Sunday 1 January 2017

Laing and Esterson. 9. The Irwins. 50 years on. Hilary Mantel and Anthony Stadlen conduct Inner Circle Seminar 239 (15 October 2017)

Laing and Esterson

Sanity, Madness and the Family
50 Years On
Family 9: The Irwins

Dame Hilary Mantel   Anthony Stadlen
Inner Circle Seminar No. 239
Sunday 15 October 2017
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
R. D. Laing
Hilary Mantel
Aaron Esterson

This utterly straightforward book is still not understood today, especially by ‘professionals’. But Hilary Mantel, who gained courage to become a novelist through reading it when she was nearly twenty-one, understood it. She urged readers: ‘Just read the simple words the people speak.’ In this seminar you will have a unique opportunity actually to hear and discuss with Hilary Mantel herself ‘the simple words the people speak’, from the tape-recordings that Esterson made of the Irwin family in the early 1960s and that I made of surviving members of the family half a century later.

In her first Reith lecture Hilary Mantel discusses the relation between the historical novelist and the historian.

She brings to our seminars the unique genius of an historical novelist who sees far more profoundly than the rest of us the implications of the known historical facts but does not present invention as history. Each of our seminars begins with her wonderful reflections on what is given in the text of the book. She has no privileged access to the case. She learns what I have discovered as an historian only as do the other seminar participants, when I play recordings of my interviews with the surviving members of the family half a century later and explore Estersons original library of tape-recordings on which the book is based.

Nine of the original eleven women diagnosed schizophrenic are now dead; but Mantel recalls Auden:

... the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

She could also have quoted Eliot:

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Mary Irwin’ and her mother are both dead. But Marys passionate insistence to her mother that she is neither selfish’ nor ill (the only two possibilities acknowledged by her mother) rings out from Estersons recording as if they were in the room with us. 

Why is this nowadays rarely read or even referenced book of 1964 so important? It is, after all, absent from almost all discussions either of the family or of schizophreniaThe extremely rare discussions of it patronise it, as if they had long passed beyond it; but without having begun to understand it, let alone catch up with it.

And yet it is so simple.

It is true that R. D. Laing and Aaron Estersons 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 complex theoretical work of their most advanced and radical contemporaries of the 1960s: Jean-Paul SartreCritique of Dialectical Reason and The Question of MethodThomas SzaszThe Myth of Mental Illness; and (though these they cannot have known) Martin Heidegger and Medard BossZollikon Seminars.

Sartre highly esteemed Laing and Esterson’s work on families. Szasz had enormous respect for Esterson; he thought this book was on a higher level than Laing’s other books; he also thought Stadlens research following up the eleven families important. Heidegger would surely have loved the book, though it is very unlikely he knew it; it embodies that straightforward openness and humanity he tried to convey in his Zollikon seminars, though he might well have asked: Why drag in Sartre? Professor Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann of FreiburgHeidegger’s personal assistant whom he entrusted with editing posthumously his 102-volume Collected Works, and his wife Frau Dr. Veronika von Herrmann, particularly admire Laing and Esterson’s work. But almost all Daseinsanalysts, existential therapists, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists  and of course psychiatrists – ignore it.

But the book is essentially simple. 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’, ‘Laingian’, ‘humanist’, ‘person-centred’ therapists and a galaxy of similarly impressively titled psychoanalysts and psychotherapists love to call themselves ‘clinicians’.

The great and the good, including younger members of our royal family, seek ‘parity’ for ‘physical’ and ‘mental health’. This is well-intentioned but 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 EstersonSanity, 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 Mantelat 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 continues to interview the eleven families in the twenty-first century. Today, in the ninth of eleven seminars, we shall explore Chapter 9, on Mary Irwin 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 Marys family: her sister Angela’ (an important character in the published case) and Angelas husband and daughter.

Your contribution to the dialogue will be warmly welcomed.

Venue: Durrants Hotel, 26–32 George Street, Marylebone, London W1H 5BJ
Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £132, others £165, some bursaries; coffee, tea, mineral water, Durrants rock included; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857  +44 (0) 7809 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 universities.

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