Lulie Westfeldt attended Alexander’s first teacher training course, held in London from 1929 to 1933 — the beginning of the mass production, as it were, of Alexander Technique teachers. She tells why she sought out Alexander, how he conducted the course, and to what extent his work helped her. A first hand account of Alexander’s teaching, and in what to Alexander admirers is a historic period — it sounds like the book would be fascinating reading.
It is too. The autobiographical approach holds your interest, and there is much factual detail. However, the book is flawed by the author’s perverse loathing for the man which it is about.
The author, I think we can assume, states simple facts correctly, that what she says she heard and saw she did hear and see. The problem comes in her evaluation of those experiences, and in her selection of which ones are important. Her account of Alexander is colored by an ill-natured outlook, always eager to seize on the worst interpretation of every action. Her book is just plain venomous in places. She praises Alexander and vilifies him by turns. A very perverse book.
Still, if read critically, it has some value. For example, the account of her improvements in walking as she progressed with Alexander’s lessons makes for high drama, quite a testimonial. As a child the author had been stricken with polio. Though not crippled, she had problems with her gait, and a surgical operation only made matters worse. One foot was chronically drawn up at the heel, and “My left shoulder hunched up with every movement.” Elsewhere she says her calves “presented a wasted, withered appearance ... .”
At their first meeting “Alexander ended our talk by saying that there were indications that I could improve substantially. ‘I cannot tell you yet how much improvement you can expect,’ he said. ‘It will depend upon the extent to which your condition is caused by mal-coordination. I think a great deal of it is, but we can only find out about this as we go along.’ ... Happily, Alexander’s teaching room did not in any way resemble a treatment room or a doctor’s office; if it had, I am quite sure I would never have gone back to him a second time, as the very sight of medical equipment and paraphernalia disturbed and frightened me. The room in which he taught was unmistakably a drawing-room and a very individual one.”
Later: “In two months of lessons with Alexander my calves developed markedly, and they took on the look of legs that were used and developed — not normally developed yet but still developed — the withered unused look that they had previously had was gone. I should add that at no time in this series of lessons did Alexander touch my feet or legs or ask me to do anything about them.”
She tells how, under Alexander’s work, she slowly and by degrees went from a partial cripple to someone who could wear flat shoes and go out for an evening of dancing. In a dramatic chapter she describes a watershed event. Her right foot, which had been chronically drawn up, dropped of its own accord. Her outlook on life changed apace: “... the reader will want to know what success I had with dancing. In an odd way I had, to a great extent, lost interest in my ‘improvements.’ I had become interested in life — it was all opening up before me, and I simply wanted to enter more fully into living ...” Although Lulie Westfeldt’s carriage could never be normal — her bones had grown disproportioned in childhood due to her bout with polio (she does not mention this in the book) — her account makes clear that Alexander gave her a new life, not to mention a career as a teacher.
And yet the very same person in the very same book shows her gratitude by lacing her descriptions of Alexander with a subtle venom. I’ll tease apart a few examples. They may seem trivial, but like poisoning by arsenic the effect grows with each repetition.
“We were getting our first introduction to the passionate attachment he had for the theatre, though perhaps one should add [as if there were something shameful, disreputable about it], the theatre when he himself was connected with it.” She says she liked FM’s tales of his youth in Australia that he would relate during a social hour, and then writes “However, after a bit of this ... another trend would start. ... The weightier bits of Shakespeare would come in. (We did not in the least like the way he recited them.) Then a particular favourite of his called Napoleon, which we considered ghastly, would always be the climax. ... There was no staving off Napoleon.” She ends this section with “He greatly enjoyed his band of disciples who were also his audience, his acquiescing and admiring audience.” I’ll give just one more example in this line: “He never went to hear music or to the theatre [?], for it seemed to be not so much [so much?] the theatre that he loved but his dream [? rather an actuality] of himself as a Shakespearean actor.”
“Napoleon,” by the way, is part of a speech by Robert Green Ingersoll, the famous orator of the end of the 19th century praised by such men as Mark Twain and Thomas Edison. Why “Napoleon” — where Napoleon gets the worst of it — would annoy anyone is hard to say. As with her evaluation of “the weightier bits of Shakespeare” and the theatrical excursion (see below), her use of “we” is probably an unjustified extrapolation from “I.”
She makes much of having worshiped FM and then not worshiping him after coming to know him — and holding him responsible, as if he had forced her worship in the first place. “A number of others had discovered that Alexander had feet of clay ... .” She says this in various ways countless times throughout the book. “My euphoric dream was not yet over ...” and “By this time my hero-image had toppled ...” etc. Some of the students, though, continued to admire FM, and these she caricatures in her book.
The cause of her change in outlook seems to have been her discovery that FM was a very independent personality, benevolently or at least harmlessly selfish, a very reluctant administrator, and — horrors! — he bet on horses.
She complains bitterly about having to play a part in The Merchant of Venice, yet I understand other students found putting on the play a high point of the course. The worst one might say is that FM had some theatrical ambitions he might have done well to have kept separate from his training course.
One last example. She claims: “Alexander’s nickname, when he visited the United States during the First World War, was ‘the confidence man who really did have the gold brick.’ ... the first impression he gave out was that of a ‘confidence man,’ but once his work was known and experienced people readily acknowledged that he ‘really did have the gold brick.’ ” Just what it means to give the impression of being a con man without being one escapes me. The impression that gives is an undefined obnoxiousness. In her oblique way she insults his personality.
The bad disposition of the author of this book is readily apparent. Even if you knew nothing about the subject of her book you would see that the author is making a spectacle of herself.
Some of her sections describing the Technique or praising Alexander are well written, but I’d rather hear the facts from someone else. The book brings to mind the aphorism: Don’t judge something by its alleged admirers. (An aphorism appropriate to some of the people mentioned in the book as well, e.g. John Dewey.)
Some readers will like the book because they share the author’s ethico-political ideas: clearly she is a Marxist humanitarian type. A person’s action is good only if it benefits people one doesn’t know, otherwise the action is worthless or despicable. For example, she tells of Stafford Cripps, the Fabian Socialist, and his proposal to form an “Alexander Society,” in which FM would have one (1) vote. “[FM] refused to give it his support.” FM was obviously right not to lend his personal reputation and the future of his work to such a scheme. But to her he was obviously wrong: “This very worthwhile project failed. ... A colleague who was present told me that Sir Stafford replied: ‘After all, F.M., we do live in a democratic country.’ ” Doubtless we owe the integrity of the Technique today to Alexander’s intransigence then, in this and other matters as well.
Reading Lulie Westfeldt’s book for what it’s worth, I gather that though FM was a genius in his own work, he was not cut out to be an administrator, or at any rate had a hard time of it at first. But I for one find his foibles to be amusing, rather than the crimes of the century Lulie Westfeldt makes them out to be.
As a description of the Alexander Technique and a biography of a certain period in FM’s life the book is of some value to those already familiar with the subject, who already know something of FM Alexander, the man and his work, and can read her account critically. As an evaluation of Alexander it is tilted and twisted. As propaganda for the Technique I would not recommend it.
A more accurate title for this book would be “F.M. Alexander Through a Glass Darkly.”