The others had been in the group since its start fifteen
months before.
Don was asked by the group whether he had contacted his eleven-year-old
son whom. it had emerged in a previous group, he had not seen for eight
years. since his wife had left him. Don was older than most other members of
the group. He had often spoken of his inability t o think clearly both in the
group and out of it, but was the most faithful attender. He was unfailingly
concerned when anyone else had a problem, but rarcly talked about himself.
On this occasion he talked about the past. He described his wife’s desertion
when his son was aged three: he had gone to work as usual and came home to
find her gone. She used to dislike his long hours (he was an ambulance driver).
but her leaving had been quite unexpected. She had left a note to say tha! she
had gone off with the local greengrocer.
Don went on to say that he blamed himself. He did work very long hours.
The group appeared to be engrossed in Don’s story, which was strongly
charged with a feeling of rather helpless abandonment. There were expressions
of protest when Don said that he blamed himself.
Hclga. however. did not protest bct unexpectedly demanded what else Don
could have expected after he had neglected his wife in this way. She went on to
say: ‘Of course she would find someone else if you were never at home!’
This rcmark seemed to shatter a spell. It was apparent that no one could
deny that Helga might be correct. but the other group members were
indignant at her and defended Don vigorously.
Helga missed the next week but came the week after, when Don was
unexpectedly absent. She spoke about her beloved mother who had died when
she was twelve and about her no-good alcoholic father. In the same session
Mary spoke at some length about her sister, who had been sent off to boarding
school because she was ‘so verbally scathing’.
In retrospect. the next group meeting was momentous. but this was not
apparent at the time. The group started with a conversation about back-pain
and visits to the general practitioner. Helga then scandalized the group by
describing it as dull and going nowhere. She predicted that she would never
get any help from the group and might as well leave.
The rest of the group session was dominated by responses to these remarks.
The group conductor expostulated naively and affirmed his confidence that
Helga could benefit from the group. Don said that his wife had not respondcd
to him, but then: ‘I deserve it’. Ronald, in his detached way, spoke of feeling
‘hcnvy’. Tom said that he wanted to tell Helga to shut up. Mary spoke again
about her sister. rejecting an earlier interpretation by the group conductor that
the sister had been a family scapegoat. The group ended ‘in confusion‘.
according to the conductor’s notes.
Both of Helga’s quoted statements were made with an unusual air of
coinplete conviction. It was as if she had some authority quite outside the
group. which she was sure would completely vindicate her. This authority was
not disputcd by any of the group members as an ordinary opinion might havc
been. I n this respect Helga was ‘prophesying’. although it was only whcn she
predicted that she would fail to get well that she sought to foretell the future.
The Force of Prophecy
I t will be apparent that each of Helga’s statements had considerable impact.
What is perhaps less apparent is that each cut completely across the currenf of.
group intcrcliange. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in groups and the
usual consequence is for the incongruous comment to pass unnoticed or to
clicit signs of embarrassment or complicity, such as mutual smirking. on the
part of the other group members. In this case however thc remark was not
passed ovcr but instead brought the development of the existing theme to a
suddcn halt.
The impact of Helga’s statements cannot simply be explained by the
authority with which she uttered them. The impact came from Helga‘s
speaking about what was considered by other group membcrs to be
unspcnkably frightening. Her statements seemed to be cliallenging the group‘s
very survival.
Thc first prophecy. that Don deserved to be punished by his wife for his
ncglcct of her. challengcd the attitudes of other group members which were
protcctivc towards Don and implicitly hostile towards his wife. Most group
incmbcrs at that time believed that their task was to be compassionate and
loving towards one another on the assumption that this was ‘how therapy
workcd’. Aggressive, rivalrous, or envious feelings werc externalized by group
nicmbers who could usually find someone outside the group to blame for the
particular distress being considered. Hclga challenged both that the only
thcrapcutic response to distress was compassion and that members of the
group should not be held responsible for their own distress. Helga’s second
statciiicnt was a further challenge, this time to the convention which the group
had adopted that psychotherapy patients feel happier and express gratitude if
tlicir treatment is successful.
The indignant reaction to Helga was not because she was mistaken or
incorrect. but because her views challenged those conventions which group
nieriibcrs had assumed to be essential to the survival of the group. In true
prophetic fashion she ‘spoke out’, irrespective of the social consequences.
The Truth of Prophecy and its Therapeutic Value
Truth-tclling is not a necessary condition of prophecy since ncither the term
‘f:dsc prophet’ nor the term ‘false prophecy’ is contradictory. Evaluating the
truthfulness of predictions is complicated by the often described phenomenon
of the ‘sclf-fulfilling prophecy’. Herodatos, the Greek historian. gives a
particularly good example of this. Cambyses, a Persian king, was told by his
soothsayers that he had six years to live. In response he ordered that his court
WIS to livc twi, ycars in every one. Lanterns were set up throughout his palacc
:1nd kusiness and pleasure were conducted all night and all day. At.the end of
six years and on the verge of death. perhaps exhausted by his slccp
dcpriwtion. Canibyses summoncd his soothsayers and accuscd thcm of false
prophecy because he had lived twelve years, not six.
This story illustrates that a properly formulated prophecy appears to have
an intrinsic power over the irtiaginatiori of suggestible hearers, so that they will
oftcn strivc to bring about predicted events even when these are antipathetic to
them. I t also shows how difficult it is to know what prophecies mean. The
truthfulness of Helga’s prophecies is not easy to determine. The group
members indignantly rejected them at the time and on the second occasion
wcrc sufficiently heated aboct doing so as to appear to belie Helga’s statement
that ‘the group \vas dull’. (It is only fair to Helga to admit that the group only
stopped being dull after her determined attempts to bring to light otherwise
unexpressed negative feelings.)
Helga was able to engineer the unpleasantness that she often predicted as
happciiing to herself. Although it is arguable that the group did d o some good
for her. when she left the group against advice some eighteen months later she
was at a particularly low point, and her action appeared to confirm her
prcdiction that she would not be helped.
On tlie other hand. the group conductor frequently noted the accuracy of
Helga’s comments. although usually some,time after they were made. Helga‘s
remark to Don \\‘as particularly insightful. About a year later Don began
retelling the circumstances of his wife’s leaving him. On this occasion he said
that he had known that she might leave him that day but that he ‘had not seen
why he should take time off work on that account’, since he was the injured
party. He had therefore gone into work as usual and may even havc
voluntecrcd to d o overtime that day with his best friend, a fellow ambulaiicc
driver. Don’s later account corroborated Helga’s view that he had been aware
that his wife needed him and that he should take some responsibility for his
refusal to satisfy her needs.
Two important premises of groupanalytic psychotherapy are ( 1) that
most people base their behaviour on assumptions about themselves and othcrs
which they consider unassailably true, and (2) that in neurosis. these
assuniptions act as unnecessary constraints. leading to repetitive
impoverishment of relationships. Therapy consists. at least in part. in
questioning these assumptions. Prophetic truth is conceived independently of
tlic personal and social concerns of the prophet and is tliereforc particularly
IiLcly to cliallengc group members’ assumptions about each other. Propliccy
thcrcfore has considerable therapeutic potential.
I t will be apparent that the members of the group under discussion lhilcd to
rcnlizc this. Instead there was the characteristic defensive reaction. described
in tlie Gospel passage quoted at tlie head of this paper, to isolate Helga and
drive her from tlie group. This is an understandable impulse of group
prcscrwtion. Mary indirectly foreshadowed what would happen in her
account of her sister who was sent away because what she said was thought to
he too disruptive for her family. However it is a striking feature of prophcls
that their prophecies continue unabated despite these dangers. This makcs
propliets particularly liable to be excluded from psychothcrapy groups. as
itidccd Helga almost \\.’as.
The Psychological Function of Prophecy
What could sustain such unrewarding behaviour, and how can it be changed?
It is quite possible to see Helga’s conduct as a psychopathological defence. It
could bc that she was compelled to repeat her rejection by her father. Earlier
shc had told the group that her father tried to persuade friends to adopt her
after the death of his wife and when this failed, appeared to be indiffcrent to
An imitative element is also discernible in Helga’s behaviour. Her stubborn
indepcndcnce was similar to her father’s. Shortly after the previously
described group sessions. Helga had a message from her family that her father
was dying i n hospital. She flew home to visit him, but when she arrived at the
hospital. her father refused to speak. Helga decided that she would not speak
either. and they spent half an hour in silence until Helga left.
Helga’s extreme independence could also be thought of as reaction
formation to a strong underlying wish to be dependent and in line with this
she occasionally spoke of her longing for her mother who had been ‘so good
and kind’ until she wasted away with cancer.
All of these tendencies. to repeat, to imitate or to react against, could be
used to predict Helga’s likely reactions. However none of them actually led t o
useful interventions in the group. since they gave no clues to the quality of her
subjective experience. The concept of projective identification (Klein. 1946:
Ogden. 1979) and Ezriel’s concept of required relationship (Ezriel. 1959) were
more useful in this respect since they provided an explanation of how
apparently destructive present relationships protect or nourish the individual.
Helga po\verfully projected possessive and destructive feelings into others.
She was. for example, intensely scductivc towards married men and once shc
had gained their interest would taunt them with the prediction that they would
be ‘like all the rest’ and end up by treating her badly. They usually did. She
took a detached view of these smash-ups in her personal relationships and
could not see that she had any complicity in them.
A characteristic feature of Helga’s prophecies was that they were
involitntary. She could not see things in any othcr way. In this important
r6spcct Helga differed from those prophets who come to be revered as grcat
religious or moral leaders. Her prophecies, unlike theirs, were not timely, and
Helga could neither contain the thoughts that were their substance, nor deny
the impulses that were their motive.
The concept of projective identification and the other related concept? such
as Bion’s ‘unmetabolized beta elements’ (Bion, 1962) are helpful in
understanding this driven quality in Helga’s prophecy and in focussing the
conductor’s attention on what was ‘calamitous’ about her ‘avoided
relationships’. However, these concepts dwell on the diseased nature of Helga’s
statements and ignore their potential utility to the group members who at times
of lesser emotion could themselves recognize their value.
Another Psychology of Prophecy
‘Speaking out’ the truth, regardless of the consequences. is an important
attribute of all prophets. It is, I think, the reason that Helga’s statements were
valued. This ‘speaking out’ gave Helga a particular importance in the group,
different from that of the other group members; which was similar to that of
any prophet in any other society.
Are there peculiarities of the prophet’s psychology, not due to disease,
which set him apart in this way? The Gospel has it that prophets, although
honoured by those sufficiently remote from them, cannot be tolerated at home.
The assumption that it is not possible to prophesy in your own home, is, I
think, an important clue to the psychology of prophesy.
Most people. including most group members, have certain thoughts which
they consider ungrateful or unkind or unfair. Group members often describe
themselves as trying to get rid of such thoughts, because they erroneously
believe them to be obstructive to the communion that they desire with the
group. Thinking the thought becomes tantamount to breaking-up the group.
Very soon these thoughts are not just concealed: they d o not occur to the
person at all during the course of the group.
Critical reflections on the conductor are particularly likely to be dealt with
in this way. Comments on the incomprehensibility of the author’s own
interventions provide an example. I have found these to be not uncommon
during the early phases of a group but rare later, even though I can perceive
little change in my style. Considerable evidence is available from experimental
studies of these effects in groups (Davis, 1969).
Prophets like Helga ‘speak out’ without being affected by these coercive
social inhibitions, and I think that the implication of the Gospel passage is that
they can do so because they are never ‘at home’. Their home is the world or
the hedgerow or in heaven, and its social structure and their psychological
integrity cannot therefore be threatened by the emotional backwash of their
prophesy. Helga was the only member of the group who could literally say
whatever was going through her mind. She could speak with dispassionate ’
accuracy because she did not belong to the group. She was that most critical
of observers, the stranger. Although she had the prophetic psychology in full
measure, the motives of her prophecy were different from those of religious
prophets in the important respect already mentioned. Unlike them she
had no sense of a transcendent social context in which prophet and
‘community would be united. Helga therefore had no compassion. This had
serious consequences for her social adjustment both in and outside the group.
The Social Implications of Prophesy
Although all prophets appear to be outside the society to whom their
prophesies are directed, religious prophets are rarely completely alone. Many
of the more recent have had disciples but it was also apparently the custom for
the earliest biblical prophets to live and work in groups (Lindblom, 1962).
This continuing availability of social contact reflects the fact that the prophet
has not been cast out of society, but has chosen to withdraw. Presumably this
also makes possible a compassionate concern for the society that has been
Helga did not withdraw but was excluded from her family. Although she
had an ideal picture of her mother, it appeared from other anecdotes in the
group that her mother had been ill for years and that she had been unable to
give her daughter much attention during this period. Helga’s main care-giver
had been her grandmother. She did not develop close ties with her much older
brothers and sisters and several times recalled the memory of being left out of
a family party because she was too young. She had remained alone and
without roots in her adult life. She came to England impulsively, arriving with
only a suitcase. She had nowhere to go and made straight for the King’s Road
to pick up the first of several ‘one-night stands’ (it was in the middle of the
swinging ’sixties). In the years that she had been in London she had moved
home repeatedly and had only kept contact with one person, a Malaysian
woman. to whom she did not feel particularly close.
Helga had no possessions of which she was particularly fond, on one
occasion explaining that if she wanted to leave a place quickly there was no
point in having furniture. Although she had no difficulty in getting work she
had left many jobs abruptly, usually when she thought she was being given
responsibility or likely to become part of a team. She was attractive to many
men but herself was attracted to married or otherwise ineligible men and lost
interest in them if they showed signs of seriously preferring her to their wives.
She had twice conceived a child and on each occasion had decided, without
consulting her boy friend. to have an abortion. She seemed to have been
disgusted by the possibility of having a child, as if it would have been an
invasion of herself by a foreign being.
Helga’s prophecies maintained her as an outsider. They were not confined to
thc group. She several times talked of telling her bosses that certain people in
her ofice were slacking or engaged in rackets o r could simply be dispensed
with as unnecessary to the efficient running of the office. The outrage of some
of Helga‘s workmates, who had doubtless been trying to befriend a new
colleague, sotnetimes came through in Helga’s account to the group. Their
reaction was in this respect similar to that of the members of her
psychotherapy group.
Probably there were occasions when colleagues at work retaliated by
putting pressure on Helga to leave. There was a similar pressure on Helga in
the group and this may be the commonest method for small groups to deal
with prophets in their midst. This must obviously be dealt with before therapy
can progress. Too often involuntary prophets like Helga have no other way of
relating to others. To ask them to give up prophesying is therefore likely to be
perceived as a request to give up all social contact, and is unlikely to be
The main task of management is to transmute the prophet’s statements
from challenge to valued comment. This is helped by the true therapeutic
importance of much small group prophesy. Group members are likely to
recognize this for themselves eventually, but possibly not before the prophet
has been forced out of the group by any of the underhand means that group
members can use. The main task of management is therefore to assist group
members in finding immediate benefit from the prophecies to which they are
willy-nilly exposed. They must be enabled to make use of the truth contained
in the prophecy. In this way the prophet is metamorphosed from scourge into
It is important. at the least, that the conductor acknowledges the truth of
what thc prophet says and avoids falling into the trap (which caught the
conductor in the example) of ‘protecting’ the group from the prophet‘s
‘attack’. The conductor may need to act as the prophet’s exegesist. and
considerable self-discipline is needed in following through the disturbing
speculations that prophecies engender.
There is an affinity between a group conductor and a group prophet. Often it
will be the conductor who is most able to appreciate the truth of group
prophecies. Group members are aware of this and will be sensitive to even
slight reactions of the conductor. Sometimes it is not even necessary to
comment: it may be enough in some groups that the conductor respectfully
attcnds to and appears to make sense of what the prophet says.
The Conductor as Prophet
Foulkes and others have referred to the pecuiiar rdie o i a group conductor. He
is in the group but also outside it, sometimes experiencing the group ‘from
within’ as a group member and at other times experiencing the group ‘from
without’ as the person responsible for its creation. These are the hallmarks of
the prophet’s social adjustment and there are many similarities between them
and group conductors. This is particularly so when conductors make
Interpretations have many of the characteristics that I have ascribcd to
prophccies. They are detached comments about normally unspoken impulses
and wishcs. which arouse anxiety and challenge preconceptions. They may be
denied. but when they can be assimilated, they provoke change.
Interpretations arc also like prophecies in being particularly directed at the
truth of some situation. however troubling that may be. This plain speaking is
permitted to the conductor and the prophet, because of their obvious
sclllcssncss and because of the authority with which they invest their
statements. This authority. although it may handicap the group if excessive
(Homc. 1983). is the foundation of the conductor’s therapeutic influence.
A final. personal comment about the similarility of interpretation and
prophcsy may not be out of place. I experience the interprctations that I m3kc
in groups as coming to me through revelation and not through thinking. If this
is true of other group conductors, it has important implications both for
research into the efficacy of interpretation and for training. It suggests that the
most cffcctivc interpretation is not necessarily the one which makes the most
sense. but the one which is the most truthfully and compassionately
I aiii grntcful to hlrs. L. E. Hearst who read an earlier draft of this paper and suggested that I
should consider projective identification more fully.
The idea that the conductor was also a prophet was put forward by several colleagues on the
I98 I Institute of Group Analysis Qualifying Course during a seminar discussion. I gratefully
achno\dcdge this and other contributions that these colleagues made to the de\eloprnent of the
idea.; expressed in the paper.
BION.W. R. (1962) Learning from Experience. New York: Basic Books.
J. H . ( 1 969) Group Performance. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.
H . (1959) The R6le of Transference in Psychoanalytic and Other Approaches to Group
Treatment. Aeta Therapeutica. Psychosomatica and Orthopaedogogica, (supplement to
VII. part 2) 107.
HOME.H . J. (1983) Transference in Group and Individual Analysis. In: Pines. ht. (Ed): The
Evolution of Group Analysis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
K L t i N . M. (1946) Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. Reprinted (1975) In: Envy and
Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. New York: Delacorte Press.
J. (1962) Prophecy in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
hiCCLELLAN. D.( 1973) Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. London: Macmillan.
M u i L m B E R c . J. (1962) Old Testament Prophecy. In: Black Peake, h 4 . (Ed): Commentary on
the Bible. London: Nelson.
OGDEN.T. H . (1979) On Projective Identification. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis.
60. 357.
PAYNE.R. (197 I ) The Unknown Karl h l a r x . London: University of London Press.
Departnieut of Psych ialry
Uiiirersity of Marichester
Uitirersity Hospital of Soiilh Marichester
West Didsbiiry
iMarrchester, M 2 0 8LR
Discussion on Paper by Digby Tantam
One of the lessons I learned during my training as a group analyst was the fact
that everyone sees reality differently and this actually adds to the spice of life.
I found the article by Digby Tantam quite fascinating. yet I differ on almost
every point.
The notion of prophecy presented in the article seems to me strangely
outdated. A great debate about prophecy took place in the 'sixties and
'seventies which highlighted its essential communitarian aspect, that is. it is
the People of God who are prophetic (or in terms of the article, it is the group
as group that would be prophetic). As a theologian I do not wish to argue this
point but mention it in passing (Leon-Defour: 'Dictionary of Biblical
Because I find the notion of prophecy as presented by Tantam too limiting,
too individualistic, too Protestant, I find its application in the group too farf e t c h d Helga is no prophet. neither is she an outsider. She is very much part
of the group and is finely tuned to what is happening even though she may be
unaware of the fact. Her response t o Don (as I see it) is an attack on the group
leader for his neglect of her by allowing Mary to join the group. The group
attacks Helga (always easier than going for the leader). When Helga next
appears (in the absence of Don) she speaks about how her parents were absent
for her (as I see it: the absence of the group leader for her). Mary indirectly
attacks Helga by referring to her sister.
When all the group next assemble the topic is ‘back’ pain (note the humour
of thc unconscious!) but Helga is still protesting at the leader’s lack of interest
in her (the group is ‘dull’) and threatens to leave - not prophetically. but out
of sheer bloody-mindedness. The leader really rubs salt in the wound by telling
hcr that she is benefitting from it! Don (prophetically!) says that he really
deserves what his wife (that is, the group leader) is doing to him. Tom wants to
tell Helga (that is. the group leader) to shut up.
We are told that the group ended in confusion. My interpretation of the
confusion is that it is due to individualising the rdle of prophet in the person of
Helga. when it could equally well be applied to each member of the group.
The comments being made in the group do not cut across what is
happening but are very accurate statements on the actual process. What
group members found so shattering about Helga’s statements was their
intimacy/immediacy. In no way were her statements prophetic: they were spoton ad hoc perceptions and intimately connected with her relationship to the
group leader. I do not find Don’s later statement about his relationship with
his wife in anyway verifying Helga’s statement. I see it simply as being a little
morc mature.
I find the latter half of the article difficult to stomach. It becomes morc farfetched as time passes. I experience Helga as being punished (‘she did not
belong to the group’); excluded (‘she was the stranger’) and condemned (‘shc
had no compassion’).
Having made her a prophet in the first place, there was only one thing left
to d o and that was to isolate her within the group and finally exterminatc her.
As n theologian I find the article unacceptable; as a Christian 1 find it
incredibly familiar.
86 Park Hill,
Cnrshallot I Beeclies ,
Surrey s1\{5 3RZ
The PSyChOlOgY of prophecy and the possibility of a group member
functioning as a ‘prophet’ in a group are intriguing themes and the paper by
Digby Tantam offcrs a number of original ideas. But his argument will carry
conviction only if you can accept his definition of ‘prophecy’ and I am afraid I
In his clinical example. Tantam describes two contributions by one of the
members of a group, Helga. which strike him as ‘prophecies’. When a group
member talks about his wife’s unexpected desertion for another man and
blames himself for it, the group sympathizes with him, but Helga says: ‘Of
course. she would find someone else if you were never at home’. The group
thcn dcfends the deserted husband and turns against Helga.
Here the definition of ‘prophecy’ seems to be a readiness to express an
unpalatable truth. Though this is often an aspect of a prophet’s utterance, it
does not seem to me to define prophecy sufficiently, unless there is also an
element of prediction.
The writer admits that projective mechanisms could account for Helga’s
intcrvcntion (although he does not give a clear enough account of what they
might be). but he finds them insufficient because they ‘dwell on the diseased
nature of Helga’s statements’. and d o not d o justice to their ‘utility’ to other
group membcrs. 1 have difticulties with the expression ‘diseased nature’ in this
context: projections are, after all, aspects of ‘normal’ psychological
functioning. Also. we do not have to call a contribution ‘prophetic’ to indicate
that it is useful.
The other example Tantam gives as proof of Helga’s status as a prophet is
in fact a prediction - the prediction that ‘she would never get any help from
the group and might as well leave’. Helga left the group about eighteen months
latcr (Tantam says she was driven out by the group and this of course may
have been so. but he does not really substantiate his statement.)
Tatitam implies that Helga’s prediction is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. which
indeed it is. But can a self-fulfilling prophecy still be called a prophecy in the
true sense? Are we not dealing here with a statement of (more or less
conscious) intention?
The writer stresscs the ‘authority’ and inner conviction which distinguished
Helga’s pronouncements, qualities ‘which also distinguish the utterances of
prophcts. But I feel we cannot dismiss the possibility that such qualities may
have their roots in processes of identification and introjection, or be a sign of
what Jung calls inflation.
Tantam concludes his paper with a section on ‘the conductor as prophet’
and confirms my impression that his definition of ‘prophecy’ is both too
idiosyncratic and too universal: ‘Interpretations are also like prophecies, in
being particularly directed at the truth of some situation. however troubling
that may bc’. Unlcss I misunderstand him, he seems to be saying that all
group conductors are prophets, at least some of the time. This would. in my
vicw, dilute the concept of prophecy to the point where it is no longer very
ti1ca ni ng ful .
I sympathize with the author’s wish to say something about certain group
manifestations which arc not sufficiently explained by the available theoretical
framework. I doubt. however, that in choosing the concept of prophecy. at
least in the way he seems to define it, he has come much nearer to throwing
light on these elusivc group phenomena.
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