06 June 2019 ListenRead

Luke Fowler in Conversation with Leon Redler

Based at East London's Kingsley Centre, The Philadelphia Association was founded as a charity in 1965 by RD Laing and his colleagues. The founders’ objective was ‘the relief of mental illness of all descriptions, in particular schizophrenia’. From the beginning however, the more radical intention was to oppose narrow, repressive ideas about ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’.

Five decades on from its establishment, curator Dee Sada helped celebrate the anniversary of The Philadelphia Association by bringing together practitioners and artists who have researched and been inspired by its specific time/space. This was one of many celebratory events across London. The evening began with British artist, filmmaker and musician Luke Fowler showing his film All Divided Selves, and was followed by a discussion with Dr Leon Redler - a practitioner who researched alongside and is inspired by R.D. Laing's 50 approaches to "anti"/psychiatry. We're happy to share the talk with you here, and extend our thanks to all attendees and participants. 


Luke: Leon, you told me it's another 50 year anniversary this year. It's 50 years since you came to London, or to Britian. You came first to work with Maxwell Jomes in a therapeutic community in Dingwall, Scotland? I wondered if you could talk to us about the journey of going from Maxwell Jones' communities to R D Laing's communities and how different they felt?

Leon: They were very different. After working in a hospital in World War II, Maxwell Jones decided to try to break down what he took to be an unnecessarily sharp distinction - the binary system of staff and patients - so that people could have some kind of dialogue with each other, a bit of free speech. To a considerable extent that did work at Dingleton Hospital, which was a hospital for some acutely ill or disturbed people, but also some people who've been there for 50 years having had insulin coma, shock therapy, lobotomies. During the second part of my stay there I was responsible for the male admission ward and one of the female 'chronic wards'. There was an honest attempt to create this more permeable, less rigid staff / patient binary system. 

I think the journey to Kingsley Hall, to what Ronnie Laing and his colleagues had in mind was even more radical. It wasn't just questioning a binary system of psychiatrists, nurses, patients and so on. It was more radically questioning, "what's going on, what's going on with this thing called madness or breakdowns?" For me it was the beginning of a journey which is still going on, because it's really a journey in terms of myself, for myself of myself with others - discovering who one is and who isn't and all the perplexities of life. I think if there is madness involved then the madness is that there are some people called psychiatrists who think that they actually understand what the perplexities of life are all about more than other people do. Life can be perplexing, mystifying, frightening and confusing. Who of us can claim to be experts at living? Unfortunately some people do. I don't think any of us are experts at living.

We didn't make anyone take any drugs. We knew we didn't have the authority to make anyone do anything. It was just a group of people living together. At the time - and even now - there was no evidence whatsoever that there was a biochemical deficiency involved in psychosis. There was certainly no evidence that a drug that was being given to basically make people more manageable, quieter, more tractable, was in any way addressing any fundamental biochemical physiological imbalance, genetic or not. I think that's still a kind of mythology that big pharma and the psychopharmacological industry wants to perpetuate. It's misleading to think that they're actually addressing something fundamental about a disease process. There might be a disease process, I'm not saying there isn't. But if there is, it's not one that they've pinpointed and it's certainly not one that the drugs treat. Ronnie in [Asylum dir. Peter Robinson] talks about the place of asylum, a safe place, from the Greek, a place where you can't seized, a place where you can be violated. That was very important, this was very much what Ronnie Laing was on about. We all have a right to a safe place to be, especially when we're feeling not all together and frightened and confused. It's one of the most important things we can have. That and companionship. But of course, if we're really terrified we're afraid of companionship because we're expecting to be done in by other people. So the only way really is surely to show anyone that you're not going to do them in is over a period of time not to do them in, and actually to treat people with respect and courtesy and care and love if one is capable of it. That's something that is rare in institutional practices. Well, that journey, that's what it was about.

Luke Fowler: There was an attempt by me as a student to make a film about Kingsley Hall. At that time there'd been many films made about R D Laing about different communities, namely the Archways community, which is featured in Peter Robinson's Asylum, which [Leon] is in, and which I use an extract from. And then also a film by Bob Foss of the Philadelphia Network, 'On Life And Laing'. I was wondering, Leon, if you could maybe talk a bit about some of the discrepancies that arise out of your experience of being filmed or being within the environment of being filmed? What was the lived experience?

Leon: I was thinking about that as I was watching your film. Many of you probably saw the Champions League Final - Juventus V Barcelona. If you see a highlight showing the goal scoring or some particularly brilliant play you think, "oh, that's what football is about", but it's not. There's a lot that's happening that isn't so dramatic, that isn't film and that you can't get. A great deal of the time if you came around [Kingsley Hall], you wouldn't find it very remarkable. You might find that it's not a very conventional bourgeois place. It's not as clean and tidy as usual. And some of the people kind of have a bit more eccentric than you're used to. But a lot of the time, not that much is happening. People might be in their room. They might be sitting reading top into each other and making a cup of tea, pacing back and forth quietly, not necessarily all that dramatically. So that's that's one thing that you don't see. That's the ordinariness of life. One of the things about these places, we hope, is that it gives a chance for ordinary, everyday life to happen without an institutional structure being imposed.

Looking at myself in the film I wonder if I wasn't intimidated in some way - not just by the camera. Maybe my face shows a kind of perplexity. What the film probably doesn't show is the work involved in actually not just being with someone who is extremely disturbed and confused and frightened, but also the difficulty involved in actually trying to deeply understand where that person is coming from. It helps, of course, to deeply understand where oneself is coming from. I, like other people involved in the project of a greater or lesser degree, was also attracted to this whole work because of a sense of loss myself and confusion. I think some of us are more able to acknowledge the extent of that at any given point in time more than others.

Something else that comes to mind is something that Ronnie Laing would have thought too - though I think he wouldn't have used the same word necessarily that I'm using - and that is that we live in a very screwed up society. Most of our institutions get corrupted and so do our governments. The radical edge that Laing and his colleagues were attracted to gradually gets lost. This isn't unique to this field. It's almost in anything, isn't it? People come and innovate, they put their heart and soul into something that they really are interested and passionate about, but if it doesn't completely sink the radical edge gets lost and gradually it can get increasingly corrupted. This probably happened in terms of the legacy and the various groups that Joe and I have been involved in, different groups. I think one has seen that kind of institutionalisation set in, which tends to deaden what was before alive. People suddenly think they know rather than acknowledging that there's a lot we don't know. There's a lot that's still mysterious and unknown and we should we should respect that unknown.

There was also a kind of spiritual dimension behind this whole thing - not a sectarian spiritual dimension, but a spiritual dimension, a kind of understanding. If we're going to talk about madness and disturbance we have to take a look at the lack of responsibility and violence that can emanate from not knowing oneself as a potential contributor to violence and so on.

Luke Fowler: I've got one more question for you before we move to the floor. One of the reasons why I came to Laing's work in the first place was because someone very close to me had a psychotic break down and I experienced how the NHS dealt with it, which is basically a way of sealing the individual off from society and administering drugs with no real attempt to find out about its aetiology of the problem. I wondered how psychotic breakdowns and psychotic episodes were treated at Kingsley Hall or at the Archways communities?

Leon: The simple but obviously incomplete and inadequate answer to that is they weren't treated. We didn't set out claiming that we were treating anybody. That was the basis of a community where there wasn't a binary system. No one was claiming that we could treat someone else. We did think, however, that offering a place of asylum where one couldn't be violated would give a chance for people to kind of unwind. Just space to maybe find themselves or realise how lost they were and maybe find for themselves in their own time, in their own way, a reconnecting or connecting with who they are and who they are not. I think that's very important - giving any one of us an opportunity to find one one's own way in one's own time with whom one wanted to spend time with. That sounds very simple but it seems unfortunately very rare for someone who's very vulnerable and doesn't know where to turn.

I'd like to leave you with this thought without answering it. Imagine you had a breakdown and suddenly found yourself vulnerable, confused, frightened, maybe hallucinating, maybe delusional whether you knew it or not. Or imagine this happened to your husband, wife, son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother, neighbour, friend, lover. How would you want to be treated? What would you like available for those close to you? Those who you cared about? How would you like them to be treated? What options would you like them to have if they were in this really vulnerable place? Just stay with the question. Thank you. Thank you so much.


Thanks to Dee for setting this evening up and to all who participated. Recorded by Shaun Crook on Sunday 7th June 2015. Mixed by Abby Thomas. 

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