|THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH||
11 October 1971
SALVATION AND A BONE RING
|Guided through an "incurable" madness at the experimental centre of Kingsley Hall, Mary Barnes has emerged as a primitive painter of considerable talent. Robert Leigh reports on how this remarkable recovery was achieved|
|Mary Barnes is 48 now and speaks a good deal though as a child she spoke very little and then only in what amounted to a private language which only her mother could understand This refusal to speak properly, she now understands, was the expression of an unconscious anger at having to become the model child her mother wanted her to be. As she grew older the anger persisted in her, although she did not recognise it as such, and she began to develop agonising fits of depression. About ten years ago she started to go mad.|
|Mary Barnes found in painting a release from madness; the walls of her attic flat are covered with her work.|
|At one stage she retreated so much into herself that she lay naked and unwashed
in a room with a few dolls as companions and talked only in cries and grunts. Even as recently as three years ago,
at the age of 45, she still had to be taken by the hand when shopping, like a young child nervous of strangers
and public places.
Today she has emerged as a Primitive painter with a growing reputation. She has also written a book, in collaboration with the psychotherapist Dr Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness, which is one of the most moving accounts of madness ever written.
Mary lives in two attic rooms at the top of a tall house in Hampstead now but until last year she was still a resident at Kingsley Hall, a centre in the East End of London which until recently was used for the care and treatment of people with severe emotional disorders. The brainchild of Dr Ronald Laing, the psychiatrist and author, it was run more as a community where patients and staff helped each other than as an organised mental hospital.
It was at Kingsley Hall that Mary Barnes had her last great spasms of madness and where she believes she was "born" again.
'I had been in an ordinary mental hospital for a year," Mary told me recently, "and had spent most of my time in a padded cell. Several years later I met Ronny Laing who told me of his plans for Kingsley Hall He said it would be about a year before the centre was opened and that if I could sit on myself for this time I could go and Eve there.
'When I first got to Kingsley Hall I was extremely frightened and wondered what was going to happen to me After a while I began to realise that I had come there to have a nervous breakdown. I remember saying to Ronny that I needed to go back before I was born and come up again.
'I can recall when it started happening to me. I was still working as a nursing sister at the time, although I was living at the centre, and one day I was
standing in the kitchen dressing myself to go to work. I couldn't seem to get my hair up right and my stockings kept falling down. My teeth were chattering and I felt extremely cold. I rang up the hospital and said I wasn't coming in. Then I rang up Sid, a friend of Ronny's and he told me to go to bed. I stayed in my bed for more than four months.
"One night I got hold of a tin of black paint and started painting black breasts all over the walls of my room. I wanted to paint and I wanted to suck those black breasts. I was fed from a bottle most of the tune and wet my bed all the time. This gave me great relief. I was completely naked and didn't want anything on me at all. I wet myself continuously and used to smear it all over the walls."
This was the first of two radical breakdowns that Mary had at Kingsley Hall. It was Dr Joseph Berke who helped Mary to leave her bed after the first one. She was still in a babyish state and he gave her some scrap paper and told her to start scribbling. When she did so a picture emerged of a woman kneeling with a child at her breast. Finally she began painting on any surface she could find at the centre, working with a compulsive speed and energy.
It was her painting that led in a sense to her second breakdown. The other people at Kingsley Hall objected to the walls of the building being covered with them. This drew her anger and precipitated her crisis. She retired to her room again and this time stayed there for more than a year.
During this breakdown Mary underwent her second journey back through her mind and body into infancy again. At one time she even refused her bottle and demanded to be fed from a tube. She now recognises that this was a desire for attachment to the umbilical cord and that she had, in her own mind, gone right back into the womb again. In her book her recollection of this period is woven thickly of physical detail and general sensation.
"I kept sucking on a bottle," she writes. "I bit hard on the bone ring someone got me. It had a bell on so. I know when someone held it for me to bite. It helped me. Sometimes my limbs, seemed heavy and sticky, it seemed I was a little animal, gone to sleep for the winter. My body did often seem apart. A leg or an arm could be the other side of the room. Often it seemed I was floating and moving as if in fluid."
Mary now believes that she achieved her desire to be born again towards the end of this bout of madness. "What had happened was that I had rejected my life completely," she explained, "and I needed to start again to find my true identity. During the Christmas of 1966 I remember Ronny came to see me in my room. I was talking about the Mother of God and he mentioned the Resurrection. In a few days the thing seemed to have sort of broken and I started coming up again.
"Of course it didn't happen all at once. Only very slowly was I able to bring my feelings up into my thoughts and my thoughts, as it were, down into my feelings. I was growing up again you see, oven though I was a middle-aged woman, and learning my true nature. In fact it has been only in the last year that I have finally begun to feel more together with myself and have been able to come to terms with my real age.
"Sometimes I realise quite how much I have changed emotionally. This is very important to me. It is because I am different way down underneath, and that I have at hut started to find myself, that I am able to enjoy my life in a way that just wasn't possible before."
The lease on Kingsley Hall ran out last year and the staff and patients had to leave. There are plans now to establish a similar centre as soon as possible, when premises and the necessary finance can be found. Mary was lucky enough to find two attic rooms in a Hampstead house, where she now lives simply and frugally on advance payments on her book.
The only things she had brought with her were her bedding, a cushion she had made at Kingsley Hall and two dolls, which Joseph Berke had bought her during her "second" childhood. She has since acquired a lampshade of hanging twigs, together with a stone crucifix she made herself, and a copy of Where the Wild Things are, a brilliantly perceptive children's book by Maurice Sendak.
Psychiatrist Dr Joseph Berke still visits Mary twice; is sometimes nothing more than a desperate bid for liberty," he says.
When I met her she was sitting among this tiny litter of possessions like
sonic mystic female ascetic. She wanted to be a nun once and, with her long dark hair and flowing clothes, she
seems like the priestess of some sect whose secrets can only be penetrated through personal suffering.