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John Cleese


For some of us, it's impossible to envision John Cleese, the Minister of Silly Walks, taking anything seriously. But before he made his mark with Monty Python's Flying Circus, he went through the very regimented English public-school system and then on to Cambridge to study highly unsilly subjects like math, physics and chemistry. The intense pressure of his upbringing spawned Cleese's sense of humor, he believes, but boarding-school life also took a toll on his psyche: "You form a rather brittle personality, because you're trying to be independent and tough, but of course you don't have the nurturing to be able to get away with it."

In his view, his best-known characters-pompous bureaucrats, longwinded attorneys and acerbic psychiatrists-each have a dark side. They are bitter men, simultaneously fighting off a maddening world and their own repressed feelings.

Following two failed marriages, Cleese decided to examine his own inner workings. In 1983, he collaborated with his therapist of 3'1z years, Robin Skynner, on Families and How to Survive Them, a self-help book in a question-and-answer format. "The reception was exceptionally good," says Cleese, "especially in England, where trying to sell self-help books used to be a pretty unrewarding enterprise. In fact, of all the things that I've done, this one gives me a special kind of pride that I haven't gotten from my other projects."

Now he's at work on a sequel, due later this year. Tentatively titled Life and How to Survive It, it asks the question "What is healthy behavior?" and applies some answers to areas ranging from love to work to politics and religion. One of the book's main themes is the continuing need for both independence and interdependence, which Cleese claims is present in every significant relationship.


Q. We usually think of women as the steadfast ones in relationships and men as the ones who stray. Yet many of us want our relationships to endure and can't seem to figure out how to do it. Where do men go wrong?

A. Men often try to be independent, but aren't really up toit, so it's all a bit of an act. They use their machismo to keep women at a distance, because they're terrified of intimacy.

I was brought up in an atmosphere where it was simply felt that a chap had to grow up by the age of 16. When you lack good nurturing, you form a protective shell around your personality. You become more and more intellectual, but also more and more bitter and negative.

In my own therapy, what helped me more than anything was the idea that there can be a balance between intimacy and independence in a relationship-that you can be, for some of the time, very close, and for some of the time, very separate. That appeals to me on a gut level without my quite understanding why it feels so right, but I love the idea that you can switch from intimacy to independence and back again.

Q. What happens to men who don't know how to make this switch? What are they afraid will happen?

A. They're very frightened that if they ever once let their defenses down there would be such a bottomless well of need they'd never get out.

Q. What advice will you offer them in your next book?

A. Men have simply got to understand that they almost certainly need nurturing some of the time. It depends, of course, on how much stress they've been under. If they've been under a lot, they'll need a lot of nurturing. If they're having a pretty good time, they probably won't need much, or any.


But, whereas macho people have got to take on board their need for nurturing, men who are permanently in a dependent state need to work themselves a little bit more toward independence. They should not be in a continual state of need. There have to be times, even if they find it a little difficult at the beginning, to say, "Okay, now I'll get on with things independently. This is my life, and I want to make the best of it I possibly can. "

Q. How should dependent types do this?

A. Perhaps they can be a little bit tougher with themselves, pushing themselves into the discomfort zone.

Q. You're talking about making some rather big changes. Where does a man start and how does he do it?

A. At the beginning, it's very difficult. If we can't seem to get nurturing that we need, it's often because we've fixed ourselves up with a partner who isn't very good at giving it. That way, we can kind of stay where we are, not perhaps very happy, but at least extremely familiar with what's going on.

Q. Why would it be more comfortable to be in a less nurturing relationship?

A. If a fellow hasn't had a great deal of good mothering, he'll get with women who are not awfully good at nurturing so that he can stay in the same pattern and not have to change. That's the terrifying thing, you know, doing something different.

Q. So what can you doto break out of that rut?

A. You just try and talk about it with your partner, and become more and more aware of it and try and catch it.

Q. You suggest that your own problem is a difficulty accepting nurturing fr-om your partner. What do you do about it?

A. My girlfriend can always tell when I'm in a bit of trouble emotionally, because I tend to start making all my own food. "Oh, you're in that mood, are you?" And I answer, "What?" innocently. She says, "You don't want any nurturing." And there I stand, holding a frying pan.

Q. So when you're talking about communicating, it’s not just verbal.

A. That's right. You just begin to spot each other's signs. When my girlfriend and I are working at our best, it's as though the healthier parts of ourselves are in alliance trying to· work against the less healthy parts. So, if she says, "You don't want any nurturing" to me, the healthy part of me can say, "Hey, she's right, I'm up to my old tricks again." Of course, if I'm not in the right mood, I may take it as criticism.

Q. And get ticked off at her?


A. Yeah, I'll feel that she's getting at me in some way. The reverse happens as well. A couple of days ago, I suggested she watch a bit of a tape I was watching, and she thought I was criticizing her for not watching it, whereas all I was saying was, "Hey, I think you'd find this interesting." But sometimes you can talk about the problems you have in a non-critical way. I think change is all to do with awareness. It's about saying, "Oh, here I go again."

Q. How does a couple prevent these self-criticism sessions from degenerating into fights? A. It all depends on how healthy the relationship is, but sometimes a little gentle teasing can point something out. If the relationship is already good, these kinds of criticisms become very easy; in f

act, it's a lot of fun because it's a sort of mutual exploration.

Q. What if the relationship isn't so healthy?

A. If things have got a bit scruffy between the two of you, a bit nasty, it's awfully difficult. That's when I think it's good to have some sort of counselor who can sit there in the middle. If there's a misunderstanding, the therapist can say, "No, actually what she said. Just now was very fair, but you took it in a very critical way. You weren't really quite hearing what she said."

Q. It sounds as if you're saying that  achieving a healthy relationship is more an ongoing process than a finite goal.

A. All of us hate feeling bad. So, if somebody says something to us that makes us feel bad, we can almost never take it on board. But sometimes we can hear the criticism and still feel good about ourselves.' It's incredibly delicate. It's a matter of mood-and just working hard - to achieve that difficult balance.

Q. How does being a comedian help or hurt the way you deal with a long-term relationship?

A. I don't think the comedian aspect of it has a great deal to do with it, quite honestly. But I think being well-known causes all sorts of problems.

Q. In what way?

A. The whole business of being a celeb- . rity tends to move you into the more external and trivial parts of your personality, into the parts that are most interested about your "image," you 'know? This kind of thinking is fundamentally destructive to mental health.

I'll give you a perfect example. During the selling of A Fish Called Wanda-a few years ago, I did 64 days of interviews. And when you're being interviewed six or seven hours a day, people are asking you a lot of personal quest ions. And you are giving them a favorable version of yourself, just as we do' when we meet anyone for the first time. We want them to think we're nice and civilized rather than awful and disgusting. If you do this over a period of days or v weeks, you can just feel yourself becoming all trivial. You can feel yourself being pushed further and further into the outside of your personality, further and further away from Who you really are at the center, And after the publicity finishes, it takes some time to get back there.

People who take their "career" and their ''public'' seriously, I think, go mad quite rapidly. I don't wish to name names,· but you can think of anyone who's constantly the focus of public interest, you know, Who uses their publicity machine relentlessly to publicize themselves. I can't think of anybody who's been doing that for more than five years who isn't batty. They start to believe their own press, or their own surface image. That way, I think, lies madness.

MEN'S HEALTH, August 1991