Thursday 1 January 2015

Laing and Esterson. 3. The Churches. 50 years on. Hilary Mantel, Adrian Laing and Anthony Stadlen conduct Inner Circle Seminar 220 (6 December 2015)

R. D. Laing
Aaron Esterson

Laing and Esterson

Sanity, Madness and the Family

Continuing research on the families
50 years on

Family 3
The Churches

Hilary+Mantel+at+seminar+2+by+Karin+Weisensel.jpg (640×480)
Adrian Laing       Anthony Stadlen       Hilary Mantel
Inner Circle Seminar No. 205 (
6 July 2014)
Maya Abbott and the Abbotts

Dame Hilary Mantel    Adrian Laing
Anthony Stadlen
Inner Circle Seminar No. 220
Sunday 6 December 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. There seems no prouder boast from psychotherapists, even existential ones, than that they are clinicians. 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? Or did Laing and Esterson just not make things clear enough?

Dame Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which both won the Man Booker prize, again introduces the seminar. She has written movingly about how reading Sanity, Madness and the Family when she was twenty gave her the courage to write. In her introduction to the first seminar in this series, on Maya Abbott and her family, she insisted that the interactions Laing and Esterson recorded, what she called the simple words the people speak, are the very stuff of life. As Esterson put it, these are the deepest secrets but open to all willing to see and hear.

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.

Anthony Stadlen is able, from his historical research on all eleven of the families, to answer some of Hilary Mantels questions. In this seminar he will report his findings on Claire Church and her family during the more than fifty years since the family discussions conducted by Esterson in 1959 and reported in the book of 1964. Stadlen will draw on his conversations with Claire Church  herself over the last fifteen years, and play recordings of his discussions with her shortly before she died aged 92 a few months ago.

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.

Stadlen’s research contributes to answering not only Hilary Mantel’s question but also this challenge from Laing and Esterson, by studying the development over the next half-century of the very same families that they studied. You are invited to collaborate in evaluating their findings and his in todays seminar.

R. D Laings son and biographer Adrian Laing wrote (R. D. Laing: A Life, 2nd 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.’

Adrian Laing will himself play a crucial part in todays seminar. In the seminar on Maya Abbott’ he asked whether, despite Laing and Estersons explanation that they disbelieved in schizophrenia, they were, nevertheless, having things both ways, by somehow suggesting that families somehow do cause it. He will comment at significant moments during the day on whether his important question is being answered. You are, of course, also invited to give your view.

Venue: Durrants Hotel, 2632 George Street, London W1H 5BJ
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  +44 (0) 7089 433 250
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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