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Over the Edge

The Facts of Life

by R.D. Laing
Pantheon, 153 pp., $7.95

Anna

by David Reed
Basic Books, 243 pp., $10.00

Laing’s new book is more about the factlessness of life than about its facts. It has a chill air of slackness and confusion. Laing begins with a short—too short—autobiographical sketch, which gives us a few devastating glimpses of his early life: the only child of estranged parents, his mother ill after his birth, his care at the hands of a “drunken slut”; he and his mother sleeping in one bedroom of a Glasgow tenement, his father in the other; his mother fainting when, at fifteen, he used the phrase “fuckin’ well” without knowing what it meant; and at sixteen, still without any idea of the facts of life—hence the book’s title.

He continues, it seems here, to be bewildered, in search of facts and meaning. But whereas in his earlier books, and notably The Divided Self, Laing used his acquaintance with ontological borderlands, the mind’s cliffs of fall, to reveal the structure of pathological states of consciousness as lucidly as a microscope enlarges a crystal, here he seems lost in those border-lands, all intellectual vitality spent. “Who knows if life is not death and death life?” is the book’s epigraph, from Euripides. The question was originally asked in a pattern of purposes and meanings; here it hangs isolated on the page, about as meaningful as an empty nutshell. Who knows? Who is going to make us care?

Am I dead or alive?

Am I asleep or awake?

How can I be certain this is not a dream?

…What are we seeing? We cannot be sure we are seeing what we suppose is out there, whatever we suppose. Nor can we be sure even that we see some sort of copy, or picture, of what we suppose is out there. If it comes to that, we cannot be certain that there is anything out there apart from what we see….

This is from the chapter “Speculations,” which follows the biographical opening.

We know these speculations, they are familiar. When they are formalized and worked with, they are philosophy; when obsessive, they are a psychosis; in the hands of Beckett or Hopkins, they are given artistic life; in the case histories of The Divided Self they are set in the dense context of the way an individual constructs, or fails to construct, his sense of identity and of the reality of outside objects. Set down as limply as they are here, platitudinous and insubstantial, they add up to nothing.

In a further chapter of ruminations later in the book, Laing ponders such questions as how he took a walk to buy a jar of honey, unblocked his left nostril in a state of non-egoic consciousness, and sneezed at a party. The vapidity of most of these introspections is only heightened by the style he has adopted, again so different from that of his earlier writing: rhetorical questioning (“Is this not a serious state of affairs?”—“am I single or multiple?”—“Why? And even, is why a proper question?”) and the irritating habit of spacing out his lines as if they were poetry:

Sobbing, and moaning,

unrestrained

for two or three minutes

then over.

A few pages are given over to “field notes”—scraps of observation, overheard conversations: these are sometimes entertaining and percipient, and cut across the solipsistic tension with the voices of real people—even though rather dreadful ones (“Should we try to get in touch with our feelings now, or wait until we graduate?” asks an American student couple). These dialogues apart, and the “speculations” and the morsel of autobiography, the greater part of this miscellany is devoted to two subjects, the critique of psychiatric methods and of scientific assumptions that we expect from Laing, and a new theme—the trauma of birth, and not only birth, but intra-and pre-uterine life as well.

Many of my contemporaries,” he argues,

feel that what has happened from their conception to and through birth has a relevance of some kind to them now as adults. These feeling patterns deserve serious attention. It does not seem to me to be, a priori, nonsense, or antecedently impossible, that prenatal patterns may be mapped onto natal and postnatal experience.

He relates (quoting from Rank) a common pattern of myth that could relate to birth experience; cites as relevant experiences of claustrophobia and agoraphobia; accuses modern medicine, as does Leboyer, of traumatically mishandling the birth process; describes the so-called “birthing” sessions given by a New York psychotherapist.

There need be no great difficulty in accepting the idea that birth leaves a formative imprint on the nervous system (although, as far as I know, not even the simplest study has been carried out to match the severity of birth experiences against later development); fifteen or so years ago the possibility of a psychology of the newborn baby was considered farfetched, whereas now it is one of the most interesting and rapidly growing areas for study, and an experimental psychologist can respectably state in print that he considers psychological processes to begin at conception. And rebirth has been one of the great themes of myth, rite, and dreaming. But it has always been approached with seriousness and respect, as part of the imaginative concept of a new beginning; only in this spirit could it have therapeutic energy. Laing’s superficiality here, his attribution of his daily need for a drink around 5:15 to the fact that this was his birth hour, his description of the therapeutic “birthings”—fifteen minutes each, twenty in an afternoon—makes nonsense of the scrupulous attention he once paid to the intricate mental processes of his fellows. Shall we get reborn now or wait until after lunch?

Laing’s meditations on a uterine theme go back before birth, back to the single cell: to conception, anxious hours in the Fallopian tubes, implantation in the endometrium. All are permanently recorded, he suggests, and form the basis for the problems of the homeless spinster who wanders around department stores (existentially fixated in the tubes), the underground train driver (searching for implantation), the businessman who faints in the bathroom (catastrophic encounter with the endometrium). It is embarrassing to have to pay serious attention to this kind of thing; but if this is anything more than sheer dottiness, it is a kind of angry blotting out of life: there are greater varieties, he says, of prenatal than of postnatal experiences—so much for this postnatal world and its occupants and occupations. Laing has contracted himself, and his intellect and compassion, back into a single cell, a point, a death.

There remain to be mentioned the chapters, one of them originally a lecture, in which he once again attacks the psychiatry practiced in mental hospitals, and in particular ECT treatment. They are more composed than the rest of the book, but do not add much to what he has written in the same vein elsewhere. And that is where Anna comes in: related (under a pseudonym) by her husband, this is the sad and horrible story of a girl who goes into a severe psychosis, one of many breakdowns, is nursed for the first time at home on the advice of her psychotherapist and of Laing himself as consultant, and succeeds in setting fire to herself and dying in slow, and still psychotic, agony. In view of its hideous conclusion it could, and perhaps should, be used as an argument for conventional psychiatry for such cases as against the Laingian kind of treatment. Mental patients do, of course, sometimes succeed in committing suicide even while they are in the hospital; and the author quotes an unposted letter his wife had written to her former psychiatrists in order to show how she felt about going back to the hospital:

You were responsible for making me go bad, go rotten; then, well prepared with new bones, tablets and prescriptions you set the robot on the rails which suited you…. I went as a mummy amongst you, only vaguely registered your shadows, the shadows you throw and the shadows that are your flesh…. The next tablets you hand out you must swallow yourselves. Bread and watery soup for the arrogant doctor in the white coat….

Perhaps this does confirm Laing’s contention in The Facts of Life that

if I went to many a mental hospital looking for help, then I would be like the Aztecs rushing into the mouths of the Spanish cannon in hope of finding deliverance.

And yet did not Anna, when asked after the dreadful burning whether she would have wanted to have had conventional psychiatric treatment, answer quite lucidly: “No. But then I wouldn’t have wanted this”?

There is no possible answer to the tragic questions Anna raises. For those who are inclined to see madness in a rather glamorous literary light, however, the book is a reminder that psychotics can be very, very mad: they live with horrors, and understandably they frighten us. We are the last. We are the bones. Dead,” Anna says. She does not seem, as she is described here, to have been making an orderly, gallant voyage of discovery into the unconscious, but she does smash windowpanes, bellow, crawl like an animal, wet herself, call herself a pig and a dog, run away, hide under tables, try to strangle her child. It is the invisible presence of the delusory world around such a person that frightens: the guns and spies, the unpredictable threats and impingements and metamorphoses. Mary Barnes (who appears briefly as a visitor in Anna) has described a psychosis successfully lived through in Laing’s therapeutic community, but she was not grossly deluded in this sense; and she did not just “come through,” but acted out her horrors with a dedicated therapist for a long and exhausting time.

Although David Reed fills in some of the background to Anna’s story, as a document it is still unsatisfying because it does not, cannot, elucidate what from her point of view was actually happening to her: why at one moment she was shouting, for instance, “fifteen minutes’ peace: then down below with the dogs,” at another moment believing her parents-in-law were concealed in a tree, at another that Chinese soldiers were invading; why, above all, her act of self-destruction was carried out almost immediately after she seemed to be emerging into perfect sanity. How was her delusory world made up, what was its rationale, its compass points, its symbolism and prototype? Her letters and diary, quoted by the author, accuse the people around her of needing her to be mad, but we cannot know whether, as the Laingian explanation would presumably have it, there was a thread of truth in this or not.

To be less estranged from madness, in ourselves or others, can only be a freedom; when we read one of the classics of madness, seen from the outside as in The Divided Self or from the inside as in Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, we can trace its particular logic, and its connection with other kinds of logic. Anna produces pity and terror, but not that enlightenment.

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