Aaron Esterson. Obituary. Existential Analysis (January 2000)

Aaron Esterson

25 September 1923 –15 April 1999


Anthony Stadlen

Copyright © Anthony Stadlen 2000
Existential Analysis 11.1 (January 2000: 157-161)

Aaron Esterson

DR AARON ESTERSON, who has died at the age of seventy-five, was unusual among twentieth-century psychotherapists in his concern that his patients should recognise not merely repressed sexual desire, but also repressed ethical sensibility.
Taking fierce issue with the tendency to treat moral matters as medical problems, Esterson held that at least some madness was a self-indulgence for which the sufferer or enthusiast could learn to assume moral responsibility. He was in broad agreement with Thomas Szasz, who spoke of the ‘myth’ of mental illness.
He devoted his life to, among other things, clarifying the complex question of madness.
In Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964), a report on Esterson’s research with families of ‘schizophrenics’, he and R. D. Laing questioned the evidence for the existence of ‘schizophrenia’. ‘Are the experience and behaviour that psychiatrists take as symptoms and signs of schizophrenia,’ they asked, ‘more socially intelligible than has come to be supposed?’
The book is a ‘classic’. It is very readable. But few people, and certainly few ‘professionals’, have read it with care. It was published in the series ‘Studies in Existential Analysis and Phenomenology’ edited by Laing. But which ‘existential analysts’ or ‘phenomenologists’ today could tell you what Laing and Esterson were asking, let alone what their question means?
The question does have a certain ambiguity, as Esterson acknowledged shortly before his death. But the meaning is plain from the context. He and Laing were questioning the existence of the hypothetical ‘illness’ ‘schizophrenia’. This idea is evidently too simple for most people to register, far less think about. Most readers – including most ‘existential phenomenologists’ – assume, despite what the authors say, that they are arguing that family interaction is a factor in the ‘aetiology’ of the ‘illness’ whose very existence Laing and Esterson are questioning in the book itself. Their question has sunk without trace in today’s bland ‘interdisciplinary’ approach.
Not that Esterson denied, or romanticised, madness. He distinguished it from illness. ‘Some labelled schizophrenics are mad by any criterion that I know,’ he wrote. Yet, he went on, ‘some, in my experience, are not [mad], but have been mystified into believing they are. And some have been driven frantic as if they were mad. And even the mad ones are not necessarily mad in the way they are said to be by those who label them.’
Esterson spent countless hours with the families of diagnosed ‘schizophrenics’. ‘I sat,’ he said, ‘with the water coming up to here’. The key to his investigations was his Socratic refusal to take anything for granted, and his Talmudic exploration of every perspective. His starting-point, he said, was ‘sheer, bloody ignorance’.
Aaron Esterson was born in Glasgow on 25 September 1923, the only child of Julius (Yehuda) Esterson and Katie née Cooper, both immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father had a draper’s shop, and was the principal of a Talmud Torah College; his wider family was murdered by the Nazis.
Aaron’s father died when he was two. His mother brought him for a time to London, where she found work as a seamstress; Aaron experienced great poverty and emotional deprivation. He won a scholarship to Allan Glen’s School, Glasgow; but there was no money to see him through university. He therefore did various factory and office jobs until he joined the wartime Royal Navy as a wireless officer on a minesweeper in the Mediterranean. This enabled him, on demobilisation, to study medicine at Glasgow University.
He practised for some years as a GP in England and as a kibbutz doctor in Israel. He failed his psychiatric examinations the first time, as he tried to write truthful answers. It was a mistake he did not repeat when he resat them.
While working as a National Health Service psychiatrist, Esterson researched the families of his ‘schizophrenic’ patients for Sanity, Madness and the Family. He invented the phenomenological method of interviewing family members in all possible combinations. He conducted all the interviews himself. (Dr Laing sat in on one interview with each family.) But during this time, the regional hospital board committee told him that, though they had the highest regard for what he was doing, they felt his own best interests would be served by a research rather than a clinical appointment. ‘In other words,’ Esterson concluded, ‘I was given the standard psychiatric treatment.’ In 1962 he entered private practice.
He eventually published an extraordinary case-study of the family of ‘Sarah Danzig’, one of his ‘schizophrenic’ hospital patients, as the first two-thirds of his book, The Leaves of Spring: A Study in the Dialectics of Madness (1970). It is perhaps the greatest case-study since Freud’s: both horrifying and humorous: a tapestry of taped excerpts of what the Danzigs said to and about each other, interwoven with Esterson’s mordant commentary: a paradigm for what he called the ‘next stage’ after Freud.
The dark-green cover of this long out-of-print book shows a twig of spring leaves forming a seven-branched Menorah: the symbol of the Judaism which the Danzigs, in their different ways, practised. The parents’ compulsive activity met Freud’s definition of religion as obsessional neurosis. But their daughter Sarah read the Bible! Her parents found this bewildering enough. Worse, she read it to try to make sense of her own life. Still worse, she applied what she read to them. She discovered that ‘the Sabbath, the Memorial of Creation, the pious Jew was required to celebrate in sexual joy’. She reproached her parents’ ‘degraded sexuality’ by quoting Ezekiel on the withering of the leaves of spring. ‘For the Danzigs…this was more than they could bear…. On the Day of Atonement…the Danzigs sacrificed their daughter Sarah, sending her into the desolation of a madhouse.’
In 1965 Esterson, with Laing and their colleague David Cooper, founded a charity, the Philadelphia Association, to further their work. They set up a sanctuary at Kingsley Hall in the East End of London for people who otherwise might have been locked up in mental hospitals. But Esterson came to regard both Laing and Cooper as frivolous and destructive: exemplars of the romantic, ‘charismatic’, leadership he would criticise in The Leaves of Spring. He endorsed Szasz’s critique of ‘anti-psychiatry’, and wrote that that ideology had done ‘enormous damage’ to ‘the struggle against coercive, traditional, psychiatry’. But he continued to respect some at least of Laing’s writings, and saw the failure of the triumvirate as a catastrophe.
Esterson’s work with families became the subject of a film, The Space between Words: Family, by Roger Graef. His later papers, such as ‘Families, Breakdown and Psychiatry’, ‘The “Helping” Professions’ and ‘Orientation’, develop a scathing critique of the failure of the self-appointed experts in ‘therapy’ to reach agreement – ‘or even intelligent disagreement’ – on principles. A profound and moving lecture, ‘Judaism and Wholeness’, to the Leo Baeck College for the training of rabbis, was critical of the rabbis’ confusion of religious and psychological categories.
But all Esterson’s papers are positive and constructive, reflecting his lifelong search for truth and fundamental principles in psychotherapy and related disciplines.
These principles, he insisted, were moral. There could be no ‘value-free’ psychotherapy. Neither the ‘pleasure principle’ nor the ‘reality principle’, and certainly not ‘Gelassenheit’, was the touchstone. In unpublished writings he explored what he called the ‘existential integrity principle’. As he saw it, there could be no personal integration or wholeness without personal decency. To Heidegger’s assertion that the essence of human existence is meditative, he replied: ‘The essence of human existence is moral.’ Though Esterson was as adept as anyone in helping people recognise their disavowed sexual phantasies, he was a master of the art of helping them to acknowledge their disowned ethical insights – and to discover unsuspected new ones.
Esterson disparaged the proliferating practice of psychotherapy and counselling, now made ‘respectable’ by university accreditation and institutional registration. ‘True psychotherapy,’ he once said, ‘is always anarchic.’ He saw most so-called ‘existential’ and ‘phenomenological’ psychotherapy as a travesty of the discipline he pioneered. He trained a small number of hand-picked colleagues in his principles, with the utmost rigour, often for many years.
His method of research on ‘schizophrenia’ offered a social-phenomenological paradigm for work in diverse fields. Although he said he had learned more from Freud than from anyone else (runners-up were ‘Jung, Sartre, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and,’ he conceded, ‘a bit of Heidegger’), he inspired and encouraged historical research on Freud’s case-studies leading to a radical reappraisal of the foundations of psychoanalysis. A few years before his death he supervised research on the techniques that Eichmann and his colleagues in the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst developed to deceive and mystify their victims in the Holocaust. In all these researches, the issue was to eschew jargon and muddle, and to ask the crucial question: who had done what to whom?
Esterson was a wise, sensitive, patient, tactful, humorous – but when necessary ruthlessly honest – therapist, who inspired his associates with a deep sense of the seriousness of their calling. He was a learned and devout Jew, who taught Hebrew at the London Liberal Synagogue, and expounded Torah with psychological and spiritual acumen, as in his searching shiur (lesson) on Cain and Abel at Leo Baeck College. He had, at the same time, an extraordinary grasp of the nuts and bolts of what he called ‘our incredibly complex society’. He thought no-one was fit to be a psychotherapist who had not been, as he put it, ‘under fire’ in our society, learning arts of practical existential canniness, self-defence and survival. While his work was informed by the dialectical tradition of Hegel, Marx and Sartre, his love of clarity made him a devotee of The Daily Telegraph (the only newspaper to publish his obituary).
Esterson was a modest man. But he was sure of the historical significance of his contribution. He was, he said, the successor of Freud. He said this with pride in his work, but without egocentricity; as though he wanted to get clear what was the case, for its own sake.
He had a first heart attack in 1974; a heart bypass operation in 1984; and another attack in 1998, followed by insertion of a pacemaker. He also suffered for decades from back problems. He would sometimes practise psychotherapy while lying on a couch, with his client sitting in a chair or lying on a second couch.
On the other hand, it was not unknown for him to pace up and down the room as he passionately made a point in a therapy session.
On 13 April 1999, after a bad bout of flu, he was sharp, focussed and humorous in discussing the deficiencies of Daseinsanalysis. On the evening of 14 April he told a friend he hoped to live another ten years. Early next morning he felt ill, and asked his son to call an ambulance. He had a cardiac arrest shortly after reaching the hospital. The medical team was unable to resuscitate him.
He said, once, he had no idea what happened when one died. He said, another time, he did not believe death was the end.

Note: Apart from quotations from his writings and what he told a friend the evening before he died, I have reported only what Aaron Esterson said to me face-to-face, or in one instance (‘…the water coming up to here’) to a seminar of which I was a member. A. S.

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