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Minute Particulars #11

by Andrew Feldmár

Many revolutions have been claimed in human history: industrial, scientific, cultural. The therapeutic revolution is only about 50 years old. Penicillin was just being experimented with when I was born in 1940. As a child I was vulnerable to middle-ear infections. The pain is excruciating but disappears in less than a day if treated with penicillin. This magic bullet was unobtainable in post World War II Hungary, so the infection had to turn its course for five to seven days, at the end of which my father sat me in his lap, restrained me with his manly arms, while the doctor pierced my eardrums with a sharp instrument without anaesthetic.

The 1950s produced the first psychotropic medications like chlorpromazine. LSD was discovered in 1943. Current neurology looks to brain function to explain consciousness. We are now fascinated with the incredible power of patterns of atoms controlling the development of the mind and body.

So, why am I more comfortable with the treatment of middle-ear infections with penicillin, than with the treatment of schizophrenia with haloperidol or chlorprozamine? Why would I take my son to the ear-nose-throat specialist with an earache, but protect him from psychiatry were he to hallucinate? Why would I prefer an orthopedic surgeon to attend to his broken arm, rather than apply warm bull's dung to his fracture? And yet, why would I prefer treatment for psychosis in a temple of Asklepios in Attica in 500 B. C., than in UBC's Health Sciences Hospital?

A first-rate scientist recently discovered significant anatomical differences in the brains of 40 male homosexuals. Interpretation: homosexuality can be inherited. So maybe there is no freedom of choice, no environmental influence. Fortunately this scientist pointed out that the above interpretation may not be correct: brain changes could come as a result rather than a cause. Ashley Montague found that he could see from the x-rays of children's tibia (bone in the leg) whether they were loved or not.

The above, fairly random thoughts were triggered by coming across an article in Harper's by Mark Vonnegut (son of Kurt, Jr. and author of The Eden Express), with the intriguing title of "Why I Want to Bite R. D. Laing". Around 1970, Mark struggled with madness and at the end of that bout he came to the conclusion that what he had was schizophrenia. "It was probably genetic. It was biochemical. It was curable." Mark wants to bite Laing for suggesting that madness might be the only sane response available to some people under some insane circumstances. He prefers to think of schizophrenia as no more of a social fact or political event than being a diabetic or having cancer. His father recommended Mark's book as "An important and perfect wonderful book".

The therapeutic revolution is young, we have made great advances in saving lives and in mitigating physical suffering. Laing represents the next wave of this revolution. Bio-politics is more complex and more controversial than bio-chemistry. Mental suffering is a function of how we treat each other. Secrets, lies, malice, abuse, neglect are much more difficult to study than MAO inhibitors, adrenalin and lithium. Near the end of his life, Laing concluded, "In reality, the reasons of the heart and the physiology of the brain coexist and must be interdependent..." Many people recognize themselves in Laing's descriptions, but when they feel his constructions are correct it may simply be that they share with him their illusions. Those who disagree with his constructions and do not recognize his descriptions (of psychiatrists and patients, husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers, and others) regard his work with reserve and suspicion. There has been a lot of confusion.


"Minute Particulars No. 11"
In a Nutshell: Victoria Mental Patients Newsletter
Andrew Feldmár
May 1994

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