Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness
By Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
351 pp. Illustrated. $7.50.
Reviewed by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
MARY BARNES was born in 1923 "feet first, without fingernails" into an abnormally nice family in Portsmouth,
Hampshire, England. Whenever tension threatened to crack the Barnes's outer serenity, Father's hand would make a pushing down movement; Mother would retire with a headache; and all would remain outwardly calm.
More children were born: a brother, Peter, when Mary was about 2; two more daughters each birth a punishing trial for Mother. Meanwhile, Mary had difficulty learning to speak, developed the habit of playing with her excrement, did poorly in school, was extremely clumsy with her hands, fought with Peter. Still, for a while the
family remained calm and close?nice. Peter was the first to crack. In his early teens, he dropped out of school, 'retired to his room, had to be placed in a mental hospital, and was pronounced a hopeless victim of dementia praecox. ("We slew Peter to preserve our shells," Mary recalls.)
In the meantime, Mary had taken up nurse's training, entered the army, undergone a conversion to Catholicism, entered a convent. But nothing would relieve her from her growing sense of anxiety and frequent feelings of being dead. She hated nursing, could not fit into routines. She suffered a breakdown, spent time in a violent ward, recovered superficially.
Mary began to look for psychotherapeutic help. She read the available literature and even wrote to Anna, Freud, who advised her to `leave well enough alone." Eventually, through a friend, Mary reached "Ronnie" R. D. Laing, the anti?Establishment psychiatrist from Glasgow. After an agonizing wait of almost two years, she was admitted in 1965 into Laing's experimental community at Kingsley Hall in the East End of London.. Within a matter of weeks, she had retired to her bed. There she lay naked in her excrement, refusing to talk or eat, "going down" to prenatal infancy, a "hopelessly" regressed schizophrenic caught in the spider web of her emotional ontogeny.
This much of Mary's extraordinary and harrowing story we learn from her own comparatively coherent retrospective ? account, which takes up the first quarter of this book. Then, following a brief chapter by Joseph Berke, a Young American doctor who had come to Kingsley Hall in rebellion against what he saw as the restrictive, oppressive and manipulative character of the American psychiatric profession, we plunge into Mary's account of her "Down" years.
It is a travelogue through a psychic Walpurgis night, fragmentary, onrushing, claustrophobic; filled with run?on sentences, distorted Incidents, puzzling references. As far as we can tell, Mary is almost alone at Kingsley Hall, the other residents mere shadows. Strangely, her life seems to consist of nothing but sucking, grunting, playing "sharks" and "crocodiles" with a large presence called Joe, wetting, defecating, going frozen, and feeling bad. She covers the walls and herself with her excrement; Joe loves her nonetheless; cleans her up in a warm bath. Joe tells her, "Don't be a peat"; he "turns round with his hand. Flaps it across my face and carries on." Always there is kind "Ronnie," loving, bear like Joe, herself, and "IT" (the thing inside her that makes her go dead).
Then gradually, after years, light begins to break through. Instead of playing with her feces, Mary begins to paint. She starts to distinguish herself from the Other: People begin to take shape around her. She sees that some occurrences are not her fault and not intended to punish her. She grasps the idea that 'IT' is her anger and jealousy too powerful to be acknowledged directly. Her paintings improve, and begin to attract the world's attention. "Then struggling free, like a fish getting back into the sea from a net, I swam, gradually, as IT I had never been caught. The sight of the past was falling away. The sea was tree."
Still, it is not until Joe Berke tells his version of Mary's ordeal that we experience the shock, the humor, and the relief of perspective. We learn that Mary was not alone in Kingsley Hall but surrounded by a lively community that found her extremely trying. We learn how Kingsley Hall functioned during those years. We learn why Joe growled and played "sharks" with Mary. It was to show her that her anger would not destroy him. We see how very unlovable Mary could be; how Joe almost walked out on her when he found her covered with her excrement. We learn that the "flap" of his hand across her face was in fact a violent punch that nearly broke her nose, not to mention Joe's faith In the experiment. We learn what lay at the bottom of Mary's "hopeless" condition. We witness the "untying of the knot."
Perhaps it is clear by now what an extremely rich book this is how it combines a personal drama of redemption from "madness" with a profound revolutionary statement on how a free community of souls can interact for the good of its individuals; how it sets forth the theories of the charismatic R.D. Laing without them to sterile syllogisms announcing the death of the family; and how it dramatizes what writers like Michel Foucault and Thomas Szasz have been trying to tell us about the way society makes scapegoats, of Its "mad."
But what I found particularly moving is the faith the book expresses in the resiliency of the human spirit: that no matter how damaged the soul there remains a part of it that always grows toward wholeness like a heliotrope seeking the sun; and that no behaviour, however bizarre or, seemingly empty it may seem, is without order and meaning, or beyond the reach of love.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt is a staff book critic at the New York Times.