Thursday 1 January 2015

Laing and Esterson. 2. The Blairs. 50 years on. Inner Circle Seminar 213 (22 March 2015)

R. D. Laing
Aaron Esterson

Laing and Esterson

Sanity, Madness and the Family

Continuing research on the families
50 years on

Family 2
The Blairs

Anthony Stadlen
Inner Circle Seminar No. 213
Sunday 22 March 2015
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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, 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?

Laing and Esterson wrote:
‘No one can deny us the right to disbelieve in the fact of schizophrenia.’

Their fundamental question was:

Are the experience and behaviour that psychatrists take as symptoms and signs of schizophrenia more socially intelligible than has come to be supposed?
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?
What Laing and Esterson recorded and wrote about is the very stuff of life. As Hilary Mantel put it, in her moving introduction to the first seminar in this new subseries, it is the simple words the people speakThere is no psychology’ or metapsychology’ deeper than this, or behind’ itAs  Esterson said, these are the deepest secrets. But they are open to all. Everything is there, in a sense, on the surface, in what people say to one another.
Mantel described in 2008 how the book gave her the courage to become a writer:
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.
She also wrote:
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.
From my historical research, I am able to answer some of Hilary Mantel's questions. In this seminar I shall report my findings on Lucie Blair and her family, including a follow-up investigation of her life during the more than fifty years since the family discussions conducted by Esterson in 1959 and reported in the book of 1964. I shall show family photographs and play extracts from my own recordings of family members half a century later.
As Laing and Esterson wrote:
Surely, if we are wrong, it would be easy to show that we are, by studying a few families and revealing that 'schizophrenics' really are talking a lot of nonsense after all.
Might not new light also be thrown on this question by answering Hilary Mantel’s question about what happened later to the eleven women in Laing and Esterson’s book and studying the development over the next half-century of the same families that they studied? This is what I have done, over the last fifteen years, and I invite you to collaborate in assessing their findings and mine at the seminar on 22 March.
‘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.’

 Adrian Laing, son of R. D. Laing (R. D. Laing: A Life, 2nd edition, 2006)

Venue: ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £120, others £150, 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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