Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sanity, madness and the family


I've mentioned this book, by RD Laing and A Esterson, before. It is stunning. It is a study of eleven patients in the forties and fifties who were diagnosed as schizophrenic. The studies give extracts from interviews with the patients and their families, with a commentary by Laing and Esterson. They are poignant reading. These people were not so much mentally ill as deeply unhappy and pushed into situations where they broke. I write often about people being criminalised because they are forced into situations where they can do nothing other than offend. This is much the same thing: these poor individuals were pressed to the edge of their tolerance and they capitulated. It is impossible not to feel desperately sorry for the waste of lives which ensued.

All eleven are extraordinary, but it is the story of Ruth Gold which touched me most. When she was twenty she was hospitalised repeatedly and finally diagnosed as schizophrenic. Throughout her interviews (when she was 28) she comes across as a clever, reasonable woman. Her behaviour and her 'illness' when she was young appear no more than a youthful stretching of the mind. She wore colourful clothing. She made friends with 'odd' people and even brought them home. As her father notes after one such episode:
There have been writers and God knows what.

Ah, those writers, not to be trusted...

The ending of this study is completely heartbreaking:

INTERVIEWER: But do you feel you have to agree with what most of the people around you believe?
RUTH: Well if I don't I usually land up in hospital.

It almost makes you weep, that breaking of a human spirit. I would dearly like to know what happened to Ruth in her life. I hope it improved. She strikes me as a fine person.

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