An Examined Life

Marjorie Barlow and the Alexander Technique

An Examined Life is a series of edited conversations that took place between Marjory Barlow and Trevor Allan Davies between 1995-2000. It has fourteen chapters and eight appendices, two of which are Marjory’s 1965 and 1995 Memorial Lectures. Marjory is careful to remind us in the Foreword that the book only represents the F.M. she knew and only relates her impressions and understandings of what took place, and that her book is not meant to deny or replace other people’s experiences or opinions. As such, this book is a MUST for any serious student of Alexander’s work.

Marjory Barlow was born in 1915 and started having lessons with her uncle, F.M.Alexander, in 1932 at the age of 17. After graduating from the first teacher-training course in 1936, at the age of 21, she worked as an assistant teacher at Ashley Place. She married Dr. Wilfred Barlow and later started her own teaching practice. In 1950, she and Dr Barlow, “Bill”, started their own teacher-training course. 

Marjory’s utter dedication to the work is apparent in these conversations. The work transformed her life. For a woman of her time, it must not have been easy to juggle being a wife and a mother with a teaching career, and then to be torn between loyalties towards her uncle and her husband after a major family rift in 1949. As a result of this, the Barlows did not see F.M. in the last six years of his life and I was very moved to think how very hard this must have been for her.

Marjory shares invaluable recollections of her uncle as a man, teacher and originator of the work. These recollections tell us a lot about the development of his work and the people around him including the political divisions inherent in the profession, particularly since F.M.’s death. These deeply personal and intimate revelations help build up a picture of F.M. in his time and this has made him more real for me.

According to Marjory, F.M. was a kind, reasonable, simple, and extremely generous man. But, like all of us, he was also not perfect. Interestingly for me, F.M. also believed that someone else could have discovered what he had discovered. “If I hadn’t gone through all of that, some other poor damn fool would have had to do it because humanity needs it so much.”

I felt good but shaken reading this. Good because I really do believe that we can all do what he did. Shaken because deep in my heart, I never believed that I could ever have discovered what F.M. discovered on my own if he had not set an example for us.

The other thing that strikes me about this quote is the value he has put on his work – “humanity needs it so much”. As students, we all know how much the work has transformed our lives, but, as teachers, do we always see that everyone else needs this work too?

Marjory tells us that F.M. was absolutely true to what he had discovered. Nothing could shake him on it. The confidence he had of the importance of his work for humanity seems absolute, and when Marjory suggested that as a young teacher she felt she ought to be paying her students, F.M. replied, “You can do more for any of these people than anybody living, except a more experienced Alexander teacher”.

Throughout the book, Marjory not only shares frank impressions of F.M., but of other people too. It really brings these characters to life learning more about their private life. In particular, I liked reading more about A.R.

Marjory tells us that A.R. really helped people on her training course because he was so insistent on ‘thinking’. He knew from his own experience that it was his thinking that really changed things. What is reassuring in these conversations is Marjory’s insistence that the work is about directing one’s mind. “What the pupil is thinking is the primary thing,” she says.

Marjory believes that just having skillful hands to make changes in students is not teaching. Teaching is about engaging the student’s thinking.

There are obviously others who do not share Marjory’s view of what teaching the work means. Some students on the first teacher training even presented a petition to F.M. to complain about A.R. saying that he was not teaching the work! Apparently, the political divisions we see currently in our profession started while the protagonists were still in training. Even then they already had opinions about what the work was and who was teaching the work and who was not. But Marjory assures us that although both her uncles’ taught differently, they taught the same thing.

These sorts of political debates have not stopped since that time and I do not believe they ever will. Marjory talks frankly and at length about how Walter Carrington and Patrick MacDonald fell out with each other after F.M.’s death. Marjory also regrets the fact that she, Bill, Pat, Walter, and Marjorie Barstow never got together to at least agree on their differences.

Marjory tells us that it was Patrick, while on the training course and still in his early twenties, who declared what F.M. “really” meant (although F.M. wasn’t saying it in words). For Patrick, the whole secret was that the head had to go “forward and up” from the occipital joint, not from the ‘hump’. Until that point, the students in Patrick’s group on the training course (including Marjory) were totally confused. All of a sudden, with Patrick’s “discovery” of the ‘occipital’ key, they all knew how to work. “We (then) knew where to focus our attention in the pupil’s body.” Although Marjory remains convinced that the pupil’s thinking is primary, it is clear that this “discovery” has had significant impact on the history of teaching the work.

When asked to sum up the differences that stand between the Carrington-MacDonald-Barlow approaches, Marjory talks openly about how she feels Carrington has deviated from the work, but also admits that Patrick did too, and even Dr Barlow at times. She then continues to give another page of her objections to the Carrington approach and I was really looking forward to reading her views on the MacDonald and Wilfred Barlow approaches. Unfortunately the interviewer failed to keep this critical process on track. My disappointment was greater than I can express.

So where do all these political divisions leave us? Fortunately Marjory shares with us a beautiful quote from F.M. to help us out. Reading it was good for my soul and probably sums up all we need to know about all of these controversial issues:

“There’s nothing that you believe that is your own. There’s nothing that you think that is your own. Everything you say and do is because of other people, (and) the way you’ve been brought up. What you’ve got to do is find out what is really yours in the way of what you think and what you believe.”

What I think and believe is that this book is an irreplaceable historical source about F.M. and his life’s work. I do wish the book were better organized, and the topics raised had been explored in more depth and with greater direction. I also wish it had a table of contents and an index. But do not let any of this put you off. There are too many gems in it to miss. Read it for yourself.