Aaron Esterson. Obituary. Daily Telegraph (3 August 1999)

Obituary
Aaron Esterson

Anthony Stadlen

Daily Telegraph, 3 August 1999
Copyright © Anthony Stadlen 2000

[Note by Anthony Stadlen, 12 June 2020
The Daily Telegraph was the only newspaper which published an obituary of Aaron Esterson. It was written by me but, as always in that paper, unsigned. My later obituary in Existential Analysis is more accurate. Esterson's father had a draper's shop. Esterson worked as a GP and kibbutz doctor before first sitting his psychiatric exams; he resat them promptly. Roger Graef directed The Space between Words. The first two of these errors were mine; the third was the Telegraph’s.]

Aaron Esterson
Psychiatrist who held that too many people were labelled mad and insisted there should be a moral element in their treatment

AARON ESTERSON, who has died aged 75, was unusual among 20th-century psychotherapists in his concern that his patients should recognise repressed ethical sensibility as well as repressed sexual desire.
Refusing to treat moral issues as though they were medical problems, Esterson held that at least some madness was a self-indulgence for which the sufferer himself was morally responsible. He was in broad agreement with Thomas Szasz, who spoke of the “myth” of mental illness.
In Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964), Esterson and R. D. Laing questioned the evidence for the existence of “schizophrenia”. “Are the experience and behaviour that psychiatrists take as symptoms and signs of schizophrenia,” they asked, “more socially intelligible than has come to be supposed?”
Not that Esterson denied, or romanticised, madness. “Some labelled schizophrenics are mad by any criterion that I know,” he wrote. Yet, he went on, “some, in my experience, are not [mad], but have been mystified into believing they are.”
Esterson spent countless hours with the families of diagnosed “schizophrenics”. The key to his investigations was his Socratic refusal to take anything for granted, and his Talmudic exploration of every perspective. His starting-point, he would say, was “sheer, bloody ignorance”.
Aaron Esterson was born in Glasgow on 25 September 1923, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father worked in a draper’s shop and was the principal of a Talmud Torah College; his wider family was massacred by the Nazis.
Aaron’s father died when he was two. Aaron won a scholarship to Allan Glen’s School; but there was no money to see him through university. He therefore did various factory and office jobs until he joined the wartime Royal Navy and became a wireless operator on a minesweeper in the Mediterranean. This entitled him, on demobilisation, to study medicine at Glasgow.
He failed his psychiatric exams the first time, as he tried to write truthful answers. It was a mistake he did not repeat when after some years as a GP in England and as a kibbutz doctor in Israel, he resat the exams.
While working as an NHS psychiatrist, Esterson met “Sarah Danzig”, whose family he made the subject of an outstanding case study, eventually published as the first two-thirds of his book The Leaves of Spring: A Study in the Dialectics of Madness (1970).
But during his work on this case, the regional hospital board committee told him that, though they had the highest regard for what he was doing, they felt his own best interests would be served by a research rather than a clinical appointment. “In other words,” Esterson concluded, “I was given the standard psychiatric treatment.” In 1962 he entered private practice.
His work became the subject of a film, The Space between Words, by Robert  Graef. His later papers, such as “Families, Breakdown and Psychiatry”, “The ‘Helping’ Professions” and “Orientation”, develop a scathing critique of the failure of self-appointed experts in “therapy” to reach agreement “or even intelligent disagreement” on principles. A profound and moving lecture to the Leo Baeck College for the training of rabbis was critical of the rabbis’ confusion of religious and psychological categories.
But all Esterson’s papers are positive and constructive, embodying his lifelong search for truth and ethical foundations in his endeavours.
He disparaged the proliferating practice of psychotherapy and counselling, and took care to train a small number of hand-picked colleagues to address the one crucial question: who had done what to whom?
Esterson was a witty, sensitive, patient, tactful but when necessary ruthlessly honest therapist, who inspired his associates with a deep sense of the seriousness of their calling.
Aaron Esterson was married and had three sons.

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