| Kingsley Hall is a three story brown brick settlement house located ill
the heart of London's East End. Many of England's social services were pioneered at Kingsley Hall by Doris and
Muriel Lester, the two spinster sisters who provided for the construction of the Hall and devoted their lives to
caring for the East End's poor there.
Between the two World Wars Kingsley Hall was also a centre for radical politics. During the general strikes of 1926 workers and their families kipped out on its roof and its soup kitchen fed thousands of famished East Enders. In 1931 Mohandas Gandhi chose Kingsley Hall as his official residence during a six-month visit to London for the purpose of negotiating the independence of India with the British Government. He lived in a tiny cell oil the roof accompanied by a goat, which furnished Gandhi with milk.
After World War Two Kingsley Hall limped oil as a youth hostel and community activities centre. The Lesters had gotten old and no longer took an active hand in running the place. More importantly, the government had begin to implement most of the welfare services which the Lesters had advocated and inaugurated.
In 1964 Dr. Ronald Laing and his colleagues asked the Lesters for the use of the hall is a community for themselves and a few people in a state of psychosis. The sisters, who were looking for such a group to put the hall to some socially redeeming purpose, allowed Laing, his co-workers and friends to live ill the hall for five years, rent-free. By 1965 the first members-including Mary Barnes-of the new Kingsley Hall community had begun to move in.
What is 'psychosis'? Why start a community in which psychotic people, may live?
Psychosis is a stale of reality akin to a waking dream. In many cultures people in this state are treated with a great deal of respect and may occupy the position of priest or shaman. In western society psychosis is sometimes considered a form of social deviancy, hut usually is looked upon, as an illness,' a mental illness'. Once psychosis was considered an illness, anyone who manifested it had to be isolated from people who might otherwise 'catch' it. The medical profession took upon itself the task of getting people out of this state.
In the late 1800's doctors recognised several kinds of psychotic states and lumped them under the general label of schizophrenia, which eventually led to the confusing practice using the terms s schizophrenia and psychosis interchangeably. In present usage schizophrenia is only a label applied for one person - usually the doctor - against another person who is usually forced into the role of a patient, but who may have chosen it. In this way the label is used to invalidate the psychotic behaviour or experience by calling it 'sick.' In other words, schizophrenia is a product of a social doctor-patient situation. When this fact is forgotten, tile sickening label 'schizophrenia' is mistaken for the experiential state 'psychosis.'
Although medical fashions change, the essential element in the treatment that has been offered to mental patients over the past couple of hundred years is arm-twisting. The doctor twists the arm of his patient ill order to force him to wake up.
In the 1800's starvation and dunking were two of the treatments employed against psychotic individuals. Dunking was a holdover from the inquisition. The patient was strapped into a chair, which was lowered into a lake or large tub of water. The patient was kept under the water until he nearly drowned, then allowed to come up for air, then dunked again. After two or three go 'rounds the poor soul was asked if he still heard voices (for example). If he was smart, he said, "No!" even if he still heard them. Then he would be proclaimed cured. If the patient was stupid, or confused, or didn't care, he would reply in the affirmative and would be subject to further dunking. Modern medicine uses electric and chemical shock for the same purpose. If the patient doesn't respond in the way that the doctor wants him to respond (By yelling, "Uncle!"), the procedure is never blamed. Rather the patient is reported to have a poor prognosis.
Doctors and their co?professionals treat their patients in a violent and injurious manner because they do not understand the nature of the experience and behaviour of their patients. Medical people are afraid of what they do not understand, either in others or in themselves, and seek to eradicate it by whatever means happens to be medically fashionable.
Much to the annoyance of the many people who would prefer to wrap dreams or dreamlike states in a shroud of physiologic disturbance, no anatomical, biochemical, electrical, genetic or any other physical links have ever been positively correlated with the experiential state we know as psychosis. On the contrary the so?called unintelligible words or deeds demonstrated by people who have entered a psychosis have been shown to be quite intelligible once the immediate social environment of the psychotic individual is taken into account. Furthermore it has been discovered that chaotic social relationships often seem to drive a person into psychosis. By so doing the individual is trying to escape from his field of interpersonal disturbance. For example, young people often enter into a psychosis in order to break out of an impossible family situation. The family may respond by getting this youngster labelled 'sick.' Mother, father, sister, brother, uncle or aunt etc. do this to avoid becoming aware of the interpersonal swamp in which they are mired. Labelling is also a way of perpetuating a multigenerational power struggle with the 'afflicted' family member.
If psychosis is not an illness, what is it? This is the fundamental issue, which Laing and his colleagues sought to explore in their proposed community. They saw many similarities between psychosis and shamanistic or mystical experiences. The latter were cyclic events usually involving a death and rebirth of the spirit. Perhaps psychosis was also a cyclic experiential phenomenon incorporating a period of egoic and emotional disintegration and then a period of egoic and emotional rebirth, or re-integration. The only way to find out was to create a social environment where a person in a psychotic state could pass through the entirety of the experience. The Kingsley Hall community was set up in order to serve as this kind of social environment. The non-psychotic members of the community would provide a life support system for the person(s) undergoing the psychotic 'trip.' The prediction was that whomever went the whole distance would emerge egoically, emotionally, and possibly spiritually stronger.
Mary Barnes was the rust to make this journey at Kingsley Hall. After a prolonged period of emotional disintegration, she did indeed emerge a much stronger and more 'together' person. And during the two years it took her to pass through the most profound stages of her psychosis she never took any drugs nor was she given any other psychiatric treatment. However, it did take a lot of hard work to sustain her life, about the same as has to be expended in looking after a newborn baby.
There were no doctors nor patients at Kingsley Hall. No treatment was offered. The life style of the community approximated that of a hippie commune. The principle social distinction lay between those who were 'up' and those who were 'down.' The latter had CR chosen to enter a psychotic or quasi psychotic state and were taken care of by the other members of the community, some of whom went out to work during the day. Quite commonly people who had come to Kingsley Hall to serve as helpers 'went down' and needed to be looked after. However, residents occasionally did step out of their psychosis (carne up') and helped in the care of former helpers.
Many residents came from the United States. Among them were four New York psychiatrists who participated in the founding and the development of the community. The four, all of whom had been buddies in medical school, included Morton (Morty) Schatzman, Leon Redler, Jerome Liss and myself. Morty has written a fine account of the structure of the Kingsley Hall community how it functioned, what problems it had to face and also of its historical antecedents. This account, entitled, Madness and Morals, has been recently published as a chapter in, COUNTER CULTURE: The Creation of an Alternative Society, which I have edited.
Several members of the Kingsley Hall community contributed to Morty's account. They related what Kingsley Hall meant to them. One said, "The main thing about my family and mental hospitals as opposed to Kingsley Hall is that here a number of divergent people come together to meet and to try to live out a life with one another where they can live out their differences, have rows, disagree intently, decide to do things in ways that will offend others, and still for them to be tolerated, and for people doing this gradually to become aware of other people and their inter-effects upon one another. I'm convinced this doesn't happen in a mental hospital: I know it doesn't.
There, in mental hospitals, it's very difficult to relate to people at all in any sense other than the part they want you to play so you've got to learn what rules they want you to carry out in their scheme of things: whereas here you find various people and you can open up to them and talk, and relate, and build up understanding. Not where one person tells another what he should want, how he should dress and eat. One of the things between Kingsley Hall-between a free situation-and a bound situation is that here a person can do something and isn't made to conform his behaviour in relation to a model of what others think is right and wrong."
Another stated, "Those who live here see 'Kingsley Hall' each in his own way ... in common to all who live here . . . is a bafflement or refusal as to fulfilment of 'identity' . . . the problem is for each to discover some inner need, and to find a way to trust it.... It is in honour of this, that Kingsley Hall is a place, simply, where some may encounter selves long forgotten or distorted."
Morty concluded, "Does Kingsley Hall succeed? An irrelevant question: it does no harm; it does no 'cure.' It stands silent, peopled by real ghosts; so silent that, given time, given luck, they may hear their own hearts beat and elucidate the rhythm."