Sanity, Madness and the Family
50 Years On
Family 8: The Heads
Dame Hilary Mantel Anthony Stadlen
Inner Circle Seminar No. 236
Sunday 18 June 2017
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
And yet it is so simple.
R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson’s research, reported in this masterpiece of 1964 and continued by Esterson in his profound The Leaves of Spring: A Study in the Dialectics of Madness (1970), was a concrete embodiment of the theoretical work of their most advanced and radical contemporaries of the 1960s: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason and The Question of Method; Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness; and Martin Heidegger and Medard Boss’s Zollikon Seminars.
Sartre highly esteemed this work. Szasz, despite his criticisms of Laing’s equivocation elsewhere, had great respect for Esterson; he told me he thought this book was on a higher level than Laing’s other books. Heidegger would surely have loved it, had he known it; it embodies just that straightforward openness and humanity he tried to convey in his Zollikon seminars (though he would probably have asked: ‘Why drag in Sartre?’). Professor Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann of
What did Laing and Esterson say that was so simple: too simple for ‘professionals’ to understand?
‘We believe that the shift of point of view that these descriptions both embody and demand has an historical significance no less radical than the shift from a demonological to a clinical viewpoint three hundred years ago.’
Thus they introduced their great phenomenological descriptions of eleven families of ‘schizophrenics’. But, more than fifty years on, the ‘clinical viewpoint’ still reigns supreme. ‘Existential’, ‘Lacanian’, ‘humanist’, ‘person-centred’, and a galaxy of similarly self-glorifyingly titled therapists love to call themselves ‘clinicians’.
The great and the good seek ‘parity’ for ‘physical’ and ‘mental health’. This is utterly confusing. Indeed ‘it is good to talk’ – but not in this mystifying, pseudo-scientific language.
Have Laing and Esterson been proved wrong? They wrote:
‘Nobody can deny us the right to disbelieve in schizophrenia.’
Why, then, do most psychiatrists and psychotherapists claim Laing and Esterson said ‘families cause schizophrenia’? They can not have understood, if they have ever remembered, if they have ever read, the first sentences of the second edition (1970) of the book:
‘There have been many studies of mental illness and the family. This book is not of them, at least in our opinion.’
Hilary Mantel wrote that ‘the simple words the people speak’ in Laing and Esterson’s book gave her, when twenty years old, the courage to write her own books, which have been internationally acclaimed. Her introductions to the seminars in this series have enthralled participants with their sensitive understanding of, and deeply perceptive insight into, each family in turn.
As she has written:
‘Some of us need a little push, before we recognise we have the right to pick up a pen. In my case it came from a book by the psychiatrists R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson, Sanity, Madness and the Family... The people in it seemed close enough to touch... Each interview is a novel or play in miniature. So many of these family conversations seemed familiar to me: their swerves and evasions, their doubleness... For most of my life I had been told that I didn't know how the world worked. That afternoon I decided I did know, after all. In the course of my twenty-one years I'd noticed quite a lot. If I wanted to be a writer, I didn't have to worry about inventing material, I'd already got it. The next stage was just to find some words.’
Hilary Mantel, at least, had no difficulty understanding what Laing and Esterson were talking about:
‘All the patients profiled in the book are young women. I know their names are pseudonyms, but over the years I've wondered desperately what happened to them, and if there's anyone alive who knows, and whether any of them ever cut free from the choking knotweed of miscommunication and flourished on ground of their own: Ruth, who was thought odd because she wore coloured stockings; Jean, who wanted a baby though her whole family told her she didn't; and Sarah, whose breakdown, according to her family, was caused by too much thinking.’
Anthony Stadlen, through his historical research, is able to answer some of Hilary Mantel’s questions. He continues to interview the eleven families in the twenty-first century. Today, in the eighth of eleven seminars, we shall explore Chapter 8, on ‘Jean Head’ and her family, with the help of Esterson’s original tape recordings on which the book is based; of photographs; and of Stadlen’s reports and recordings of his discussions with Jean and her family: Jean herself, her husband, her father, her brother, her sister-in-law, and her foster-brother.
Your contribution to the dialogue will be warmly welcomed.