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Brother Beast: A Personal Memoir of David Cooper1

Stephen Ticktin

With the death of David Cooper some six weeks ago in Paris, the 'antipsychiatry' movement, which began in England in the 60s lost one of its greatest inspirations. He died at home (a small flat in the 15th arrondissement) from a sudden heart attack, in the presence of Marine Zecca, the woman with whom he lived and worked, and who had been his greatest support for the past ten years. Besides Marine, he left behind him a wife and three children, a number of published books, and many friends, colleagues, and admirers (myself included) who will miss him greatly. But his greatest legacy was his determination to struggle against the oppression and orthodoxies of his time -- political, philosophical, religious, and, most of all psychiatric. As he stated in the 'forewarning' of his penultimate book The Language of Madness:

"There is no hope
There is only permanent struggle
That is our hope
That is a first sentence
In the language of madness".

David will probably be best remembered here in England as the champion in the 60's and early 70's of 'antipsychiatry', a word he, himself, coined in 1966. The term referred to that movement which began by challenging the medical concepts and practices of the modern psychiatric system -- in particular the notion of mental illness itself -- and looked for alternative ways of understanding human experience and behaviour and responding to human distress. David himself was instrumental, in 1962, in setting up a very radical venture, within the context of the NHS, at Shenley Hospital, which became known as Villa 21. This was a separate unit in which many young people, who had been diagnosed 'schizophrenic', were allowed to live without the interference of potentially harmful drugs, electroshock, or other organic therapies. The unit was run on egalitarian lines, and there was a deliberate attempt to abolish the traditional hierarchy between doctor and patient. Attentive non-interference was the ideal that was aimed for. At about the same time, in 1965, David, along with R.D. Laing, Aaron Esterson and four other like-minded individuals founded the Philadelphia Association, a registered charity that was eventually to set up a number of houses in the Greater London community where people in distress could go and live as an alternative to the traditional psychiatric hospital. He continued his involvement with the latter association until 1971 when he left England (early 1972) for Argentina.

I first met David at this particular juncture of his life. He was en route to Argentina. He had been invited to participate in a week-long conference on 'madness' by the Health Advisory Service of our university (Toronto, Canada). I was a third-year medical student at the time and was supposed to be attending seminars in obstetrics and gynecology. However a 'Madness Conference' and a chance to meet David could not be passed by so easily, and so I attended the whole event. I had already read several of his books (as well as a few by his colleague R.D. Laing) and his existential Marxist writings both excited and catapulted me out of my more mechanical Freudian orientation.

David soon appeared in full splendour. He was a large, wildlooking man with long golden locks and a huge red beard. He was dressed in black garb and had a big llamaskin coat of the same non-colour that lent him a beast-like quality. (Ironically, later on, I discovered that he often used the word 'beast' as a term or endearment!). But his blue eyes were very gentle and he spoke in a soft voice. And he was extremely thoughtful. One had the impression, almost immediately, of being in the presence of an exceptionally deep and beautiful man. When it came his turn to speak, he started by introducing me and saying that I would play a song. We had met only three hours previously, and, at that time, he had heard me playing my guitar. He had then asked me if I would play something at the debate and I agreed. I chose Bob Dylan's 'Ballad of a Thin Man' (There's something happening here but you don't know what it is do you Mr.Jones). It set the tone for what David wanted to say, I didn't realise it, at the time, but this was actually the beginning of a pattern that would repeat itself many times over as we travelled together, over the next few years, from one country to the next, with me playing a song and David speaking.

He spoke most bravely that first time. He was inebriated and initially addressed that English-speaking audience in French, thinking that he was in the province of Quebec. He made it clear that he had left England, left the Philadelphia Association, and was no longer collaborating with Laing and Co. The latter, he said, was on a spiritual trip. He, David, was on a political one. At one point in the debate he actually left the podium and sat in the audience -- I believe to underscore the idea that in the field of 'madness'. (He used to say, often, at that time, that 'schizophrenia' did not exist but 'madness' did), there were no experts, and that one needed to remain sceptical of the so-called 'science' of psychiatry. I thought for all his appearance as a 'guru' that he showed a tremendous humility and compassion and it was these qualities in him which struck me the most. One woman in the audience summed up the whole experience in a nutshell: "He has a heart of gold" she said.

Over the next three to four years I spent quite a bit of time with David, culminating in our sharing a flat for a year in Crouch End, London (1974). It was to prove to be his last year in England. He had returned from his sojourn in Argentina a few months earlier, and when I joined him I found him to be in a state of complete despair. He was drinking heavily and had virtually severed all his links with his former colleagues in the Philadelphia and Arbors Associations. Although he saw his family from time to time, relations were tense. It seemed that Laing and his followers had embarked on a course of exploring and utilising various therapies of the mind, body, and spirit, whereas David, in spite of a brief period in private practice in Harley Street in the late 60's had, by this time renounced the latter occupation, primarily for political reasons. He was wont to say at the time that there were no personal problems only political ones. So we lived frugally during this period, and I acted, in a funny sort of way, as the intermediary between David and the outside world, answering telephone calls and letters, and arranging interviews and conference meetings when desired. His income came mainly from the royalties on his already published books and from an advance on his next one (this was eventually to become The Language of Madness). But he couldn't write. It seemed that the English soil which had produced a burst of creativity in the 60's had suddenly run dry. Some new spark was needed.

...continued on page 2

"Brother Beast: A Personal Memoir of David Cooper"
by Dr. Stephen Ticktin.
originally published in Asylum Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry, Vol.1 No. 3

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