Rhythm Method

Jenny Diski

  • R.D. Laing: A Biography by Adrian Laing
    Peter Owen, 248 pp, £25.00, August 1994, ISBN 0 7206 0934 8

Not long ago a friend of mine was walking back to her car after the cinema when, not unusually for the time and the place, a distraught man placed himself in her way. She was not frightened; he was easily identified as mad, not bad. A shuffling walk, a drooping, defeated posture which required a special effort to raise his head so he could address her, and eyes, when they lifted, which were more distressed than aggressive. He put out a hand, as if the fact of his body being in her path would not be enough to gain her attention. ‘Can I talk to you?’ he asked. My friend felt around in her handbag and came up with some money which she pressed into his hand. It was a normal inner city exchange. Except that the man shook his head, put the money back into my friend’s open bag, took some more from his own pocket and dropped that in too. ‘No, I’ve got money. It’s not money. I want to talk to you,’ he said, and launched into a rambling tale of woe about being evicted from his hostel and how it felt to have nowhere to go and no one to tell. He was not asking for anything except what is most difficult to give: time and attention.

At its simplest, at least in the early days, what the existential psychiatrists were advocating was careful listening. Their point, though, was never that simple: they were advocating listening for, not just listening to. Apart from the fact that psychotics, like everyone else, would benefit from being heard, there was the bold suggestion that they were actually saying something which their doctors needed to be told in order to do their job. The mad monologue contained real information, and psychiatrists would have to listen to their patients in the way medical doctors had to take into account what physically distressed patients said about the nature of the symptoms.

In the early Sixties, R.D. Laing and others began to define psychosis in terms of its relation to society, and psychotics as individuals who in their own way were making sense of their social circumstances. The mad might be alienated, but they were not aliens, and therefore their doctors must be, not alienists, but interpreters of the language of the alienated. If that seems obvious now, we have Laing and his fellow theorists to thank for it. At the time it came as something of a revelation, not least because there was an audience beyond the psychiatric community primed by the Zeitgeist of the late Fifties and early Sixties to fall on their ideas and make much – too much, perhaps – of them.

I was a member of that wider audience. When Volume One of Sanity, Madness and the Family by R.D. Laing and his colleague Aaron Esterson, was published in 1964, I was 17 and living in the house of a woman who had rescued me a couple of years before, both from my disordered family and from the psychiatric hospital I was stuck in. The book took the form of case-histories of diagnosed schizophrenics, but what made it different from the usual run of psychiatric textbooks was that the views and voices of the patients and their families were presented side by side.

It was the case of the ‘Abbotts’ that made an impact on me. ‘Maya Abbott’ believed that her parents were trying to influence her by telepathy and thought-control, and showed clinical signs of ‘catatonia ... affective impoverishment and autistic withdrawal’. Laing and Esterson discovered on speaking to the parents of the girl who now experienced herself as a machine, that for many years they had indeed been trying to influence her thoughts, believing her to be telepathic; that for some time before she became ‘ill’ they’d been experimenting with their daughter – sending each other signals which ‘Maya’ was not supposed to perceive – in order to test their hypothesis and alter her attitudes and behaviour.

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