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Unlocking the Mind’s Manacles

Again, Bateson’s own background would have provided Ugazio with a good example. David Lipset’s biography of the anthropologist2 portrays an adolescent who determinedly sought out a median position between his “poetic” brother, Martin, and his “scientific” father, William, in a situation where poetry was considered an indulgence legitimate only for the most gifted and science a self-denying crusade to advance human knowledge. An equilibrium was hard to find, as Bateson’s frequent feelings of guilt when embarking on his first anthropological projects suggest. His lifelong obsession with mechanisms of self-adjustment, transforming, as it were, his personal difficulties into his science, would seem to confirm this reading, which also allows apparently minor details of his working methods to take on unexpected meaning. About Bateson’s research on schizophrenia at the Palo Alto Veterans’ hospital, Lipset remarks:

Although the project’s interstitial position between disciplines and between institutions had meant a degree of financial insecurity, Bateson often remarked that he protected his scientific freedom in this way, sheltering it under “three umbrellas.” His project was housed in a hospital, was funded by grants from independent agencies, and these were administered through the anthropology Department at Stanford University. “When you have three bosses,” he was fond of saying, “you have none.” Each institution maintained that the other was supervising.

Or, as one of Bateson’s colleagues remarked, “Nobody knew what the hell he was doing.”

Well, what the hell was a British anthropologist doing in the psychi-atric ward of a California hospital? It’s a question to which Ugazio addresses herself at length, and one whose answer will bring us to her own most important innovation in Storie permesse….


Fascinated by the relationship between his own work and the fast-developing field of communications theory, Bateson accepted an invitation to join a study of “human communication in psychotherapy.” It was a period when he immersed himself in both the harsh realities of psychiatric medicine and the theoretical complexities of “digital” and “analogic” forms of communication in verbal and nonverbal speech, developing the idea that all messages imply a hierarchy whereby one element—perhaps literal meaning—is placed in context by another—perhaps body language. The latter allows the recipient to put the former in context. It was out of this study that his most famous concept, the idea of the double bind, was developed.

Bateson was working with schizophrenics, who frequently fail to appreciate the sense in which a message is to be understood. A routine question from a waitress—“How can I help you?”—might be understood as a sexual proposition and elicit a most inappropriate response. Or again, to be told by the same girl that a dish on the menu is not available might be understood as part of an elaborate international conspiracy and lead to an angry scene. Instead of looking for the cause of this disturbance in the isolated or traumatized psyche (as psychoanalysis tends to do), or in a specific organic dysfunction (as traditional medicine demands), Bateson suggested that the schizophrenic has rather “learned” to “live in a universe where the sequences of events are such that his unconventional habits of communication will be…appropriate.” His disorder, that is, is part of a larger system.

What were these “sequences of events” and the system they implied? We can imagine a child who from birth receives contradictory messages from the person most involved in his upbringing, usually the mother: the content perhaps seductive, but the body language discouraging, or vice versa. Bateson’s example of such behavior in the paper Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia (1956) has often been quoted. A young man recovering from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother.

He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, “Don’t you love me any more?” He then blushed, and she said, “Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings.” The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes more and following her departure he assaulted an aide….

The example is followed by a two-page analysis in which Bateson remarks among other things on the fact that the schizophrenic’s apparent state of subjection does not allow him to comment on his mother’s contradictory behavior. She rejects affection, demands affection, then criticizes her son for an inhibition she has herself just induced. Ultimately, Bateson claims, the patient is up against the impossible dilemma: “If I am to keep my tie to mother, I must not show her that I love her, but if I do not show her that I love her, then I will lose her.”

Bateson maintained that a lifetime of such behavior would induce a structural trauma, as if the mind were constantly put before conundrums of the variety “All statements on this page are false.” Faced with this “double bind,” the child himself begins to communicate in the same way, wildly dissociating verbal and nonverbal communication, and confusing literal and metaphorical statements. As a result, conversation with a schizophrenic can often follow the pattern of a bizarre series of non sequiturs where the “normal” party to the dialogue frequently suspects that he is being made fun of.

It would be hard to exaggerate the enthusiasm which Bateson’s double bind aroused. For those in psychotherapy who had begun to suspect the limitations of an exasperated delving into the individual psyche, the idea that a mental illness was part of a system of communication and might thus be treated by altering the way people operated together, rather than by dealing with them individually, was extremely exciting. No complex histories need be elicited, no insight painstakingly imparted. All you had to do was change people’s behavior in such a way that the schizophrenic response was no longer “appropriate.”

A school of therapy rapidly developed which involved getting a whole family together to be interviewed by one or two therapists while others watched, taped, and even filmed the session through a one-way mirror. After discussion at the end of the session, members of the family would be ordered to perform some task or follow some instruction designed to alter the way they behaved together. A hyperactive, domineering mother, for example, might be ordered to spend a month in bed. In 1975, reviewing a group of books about the family therapy movement, the psychoanalyst Elsa First remarked in these pages: “Many in the family therapy movement prefer to think of themselves as anthropological consultants to very small tribes in distress, rather than as doctors who cure individual ‘cases’ of psychological illness.”3

Yet all was not well. As Ugazio points out, Bateson soon realized that the connection of his theory of a special kind of communication problem, the double bind, to an illness as complex and intractable as schizophrenia had been a mistake. The theory didn’t suggest why one member of the family was affected rather than another; it didn’t explain the difference between the preschizophrenic and the schizophrenic, or why some double binds might be damaging and others, as Bateson believed, therapeutic. But the worst blow to the theory came in 1966 when the original members of Bateson’s team were invited to consider material presented to them by psychiatric patients and their parents and to pronounce on any double binds. Faced with numerous accounts and audiotapes of family conversations, their disagreement was complete. Apparently they had no criteria for identifying what was a double bind and what was not.

To complicate matters, a conflict had arisen between Bateson and Jay Haley, his most talented collaborator. Haley was a practical therapist and eager to use the ideas the project had been developing to get results. While Bateson would spend weeks chatting amiably with schizophrenics and taking notes, Haley wanted to save them, to transform them. Bateson, however, was uneasy about his manipulative and invasive methods. The guiding principle of Bateson’s work had been that social behavior is part of a delicate interacting ecology and that the mistake of traditional science was to believe that it could isolate areas of study and act upon them from a stable position outside it. However well-meaning, intervention into something so complex as a schizophrenic’s family might make things worse. It is hardly surprising then that just as Haley’s hands-on manual Strategies of Psychotherapy appeared in 1963, Bateson abandoned the Palo Alto project to study patterns of communication among dolphins in the Virgin Islands. Nobody could reasonably expect him to change the lives of dolphins. His real goal in Palo Alto, he explained rather defensively, had never been therapy, but research.


Valeria Ugazio does not disguise the fact that she came to Bateson not directly but through the influence of her first mentor, the Milan-based psychotherapist Mara Selvini. For precisely as the “systemic approach” lost its intellectual father in the US, it gained a new and charismatic champion in Italy. Selvini came to international notoriety with one of the earliest studies of anorexia, Self-Starvation, in later editions of which she offers a Batesonian model for “the anorectic family”: the disorder was to be seen, that is, as the result of a system of relationships and patterns of communication in the family.4

Selvini connected the rapid rise of anorexia to the process of transition which was then radically altering the Italian family, eroding the old imperative of group solidarity in favor of a philosophy of self-realization. The situation was particularly disorienting, Selvini claimed, for women, who after being expected to sacrifice everything for husband and children now saw themselves as potentially equal players on the family stage. The result, at least in the families she was dealing with, was a sort of covert, never-to-be-resolved power struggle where each person was chiefly bent on self-realization but nevertheless obsessively determined, in deference to the old ethos, to disguise every personal initiative as a gesture of self-sacrifice. A typical discussion in family therapy runs thus:

MOTHER: I have forbidden her (the patient) to wear miniskirts because I know her father doesn’t like them.

FATHER: I’ve always supported whatever my wife forbade the girls in my name. I felt it would be wrong to contradict her.

Ultimately, Selvini claimed, the contradictory desire to think of oneself as the person who has sacrificed most while in fact seeking to control everybody else could lead to a situation where authority is only acceptable when it springs from a pathology and is thus apparently beyond the individual will. Not for nothing, she claimed, does the refusal to eat combine an apparent gesture of self-sacrifice with a disorder that will demand attention and confer control as the family begins to function entirely in relation to the patient’s symptom.

Systemic theorists never sought to explain the exact shift in the chemistry of the brain when a neurotic or psychotic symptom is first manifested (an achievement that has so far eluded the most advanced medical research), but rather looked for consistent patterns relating a disorder to the surrounding system of relationships. Thus, aside from taking account of the general transition in family life, Selvini concurred with other observers in finding that the families of anorectics tended to be characterized by an extremely strong mother complemented by a chronically weak father. (The dialogue above is again typical in this regard.) In such a situation the “sacrifice” of not eating, a weapon directed far more at the mother than at the father, could be justified by the anorectic at a subliminal level as an attempt to redress the balance of power while in fact amounting to a determined attempt take over the traditionally dominant male role for herself.

  1. 2

    Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist (Prentice-Hall, 1980).

  2. 3

    The New Wave in Psychiatry,” The New York Review, February 20, 1975.

  3. 4

    See Self-Starvation: From the Intrapsychic to the Transpersonal Approach to Anorexia Nervosa (Jason Aronson, 1978).

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