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Greg A Madison

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The Struggle for Authenticity
by Greg A Madison   
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Last edited: Friday, December 04, 2009
Posted: Friday, December 04, 2009

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JM Barrie and the struggle for authenticity in the middle age of life.

The Struggle for Authenticity in the Second Act

To step back into the sphere of human being demands something other than

therapeutic technique, objective evidence, and curative power. It requires the

inspiration of art. All great art worthy of that description calls us to see the

world and ourselves more clearly. The bibliotherapeutic impact of the work of

JM Barrie rests in its ability to unnerve the shallows of life and to resuscitate the

struggle back to authenticity.

James Matthew Barrie (1860‐1937) was for some years the preeminent playwright

of the English‐speaking world. His new productions would open to certain success

in London’s West End and on the main stages of the world’s capitals. He was also in

great demand as an after dinner speaker to the great and the good. Now, apart from

his most popular play, Peter Pan, Barrie’s name has slipped from the footlights into

obscurity and along with him, a precious developmental view of human existence.

In the late 1980s I spent a year studying Barrie’s plays and his philosophy, under the

tutelage of Professor Paul Swartz at the University of Alberta. Both Paul and I

teetered uncomfortably at the edge of respectable academic psychology when

psychology was just beginning its demise into a restrictive obsession with hard

science. His interests perhaps better accommodated within a psychologically

sophisticated English Department while my interests crossed into existential

philosophy and psychotherapy, always with one eye on my emerging

autobiography. Out of that year of scholarship emerged a published paper of our

work together, The View from Betwixt and Between: JM Barrie and Humankind

(Swartz and Madison, 1987). Now, twenty years later, I view that year of study and

Barrie’s warnings, from the perspective of middle age and the feeling that

somewhere along the line I accidentally sided with the wrong self.

Barrie believed that life is not unlike a three‐act play, but with a second act that

seems to be missing. The first act lays out a trajectory of possibility that if followed

would allow us to grow into the person we were meant to be. The final act offers us

an opportunity to wake up and realise that at some point in the midst of life we lost

our way. In fact the second act of life is the longest and it is during this part of the

play that the struggle for life occurs, largely unbeknownst to us. Barrie desperately

wants to warn us about the second act, when we fall asleep for years. During the

long sleep of the second act of life a ‘black speck’ grows within and in the fullness of

time it pushes us out and takes over. An imposter takes over the entrancing

adventurous life we were meant to lead and carries us into the shadows of the

murky world of wrong‐headed ambition and social cosiness.

In an address to the young graduates of Edinburgh University, Barrie warns about

getting lost in the treacherous character of that middle act, ‘You may sometimes

roam round the earthly tenement that once contained you, trying to get back.


Perhaps you will get back. That sometimes happens… All I can assure you is that in

that second act, now about to begin, something will get in which is either to make or

destroy you’ (Barrie, 1930: 18‐20).

To maintain the ‘entrancing life’ is a struggle; we have to fight for it. It requires the

courage to attain a sort of ‘self‐mastery’. Barrie himself had wanted to be an

explorer, but instead his ‘familiar’ took him and he became a writer. As a writer,

Barrie presents themes of immense psychological value, including the idea of the

lost second act, the presence of a ‘familiar’ or interloper who takes our place, and

the possibility (though unlikely for most of us) of grasping a ‘second chance’.

We are offered second chances to return to the authentic person we set out to be,

but it requires considerable courage. Barrie repeatedly puts his philosophy into the

voice of his main characters, here in the protagonist of Dear Brutus, ‘There is

something we are born with, not Fate or accident, which are outside us, but something

in ourselves that really plays the dickens with us and makes us go on doing the same

sort of fool things, however many chances we get’. Can we cut this thing out? ‘It

depends, I expect, on how long we have pampered him. We can at least control him if

we try hard enough. But I have for the moment an abominably clear perception that

the likes of me never really tries’ (1942: 1045).

According to Barrie, we can shape ourselves if we have the courage to control our

human frailties, such as jealousy, worldly ambition, ignorance, contempt,

resentment, arrogance. But the black speck ‘gets nearly everybody in the end if they

don’t look out’. ‘We all seem to be touched by it, and are perhaps sent into the world

to decide for ourselves whether we are worth saving. Above all things, don’t defer

finding out what your particular speck is – for they vary very much – before it

spreads’ (1938: 138).

‘Both the speck and the familiar work to disable the entrancing life. The speck is

with us from the beginning, the familiar enters in the second act. Although Barrie

does not seem to have sought to connect the two, it makes sense to think of the

speck as opening to the familiar, as the germ of it, the base element that indulgence

cultures into a surrogate self. We may understand the familiar as in turn advancing

the spread of the speck, supplying the medium through which our particular liability

metastasizes into the whole of our living. It is the speck acting through the familiar

that corrupts our second chances into waste and repetition’ (Swartz and Madison,


Barrie was especially clear about the place that career plays in a human life. In

contemporary society career and ambition have become disgustingly synonymous

with life itself. Yet Barrie proclaims, ‘we have all become too self‐conscious about

the little parts we play – they are little parts even in our own little lives’ (1938: 52).

The entrancing life and worldly success seldom coincide. Professions are shallow

compared to the depth of the greatest moments in life, when we are pitched in battle

for our very souls.


We can recognise, even from today’s increasingly superficial vantage point, that

Barrie was describing to us how the crux of existence is increasingly shunted to the

shadows, replaced by consumerist greed and the race to get ahead. For some of us,

like the immortal Peter in Peter Pan, there is no second chance, ‘… the window was

closed, and there were iron bars on it, and peering inside he saw his mother

sleeping peacefully with her arm around another little boy’…. In vain he called, and

‘in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars’ (1913a:143‐4). But those bars

were up for life, there was no return.

The second act of Barrie’s plays are often set in a magical timeless place, like the

islands of Peter Pan, The Admirable Crichton, and Mary Rose, or the enchanted wood

of Dear Brutus. These are places of destiny, where each character faces a situation

so extreme that we can see into their true nature. ‘Mistakes are repeated, illusions

shattered, and a glimpse inward made available. This glimpse sows the possibility of

a second chance’ (Swartz and Madison, 1987: 16). But for some of us the battle with

the familiar enemy is stacked so against us that to struggle courageously and to lose

is not entirely to fail. To struggle is itself, regardless of the outcome, an admirable


Courage and the speck lay side by side. Whether we nurture the virtue or the vice is

a choice for which we alone are responsible. If we open the door to the vice,

something sneaks in ‘like a thief in the night’ whereupon it waits quietly until we

become used to it and we suddenly realise that it has supplanted us and taken our

place on the stage. When I think back to that year of study with Paul I know that the

man I am now is not the one I was heading to be. At some point the course of that

young man lost its navigation and if I were to follow back the line from the present it

would not connect to him, but to some small black speck that grew into the imposter

that has taken my place. We need to be constantly attuned to the great moment

when we are to hear the faint call to turn from the inauthentic and all the glitz and

glamour that the mundane world can muster.

The ‘second chance’ is really not to squander the first and only chance, to engage the

foe and its socially‐condoned allies, and to shape our own future rather than be

shaped by it. Self‐mastery is the constant struggle, beginning when we begin and

ending when the verdict is inscribed on tablets of stone.

As a psychotherapist I not only see Barrie’s vision played out in my own life, I also

see it clearly embedded in the deeper layers of the stories I hear each week in my

consulting room. There is a shared humanness in the struggle to live an everyday

life that is worthy of the human soul. In a profession that has arguably become too

‘outcome’ obsessed, too focused on symptomatic alleviation and technical

intervention, Barrie reminds us that it is still legitimate to talk about the big things,

the valiant struggle for self‐navigation. Maybe it is also legitimate to consider that

the profession of psychotherapy has its own ‘black speck’ and we now struggle to

regain essential aspects of what this profession, also, was meant to become.

Barrie, JM (1913) Tommy and Grizel. London: Hodder and Stoughton


Barrie, JM (1913a) The Little White Bird. London: Hodder and Stoughton

Barrie, JM (1930) The Entrancing Life. London: Hodder and Stoughton

Barrie, JM (1938) To Rhodes Scholars annual dinner Oxford, June 20, 1928. In JM

Barrie, McConnachie and JMB. London: Peter Davies: 134‐8

Barrie, JM (1942) Dear Brutus. In AE Wilson (Ed) The Plays of JM Barrie (Rev.Ed)

London: Hodder and Stoughton: 993‐1060

Swartz, Paul and Madison, Greg (1987) Contributions to Psychohistory: XII. The

view from betwixt and between: JM Barrie and humankind. Perceptual and Motor

Skills, 65: 3‐18.

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