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David Burns Manuscript1

David Burns,
edited by Brent Potter


For more than fifteen years an experiment has been carried out in London to show that people diagnosed psychotic who might otherwise be in mental hospital could live in household of varying types with students, medical student, therapists and various others. I lived in these communities for five years, from early 1970 until late 1975 and was in association with them until late 1977. This is a report on my time there, on the structure of communities, on the experience of living there, and on the philosophy that lay behind it.

A Note on Terminology

I do not use the term anti-psychiatry. I do not put the words schizophrenia or schizophrenic in quotes. The point has been made. I use the words stable and unstable which have less connotations and more relevance. When referring to the typical behavior of a member of the community I use the word he to avoid the awkwardness of he or she.

I. Households

Kingsley Hall was a massive structure in the East End of London, once a church hall, leased to our group for a shilling a year. This is where the experiment began in its major phase. I spent only two or three months there, as it was closing, and I will concentrate on the communities that succeeded it near Archway, Islington, in North London. I will, however, speak of Kingsley Hall and compare and contrast it with Archway when dealing with various issues.

The group living at Kingsley Hall toward the end had lost cohesiveness and the therapists known as the Philadelphia Association decided, after some hesitation, to continue the experiment with a new group. Only three of us, therefore, moved into the new community. This consisted of two houses in a deteriorating neighborhood. Since these houses were scheduled for demolition we had to move to new homes of the same nature, again and again. This was difficult and painful but the advantages were that any damage done to the structures was relatively unimportant and that there was somewhat less than the usual necessity for residents to keep up normal standards of behavior on the streets.

At Archway we generally had two or three separate households, each with its own common room, kitchen, and garden. Each resident had his own bedroom, unless a couple chose to live together. We made an effort to provide dinner every night, which would bring most of us together at a different house. Having more than one house had a distinct value. Each household was small, four to six people, although the community was made up of ten to fifteen people. One could visit another house, a different place. If two residents did not get along one of them could move to another house and keep apart.

There were, however, problems. The tendency seemed inevitable that if there were two houses one of them would become the good, clean, happy healing house and the other the bad, dirty, unhappy mad house. This phenomenon occurred several times as we moved from house to house. At one time a model good house became one of the worst of the bad houses. This problem was partially rooted in the management of the communities, to which I will refer later.

One basic idea was that a balance could be created in the community between the numbers of relatively stable and relatively unstable individuals. We were not, however, at the time fully conscious of the importance of this. A bad house was one where all or most of the residents were noisy, disruptive, and disorganized. A good house was one where a reasonable balance was struck. If we had all lived in a single household this problem could not have arisen in the same way.

I.1 Moving in and Moving Out

When we moved into Archway from Kingsley Hall, two of use, including myself, were among the first residents. Another young man left the Hall and arrive after a week at Archway against some resistance, as his behavior could be bizarre, intolerant, and arrogant. I, however, had come to like him very much. He became one of the very few who were actually forced to leave. He had repeatedly refused to pay rent and had claimed a common space as his own. We were undecided about what to do, but the police were called and he was gone before the officer arrived. Another of the few was an older man who spent three days at Kingsley Hall toward its beginning. He was forced to leave after he destroyed a good part of the interior of the building.

These are extreme examples but they indicate the difficulties that disturbed or disturbing persons faced on moving in and moving out. For a medical student the procedure could be much easier. He could write a letter saying he wished to visit the community for a week and be accepted. If he was interested he could later ask to return to stay for another, longer period of time, three to six months, and be accepted again. One would hope that he would help and learn and be responsible. He would be responsible and he might learn, but he was essentially being taught by the resident schizophrenics, or at least learning from them. Most of the helping, in the absence of a skilled psychotherapist such as Laing, was done by the schizophrenics for each other. Having shared similar experiences, living in a sympathetic environment as contrasted to a mental hospital, they could create psychic and emotional space for others to explore their inner worlds.

If a person had support from a particular therapist in the group, he would ask us to accept the new resident, and we would generally agree. Otherwise, it could be very difficult to move in. If there was one applicant and one room there was not necessarily any problem. He could meet the residents, make friends with one or more of them and have a good chance of a space. He and we would both need to meet each other in order to know if we could live together, as I any household with a vacancy. If there were six applicants and one vacancy a very painful situation could develop, where a person wanting to live with us had to present himself both as relatively stable and as having serious problems to be most likely to be accepted, a difficult trick to accomplish. At Kingsley Hall it was worse. If one resident rejected an applicant he could not move in.

Our difficulties with choosing new residents were intimately related to our need to achieve a balance between people who were whole and strong and people who needed to go through changes that could involve bizarre behavior. If too many people were acting strangely, regressing, going through psychotic episodes, the community as a whole was threatened, and nobody could help anybody else. Nobody had the space, external or internal, within which to change. Thus the occasional apparent harshness of our procedures of entry.

The young man I mentioned above was forcibly evicted. Others left because it was time for them to go. Others were removed by relatives, Some, however, left for financial reasons—they could not pay the rent. I will deal with money problems later.

The community served the residents but also visitors, people who came to see what it was like, people who thought they might want to move in, people from other countries who had set up similar places or who wanted to learn how to do so. Living with us we had persons diagnosed schizophrenic, manic-depressive psychotic, undergraduates, medical students, and at various times a therapist from New York, a well-known novelist and a nun. The residents came from all over the world, Britain, the United States, Canada, South America, Norway, Denmark, Germany, etc. It was truly an international center.

In spite of the conflicts and chaos that were so frequent, we tried to create a warm and friendly atmosphere for visitors and residents alike. We kept coffee, tea, bread and cheese available at all times in the kitchen. We tried to welcome visitors and to entertain them. I myself felt that anyone who walked through the door was in some way special, either because of what he knew or because of what he might learn.

I.2 Community Norms and Values

The community was an unusual place; ordinary norms did not apply; bizarre short of extreme violence was accepted and extreme violence could usually be tolerated or controlled, as I will explain later. Yet if there were not rules as such, we had our own norms. Each resident had the right to his own room. We tried to keep the rest of the house as clean as possible, given the messiness and the occasional destruction that occurred and we painted and we patched. We tried to keep the kitchen functioning.

One important norm was the weekly meeting. The two therapists most directly involved in our lives would attend but residents were not required to be there. Most would usually gather and if we were discussing an issue involving someone a deputation would be sent to encourage that person to come along. An interesting development here was what could be called the anti-meeting. The general meeting was in the common room and some residents might leave in boredom or in protest. But they would not go farther than the kitchen, where they would sit and talk. I sometimes found the discussion at the anti-meeting more interesting and relevant to current community issues than that at the general meeting.

We generally shared a value that life in the country was better than life in the city, more therapeutic, as it were. Repeated attempts were made to establish temporary or permanent centers in the English countryside. They tended to fail. In the inner suburbs of London, dirty and disorganized, our way of life was possible. In the countryside the local people were shocked and threatened, understandably perhaps. A group of us spent a week in Sussex at the home of a woman who like to use her space to give physically handicapped people some time in a noninstitutional setting. The maid arrived one morning and found the lights on and empty liquor bottles; this was no real disaster. Yet she spread the word around the village that a group of crazy people were living at the house and we became distinctly uncomfortable.

The worst experience occurred in Devonshire. We had found an ancient isolated farmhouse on the edge of the moor and a few miles from the sea and small groups of us made occasional excursions there of a few days or a few weeks. Then one of the therapists decided to spend the month of June there with as many of his patients and others who wanted to come. We stayed at the old farmhouse and at whatever other lodgings we could find. It was like London: we were students, patients, therapists, a variety of people. It was a glorious time at the beginning. The first trouble was almost comic. Rumors began to spread about naked dancing in the garden of one of the houses, rumors based on fact. The next trouble was tragic. A woman was living in lodgings on an active farm with her husband and three children; she was one of the most obviously disturbed people I have ever seen, and had several times attempted suicide. Although she was closely watched, she crawled out of a bathroom window and set herself afire with gasoline. She died of burns in the hospital soon afterwards. This event effectively ended any possibility of an "official" community in that part of Devon. We could still visit as individuals, after some time had passed, but we had to guarantee that we were in no way bringing the community with us.

Her death struck a blow to our yearning, our need to live in a healthy rural environment. It was actually the worst thing tat happened during my years in the community. But a similar thing could have happened in the city without the same devastating consequences. Also, residents were often naked in the streets of London; we cooperated with the police in dealing with such situations. Yet in the country dancing naked in one’s own garden at night was a scandal, impermissible.

I.3 Management

The Philedelphia Association is still in existence. As I knew it when I was in London it was a group of therapists, social workers and an accountant who put into practice the ideas developed by Laing and others. They met at regular intervals and decided who would concentrate on which task, which aspect of the overall program. Thus they would share responsibilities, working with the communities, giving seminars, fund raising, running the therapist training program, editing written and taped material into a book, and so forth. This was the central structure of the London experiment, of the network.

But the hardest job was for the person who lived in the community and managed the ongoing daily life. Ideally in each household lived a person called the administrator. He was paid and given board in exchange for collecting rent, and keeping the place clean and in repair. He also provided a center of stability; it was a house without a resident administrator that became a bad house. Yet this additional function, beyond actual administration, made his job exceedingly difficult. He was less free than others to change between the roles of giving and receiving help. He was frequently seen as a resident therapist, although his job was not defined as such. Collecting rent was hard enough, but he often felt called upon to deal with various crises as he tried to maintain order. In addition his room might be invaded, his property damaged, and his sleep disturbed, more than was the case for the average stable resident.

Most of the therapists in the network spent six months to a year living, perhaps with their wives, at Kingsley Hall. They wanted to share the experience of living in a community where diagnosed and non-diagnosed lived together and to find out what happened. None stayed longer than a year. The demand on their time and the drain on their emotions were too great.

I.4 Problems About Money

Theretically there was no difference between persons in the network, that extended group that included menders of the community and many others living elsewhere in London, therapists, visiting student who attended seminars, etc. This was generally true in practice. An individual resident would at times act as patient, needing and receiving help from others, and at other times act as therapist, providing that help for others. The therapists and administrators helped each other at times of stress and were strengthened and supported by the humor and spirituality of the diagnosed members of the community. Ex-mental patient as well as therapist could be seen as wise, as a guru, or could show his pain and distress.

There were, however, necessary differences. Therapists tended to live in their own homes with their own families, although they lived in the communities for varying periods of time. Quite sensibly, and to the benefit of all, they chose to maintain their own strength and stability. Only thus could they most effectively aid those most unstable. Additionally, the major difference and the most difficult to overcome, some paid money and some received money, within the total group. Some were poor and some relatively rich. This was in all its aspects a critical problem for the network, as it is a critical problem in the world at large.

Therapists were paid for their fifty minutes and clients gave the money. The administrator of a house was paid and all other resident paid a weekly rate which covered his fee, rent, utilities, repairs and some food. The therapist who came to meetings, was on call for crises and generally supervised community life eventually insisted on being paid for his work. All this was essentially fair. But it created a division into two distinct groups and was in blatant contrast to the theory of equality.

Therapists and administrators received the money they lived on from within the community. The community received its money from outside. It was very difficult as a resident to hold an outside job, when one uses ones home as a place to rest from the tensions of work. The noise and turmoil had an opposite effect, increasing tension to an intolerable level. I knew of only one person who for a time held an outside job. Some received support from parents. Some, whether from Britain or the Common Market countries, received welfare or disability payments. Our rent and expenses, although low, were unfortunately high enough that they were barely covered by welfare, leaving little money for anything else. Thus as in the outside world there was a vast and visible gap between the haves and the have-nots.

We were aware of this problem and it was sometimes an agony. Many attempts were made to alleviate this distress. Therapists charged on a sliding scale. Thus in 1970 as a visiting rich American I would have been charged nineteen pounds, or almost fifty dollars, for one consultation with Laing. On the other hand, he saw one client over a period of years without charging her a penny except when she insisted. My own therapist lowered my fee from ten pounds to eight pounds when I was worried about money. He also saw a client on welfare for many years without taking a penny. When I saw Laing for one session he charged me nothing.

In the community the poor felt oppressed; they were expected to pay a share in the fees of the visiting therapist and the administrator. If someone spent a welfare check on other things he wanted or needed and couldn’t pay rent he felt oppressed by the administrator who asked him for money, particularly by the administrator who asked and had been asked repeatedly. People refused to pay rent for various reasons, for resentment, because they hated or did not believe in money, but sometimes because they could not manage to set up welfare arrangement, could not cope with the authorities. This was difficult enough for anyone humiliating, but for someone who felt frightened, threatened or confused it could be impossible. So the more stable residents would try to help make welfare arrangements. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it did not. In one case a long-term resident was helped to arrange to receive a book of welfare checks, whereas normally one had to go to the office every week. In another case a resident refused to accept any help with welfare, could not pay rent, and borrowed money from her friends.

We decided to allow one woman, an American whose money had run out, to stay on at the community rent-free. But she felt resented; she found it painful and embarrassing to go into the kitchen and take a slice of bread. To be happy she needed to pay rent. Another attempt at solving the rent problem was unofficial and disorganized. I and six others, all women, were living in what I have earlier called a bad, dirty, unhappy, mad house. There was no administrator living there, and little attention was given to the noisy and chaotic conditions. The house was dirty and the kitchen was a mess, and whenever anyone from another house tried to clean up they did it in such an arrogant and peremptory way that some of us found it insufferable. No one in the house was paying rent, no one was trying to, largely for these reasons. We did not, unfortunately, gather together, organize and present a rent strike to a community meeting. We were isolated from each other and could not join in a protest. Neither we nor the rest of the community were aware of what was going on, of the mutual projection of goodness and badness between the houses and that this projection was a cause of our failure to pay rent.

The Philadelphia Association is a tax-free charity. It provided planning and organization of the communties plus an umbrella of support. Laing never charged for his visits, which were relatively frequent, perhaps once a month. No one was ever evicted for non-payment of rent with the one exception noted above, although persons sometimes left when they could not pay. At one time when we were discussing the question of raising rent Laing somewhat angrily expressed his hope and belief that somehow funding could be arranged. Money and its management were important aspects of community life which we tried to deal with, sometimes unsuccessfully. The flow of money is an important thing. As Laing once put it cryptically, "Money is social oil."

I.5 Crises and their Containment

This, then, is the structure within which the experiment was carried out; this is the place where we dealt with the crises that occurred when residents under inner stress, undergoing the experience of being "mad," exhibited the behavior that can lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Believing the experience might have value to the individual we tried to tolerate, or humanely control, bizarre activity. The limits of our acceptance were entirely different from those of the outside world. We were upset, of course, by disturbing behavior but we did not need to stop it by violent means, such as ECT or forced isolation or medication. When the Archway phase of the experiment had just begun a young Canadian girl was joining us. I was sitting in the kitchen with her, several residents, and two visiting therapists. She was trying to fill out a government form which asked where she had lived during the past ten years. She was unable to fill out the form; she had spent the last five years in institutions; she burst into deep agonizing sobbing that lasted for minutes on end. No one tried to comfort her; no one said, "don’t cry" although we were all suffering with her. I was outraged at the seeming indifference of the therapists until I realized that they were showing a deeper compassion, feeling pain in order to let her fully feel her grief.

This is a relatively minor example of our willingness to endure and share the suffering of another. A more extreme example is our acceptance, time and time again, of smashing and trashing the kitchen. This seemed a standard response to and communication of extreme stress. Someone would come downstairs, enter the kitchen, overturn the table, spilling everything on it, dump garbage and food all over the floor and then leave the room. We would clean up the mess, knowing that this person needed attention, hopeful that we could help, but also painfully aware that trashing the kitchen did not solve his problem.

Other classic bizarre behaviors were complete or partial nakedness, and defecating or urinating in community common space. An individual might take off his clothes, stop using the toilet or the bath, spend much time in his room, but sometimes come out, wrapped perhaps in a blanket, and always smelly. We would, as best we could, clean common and private space, and give baths. Yet it was not impossible for a house to have the pervasive odor of human excrement.

More difficult to accept were behaviors we could not, in effect, clean up. Constant screaming, twenty-four hours a day until the voice gave out, made it impossible to sleep at night and hard to function during the day for the rest of the community. Frantic, manic activity, writing on the walls, moving objects about and piling them on top of each other, running up and downstairs, made it difficult, for example, to cook dinner. Sometimes these behaviors were combined.

The greatest problem we faced was violence. Much of what I have just described constitutes emotional violence. This was endurable, if just barely. Physical violence, causing physical harm to oneself or another, was not tolerable; the threat of physical violence we barely endured. A resident might pick up a knife or a broken bottle and threaten another. No one was stabbed or cut, although two cats were killed, once with a knife and one with a hammer. Apparent suicide attempts occurred, although they were relatively uncommon. Entering the kitchen one might find a resident with his head in the gas oven, but the gas locally provided at the time was non-toxic. One might find a resident who had just tried to hang himself but with a string which had broken. I became convinced that these were not trued intentions at suicide, although they had to be taken seriously as a suicidal gesture can indeed be successful. The only actual suicide that occurred during my years at the community is the one I described above. The woman who died was the most distressed and withdrawn person I met in the London communities, and the event took place in the countryside, away from the close, warming and strengthening environment of Archway.

We obviously had to find ways of coping with these extreme and distressing behaviors that did not contradict our philosophy of not interfering violently with what might be valuable inner experience. We learned the hard way, perhaps the only way. At Kingsley Hall, when a resident had screamed for forty-eight hours continually and we were trying to have dinner, someone briefly sat on him with his hand over his mouth. For a moment we had calm and silence but of course it could not last. He soon started screaming and running about again. This is not work.

Compassion, understanding, acceptance, all these were important and necessary. But they were not sufficient. Eventually we found a way to contain and lovingly control the behavior of a person under extreme stress. We needed to do this for the sake of our own peace of mind and also because of the problems that occurred when a person took their screaming or nakedness into the outside world, to which I will refer later. One resident at Archway, the Canadian girl I mentioned, behaved in such distressing ways that we had to give her total attention. She would fight, kick, scream, pick up a knife, urinate in the kitchen or walk out the door, down our street and into the street of shops completely naked. She was nevertheless beloved by many of us. She was the first person to receive twenty-four-hour attention. To control her violence and keep her from going outside naked we had to keep her in the common space and make sure someone was always with her. We found this painful at first, but over the months the twenty-four-hour attention became an institution of its own, and a major way of restoring order to commuity life.

II. Here follows a brief theory of such a community-based therapy:

One must allow to develop a support group of interested persons, undergraduates, medical students, therapists, schizophrenics, neighbors and other who make themselves available on various levels, living in the household, visiting the household, or being on call for any emergencies that might occur. This support group should be as large as possible, particularly at the last level.

A certain degree of noise and disorder can be tolerated. This depends on the residents and on the neighbors. However, a real crisis demands immediate attention and there should be a call to members of the support group.

There are two types of crises. The more dramatic would include suicide attempts, apparent or real, acts or threats of violence to others, walking naked into the street, screaming in the street, and so forth.

Sometimes such a crisis can effectively be averted by members of the community, kindly and firmly. If not it may then be necessary to keep the person in crisis in some appropriate space, his own room, another’s room or a common room. The door would never be locked and probably left open much of the time. This is twenty-four-hour attention, with someone always committed to be there. Usually a group will gather and there will be something of a party or learning atmosphere. Change will occur not only in the person in crisis but in others who are there.

The person in crisis might at time have to be physically restrained. But this is not done mechanically or with medication. A wall of human flesh is the restraining force, ideally a force of loving attention. If one desires to prevent the person in crisis from harming himself or others or to keep the person from the attention of police and psychiatry such a practice can be necessary.

The second type of crisis is more subtle. A resident may wish to attempt some project, exploring his inner world, overcoming his loneliness, his fears or his sadness, or coming off medications, drugs and alcohol. If the support group is large and strong enough a resident may request similar twenty-four-hour attention; or he may be encouraged to accept twenty-four-hour care, for example to come off phenothiazines or other substances.

It should be made known that this type of attention is available on request, but it should not be forced on anyone except when absolutely necessary as during the first type of crisis described above.

II.1 Relations With The Outside World

A major concern of ours was our relations with our neighbors, with the police, and with the local psychiatric establishment. London is a city which tolerates eccentricity. One of our residents was frequently found walking down the street carrying a broken television set or radio, followed by a yelling, jeering group of children. He was very infrequently stopped by the police and then only when his manner appeared violent. He could stand on the street corner in front of his house lecturing the passers-by and remain undisturbed. In addition, both Kingsley Hall and Archway were in run-down districts and the police did not need worry about the annoyance of the upper classes or of tourists.

At Kingsley Hall, when I was there at the end of its five years of existence, relations with the neighbors were terrible. The children, we felt, expressed the annoyance of the neighborhood that the former church hall had been taken away from them and turned into a madhouse. The children would break down the front door, leave feces in the front hall, and run by the building throwing stones at the windows and breaking them. Five years of bizarre behavior in the house and on the streets had proved too much for the East Enders.

Archway was a neighborhood in transition. People were moving out as their homes were condemned and others were moving in temporarily under the aegis of small independent housing associations. Shops were closing. Few had a vested interested in keeping up normal standards of behavior on the streets.

Nakedness or the apparent threat of violence, however, attracted the attention of the police. A resident would, according to legal procedure, be "taken to a place of safety," the local police station, and put in a cell, but usually not arrested. There he would be examined by a psychiatrist and committed to the local mental hospital for a period of time. It was then the task of one of our therapists to return him to the community. Sometimes, it appeared, the resident did not want to come back, feeling he had been ill-treated by us in some way, and would not return for perhaps thirty days. Usually he would be heavily sedated, and sometimes he would choose to return to the hospital for regular injections of prolixin or to take his prescribed daily dose of thorazine or stellazine. As mentioned above, we did try to make it possible to stop taking such medications when he chose.

The police became aware of who we were and what we were doing and came to know our residents. The police accepted their behavior, knowing that they were living in a half-way house of sorts with responsible people. The police would sometimes say they would not intervene if we would keep the screaming off the streets. There was considerable good will.

This was not so much the case with the local psychiatric hospital. There much depended on the individual doctor. One might choose to release his patient to us while another might choose to keep him in custody. Much negotiation took place between our therapists and their psychiatrists. No one was taken away from us; one young man I mentioned earlier was evicted and ended up in mental hospital, and one was taken away by his family. We felt a loyalty to our members, and one of the most notorious screamers became, in effect, a permanent resident. He went through considerable change during his ten years with the community.

In fact, we were saving the state a good deal of money. Many of our residents, in the absence of our efforts, would have been in expensive long-term custodial care in hospitals. I believe that the police and the psychiatric establishment and perhaps higher levels of government were to varying degrees aware of this.

II.2 Ideas And Values

Within the community and within the larger extended network of therapists, students and friends we came to share a value-system or philosophy that was not made entirely explicit. This was picked up, at least in my case, as if by breathing. I was not learning anything that was not intrinsic to my being; I was learning about myself, my own values. Of course, this philosophy came to me from others, from personal contact and from special books, but the education I received in London was a continuation of the intellectual and spiritual development that had only sometimes coincided with my earlier formal education. We gradually moderated our more extreme attitudes toward the family ad toward psychiatry. In the beginning we tended to blame the parents for the suffering of a resident. As Laing has pointed out the behavior of families of schizophrenics can be quite bizarre and the behavior of the person diagnosed can make sense in the context of confusing, contradictory levels of communication. As a corollary of this idea, and as a result of the suffering many of our residents had endured at the hand of their families, we felt justified in our hatred of mothers and fathers. But then as various parents visited the community or even wanted to live there, we learned that they were not to blame, that they were suffering, victims of our shared humanity. It was easier to find a scapegoat than to do without one. From an initial aversion to any use of thorazine and other anti-psychotic medications we moved to a feeling that their use should be voluntary and that we should try to make it possible to cease their regular use when one chose. Excess dosage of phenothiazines seemed invariably non-therapeutic. Residents who returned to us from hospital were frequently so sedated as to be unable to function. A minimul or reasonable dosage, whether by bi-weekly injection or daily oral self-medication is not necessarily harmful. Similarly with other drugs and alcohol, their use should be voluntary, with the exception of use by injection, which seemed a form of violence. There were drug addicts at Kingsley Hall, but several persons who injected drugs who had moved into Archway finally had to leave. We should again try to make it possible to cease regular use, to withdraw.

There was a special psychic atmosphere within the communities; there was a hope and a promise; there was a feeling of the growth of consciousness, of evolution. The community, with its special norms and values, its unusual people, seemed almost a different world than the one outside. Anyone who walked in the front door, anyone who asked to live there seemed to be a special person. It was a spiritual refuge, a place where one could grow and change and learn in a way that was impossible outside, like a monastery or a cave in the mountains.

Much of this was due to the influence and personality of Laing himself; his was a spiritual presence. This is evident in his writings, but only as theory. Schizophrenics obviously suffer vastly; why then their glorification? Laing had spent twenty-five years seeing clients in formal psychotherapy and fifteen years in some degree of supervision of households such as I have tried to describe. He was aware of the pain and confusion of his clients and of community residents. But he had learned from his own experience of life and from his relationships with others that bound up with bizarre behavior and delusionary experience is an openness to become aware of meaning. He suffered himself.

That wild silent screech in the night. And what if I were to tear my hair and run naked and screaming through the suburban night. I would wake up a few tired people and get myself committed to a mental hospital. To what purpose?

The entire Bird of Paradise, from which these lines come, which he later somewhat regretted publishing, shows his own suffering. He once mentioned that he had experienced all the forms of mental illness, with the exception of obsessive-compulsive neurosis, that he had avoided the latter, not wanting to get caught in such a maze. He has also said, "The contract I’ve made with my mind is that it is free to do anything it cares to do." He is a man deeply aware of the potentialities of the psyche, as was Carl Jung.

Jung, however, had certain peculiar limitations. He did not entirely trust his own anima, his own unconscious. When an inner female voice told him he was a great artist he resisted, expecting that the inner woman would later betray him, turn on him, and say that he was a failure. He spoke of being forced to use certain yoga postures in order to control or stop his own inner experience. But most telling of all was his reaction to a patient, a doctor who had come to him for a training analysis, who appeared completely normal. This patient reported a dream in which he saw a small child in a vast train station smearing itself with feces, from which dream he awoke in a panic. Jung writes, "I knew all I needed to know -- here was a latent psychosis! I must say I sweated as I tried to lead him out of that dream. I had to represent it to him as something quite innocuous, and gloss over all the perilous details."

Laing created his communities precisely in order to allow such regression, and as I have described, it certainly took place. Jung lacked, perhaps, the space within which such behavior could occur, or perhaps the times were not right for it to be allowed. Jung states that his patient was one the verge of a fatal panic, that is a panic leading to death; Laing had discovered that such death could lead to rebirth, to transformation in some cases.

Laing does not want to instruct people, to tell how it is. He wants people to see this "schizophrenic voyage" for themselves. He has said,

It used to be a clinical adage in Scotland, where I was brought up in psychiatry, that maybe thirty percent of people diagnosed as schizophrenic remit, if left to themselves to go through whatever it is they are going through. Such people might lie huddled up, completely regressed—thump the wall in a padded cell where they would piss and shit where they lay. There were some cells in most hospitals where people could do that, and some people would come in every few years, some only once, and go through this sort of thing. After three months or so, they would be out again and functioning in society at large. Some people were seen as having recurrent numbers like this, and the ‘good’ clinician could recognize them. The modern clinician can’t recognize these people, because he’s never allowed to see them. He never sees the natural history of the condition or conditions all this controversy is about because it is frozen by the ‘tranquilizers,’ ECT, or whatnot, even in research places. There must be very few (if any) places in the whole of the United Stated where people are ‘allowed’ to go through numbers like this. If only as pure science, just to see the natural history.

Laing’s visits to the community were marked by his special manner, his intentionality, his consciousness. He would subtly seek out a more unstable new resident and, without probing or forcing himself on him, let it be known that he was there. He would visit with an old-timer that he knew and commune or dance with him. A withdrawn, isolated, perhaps neglected resident might come down when he knew that "Ronnie is here." Laing might come to a community gathering and sit in complete silence for half an hour and then deliver a monologue for half an hour, reminiscent of Carlos Castaneda’s description of Juan Matus. But when asked about the use of psychic powers he answered, "Magic is not my forte."

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© 2002 David Burns
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