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E very writer has a "How I became a writer" story. It's what interviewers and audiences always ask for, and quite understandably; some explanation is needed for embarking on a course of conduct so egotistic, impoverishing and bizarre.
Some authors reply sweetly: "I was born a writer. The initial impetus is lost in a murky swamp of happenstance. I sometimes say that I wrote my first book because it didn't exist, and I wanted to read it.
That's true as far as it goes, but if I am asked about "influences" I find it hard to give a slick answer. Some of us need a little push, before we recognise we have the right to pick up a pen. Laing was the better-known partner in this collaboration. In the s and 70s, he was fashionable and famous. His cultural influence has lasted, though some wish otherwise; his work reinforced the scepticism many feel about the biological basis of mental and emotional distress.
But he died in , and if you mention him nowadays you are likely to be met with stories of his disorderly private life, or with a distorted version of his work. He didn't, as some claimed, accuse parents of making their children schizophrenic; he interrogated the whole idea of schizophrenia as a clinical entity.
He was exceptionally alive to language and gesture, to the layers of meaning in every utterance; alive, also, to power play, to conscious and unconscious manipulations. He had seen the pain, terror and desolation of madness. He did not glamorise it or claim it didn't exist. He and his co-workers suggested that the way some families worked could generate psychotic behaviour in one member, who was selected, more or less unconsciously, to bear the brunt of family dysfunction.
I picked up his book one afternoon in and read it in one sitting. The people in it seemed close enough to touch.
I had already read Laing's more famous work, The Divided Self, and I wasn't sure I entirely grasped it; its case histories made my heart sink, but I struggled with its abstractions. But Sanity, Madness and the Family is vivid, direct, gripping. It is a series of interviews with families, who each include one member who has spent time in psychiatric hospitals.
Each interview is a novel or play in miniature. The material was gathered between and , so the families described still live in the shadow of the second world war.
They are very different, on the surface, from families today, but I wonder if the dynamics have changed so much. The ploys, the shifts of sense, the secrets and the ambivalence still seem familiar. In the hospitals where Laing had trained, it was axiomatic that doctors and nurses didn't "talk to psychosis". The patient was sick and generating nonsense, and you should not encourage it.
Laing thought that, if you listened, the patient would tell you how her world worked; the language might be metaphorical, even surreal, but that was logical in a context where plain speech had been penalised and where children had been taught, as they grew, to distrust their own perception and memory, and give way to the memories and perceptions of others.
In Laing's families, there is always a version behind the version. There are truths one member is allowed to air, that another member is forbidden to utter. The weakest finds him or herself in a lose-lose situation, unable to please, locked in a circuit of invalidation. Madness may, in some circumstances, seem a strategy for survival.
All this is played out in the pages of interviews, in trite little words that I cannot quote without the space to set the scene for each. So many of these family conversations seemed familiar to me: their swerves and evasions, their doubleness. All the patients profiled in the book are young women. I know their names are pseudonyms, but over the years I've wondered desperately what happened to them, and if there's anyone alive who knows, and whether any of them ever cut free from the choking knotweed of miscommunication and flourished on ground of their own: Ruth, who was thought odd because she wore coloured stockings; Jean, who wanted a baby though her whole family told her she didn't; and Sarah, whose breakdown, according to her family, was caused by too much thinking.
In the course of the recorded conversations, their families trip and contradict them. The interviewer records their signals - winks, smirks, nods - and how, when the "mad" member protests, they say: "What, me? I didn't do anything.
Left is right, up is down, and, often enough, your mother's your sister, and your father's not your father. Laing asked his reader: "Is it what you already knew, expected, suspected?
Do these things go on in all sorts of families? You didn't find social workers and mad-doctors knocking on suburban doors, and if my own friends were in trouble they just stopped eating, bearing smiling and skeletal witness to long-running family tensions. There is a right time to read every book, and was the time for me to read this one. I was a law student, and a placement with the probation service had put me on the alert for what is coldly described as multiple family dysfunction.
On Manchester high-rise estates I had seen the sour human comedy enacted: dad pickled in alcohol, mum a nervy chain-smoking wreck, son a "young offender" caught up in a spiral of petty crime, pregnant daughter banging on the doors of the nearest psychiatric unit.
Ah, the 70s: what a golden age! I was struck by how the men acted and the women reacted, how sons fought and thieved but daughters fell ill.
I needed to see my instincts systematised, and when I read Laing, the dynamics were suddenly clear. For most of my life I had been told that I didn't know how the world worked. That afternoon I decided I did know, after all.
In the course of my 21 years I'd noticed quite a lot. If I wanted to be a writer, I didn't have to worry about inventing material, I'd already got it. The next stage was just to find some words. Topics Hilary Mantel Author, author. Fiction comment. Reuse this content. Most popular.
Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics
Author, author: Every writer has a 'How I became a writer' story
Sanity, Madness, and the Family
Sanity, Madness and the Family