The Prisoner: deconstructing the ‘meme’ of ADHD

by Stephen J.M. Bray

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A dark cloud against a blue sky add, a clap of thunder, a stretch of road extending into infinity, the beat of an orchestra playing a voodoo samba. Suddenly a speck appears on the horizon, where the road meets it. A small green sports car with an orange nose approaches at alarming speed. At the wheel is an earnest and determined young man. The scene changes to the streets of Westminster as the car rapidly negotiates London traffic before with your hands steering the wheel it disappears into a basement car park. You seem to walk silently behind the young man whose shoes pace out a rhythmic beat on the stone floor of a long corridor. The young man enters an opulent office where he slams an envelope on a desk before a seated figure. He utters some words, which cannot be heard due to the frenzied crescendo of the orchestra. His hand slams down on the desk causing it to vibrate so violently that the incumbent’s elegant cup and saucer jump, spilling coffee across papers. In the background machinery extracts what might be a personnel or medical file and obliterates the young man’s photograph. It is then filed in a drawer marked ‘Resigned’.  


So begins each episode of the 1960s cult TV series, ‘The Prisoner’. The young man, apparently now too dangerous to be left at liberty finds himself whisked away to a strange ‘holiday village’, where every need is met, provided he conforms to the rules, forfeits his liberty and agrees to be known as Number Six. In the village residents are fed a culture of soft music, weather forecasts, community arts projects and chess competitions. Those who do not submit to this regime are treated in the ‘hospital’ to mixtures of psychological tortures, advanced mind-probing techniques, numbing medication and further losses of liberty. We do such things to our old people of course, and also to our children.  





Jay Haley, a family therapy icon, writes: “The criminal offender is usually tried in a law court under rules which society developed to protect both the community and the offender. When someone is defined as ill or mad, the task of the community is more complicated. Custody is used with criminals, but there are chemical restrains in the form of medication. The dilemma is that something must be done about someone who makes the kind of trouble that does not allow legal trial and sentence." (Haley, 1980).


Haley is right, but he assumes generic rules for all societies. He is writing in the context of the American society of the 1970s and 1980s. Such a society’s values may be very different from that of for example, an Anatolian or Chinese village.


During the early 1980s the writer Charles Handy visited a group of fourteen year olds who were making a films at Brighton Polytechnic as part of a special project. Jimmy a shy boy was persuaded to act as the presenter. The group thought it would help to bring him out. When Jimmy froze, during the rehearsal Robbie, a tough looking youth who was the director, rushed from the control room, embraced Jimmy who was pale and wan and remarked:


“That was super Jimmy, quite super. Now we’ll do the whole thing for real and you can go through it. Any problems?”


Handy was impressed by Robbie’s people skills, and discussed the incident with him after the day’s work. When he asked what the rest of the class were doing that day he was told:


“Oh the rest, they’re in class, studying for exams. They’re the clever ones, see? We’re the stupid gang, have to be kept out of the way.” (Handy, 1990).


From the moment you were born society, in the form of family, state and media attempted to mould your perception and limit your freedom. They did so using combinations of the following weapons.


Force: such as restraint, beating, torture

Fear: such as threat of force, confiscation of wealth or freedom

Guilt: the idea that you are in some way damaging others by non-conformity.

Lies: telling you that certain things are true, when truth is a socially determined construct.

Duty: the idea that you are a member of a group, or sect to whom you owe allegiance, and that without this group membership you cannot survive.

Altruism: the idea that living in a certain way makes you morally and developmentally superior to others.

Imagery: the idea that buying a product, such as a brand of bottled water can make you sexy, or sporty.

Approval: the idea that you need the approval of significant or powerful others, such as parents, teachers, and business patrons.


A cursory look at some U.K. NHS Guidelines on the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), reveals the deployment of a number of these weapons.

ADHD does not have clear physical signs that can be seen in an x-ray or a laboratory test. ADHD can only be identified by looking for certain characteristic types of behaviour. The main types are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Inattention. People who are inattentive have a hard time keeping their mind on any one thing and may get bored with a task after only a few minutes. They may give effortless, automatic attention to activities and things they enjoy. But focusing deliberate, conscious attention to organizing and completing a task or learning something new is difficult.

Hyperactivity. People who are hyperactive always seem to be in motion. They can't sit still. They may dash around or talk incessantly. Hyperactive children can squirm in their seat or roam around the room. Or they might wiggle their feet, touch everything, or noisily tap their pencil.

Impulsivity. People who are overly impulsive seem unable to curb their immediate reactions or think before they act. As a result, they may blurt out inappropriate comments or they may run into the street without looking.

Some people may show signs of all three types of behaviour (combined-type ADHD), others may only show inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity. Not everyone who is overly hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive has an attention disorder. Specialists must also consider that the following are present to diagnose ADHD:

·              the signs have persisted for at least six months to a degree that is impairing the child's development;

·              there must be clear evidence of clinically significant impairment in social or academic functioning;

·              some impairment is present in two or more settings (usually at home and at school);

·              some of the signs that caused impairment were present before the age of seven;

·              the signs do not occur exclusively during the course of a pervasive developmental disorder, schizophrenia or other psychotic disorder and are not better accounted for by other mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety.

(National Institute for Clinical Excellence: Use of Methylphenidate ~ Ritalin ~ For ADHD in Childhood)

‘Dennis’ was nine years of age when we first met. After abandonment by his mother on two occasions in infancy, the second of which necessitating intensive care treatment in hospital due to his dehydration, Dennis was taken into care by a local authority. Placed initially with foster parents, he thrived in a loving and supportive environment.

After nearly two years he was moved to a family who wanted to adopt a child. In the event Dennis insufficiently matched their image of a ‘son’ for them to agree to them making an application to the court. His ‘adoptive’ mother was very critical of Dennis, and indeed the local authority that had placed him. Her major criticism was for the previous foster carers, who seemed to have ‘allowed’ Dennis ‘too much freedom’, and had sent him to the new family in shoes that were apparently a size too small.

Such criticisms of Dennis, and anyone taking a contrary view to the adoptive mother persisted during the five years of Dennis’s placement. The ‘adoptive’ father has long abandoned any kind of emotional advice or support to either his wife, or Dennis, concentrating instead on a number of building projects both at work and at home. In the five years of Dennis’s placement the family bungalow had been extended to more than double in size, remarkably without any outside consultants, builders or help.

Meanwhile Dennis had from the age of five years been undergoing twice-weekly child psychotherapy at the nearby child guidance clinic. The adoptive mother, who now resented therapy’s intrusion into her time, had initiated this. Some of the implications made by Dennis’s therapist that perhaps some of Dennis’s problems resulted from her management of him also were a source of tension.

It was a very unhappy state of affairs, in which mother and ‘son’ were incredibly tightly bonded in a relationship of punishment, recrimination and counter-measure. Dennis was becoming ever more competent in organising his ‘mother’ to be punitive. A skinny lad, I once built a simple biofeedback device with him, although I could readily make it howl, or go silent when using the appropriate visual imagery, or telling lies, Dennis seemed to have no skin conductivity at all. No wonder he seemed so resistant to physical and emotional pain.

I worked with Dennis over several months taking him to the scenes of his early childhood. We met and interviewed the occupants of the apartments where he had lived with his natural mother; we visited the intensive care unit where his life had been saved; he sat in the judge’s chair in the Royal Courts of Justice where he had been committed into care, and we visited the foster mother, where he had lived for 18 months, and whose inquiries into Dennis’s life had been blocked by his current carers. As a result his psychotherapy at the child guidance clinic suddenly took a quantum leap forward as Dennis was able to organise his confused memories along an established time-line. At school and in therapy his behaviour improved, but at home nothing changed. Indeed the father appeared even more distant, spending even more time at work, whilst the mother was dismissive of every improvement Dennis made as reported by others.

Finally she found a paediatrician who diagnosed the problem. Dennis had suffered all the time with ADHD. His non-conformity was an illness, and the treatment needed was medication. I hope that the paediatrician was right, even though it seemed to me at times that it was not Dennis, but the adults in his life who would have benefited from strong medicine.

The pattern of an over involved mother, who treats the child like a ‘project’ rather than a human being is one that I have seen many times in the course of my professional career. Of course such mothers could not relate thus were it not for the inability for their spouses to offer the emotional support that they need. Often the narrative accompanying children diagnosed as suffering from ADHD is one of difficulties in labour, and/or childbirth, breastfeeding problems, difficulties with separation at playgroups and school.

Michael Mallows, my fellow Consultant Editor of Nurturing Potential, and an acknowledged expert on adoption and other childcare issues believes that ADHD may be understood as a symptom of attachment problems. He writes:

“I believe that many children diagnosed with and treated for AD(H)D may in fact be displaying symptoms of Attachment Difficulties (or Attachment Disorder as the DSM would have it).


"That is, ADHD itself may be a symptom.


"I also think that the intrapersonal skills that many adults display in their interpersonal relationships are evidence of low Emotional Intelligence and may also ensue from Attachment Difficulties.


"Attachment Disorder, as you probably know, results from poor bonding during the early days, weeks and months - eye contact with a nurturing parent, for example - creating human beings who lack trust, feel inferior and guilty and who, ultimately, have an underlying or constant state of impotence, futility and despair.


"Feeling, basically, inadequate, insecure and insignificant, they look everywhere for someone to blame. Parents, The System / teacher / lover / ....


"The preoccupation with how awful life is, how painful love is, how demanding people are, how overwhelming it might all become, how they will be held responsible, how they will probably fail, saps the spirit, deadens the soul, narrows the vision, impairs judgment, shallows the breathing, narrows the mind. In short, it makes it very difficult to pay attention in an orderly fashion. Result? Attention Deficit Disorder!” (Mallows 2003).


I understand completely what he means, but wonder how much further it takes us?


Whilst a Regent of the University of California, Gregory Bateson found himself writing in a letter to his fellow Regents: “Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality.”


“Why do schools teach almost nothing of the pattern which connects? Is it that they know that they carry the kiss of death which will turn to tastelessness whatever they touch and therefore they are unwilling to touch or teach anything of real-life importance? What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you?” (Bateson, 1980).


A meme is a virus of the mind, (Brodie, 1996). Memes are powerfully infectious ideas that allow us not to think, or experience. They are conveniences that promote lazy thinking.


The point that Bateson is making is not really a criticism of teachers, for we all act as teachers in the broadest sense. Rather he points to a connectedness, which indeed points to our being processes within stories that appear in the awareness of one and all. When we nominalize conditions using powerful memes such as ‘Jet-lag’, ‘Cold-cure’, or ‘ADHD’, we break the pattern that connects. We have stopped experiencing our own awareness, and subsumed it within the ideas crafted by others.


Attachment has a different meaning to the parent/child emotional attachment, as it is understood in the west. The eastern understanding we perhaps might call vanity? The attachment to our achievements, beauty, humility, power, possessions, and relationships as forms of identification symbolising who and what we are. Others using the eight weapons listed above readily manipulate such weakness.


When, as children we resign from society because we experience it as subjugating our free flowing awareness we face formidable opposition from adults, many of whom are well versed in the subtle arts of ‘the Prisoner’s village’. “We are not numbers, we are free beings”, we cry out silently as registration is taken in the classroom. We reject and resign from this world where adults package and label us within the memes of conformity to the values of a dangerous world. But our protests are to no avail. And so we are punished, or medicated depending on the adults surrounding us. We are prisoners and our society is no less ‘the village’, for aspiring to be global in its values.  



My wife laughs, when I describe the title sequence of ‘The Prisoner’, as being ‘the best part.’ “That’s just like you”, she says.


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Bateson, G. (1980) Mind and Nature; A Necessary Unity. London: Fontana

Brodie, R. (1996) Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Seattle, WA: Integral Press

Haley, J. (1980) Leaving Home: The Therapy of Disturbed Adolescents. New York: McGraw Hill

Handy, C. (1990) Inside Organisations: 21 Ideas For Managers. London: BBC Books

Mallows, M. (2003) Private email correspondence

National Institute for Clinical Excellence (2002) Use of Methylphenidate ~ Ritalin ~ For ADHD in Childhood. Internet download from:


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Stephen Bray was born in Dorset and educated at Blandford Grammar School, and Universities in Plymouth, Manchester, Santa Cruz and London. He currently lives in Istanbul. Trained in the arts of dynamic therapy, family therapy, gestalt, process oriented psychology and NLP, he now spends his time supporting those who wish to help others. Details of his work and his contact information may be found at