New Internationalist

A Bloody Awful Situation

Issue 118

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THE FAMILY [image, unknown] Personal happiness

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'A bloody awful situation'
R. D. Laing set the psychiatric establishment on its ear in the 1960s with his incisive analysis of madness in family life. Debbie Taylor visited the outspoken Scot in his consulting room to discuss his latest views.

AT five minutes to two exactly the double doors to the inner sanctum open. A pale middle-aged woman a patient? With fawn boots and fawn hair comes out, smiles vaguely, nods to the secretary, then leaves. Behind her, ducking beneath a vast rubber plant flanking the doorway, peering over his specs, one hand in cardigan pocket, one hand outstretched, comes Laing.

‘Go on in. I won’t be a minute’.

The room is perfect: a hymn to the sixties curtains drawn with recessed spotlights picking out the couch, the African tables and rugs, the ranks of books carpeting floor and walls, and with a spotlight all of its own a vast ornate metal object standing in a corner and bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a phallus.

I had come to talk about families to a man who’d earned his reputation as psychiatrist, philosopher and poet from research that added up to a complete indictment of nuclear family life. Laing, it was said in the days when the Beatles donned caftans and every adolescent wrote poetry and read the I Ching. Laing takes mad people seriously.

And so he did. He listened to them, sat in front parlours with their families and emerged gasping to argue that madness was an extreme but entirely logical reaction to the irreconcilable demands and pressures of a schizophrenic’s family life. He came away gasping he says, because ‘my asthma is a very sensitive index of not being able to breathe. The atmosphere there was several degrees more carbon monoxide than I could stand.’

According to Laing, and other ‘radical psychiatrists’ like Reich and Cooper, schizophrenics feel suffocated because their families give them no space to develop personalities of their own. Parents try to mould each other and their offspring to suit their own needs. A child who tries to communicate feelings is either ignored or has those feelings systematically denied or redefined by parents who only see and hear what suits them. This results either in someone who acquiesces to her parents’ demands, a rebel who distances herself from them or someone who no longer knows what to think or believe, who can’t tell fantasy from reality a confused and frightened schizophrenic.

Today many psychiatrists believe it takes more than a suffocating childhood to cause schizophrenia: though few would disagree that families play a major part in forcing the retreat into madness. But what about families with ‘normal’ children?

Says Laing, ‘It’s hard to convey the actual taste of these so-called ‘normal’ families. I worked with them when I was working with families of schizophrenics. Everything seemed very nice in a way you know, floral wallpaper, glass display cabinets but after a while all sorts of eccentricities would begin to be noticeable in the fine stitching... carbon monoxide!’

‘In the nuclear family’, Laing explains, ‘husband and wife are supposed to be everything to each other to satisfy all economic, emotional and sexual needs. There’s no dissolution of energy to or from the outside. They’re kicked in but feel too guilty to escape. And their frustration and resentment sticks to their children. Its a pretty miserable scene.

‘The only thing you can say to a child in a family like that and rye said it to some children is “you’re in a bloody awful situation and you’ve got to stay in it for another ten years because there’s nothing else except a government institution and that would be even worse. The only thing to do is to keep out of it as much as you can and leave as soon as possible”.’

Still, most people cling to the ideals of the nuclear family. You would think that growing up in a suffocating environment would mean you would be especially sensitive to your own children’s experience. Why is itso many people bring their children up in the same way if they know it won’t make them happy? ‘Because most families are not obviously miserable either,’ Laing says. ‘They are comparatively happy in a sort of slumber-some way. And there’s no alternative if a certain way of life is so ingrained that it becomes your whole horizon.

To illustrate the power of what he calls ‘ingraining’, the pull of the familiar, he talks about his 90-year-old aunt who had moved to south-east England in her teens to work in London. Every morning for 50 years she commuted to work in the rush hour. ‘And when she retired she would come into London once a week in the rush hour just so she could be pushed and squeezed. It was what she missed the most that sense of life.’

And people are the same about their families. They may suffocate you. But at least you know you’re alive. It seems a curious logic. Where does happiness fit in?

‘Happiness is being at peace with yourself,’ he says hesitantly after a long silence. But how can you be at peace with yourself if your personality has been stunted and shoe-horned into such a constricting environment? On one side is the nuclear family, a domestic scene of Mutually Assured Destruction. On the other is the state, waiting to envelop us in a concrete embrace. And in the middle you and I imprisoned just as securely by our ingrainedness’ as by any iron bars. Isn’t there any escape.

‘As soon as you realise that what constricts you is nothing but social conditioning, that it’s just what you’ve been hypnotised to believe as soon as you realise that, then you have the option to make hell or heaven out of it. No one needs to live in an oxygen-starved atmosphere unless they choose.

‘If I lived the way I’d been ingrained to live r d be in a three-room council flat in the south side of Glasgow doing God knows what Now I’m 55, I’ve had eight children and two marriages and we’re part of a network of five or six families who live within an hour’s walk of each other. We go on holiday together and the children are always in and out of each others’ houses. So there’s no claustrophobia’

I thought of the beautiful, white, four storey Hampstead house we were in, of the bold brass plate simply proclaiming ’Laing’ And I thought of his wife glimpsed in a huge pine and cork-tiled kitchen coping with a demanding seven-year-old. And Laing on the ‘phone saying his wife and secretary organised his appointments for him. Glancing at the metal phallus in the corner, I wondered how claustrophobic his wife feels.

After all, he’s described the way his leisure time is organised. But what about work time the division of labour between men, women and children. It is Laing who earns the money that pays the bills to buy his family’s clothes.

Doesn’t that create dependency and stimulate resentment?

‘I don’t know about this division of labour between the sexes,’ he says. ‘A lot of men and women actually like it’ But society rains down so many punishments on people who step outside their allotted sex roles that whether they actually like it or not is beside the point They have very little choice in the matter. Laing nods in agreement: ‘It’s terribly ingrained and terribly reinforced. How can you expect to halt the momentum of aeons of cultural conditioning in just one generation? But I think people of my generation have made a start The results show in our children. They’re so different from what I was like at their age less guilty, less jealous.’

However, not everyone welcomes these changes. Many people group crime, homosexuality, abortion, illegitimacy and delinquency together as social evils stemming from ‘the decline of the family’. Their logic is that good families create good people. Laing doesn’t buy that argument at all.

‘That’s a very primitive circular argument You might as well say that abortion is causing the decline of the family. Or that the family causes abortion. Families produce those same people that are supposed to be causing the destruction of the family.’

But surely it is the argument’s very circularity that makes it so convincing? A proper family produces proper children and proper children are those that have proper families of their own and don’t avail themselves of the options’ in society. Everyone goes on, toeing the line and being miserable.

The logic only breaks down when you find happy children coming from families that are not ‘proper’ in conservative terms.

‘It doesn’t matter if it’s a family, a reform school, a boarding school or a kibbutz just as long as people are happy. My son goes to the local school. And he seems quite happy, and his friends too. Yet the headmistress tells me that 70 per cent of the children there come from so-called broken homes.

I've rejected trying to think up utopias, but any paradise on earth has to be a society where people enjoy each others’ company. The most common fear that I’ve come across is the fear of other people. That’s one of the main barriers to happiness. And it’s a fear they learn very early from those people already in their world. They learn to fear adults. And that’s a pity. It breeds people who don’t trust other people an inch and quite rightly. How do you get out of that?’

KIDS TALK
‘I have spent a considerable part of my life studying unenjoyable communication and failure to communicate, much of it in family contexts, and in depicting, describing and theorising about this domain of misery.

‘The other side of the story has not been looked at nearly so much. The language of a happy dialogue, when it is not knotted, entangled and entangling, can be a free and open space between us instead of a deadening, suffocating zone’, writes Laing in Conversations with children (Penguin 1978). In this excerpt from the book, Natasha, Laing’s three year-old daughter and Jutta, his wife, change roles in what Laing calls ‘a most intimate reciprocity’.

Natasha are you sad?

Jutta yes

Natasha are you sad about life?

Jutta yes

Natasha I still like you. (pause) Shall I be your mummy?

Jutta O Natasha

Natasha I'll be your mummy adn you can have a rest for a little while, alright?

Jutta alright

Natasha alright
(She gives Jutta a hug and a kiss and runs off. She returns after a few minutes.)

Natasha I don't want to be your mummy any more. Was that nice?

Jutta yes. Thank you Natasha.

Natasha that's alright. You a little less sad now?

Jutta yes


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