Saturday, 29 April 2017

raleigh park, reading, rd laing, aaron esterson







Spring in Raleigh Park, which I walk through each morning - unless I have an early meeting.

It's been nine months since the 18 bus was axed and I've been doing this walk - see post of Saturday 29th October 2016 and the earlier ones it links to, of 20th and 23rd July 2016. As I come through the gate from the road and see this view, my heart gladdens.

The other morning, I was listening to the World Service, just after getting up at 4.30, and it was a programme about the revolutionary psychiatrist RD Laing - part of the brilliant Witness series (also available as podcasts). I'd never read Laing that I could remember but when they were talking about his book Sanity, Madness and the Family things sounded so familiar I thought I must have read this one. Only later did it dawn on me that the book I'd read was The Leaves of Spring by Aaaron Esterson, the earlier book's co-author. The Leaves of Spring is a much more detailed account of one of the family case studies featured in Sanity, Madness and the Family - that of Sarah Danzig, a schizophrenic patient in her early twenties.

I downloaded an ebook of Sanity, Madness and the Family to my phone and have been reading it on the bus to and from work. It's not been an easy experience, although it has helped me to make deeper sense of quite a lot of things that happened in the early nineties. When I was trying to break free of the distressing situation at home and to understand it, I came across Esterson's book on the shelves outside the second-hand bookshop that used to be in the old Cantay warehouse on Park End street. I remember devouring it. It promised to make so much sense to me then - and yet when I tried to apply what I had learnt to my own experiences I met with masses of barriers. I could see all the gaslighting, the bullying, the switches between cruelty and over-compensating love. But this only got me so far because there were no secrets in the family, as far as I could tell, to help explain its behaviours.

What happened in 1996 and since revealed all the things that were being concealed and now, from my current perspective, reading about Sarah and the other people featured in the case studies helps to explain a lot. I am struck now, for instance, by Sarah's mother shouting at her for thinking too much and for constantly reading the Bible. ('No matter how her mother shouted at her she would not stop "thinking"...') I remember being shouted at for reading 'bloody books'* - not the Bible but certainly ones that were fulfilling the same function for me as the Bible did for Sarah. As Laing and Esterson say of her reading of the Bible: 'The fact that she read the Bible in an effort to throw light on her present experience was completely incomprehensible to this family.'

I'm still reading in order to understand. I am fascinated, comforted and horrified by this week's reading. But above all I am thankful that such books were written and that reading is such a valuable forum for learning, debate and personal growth.

* I think I'm right in saying that John Cowper Powys also referred at some point to parents getting angry when a child loved reading. I think it must partly be about the child doing something that the parent simply can't relate to. Partly to do with the child doing something on their own that doesn't include the parent. And in some cases, partly to do with the fact that reading circumvents all the attempts to stop the child coming into contact with different ideas (and people) outside the family - ones that are contrary to the orthodoxy of the family; a means of escape and of perspective.

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