Monday 1 January 2024

60 years since Laing & Esterson’s ‘Sanity, Madness and the Family’ (April 1964). 1. Why is this book still not understood? Anthony Stadlen and Yaara Sumeruk conduct Inner Circle Seminar 290 (16 June 2024)

R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson

Sanity, Madness and the Family:

Families of Schizophrenics

(April 1964)

Sixtieth anniversary reflections

A third subseries (fifteen seminars) on Laing and Esterson’s eleven families

Historically researched by Anthony Stadlen

Explored in film by Yaara Sumeruk

In memoriam Hilary Mantel:

The simple words the people speak

1. Introductory seminar

Why is this book still not understood?

Anthony Stadlen   Yaara Sumeruk 

conduct by Zoom

Inner Circle Seminar No. 290

Sunday 16 June 2024

10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

R. D. Laing
7 October 1927 – 23 August 1989

Aaron Esterson
23 September 1923 – 15 April 1999

Adrian Laing  Anthony Stadlen  Hilary Mantel
Inner Circle Seminar No. 205
Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics
1. Maya Abbott and the Abbotts
50 years on
(Durrants Hotel, London, Sunday 6 July 2014.)

Deborah Fosbrook  Adrian Laing  Anthony Stadlen  Hilary Mantel
Inner Circle Seminar No. 205
Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics
1. Maya Abbott and the Abbotts
50 years on
(Durrants Hotel, London, Sunday 6 July 2014.)

Yaara Sumeruk

Hilary Mantel and Anthony Stadlen conducted Inner Circle Seminar No. 205, Laing and Esterson, Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics. 1. Maya Abbott and the Abbotts, 50 years on, at Durrants Hotel, London, on Sunday 6 July 2014.
Hilary Mantel had just been made a Dame in The Queen’s Birthday Honours. The date of the seminar, 6 July, was also her own birthday. The message on the cake reads: ‘Happy Birthday Dame Hilary’.
For more information:
This seemingly straightforward book is still not understood today, especially by ‘professionals’. 
But the late Dame Hilary Mantel understood it. In a subsequent essay she urged readers: ‘Just read the simple words the people speak.’
In the subseries of twelve Inner Circle Seminars starting with her birthday seminar in 2014 we had a unique opportunity actually to hear and discuss with Hilary Mantel herself ‘the simple words the people speak’, from Dr Aaron Estersons tape-recordings of his conversations with the families in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and from Anthony Stadlen’s reports and recordings of his 21st-century conversations with surviving members of the family. (All identifying features, such as names, were of course deleted.)
In her first Reith lecture of 2017 Hilary Mantel discussed the relation between the historical novelist and the historian.

She brought to our seminars the unique genius of an historical novelist who saw more profoundly than the rest of us the implications of the known historical facts but did not present invention as history. Each seminar began with her wonderful reflections on what is given in the text of the book. She had no privileged access to the cases. She learned what Stadlen had discovered as an historian only as did the other seminar participants, when he reported or played recordings of his interviews with some of the supposedly schizophrenic women and many of their surviving relatives in the twenty-first century, and explored Estersons original library of tape-recordings on which the book is based.
But how did Hilary Mantel become a historical novelist? In an earlier, little known or read article of 2008, she explained that she gained courage to become a novelist precisely through stumbling on and reading Sanity, Madness and the Family when she was nearly twenty-one.

As she wrote:
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.
Mantel 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.
When Stadlen started researching them in 2000, seven of the original eleven women diagnosed schizophrenic were still alive. Today only two are.
But Mantel recalled W. H. Auden:
... the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
She could have also have quoted T. S. 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.
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 ReasonThomas SzaszThe Myth of Mental Illness; and Martin Heidegger and Medard Bosss Zollikon Seminars (although the book Zollikon Seminars was only published much later, and Laing and Esterson knew only Bosss and Heideggers earlier work).

Sartre wrote in praise of Laing’s work on families. Szasz respected Esterson and thought Stadlens later research following up the eleven families important. Heidegger would probably have liked the book, though it is unlikely he knew it. It embodies that straightforward openness and humanity he tried to convey in his Zollikon seminars, though he might have asked: Why drag in Sartre?’ But almost all self-styled Daseinsanalysts and existential therapists ignore and even disparage Laing and Esterson’s quintessentially existential and phenomenological pioneering work.

Yet 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, sixty years on, the ‘clinical viewpoint’ still reigns supreme. ‘Existential’, ‘Freudian’, ‘Jungian’, ‘Lacanian’, ‘Laingian’, ‘humanist’, ‘person-centred’ therapists and a galaxy of similarly impressively titled psychoanalysts and psychotherapists love to call themselves ‘clinicians’.

Today people demand ‘parity’ for ‘physical’ and ‘mental health’. This is 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 virtually all commentators, including virtually all psychiatrists and psychotherapists, claim Laing and Esterson said ‘families cause schizophrenia’? These non-readers can not have understood, if they have ever remembered, if they have ever noticed, 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.’
Anthony Stadlen, through his historical research, is able to answer some of Hilary Mantels questions.

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.

The quotation marks around schizophrenics’ were dropped by the editors of the Penguin edition, thereby betraying the proud claim of Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, in the Lady Chatterley trial (1960): We would not publish a book in an emasculated form. We would only publish it if we were doing what we stated we were doing, that is selling the book as written by the author. 

However, Laing and Esterson themselves contributed to the confusion. After all, they themselves put no quotation marks around schizophrenics’ in their title, or when writing, for example, of making Maya Abbott’s schizophrenic experience and behaviour’ socially intelligible.

It is true that they write, in their Introduction to the book (1964:  ):

Although we ourselves do not accept the validity of the clinical terminology, it is necessary to establish the fact that the persons whose families we are describing are as schizophrenic as anyone is. By schizophrenic we mean here a person who has been diagnosed as such and has come to be treated accordingly. Thus we have begun each account by a description, couched in clinical terms, of the experience and behaviour of the person to whom schizophrenia  is attributed. We reiterate that we ourselves are not using the term schizophrenia to denote any identifiable condition that we believe exists in one person. However, in so far as the term summarises a set of clinical attributions made by certain persons about the experience and behaviour of certain other, we retain the term for this set of attributions. We put in parenthesis any judgement as to the validity or implications of such a set of attributions.

But, as Hilary Mantel pointed out, readers like stories. They plunge into the eleven chapters about the eleven women and their families, and do not trouble with the Prefaces or Introduction. She, the professional writer, said she would never rely on a Preface or Introduction to convey such important information. She would wait at least until Chapter 1.

In any event, Stadlen accepted Laing and Esterson’s challenge. He did just what they suggested. He tried to show they were wrong by studying a few families’ and trying to prove, in the spirit of the philosopher Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1962), the hypothesis he did not believe, namely, that schizophrenics really are talking a lot of nonsense after all’. But the twist was that he studied the very same families Laing and Esterson had studied.

In this third subseries of Inner Circle Seminars devoted to the eleven families he will again, as in the first two subseries, consider each family in turn, reporting his research and focussing on two points:

(1) Is there evidence for the view of the families and the diagnosing psychiatrists (not Laing and Esterson) that the daughters were ill, though most of the daughters disputed this?

(2) Were the daughters really talking a lot of nonsense after all’?

Stadlen’s findings in answer to both these questions were negative.

The first text referenced in Sanity, Madness and the Family is Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness (1961). This – and even more, Szasz’s next book, Law, Liberty, and Psychiatry (1963), the subject of our last Inner Circle Seminar, No. 289 on 19 May – raises a third question:

(3) Should these young women have been locked up and compulsorily treated (not, of course, by  Laing and Estersoneven if they had been talking a lot of nonsense after all?

Szaszs answer, when Stadlen put this question to him, was, of course, No! He agreed that, in a free society, we should not have to prove we are talking sense. We have the right to talk nonsense if it is not harming anyone else.

The previous subseries of seminars was attended by Tony Garnett, producer of the BBC2 film In Two Minds shown on 1 March 1967 and of its 1971 adaptation for cinema Family Life, both written by David Mercer and directed by Ken Loach. Garnett died soon after the end of the seminar subseries, having made a unique contribution to it.

The reviews and reports of these films uniformly described them as showing what was claimed to be Laings view, that families cause schizophrenia.

The new, third, subseries provides an opportunity for the film director Yaara Sumeruk to explain the film she is currently creating and directing, based on Sanity, Madness and the Family and The Leaves of Spring. She had a similar revelation to Hilary Mantels when, a few years ago, she too discovered a dog-eared copy of the paperback of the former book, which radically changed her life. Since 2020 she has been closely collaborating with Anthony Stadlen. She is one of the select few who understands the book. The film she is making does not traduce the book by misrepresenting it or adding to it. On the contrary, it enhances it by strict fidelity to the family interactions recorded in the book, in a way that throws light on their essential structure, sometimes in startling ways. Most fundamentally, it rejects the presumption of illness, and in particular of schizophrenia, from the outset.

Today we shall see extracts from the two Mercer/Garnett/Loach films; from Roger Graef’s 1972 television film The Space Between Words: Family showing Estersons work with one family; and from Yaara Sumeruk’s film-in-progress.  

We shall focus in this first seminar in the subseries particularly on aspects of the way Sanity, Madness and the Family was written which may have contributed to its being misunderstood.

In the second seminar, on 21 July, we shall focus on technical terms introduced by Laing and Esterson which some readers have found difficult to understand.

Then, in the following eleven seminars, at intervals of a few months, we shall focus in turn on the eleven families.

Finally, there will be two retrospective, summarising seminars.

Your contribution to the dialogue will be warmly welcomed.

This and the next seminar will be FREE online seminars, using Zoom.

Cost of subsequent seminars: Psychotherapy trainees £140, others £175; reductions for combinations of seminars, for example, the subseries of seminars on Sanity, Madness of the Family; some bursaries; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 7809 433250  

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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