Stage & Screen 2

This post is part of a series. Please start reading at ‘Stage & Screen 1’ nearby.


New ways of looking at the mad were supplied by the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing and his colleagues in the 1960s. Madness was seen as a reaction to an impossible situation and treated as a crucial stage on a developmental journey that should not be aborted with drugs or electroshock but encouraged to unfold. This unfolding might be protracted and would depend on the constant, almost sacrificial ministrations of sympathetic therapists. The idea of the ‘asylum’ – a benign place of shelter – was revived and in 1965, at Kingsley Hall, in the East End of London, Laing, Berke, Redler and others began to offer residential support and radical therapy to a number of schizophrenic patients.

Mary Barnes is probably the best known of those who were recovered from – or guided through – extreme disorder by the methods of the Laingian group, which shortly formed into the Philadelphia Association. Barnes lived in a state of terror and distress much of the time, smearing her faeces on the walls and speaking incomprehensibly. Her therapist, Joseph Berke, refused the notion of the schizophrenic as as a gobbledegook-spouting loony, preferring to see both the unsettled speech and the erratic behaviour as unconventional but consistent, readable codes that might be deciphered by one who was prepared to listen and learn. Barnes was given a space in which to regress and eventually emerged from her psychosis to become a painter. She and Berke wrote of their work together here.

Everyday life at Kingsley Hall was documented by the film-maker Luke Fowler, whose work is exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in London until June 14th. In his film ‘What You See Is Where You’re At’, showing continuously at the gallery, Fowler examines the world of David Bell, one of Laing’s most floridly expressive ‘mad’ patients.

I used to seek out, in the 60s and 70s, lectures and conferences at which Laing spoke and grew accustomed to the Q & A periods in which Bell would rise from his seat and hold forth. He had the aplomb of a seasoned orator and the mischievousness of a standup comic. His speeches, usually in response to a point Laing had made, were very hard to understand. They could be compared, probably superficially, to passages from ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ but at least with the latter came the option to read and re-read at one’s own pace. Laing would listen intently to Bell and, in front of the conference crowd, embark upon dialogues with him. He would, apparently, answer ripostes from Bell in his own slow, hesitating but thoroughly lucid manner leaving the audience impressed but rather wishing they, too, had understood the question.

What sticks in my mind as much as the spectacle of Bell’s fluent but arcane declamations was his habit of sweeping his hand compulsively across his left brow whilst speaking. So frequent and forceful were these actions that he had created on his temple an area of self-inflicted male pattern baldness.

Laing’s radical psychology did not only demystify the madman, it implicated the madman’s family and also the society in which the family found itself.


Continued in ‘Stage & Screen 3’…