Inside R. D. Laing’s infamous asylum
A 1972 documentary covering the psychiatrist’s controversial establishments where doctors and patients live alike is being released on DVD, finds Anna Behrmann.
In the 1960s, radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing formed the Philadelphia Association and set up homes – or asylums – where mentally ill patients lived alongside their doctors.
It’s an idea from a different era – a commune where madness is explored freely and where LSD was the drug of choice, before it became illegal.
In the flagship asylum, Kingsley Hall in east London, there were tales of patients jumping off rooftops.
The most famous patient, Mary Barnes, co-authored a book on her experiences with Dr Joseph Berke. She was encouraged to regress to a state of infancy, smearing her faeces on the walls and demanding to be bottle-fed. She developed into a wild and gifted artist, painting frantically on huge canvases.
A three-man camera crew lived in one such community in Archway for six weeks, and the 1972 film is now widely available for the first time after being released on DVD.
R. D. Laing, who lived in Eton Road, sets out his philosophy at the beginning of the film: “If you’re interviewing a patient in a mental hospital ward then you have a key in your pocket to get out, and the patient hasn’t.
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“The gulf in power, in position, is enormous.
“If I really wanted to get to the bottom in one lifetime of what madness is and who is sane, if anyone, and who is crazy, if anyone, I for one would have to come off my perch and level on a man-to-man basis when I met another human being who was in the position of being classified by other people as being crazy.
“And on that man-to-man basis, then I’d take my chances and he’d take his when we met.”
In the 1972 footage, by filmmaker Peter Robinson, you can’t always tell who is the patient, who is the doctor and who are just guests. There are the familiar faces who crop up regularly, and the people who wander in and out.
The one rule of this asylum – perhaps best defined here as a “refuge” for the schizophrenic, the psychotic, the dispossessed – is that everyone paid rent.
Sometimes the community is harmonious, and residents eat and play guitar together.
If anyone is taken out of the community, perhaps by anxious relatives, their housemates make the case for them to come back – even if they can’t necessarily explain it in medical terms.
At times the film makes for disturbing viewing.
One fragile blonde woman begs her “uncle” to stop talking continuously. She screams in the garden and lies crouching as another woman – a doctor or a patient – strokes her arms and back to calm her.
The young woman leaves the asylum only to come back, telling her housemates that she had felt as if she were a toxic cloud, infecting everything.
She does appear calmer and more cogent as the film draws on, but it’s hard to say if the commune is helping her.
In one scene a man talks in a nonsensical stream of conscious. He’s carefully listened to by the psychiatrist.
Occasionally, the cameramen themselves are caught on camera – and their expressions of bewilderment and incredulity are quite revealing.
When Laing died in 1989, he was a long-term alcoholic, driven to making money through Shamanism and cultish rebirthing rituals.
His time had passed, but Laing’s radical social experiment changed the lives of the people who passed through, and mounted a compelling challenge to the traditional mental hospitals and doctor-patient divide.
DVD available at odeonent.co.uk/product/asylum-dvd