Seeing things

Rosemary Dinnage

  • The Story of Ruth by Morton Schatzman
    Duckworth, 306 pp, £6.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1504 1

The jacket of The Story of Ruth is adorned with praise from the famous: Edna O’Brien, among others, found it ‘disturbing and quite fascinating’, and Doris Lessing ‘a valuable book, an original’. It is a pity it comes in the kind of packaging that will repel the averagely fastidious reader. Duckworth have printed it in type about one size smaller than that of a Janet and John reader, and sub-titled it ‘one woman’s haunting psychiatric odyssey’. Morton Schatzman, who is the author of an interesting book on the 19th-century lunatic Daniel Schreber, has written it in fruitiest Reader’s Digestese, replete with remarks I doubt were ever remarked and dreams I doubt were ever dreamed. Nevertheless, if the style can be stomached, there is plenty of interest in this case-history.

Schatzman, an American psychiatrist working at the Arbours Crisis Centre in London, had a very distressed American girl referred to him by her GP. She had recently become anxious, claustrophobic, sleepless and suicidal, and had also come to hate sexual relations with her husband and to hallucinate him as looking like her father. In view of her life story this was not surprising: the father, who had been away in prison for much of her childhood, had raped her when she was ten, and as a result she had been put in a Children’s Home for seven years. There had been many other traumatic childhood experiences.

In her sessions with Schatzman she revealed that she was hallucinating her father more and more vividly and often – though she showed no signs of any psychotic delusions that the hallucinations were real, and in all other ways her symptoms were simply those of anxiety neurosis or mild ‘nervous breakdown’. Schatzman chose to treat her in an unorthodox fashion, which he says led to a successful recovery: he encouraged her to practise hallucinating deliberately, to control her visions and vary them and act out dialogues with them, to consider hallucinating as an imaginative skill rather than a symptom of madness. One would suspect several influences at work in this choice of treatment: the arguments of R.D. Laing (guiding spirit of the Arbours Association) that ‘mad’ experiences can be valuable; the currently popular Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, in which the patient is encouraged to act out histrionically the personages of his dreams and fantasies; an account of the ‘dream therapy’ of a Malaysian tribe, the Senoi, that has been much discussed (and somewhat discredited) – the Senoi are said to train their children to control their dreams and turn them to good account, re-dreaming a nightmare, for instance, until it has a successful ending. (This latter is reminiscent of Henry James’s account in A Small Boy and Others of a ‘dream-adventure’, an ‘immense hallucination’, in which he turned the tables on enemies who were trying to break into his room by bursting open the door and scattering them.)

Schatzman encouraged Ruth to practise hallucinating friends, relatives, her children; then himself, then her ‘self’: that is, she would hallucinate another Ruth across the room and act out a dialogue with her in order to gain insight into her troubles. She hallucinated her husband making love to her and reported it to be very satisfactory. As the psychoanalysand eagerly produces dreams and fantasies for the analyst, Ruth produced more and more lively hallucinations for her psychiatrist. She was persuaded to project the hallucination of her father onto her own body, so that when Schatzman interrogated ‘him’ she gave a convincing impersonation of a violent and brutal man. She remained sane, and became less anxious, less plagued by involuntary hallucinations, and less bitter about her father.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in