Wednesday 1 January 2014

Laing and Esterson: 1. The Abbotts. 50 years on. Hilary Mantel and Anthony Stadlen conduct Inner Circle Seminar 205 (6 July 2014)

R. D. Laing
Aaron Esterson

Laing and Esterson

Sanity, Madness and the Family

Continuing research on the families
50 years on

Family 1

The Abbotts

Hilary Mantel
Anthony Stadlen
Inner Circle Seminar No. 205

Sunday 6 July 2014
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Hilary Mantel

We believe that the shift of pont 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 hundredyears ago.

Thus, in 1964, R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson introduced their revolutionary descriptions of eleven families of ‘schizophrenics’ in their epochmaking book Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics. But fifty years on, the ‘clinical viewpoint’ still rules supreme. Are Laing and Esterson ‘discredited’, as is claimed? Have they been proved wrong? Or are they not yet understood?

Most psychiatrists and psychotherapists say Laing and Esterson said families cause ‘schizophrenia’. In reality, Laing and Esterson wrote:

‘No one can deny us the right to disbelieve in the fact of schizophrenia.’
But most psychiatrists and psychotherapists will tell you that Laing and Esterson said: ‘families cause schizophrenia’  the very ‘schizophrenia’ they insisted they disbelieved in. In other words, most psychiatrists and psychotherapists find it difficult to read the plain English that Laing and Esterson wrote. They dont contradict it  they simply manage not to see it. Is this because it would be too threatening to them to see it and to consider it seriously? 

We are honoured that Dame Hilary Mantel, the celebrated novelist, twice winner of the Booker Prize, will speak to us today about how reading Sanity, Madness and the Family when she was not yet twenty-one gave her the courage to write:

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 Mantels questions. He will report his findings, starting today with information from Maya Abbott herself about her life during the more than half a century since the family discussions arranged by Esterson in 1959 and reported in the book of 1964.

This is the first of a new subseries of eleven Inner Circle Seminars on the eleven families studied in the book. We shall try to approach the so-called  problem of schizophrenia, and the heart of what happens in families, through reading part of Chapter 1, on Maya Abbott and her family, aloud as a drama, and discussing it in the light of Anthony Stadlen’s historical research. Hilary Mantel will help us see, as she saw as a young woman of twenty, that what Laing and Esterson recorded and wrote about is the very stuff of life. There is no psychology’ or metapsychology’ deeper than this, or behind’ itAs Esterson said, these are the deepest secrets. But they are open to all. All is there, in a sense, on the surface, in what people say to one another.

Adrian Laing, son of R. D. Laing, will also participate in the seminar. He wrote, in his biography of his father (second edition, 2006):

‘The highly respected Anthony Stadlen, who has practised as an existential-phenomenological psychotherapist in London for over thirty years, continues to this day to hold well-attended and regular seminars in London on a wide variety of existential-psychotherapy-related topics, including dedicated all-day sessions focusing on the individual families featured in the ground-breaking work Sanity, Madness and the Family, first published over forty years ago.’

Your contribution to the seminar will also be welcome.

Venue: Durrants Hotel, 26–32 George Street, Marylebone, London W1H 5BJ (

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £116, others £145, some bursaries; coffee, tea, biscuits, mineral water included; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857 E-mail:
For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and colleges.

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