Damaging games of love: Reflections on Centrepoint

Last month Kim Hill interviewed Angie Meiklejohn on her experiences at Centrepoint, a therapeutic community on the northern outskirts of Auckland city that flourished in the 1980s and is now notorious for encouraging sexual activity between men and young women or girls. In the early 1990s Bert Potter, Centrepoint’s founder, and five other men were convicted on several charges of indecent or sexual assault on minors.

Angie Meiklejohn was one of the young women who lived at Centrepoint and became caught up in the sexual climate. As well as agreeing to sexual invitations from Bert Potter she was involved in a sexual relationship with Henry Stonex, a much older man who was simultaneously her ‘surrogate father’. In the interview with Kim Hill, she said that while she was living in the community she told outsiders that Bert Potter was a ‘really, really nice man’ but she actually thought he was ‘old and fat and disgusting’ and certainly did not want to have sex with him. Yet for several years after leaving Centrepoint she refused to criticise its philosophy and practices.

Through today’s lens the Centrepoint story is often told as if it was a conspiracy-to-abuse with paedophiles at its centre. In this version of the story those who knew about the sexual practices with children and teenagers were criminally negligent. ‘Parents,’ says the current Wikipedia entry, ‘either neglect[ed] to protect their children from the assaults, or actively abet[ed] them.’

Having been on the edge of Centrepoint myself, I doubt that most of the adults who knew what was going on believed they were doing harm (see here for a related research report). I now suspect that a fundamental flaw with Centrepoint’s doctrine, or at least the one that messed with my head, was that it demanded love from people. Those demands were backed with the implication that the failure to give of oneself, physically and emotionally, was to fail as a human being.

I did not actually visit Centrepoint until 1987, but I was a psychology student in Auckland from 1979 – 1983 when Centrepoint was very much in vogue. In my third year at university I volunteered for a counselling organisation where most of the more experienced counsellors had done residential courses at Centrepoint.(1) It was my experience at this organisation that convinced me I did not want to be a clinical psychologist. At group training sessions, I felt sluggish and weighed down by poorly articulated emotions, mistrust and large bodies that were always too close. I was constantly told I was ‘intellectualising’, an accusation that I found both distressing and confusing. I couldn’t figure out (ha!) what intellectualising was exactly but I knew it was bad. Although I do not recall any sexual pressure, I was certainly being trained in how to ignore my feelings. I felt dreadful but it seemed out of the question to say that. Instead, it seems to me now, the group expected me to feel the warmth and trust that signifies love is in play. When I did not feel love, I covered it up with what they rightly detected was waffle.  

In 1987 I visited Centrepoint with my partner, now my husband, on a couples retreat. The weekend was not our idea but we thought we may as well give it a go. Centrepoint felt to me like unfinished business, a mecca right on my backdoor step that I had not visited. I was cautious but curious. As with the group training sessions I’d experienced several years earlier, I found the atmosphere stifling, and the other bodies weighty and oppressive. I survived the stuffiness and claustrophobia by breaking the rules and taking paracetamol at regular intervals. The woman who ran the retreat told us that Bert Potter often said, ‘Centrepoint is paradise, you can get anything you want here.’(2) While she was referring in part to sex, she was also referring to intimacy and affection – in other words, love. I distinctly remember the hesitation in her voice, revealing perhaps, that she knew love is not something you can ‘get’ when you want it.

This time I was not taken in. I was able, perhaps because I was older or with someone I trusted, to listen without my mind running in confused, self-blaming circles. We can desire the love of others with every fibre of our being but their love is never ours by right. Love is only love when it is a spontaneous feeling of warmth towards others.

Communities can, and must, make demands of their members. Parents can reasonably expect their children to do housework, refrain from hitting their siblings and visit their grandparents. Schools, religious institutions and work places can expect a whole range of specific behaviours in line with the finite games that ensure the organisation continues to function appropriately. But love is different. To try and bully it out of another or pull it out of ourselves is to cause a wound that is hard to heal.

It is easy to call out Bert Potter as someone who played profoundly damaging games with love. But, as is usually the case when we feel we have identified ‘evil’ and can now stamp it out (the trickster’s fourth move), we miss the opportunity to also look at ourselves. Who hasn’t tried to drag love out of someone else? I certainly have. When I think of those times, every one of them was based on fear that I would be overlooked. Such fear is not unreasonable, I often am overlooked! But that does not mean I can make demands of others’ emotions and force them to care for me.

Paradise isn’t being able to get love on tap, paradise is being able to give love well. And giving love well comes from noticing how it is received. When a child flinches from your touch, it is time to back away. Perhaps the child requires a different approach or none at all. When people do not warm to your philosophy, it is time to back away. Perhaps it is your turn to listen and try to understand their truth.

I don’t mean to make love sound picky or elusive. I actually think most of us are quite good at it most of the time. We want to give love and we want to receive it too. But when love is absent, it must be left to be so. Otherwise we risk damaging the sacred core from which it springs. 

(1). As I recall, a residential workshop at Centrepoint was required to move up in the organisation. I am fairly sure that all the counsellors who trained us had done at least one Centrepoint workshop.

(2). These may not have been her exact words.

To receive blog posts via email, go here