Breakdown Palace

Photograph by Lynn Goldsmith/ZUMA Press

Breakdown Palace

In late 1960s London, famed psychoanalyst R.D. Laing created a radical asylum—one with no doctors, no locks, and no limits.

I. Intuition

A young girl sits in the middle of a room in a psychiatric ward. She has removed all of her clothes and is rocking back and forth.

The hospital staff has invited a visiting doctor to look in on the patient. They talk about the girl, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia: for a long time now, she has done nothing but rock, and she has not spoken since being admitted many months ago. They ask the visitor’s opinion.

His response is wordless: he takes off all his clothes and steps into her room.

He sits down next to the girl and begins to rock in sync with her, two naked figures side by side.

This goes on for a while. This goes on for 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes.

And then she speaks to him. Her first words in nearly 200 days.

Later, the visitor will ask the staff, “Did it never occur to you to do that?”

II. The Coma Ward

There are many stories about the psychotherapist Ronald Laing at his peak, in the 1960s and early 1970s. Stories about his talent for coexisting, intimately, with people who are disturbed or disturbing. He is drawn to those labeled schizophrenic or psychotic, the ways in which they are misunderstood, their extreme interior lives.

Ronnie first develops this talent in the early ‘50s, on the coma ward of a British Army hospital.

He had graduated, at 23, from medical school at the University of Glasgow—Glasgow, the city in which he was raised in a well-kept tenement house by Presbyterian parents, his father an electrical engineer, his mother the daughter of a cashier at a coal mine. Ronnie’s focus was psychiatry, and, during his training, he had his first experience of psychiatric hospitals as rigid, top-down bureaucracies, in which patients’ opinions of their treatment held little or no sway. He also began to realize that he was deeply uncomfortable with certain practices in the field: electroconvulsive therapy, heavy sedation, physical restraint, insulin-induced coma, lobotomy (the inventor of the procedure had recently been given the Nobel Prize). But in the fall of 1951, Ronnie—a modest, steady, handsome young man in tweed—is conscripted into two years with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and he’s now expected to support and even administer some of these treatments.

At the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley, near Southampton, Ronnie is assigned to the insulin ward. There, schizophrenic patients are given insulin injections at 6 a.m., and within a few hours they slip into a coma, as a form of shock treatment. The insulin puts them in danger of having an epileptic seizure, easily triggered by exposure to light, and so the ward is kept in complete darkness; the staff wears headlamps in order to see at all. By 10 a.m., the doctors and nurses begin pumping glucose through the patients’ stomach tubes to slowly reawaken them—if they are under for too long, the coma may become irreversible. For the rest of his life, Ronnie will remember his time in the darkened room, moving between the 20 beds of these men who are barely among the living.

He spends most of his shifts, however, on a ward for neurotics and psychotics. By mandate, there is little or no communication with these patients. They are not considered eligible for conversation, never mind talk therapy—why encourage their delusions? Many are kept in padded cells and are regularly sedated; nearly all are scheduled for electric shocks. One night, while making the rounds, Ronnie hears a patient named John shouting and ranting at a fast clip; protocol would be to order him a tranquilizer. (“John” is a pseudonym, as is the case for all patients referred to here by first name only.) But tonight, Ronnie decides to take his time. He asks to be let into John’s cell. He waits and listens to him. The patient becomes calmer. And after a half hour like this, the young doctor decides a sedative will not be necessary.

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American neurologist Dr. Walter Freeman performs a lobotomy, at Western State Hospital in Virginia, using an ice-pick-like instrument he invented for the procedure, July 1949. Courtesy of Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

He enters John’s room again the next night, and the next—each time for a while longer, maybe a few hours at a stretch. John tells him of his escapades as a “gentleman cat burglar” in destination cities around the world, and how he gave all that stolen gold away to the poor. They share a nip of whiskey. Soon, John begins to weave Ronnie into his stories, as his accomplice. Ronnie feels “strangely at home there, lounging on the floor”—he’s never before spent time with a patient without trying to diagnose him, tick off a list of his symptoms. If Ronnie had not intervened, John, with his Robin Hood fantasy, would likely have become a candidate for the coma ward, or for lobotomy.

Ronnie is slowly becoming radicalized; he considers the Army wards “a place of misery, absurdity, and humiliation.” John is not the only patient in whose treatment he intercedes. In his office, he has been speaking with Peter, a private who had a breakdown shortly after being conscripted, and sees that Peter comes across as far less “schizophrenic” during their personal talks. The private is likely to be moved to the coma ward, where he’ll receive a treatment that Ronnie is increasingly concerned may cause permanent neurological damage. To prevent this transfer, the young doctor takes Peter along on his week’s leave to his parents’ Glasgow home, installs him in his childhood bedroom, asks his mother to feed him. On their trip back to Netley, Ronnie instructs Peter on how to appear as functional as possible during the private’s few remaining weeks in the Army, in order to avoid indefinite commitment to a mental hospital.

Around this time, Ronnie writes in his diary, “‘Sanity’ is determinism and totalitarianism. It is death to the soul and the end of freedom.”

After his Army stint, Ronnie, now 26, his new wife, and their baby daughter return to Glasgow so that Ronnie can complete his psychiatric training in the clinical wards of Gartnavel Royal Mental Hospital. He is assigned to the female refractory ward, for patients who have not responded to treatment. Many have been hospitalized long-term, in some cases for as long as 60 years—since the 19th century. The ward is overcrowded, with about 50 women, dressed in their hospital day gowns, seated in clusters around the common room without activities or purpose. Most of them neither speak nor are spoken to; many have received electric shock therapy and insulin injections; some have been lobotomized. The nurses are stressed and exhausted.

In response to this situation, Ronnie proposes what becomes known as the Rumpus Room: Two nurses and 11 of the most withdrawn patients on the ward (all schizophrenics) will be assigned to their own day room, five days a week. The room is newly refurnished, and supplied with a gramophone, kits for knitting and sewing, paper and pencils for drawing, magazines; their time is still freeform, no clear instructions. By the second day, Ronnie finds the patients gathered around the room’s locked door a half hour ahead of time; when the nurses arrive to let them in, many of these “withdrawn” women skip into the space. Not a lot about their situation has changed, but the setting is more intimate, kinder, the nurses are beginning to relax, and the patients are responding accordingly. Within months, they are given permission to wear their own clothes and shoes, to style their own hair, to make their own tea and bake cakes.

In a paper published in The Lancet, he writes that the women “lost many of the features of chronic psychoses; they were less violent to each other and to the staff … and their language ceased to be obscene. The nurses came to know the patients well, and spoke warmly of them.” The key, he believes, is not the material comforts and diversions provided in the room—it’s the nurses, and “how they feel towards their patients.” If patients seem inaccessible, even hostile, then the social “barrier” between them and their caregivers is not their responsibility alone. The staff have taken part in erecting that wall.

III. Wild Joe

Five years later, in 1960, Joseph Berke, a stocky young man from Newark, New Jersey’s south side, is starting at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx on a full scholarship. He’s the first person at his med school with a beard, and he likes that it marks him as a kind of hippie.

Joe was raised in a middle-class Jewish family, by his widowed mother (a bookkeeper at a bank) and his grandmother—two women who catered to him and spoiled him. His father died seven months before Joe’s birth, of a pulmonary embolism: the beginning, Joe believes, of his long search for a father figure. He could be shy socially, but he was a model kid. His high-school activities included stamp club, Latin club, and math club; he graduated valedictorian and enrolled at Columbia University, pre-med. But once in New York City, Joe was lost and lonely; he sat around in cafés drinking coffee for hours. With a little help from amphetamines, he managed to plow through his exams and land in med school in just three years.

Joe had wanted to become a general practitioner, but now he’s turned off by all the blood tests, all the talk of human beings as a collection of measurable quantities. He wants to study human relationships, so he moves toward psychiatry. He becomes friendly with a psych professor, John W. Thompson, who gives a name to what Joe’s been looking for: existential psychoanalysis. It’s a mostly Freudian approach, but one that rejects the notion that our essential humanness can be defined by the natural sciences. Professor Thompson has a kind of glamour—he likes to spout poetry and drives a Jaguar—but he also believes strongly in a moral dimension to medical practice. As an officer in the British-Canadian Air Force, he tended to survivors after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in 1945.

Joe Berke, circa 1971. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.

During his first psychiatric placement, Joe meets José Quiñones, a patient in his late 30s, in one of the psych wards. José was diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, “the works.” But Joe discovers that he can talk to José about anything—a fact he finds upsetting. “The textbooks say you can’t talk to people like that,” he later explains. “So if I could talk to him, what did that mean about me? Is there something wrong with me?” He decides that the books are wrong, not his friendship with José, and he brings José along on house calls throughout Manhattan as his personal bodyguard.

Gaining confidence, Joe now hangs around the East Village in his free time and tries out some of his own poetry at Café Le Metro, where Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan occasionally read. In the backroom, he’s happy to trade a medical checkup, and maybe some penicillin, for a nickel bag of grass. He ends up partying with Ginsberg—whom Joe, a little shaggier now, has started to resemble—and occasionally makes it to the Millbrook, New York, estate where Timothy Leary is camped out. (He’s on such a tight budget that what impresses him most about Leary’s place is the free food.)

In the fall of 1962, Joe ducks into a medical bookstore in the Bronx and comes across a book that finally articulates so much of what he’s been hoping to find. Using case studies of schizophrenic patients, the author makes a powerful, original argument that madness can be deciphered, that going mad can be “a comprehensible transition.” He also holds that patients are, above all else, human beings, and as such cannot be contained within sharp diagnostic categories. That the scientific drive to be objective “yields false ‘knowledge’” and only succeeds in depersonalizing the person in question. That the psychiatric profession’s confident labeling of certain individuals as “sane” and others “insane” is based, at least in part, on biases and assumptions. That the line between them and us may be more of a spectrum. That “the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed.” All of this thrills Joe to no end. He rushes home to read the rest.

The book is The Divided Self by R.D. Laing, based on the work Ronnie did in his 20s. (It was published quietly in the UK two years before Joe discovers it in New York.) Joe writes Laing a letter asking if he can work with him in London over the summer—but receives no reply. And so Joe, now 24, arranges to spend that time on a progressive psych ward in Scotland. While there, he tries Laing again, by phone, and asks to visit.

The reply: “Come and meet me, if you must.”

R.D. Laing, Paul Zeal, and Leon Redler, in Laing’s consulting room, 1960s. Photograph by John Haynes/Bridgeman Images
“The cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed.”

This minimal enthusiasm is enough for Joe to show up at Laing’s office near Regent’s Park: two basement rooms on Hallam Street. This is where Ronnie, fellow psychiatrist Aaron Esterson, and a crew of research assistants have spent the last few years studying families of individuals diagnosed as schizophrenic—in particular, the ways in which their familial interactions are dysfunctional, toxic, and possibly linked to the diagnosis. (Ronnie and Aaron are troubled by the fact that schizophrenia is a subjective diagnosis based on a cluster of behavioral symptoms visible when a patient sees a psychiatrist, with room for interpretation.) When Laing meets Joe, who’s 12 years his junior, he appreciates his “Lower East Side, New York energies” and his wildness. Joe is pleased with himself when he gets Laing’s permission to call him Ronnie. He’s welcomed into the gang, and spends the next few months reviewing hundreds of hours of recorded interviews and occasionally conducting home visits with families. “I had the truth,” he says years later. “Laing was it!”

Ronnie is now unrecognizable from the photos of his Army days, that mild serviceman who smiled politely for the camera. Young, published, and rising fast in his field, he’s taken on the look of a counterculture Byron, sharp cheekbones and loose poet’s hair. Ronnie also has a successful private practice, part of which involves him guiding patients through therapeutic LSD trips (then legal, with approval from the British government). He facilitates Joe’s first trip, with Aaron as his guide. For hours, Joe’s body feels more alive than ever. When he moves, he has orgasms in all his limbs.

Toward the end of Joe’s stay in London, in the fall of 1963, Ronnie lets him sit in on a session with one of his patients, Mary Barnes. At the appointed time, Mary rushes into the office, a 40-year-old woman with clothes askew and a mess of long, dark hair, muttering and moaning. She collapses on the floor. For Joe, she is the very portrait of a madwoman.

Ronnie rises from the desk and crouches down beside her, holds her. He begins speaking to her slowly; he lets her lay her head on his lap. After a while like this, her body relaxes, her whimpers become speech. And by the time the two-hour session is up, Mary is seated in a chair, speaking to Ronnie in a soft, clear voice, as intelligible as anyone. She stands to leave, her body language completely changed, and dashes off to catch a taxi.

Fuck me, Joe thinks. This is something. This is hot stuff.

IV. Mary’s Project

Mary Barnes grew up first in Portsmouth, on the southern coast, and then in the countryside near London, in what she calls “an abnormally nice family.” For Mary, the very air they breathed was one of repression: Her father worked a job, as a lab technician, that he liked just fine; her mother was a homemaker who kept up appearances; there was no room for the expression of a personal voice or personal desire or physical affection. When Mary wanted to grow her hair long, her mother insisted she cut it short and straight, like her own—long hair was unruly, decadent. Her parents were almost pathologically polite. “Life was like ice, brittle ice,” Mary later writes. “The whole family wanted this ice to melt, wanted to be loved. But we feared if the ice broke we would all be drowned. Violence and anger lurked beneath the pleasantries.”

When Mary was 18, her younger brother Peter, then 16, had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a psych ward; within a few years, he was consigned to long-term institutional care. Mary and Peter’s parents were told that their son had a chronic psychotic disorder that would continue worsening until he became “vegetable-like,” best left under constant medical supervision. Mary later writes, “He incarnated all the anger I felt but couldn’t feel.” At this point, Mary was a young adult and holding down a job as a nurse and a nursing teacher—but she began to experience the strong desire to hit her mother, an impulse she resisted. She felt she’d been asked to keep up the front of a loving, functional family for so long, and now her entire system was rebelling. She stopped speaking. In 1952, at the age of 29, she voluntarily committed herself to a West London mental hospital and was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

 

They gave me insulin and pushed me about to keep me moving. Then I got electric shocks and was put in a padded cell … It was terrible to be touched. Noise disturbed me. Light was blinding … The pads on the chronic ward, where they moved me to, had black walls. The only relief was to be alone in the dark, curled up, like a baby in the womb.

 

When Mary left the hospital about a month later, she returned to nursing and contacted a psychoanalyst who had helped with the classes she taught; she hoped to find a place where both she and Peter could be treated. The analyst, in turn, introduced her to Laing. In their first meeting, Mary was immediately impressed by how “young and warm and human” he was. He actually laughed. She left “full of hope.”

For Ronnie Laing, Mary Barnes was a perfect match. The way in which she viewed her family—as emotionally impenetrable and impossible to communicate with—fit in beautifully with his research into families with a schizophrenic member (and hers had produced two). He also recognized her deep-seated drive to descend further into her madness, to go into and through it and to see where she came up. And that was what would make her the ideal candidate for a very bold experiment.

Mary Barnes in the Kingsley Hall dining room, in front of her mural Christ Triumphant, late 1960s. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.

On the day he lets Joe sit in on their session, Ronnie tells Mary, “In one year’s time I will have a place and there you can stay …” His hope is to find a house in which to establish a community, a place where those on the verge of a breakdown, those labeled schizophrenic or neurotic or what-have-you, can live, alongside therapists, without rules, without clearly delineated roles, without locks on the doors. A place to simply be, without stigma, and, under these anti-institutional, nearly boundaryless circumstances, to see where psychosis may lead them. There, Mary can feel free to “go down”—that’s how she describes her impending descent—without fear of being committed to a chronic ward. In the meantime, Mary is back at a Carmelite convent in Wales, where she’s stayed before when in need of support, waiting. Mother Michael and the other sisters have already begun praying for Ronnie and his search.

Over the past two years, some of Ronnie’s peers have been experimenting with looser alternatives to routine hospitalization. The South African–born psychiatrist David Cooper converted Villa 21, a former insulin coma ward at Shenley Hospital, an hour north of London, into a place where young schizophrenic men choose when to get out of bed, when to attend meetings, how to spend their days. Sid Briskin, a social worker who has been assisting Ronnie and Aaron with their research, moved several former residents of Villa 21 into his own house. Rather than accept a promotion from the Tavistock Institute—the major center for psychoanalysis in the UK, and the source of five years of funding for his work—Ronnie wants to move away from mainstream psychiatry. He is determined to find “the place.” David, Sid, Aaron, and the writer Clancy Sigal spend many Friday nights at Ronnie’s home in North London discussing how to find a building where they can push their experiments even further.

How to do this, and how to afford it, without the constraints of any institutional ties? They are seeking total freedom, a situation in which, as Ronnie likes to put it, it’s “all up for grabs!” Stop the talk of emergencies, the assessment of risks, the lists of diagnostic labels, and give people who are mad a chance at true asylum, true refuge, a place where it’s safe to freak out. Clancy calls their asylum-seeking group “the brothers.” Together with a few others, they form a nonprofit named for “brotherly love”: the Philadelphia Association, or the PA.

With their search ongoing, the following year, 1964, is a big one for Ronnie. He publishes a string of provocative articles. In the progressive New Left Review, he writes: “I do not myself believe that there is any such ‘condition’ as ‘schizophrenia.’ Yet the label, as a social fact, is a political event ... It is a social prescription that rationalizes a set of social actions whereby the labeled person is annexed by others … More completely, more radically than anywhere else in our society he is invalidated as a human being.”

Ronnie and Aaron also publish Sanity, Madness, and the Family, a book that details their years of research on schizophrenics and their families, including some of the work Joe was privy to the previous summer. In several instances, they discover that the family members labeled schizophrenic (the patients studied were young women) are acting out against an unsustainable, suffocating, infuriating living situation. The 11 case studies included are surprisingly intimate, moving documents—of desperation, suffering, profound loneliness. The book has, unintentionally, the emotional impact of a Russian novel.

Sanity is met with intense controversy, mainly because of the misconstrued idea that Ronnie and Aaron are blaming parents for causing schizophrenia. The controversy attracts extensive coverage. Ronnie, the more established and charismatic of the pair, is asked to make multiple appearances on British television, and he turns out to have a natural talent for it. His raised profile also starts to draw readers to The Divided Self from well beyond the psychiatric profession.

In the midst of this publicity, in the fall of 1964, Ronnie and the PA finally find “the place.” By the following June, it’s moving day.

V. Kingsley Hall

The address is Powis Road, Bromley-by-Bow, in the far East End of London. The looming red-brick building has the flat façade, twin flagpoles, and tall arched windows of a schoolhouse. Above its dark-wood double doors, in modest lettering, are etched the words KINGSLEY HALL.

The Hall, in a staunchly working-class area, has a history of local activism. In the 1910s, the Lester sisters, Doris and Muriel, bought an old chapel with an inheritance from their brother Kingsley and converted it into a settlement house where workers and their kids could worship and study and socialize. (The sisters were also vocal pacifists and supporters of the suffragette movement.) By the late ’20s, a new, larger building was erected through private donations, and used as a community center and youth hostel in the decades that followed.

The Lesters, now in their late 70s, have given the Hall to the PA on a five-year lease, for a few shillings per year. Everything else will be paid for by the residents who aren’t too traumatized, regressed, or mad to pitch in. As the PA insists, they will be unaffiliated with any hospital or institution. They are completely outside the system; they are free.

A view of Kingsley Hall in East London, 1931. Photograph via Associated Press

The place is three stories tall, with high ceilings, and from the roof there is a view of the council buildings below. There’s a garden up there and a few “cells,” and when Gandhi visited London in 1931—for three months, with the aim of negotiating India’s independence with the British government—he stayed in one of these rooms. (He had wanted to stay in a working-class area.) In news footage from the time, Muriel Lester, seated on the roof deck, speaks to the camera about why she believes Gandhi, whose ashram she’d recently visited, should feel at home at the Hall: “We are a mixed crowd, just like his are. We have artists and factory girls, unemployed and teachers and navvies and doctors of law, all living together like one family.” His cell is preserved as it was during his visit: a thin mattress, the floor covered with straw mats.

On the ground floor, a foyer opens into a large meeting room with a stained-glass window and a cross mounted on the wall. (The Lesters are devoutly Christian.) There is also a meditation room and a small chapel—this is where Mary Barnes, who was among the first to move in, says her morning prayers. Just up the stairs on the second floor, near the enormous games room and the dining room, is Mary’s bedroom, with the curtains pulled shut and one wall painted black—she wants it dark, dark, dark. An image of St. Thérèse of Lisieux sits atop her bureau and her clothes spill out across the floor. Aaron has moved into the room opposite. Sid has an office in an extra bedroom.

Joe arrives in September of 1965 and moves into a small room on the second floor. Leon Redler and Morton Schatzman, both Brooklyn-born med-school friends of Joe, visit over the next couple of months, and Leon decides to stay. Ronnie, who has a new girlfriend, Jutta, and sees little of his wife and five young children, keeps an office in the building and sleeps there part-time. At least three of the therapists at the Hall will end up leaving their wives over the coming year.

The condition of the building is a shock to some—after a phase of being used mainly as a youth hostel, it’s in a pretty bad state of repair—but that’s counterbalanced by a pioneering feeling. Morty thinks that Ronnie lends “a kind of glow, a reverence” to the Hall. It’s like “going to some guru in India in some down-and-out place, or in a cave, and persuading oneself that there are resonances in the air around the individual that light up the place.”

Leon, who’s 29 and rail-thin, with a thick red beard and wavy shoulder-length hair, will later describe his 1960s self as “a somewhat cut-off, uptight guy, with good intentions and a yearning for something to open that I wasn’t quite in touch with.” He’d become frustrated with conventional psychiatry during his residency in New York City a few years prior, and as a civil rights activist (in Mississippi and Alabama), Leon sees this work, in a way, as an extension of a larger movement: patient rights are civil rights. Leon is aware that there are few Western psychiatrists who have spent significant time outside of a hospital with people labeled schizophrenic or psychotic. Ronnie is one of those few, and he does not seem intimidated by madness. Nor does he seem immune to suffering. Ronnie has told Leon that he and some of his colleagues see Kingsley Hall as “a refuge for themselves.” Leon is attracted to that idea, to diving in. Shortly before he moves in, he has a dream: He is standing on the precipice of a deep, black pool. Maybe it’s bottomless. He wakes up and thinks, What am I getting into?

Interior of Kingsley Hall, with Barnes’s paintings hanging on the wall, 1966–69. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.

Over these first months, the place develops its own rhythm. The day starts in the early afternoon, with people drifting into the kitchen to make tea or coffee or fry an egg. Maybe someone puts an album on the record player. Eventually, it is someone’s turn to buy the groceries, to wash last night’s dishes, to sweep the common rooms—though that someone is rarely one of the folks who are here to “go into themselves.” Their only responsibility is common courtesy, loosely defined. At Kingsley Hall, there seem to be two or three people in a state of “regression” at any given moment.

The PA has all manner of meetings in the Hall. They let a women’s prayer group get together there, and the local “Beatle boys” have a weekly band practice. Mary loves to shake and dance and flail around while the boys play rock and roll. But it quickly becomes clear that the working-class culture outside is not in sync with the counterculture inside. The neighbors are, generally, not pleased. They do not understand Laing’s experiment, nor do they care to. They complain about residents howling at night, or sauntering into local pubs and downing other people’s drinks. Kids leave dog shit in the mailbox and scribble NUT HOUSE on the front door. Late one night, a group of men, slightly drunk, breaks in and starts shouting at everyone: Loonies! Lay-abouts! Perverts! The front windows will be shattered by rocks so frequently over the coming years that the residents stop replacing them.

One afternoon, around this time, Ronnie gives his two young sons—Adrian, seven, and Paul, eight—a tour of Kingsley Hall. He’s told them about the special place he’s created, a place with no rules except those made by its residents, and he’s offered to introduce them to “an extraordinary lady” who lives there.

He leads the children into the basement, which is very dark. Adrian wonders why it smells like shit, and where the smell might be coming from. Out of the darkness, the boy can just make out a body hidden under a blanket. He thinks to himself, This is hell, down here. We’re in hell. But the brothers stand by and watch as their father proceeds to speak to the blanketed shape—this is Mary, the extraordinary lady—as if she were seated across from them in their living room.

Their father seems to be saying, in a way, that they are no better or worse than her. This, here, is a person too.

VI. Regression

The people of Kingsley Hall have been bathing Mary Barnes, washing her hair, dressing her for dinner. She has moved into the bedroom by the kitchen, where she spends her days and nights lying naked on a mattress, under her blanket, in what Joe describes as “a twilight state (awake, asleep, in a dream, all at once).” Ronnie, at Mary’s request, has given her a doll and a teddy bear.

Most people in the house are upset by her physical state. Joe thinks of her as “almost like one of those half-alive cadavers the army liberated from Auschwitz after the war.” She has not been interested in eating for weeks—it doesn’t jibe with the phase she is working through, a return to a fetal stage. Her greatest desire is to “get back inside my Mother, to be reborn, to come up again, straight, and clear of the mess.” Why would anyone ask her to consume solid foods in this state, to feed herself? It makes no sense.

While the therapists living at Kingsley Hall understand Mary’s point, can see the beautiful consistency she is working for, they have another concern: this stubborn woman-child, she just might die this way. And what then? But Mary’s conception of her journey is so complete, so holistic, that she has requested to be fed by stomach tube, with another tube in her bladder and yet another in her rectum to cycle the waste out of her body. In this way, she thinks, she can partly simulate the deeply passive, floating state of being in the womb. Some in the house are ready to have her committed, force-fed, as soon as possible. It’s becoming an emergency.

She says she’ll drink from a baby bottle. Please, Mary, drink this warm milk. She doesn’t take it. Please, Mary, some water.

Mary is not afraid of dying.

Barnes and her paintings, 1966–69. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.
A painting by Barnes, undated. Photograph by CJ Clarke. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.

Ronnie has considered the tube-feeding option, but he rejects it—not so much because it is a physically repulsive idea (he’s seen plenty in his time), but because this is not what anyone signed up for. They are not going to convert Kingsley Hall into a medical hospital. Not equipped to realize Mary’s vision, Ronnie gives her two options: he will find her a hospital where gavage might be possible, or she can stay at the Hall and eat.

That night, Joe offers her a bottle of milk, and she drinks. He cradles her head in his lap and holds the bottle up to her mouth, watching closely as she downs the whole thing.

With this stroke, Joe becomes essential to Mary’s project. His purpose in the Hall is clarified. By volunteering to care for Mary, volunteering this extreme care, he becomes, by definition, closer to Ronnie. He is now the point person for Mary’s “project of emotional disintegration and resurrection,” her “death-rebirth experience.”

He does find it ... disorienting? upsetting? to bottle-feed a 42-year-old woman. But this phase does not last long. Soon, she’s drinking her milk from a glass, keeping her bottle only to suck on the rubber nipple. She quickly learns to communicate her developmental-stage-of-the-moment through gestures and speech: sometimes she is an infant, sometimes a toddler, maybe a six-year-old. Sometimes she chooses to speak as an adult. Throughout, Joe writes, “She never lost her intellectual faculties.”

Mary calls it her treatment, but Joe calls it a relationship. No one in this building is a patient or a therapist. They are complex adults living alongside one another, each a little more or a little less damaged. Mary doesn’t care about these terms—fine, whatever. She knows what she wants and she demands it. She demands the right to grow up all over again, and someone in the house will facilitate this. It’s what she’s been promised.

When Mary rises from bed, they play. Joe tries to mirror and respond to this woman who has a middle-aged body and the emotions of a one-year-old. He growls at Mary; she bursts into laughter and growls back. He bites her on the arm; she screams and bites back. He’s not afraid to meet her “at a psychotic level.”

As Mary regains some weight, returning to her natural curves and full cheeks, their play gets livelier, and they chase each other around the games room on all fours. Sometimes they are alligators; sometimes they are sharks; sometimes they play “hungry bear.” He asks her to squeeze him around the middle as hard as she can until she’s tired out.

Joe views the situation like this: because of her tremendous reserve of anger, Mary believes that she will wreck anyone who dares to get close to her. But as they play together in this physical, aggressive way, and she witnesses Joe walk away unscathed again and again (save for a few bruises, some tooth marks), she begins to relax and allow herself to be with another person.

Painting by Barnes, undated. Courtesy of Nottingham Lakeside Arts, used with permission of Joseph Berke.
Mary in her “cell” on the roof of Kingsley Hall, 1966–69. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.

Mary’s play-aggression, however, does not diminish her frequent moments of rage. If Joe is late to feed her, she strikes him and refuses to eat. If he’s called away from her for a moment, she screams bloody murder. He does not believe she understands these reactions, these waves of emotion, as expressions of anger. She refers to them as “It.”

Joe spends months—through the shrieking tantrums and the blows, the flipping of furniture and smashing of dishes—trying to get her to “recognize Mary Barnes, the volcano.” (To be fair, she’s not the only one in the house screaming; Kingsley Hall is a space for every kind of expression.) Mary is afraid that It has the capacity to destroy everything and everyone around her. But Joe believes that his continued presence, his willingness to duke it out, will prove that It is not really all-consuming. Someday, perhaps soon, Mary will stop being afraid of her anger and learn to channel it into another form of expression.

The process takes years. Ronnie is happy to leave this particular resident in Joe’s hands as he sees to the others, to his private practice and book projects, to his speaking engagements. At times, Joe thinks, I must be a masochist.

VII. Have You Had a Good Day?

Of the 13 to 20 people who live at Kingsley Hall at any moment—a majority in their 20s, few older than 40, largely from the UK and the States—most are drawn there because of the legend of R.D. Laing. Former psychiatric patients, therapists, and social workers alike, they feel he’s put into words radical revelations about the social fabric and the human mind, and they want to get close to him. Others show up because they hear it’s a safe place to have a breakdown.

The idea is to balance out people who are high-functioning enough to take care of chores with those who are deeply withdrawn or on the verge of collapse. From that starting point, anything goes—from extreme exhibitionism to borderline hermitry. One resident will later say of cohabitation at Kingsley Hall, “You're not bogged down by conventionalities of having to be polite or make statements … like ‘Come and sit by the fire’ and ‘Have you had a good day?’ and the other person is expected to go through what sort of a day he’s had … One feels under no obligation to do that. I think it’s more honest. People aren’t afraid if they don't particularly like the person—they’re not afraid not to be friendly.”

Language is important. Ronnie and the other therapists do not tiptoe around “madness,” that centuries-old word, a condition to which few (perhaps none?) of us are immune. But rather than call those Kingsley residents struggling with issues “ill,” they refer to them as “disturbed,” “disturbing,” or “suffering.” Over time, many people move in to wrestle with what disturbs them, including:

 

Jack, 25. He has a fear of being stared at, and he believes his body is dead. Jack confronts his phobias by strutting around the Hall in nothing but body paint.

Joseph, 20. He arrives after three years’ hospitalization for the voices he hears “plotting” against him. His paranoia leads to a flirtation with arson—he attempts to set his mattress alight on the roof—that the other residents manage to curtail through a group discussion of his sexual repression.

Axel Jensen, 35. Norwegian novelist whose ex-wife Marianne took up with Leonard Cohen a few years earlier. He struggles with depression, and after a period of treatment with Ronnie, decides to move into the Hall.

Ian Spurling, 30. He’s kept a pet dove with him through multiple hospitalizations and now lets it fly freely through the building. He will go on to design costumes for both the Royal Ballet and Freddie Mercury.

David Bell, 30s. He had a job in computer programming, but began behaving strangely after a breakup and was committed. In the psych ward, his long, hard-to-decipher streams of speech were deemed classic “schizophrenese,” but at Kingsley Hall, Leon considers David “a magician with language” who splices together mythologies and historical stories “like some bard of the past.”

 

Within the Hall, no one is paid to be on “staff”; the therapists are not, technically, on duty. The residents can ask them for advice if they want to, but no one is to compel anyone to do something “for their own good.” Those who are interested in active treatment make appointments to see therapists outside the building each week. Besides, some of the residents trained in psychiatry and psychotherapy have their own personal reasons for moving in. David Cooper, for one, experiences multiple psychotic breaks while at Kingsley Hall and, within a few years, will be committed to a psych ward in Argentina.

Ronnie has helped both Joe and Leon get modest-paying jobs seeing a few patients a week at the Langham Clinic, a place that attracts psychotherapists who are curious about Eastern philosophies. Leon realizes that it may take years for him to unlearn his training in psychiatry, to reprogram his default settings—he feels “profoundly out of touch” with his most basic, instinctive response to people. He is not entirely sure what is going on at Kingsley Hall, but it feels like the very tip of something enormous. Morty, too, finds it thrilling. It was one thing for him to walk the ward sporting a white coat and stethoscope, as he did during his internship at Bellevue, and it’s another thing entirely to live alongside people struggling through psychosis. Morty eventually moves into the Hall full-time, and the experience has a clear impact on him: he realizes, with great pride, that “nobody ever, no matter how crazy they are, makes me anxious anymore.”

VIII. The Voyage

As Kingsley Hall is starting up, Ronnie is finishing a streak of radical articles and lectures on psychiatry. These will later form the core of his 1967 collection The Politics of Experience—a counterculture classic that makes R.D. Laing known on university campuses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Building on the studies of families he conducted with Aaron, Ronnie continues to push the notion that “sanity” is a social construct, and that behavior labeled “mentally ill” by the dominant culture is often behavior that’s rebellious with good reason. If society’s norms are tainted to begin with, then why should we trust these labels? “From the alienated starting point of our pseudo-sanity, everything is equivocal,” he writes. “Our sanity is not ‘true’ sanity. Their madness is not ‘true’ madness.” He speaks of “social adaptation to a dysfunctional society” as “very dangerous.”

Ronnie then goes further, striking a stance that’s perfectly in sync with the rising ’60s counterculture movement: Western culture has crushed our ability to experience the full range of our humanity. “As adults, we have forgotten most of our childhood, not only its contents but its flavor; as men of the world, we hardly know of the existence of the inner world … What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection...,” he writes. And: “Gone is any sense of possible tragedy, of passion. Gone is any language of joy, delight, passion, sex, violence. The language is that of a boardroom.” It’s through our childhoods that we are programmed. “The family’s function is to repress Eros; to induce a false consciousness of security; to deny death by avoiding life; to cut off transcendence; to believe in God, not to experience the Void; to create, in short, one-dimensional man; to promote respect, conformity, obedience; to con children out of play; to induce a fear of failure; to promote a respect for work; to promote a respect for ‘respectability.’” Anti-corporate, anti-conformity, pro- transcendence, and play—R.D. Laing is made for his historical moment.

The solution to this social programming, he explains, is to reject our conditioning, to turn inward, to explore “inner space.” (In a few years, Timothy Leary will tell a hippie gathering of tens of thousands in Golden Gate Park to “Turn on, tune in, drop out!”)

 

We are socially conditioned to regard total immersion in outer space and time as normal and healthy. Immersion in inner space and time tends to be regarded as antisocial withdrawal, a deviation, invalid, pathological …

We do not regard it as pathologically deviant to explore a jungle or to climb Mount Everest. We feel that Columbus was entitled to be mistaken in his construction of what he discovered when he came to the New World. We are far more out of touch with even the nearest approaches of the infinite reaches of inner space than we now are with the reaches of outer space … It makes far more sense to me as a valid project—indeed, as a desperately and urgently required project for our time—to explore the inner space of consciousness.

 

And who has gotten there first? Who are the natural explorers of inner space and time? The very people we’ve labeled “psychotic” and stripped of their full human citizenship. In an affront to his profession, Ronnie writes that “schizophrenics have more to teach psychiatrists about the inner world than psychiatrists their patients.”

Ronnie and Jutta, late 1960s. Photograph by John Haynes/Bridgeman Images

Perhaps the most extreme takeaway from this period is his concept of the voyage. This is Ronnie’s idea that at least some people dealing with schizophrenia are actually going through an existential experience that they should not be denied, that they should be allowed to work through in their own time. He quotes social scientist Gregory Bateson’s statement that once a patient enters a psychotic state, he has “embarked upon a voyage of discovery which is only completed by his return to the normal world,” to which he brings extraordinary new insights. It’s a voyage with “as definite a course as an initiation ceremony—a death and rebirth.”

Bateson suggests that it may be the individual’s family or the institution caring for that person that prevents the return from that trip—or, as Ronnie phrases it, the voyage isn’t allowed to reach completion “because we are so busy ‘treating’ the patient.” Here Ronnie crosses over into a romantic view of what most people would consider illness. “Madness,” he writes, “need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough. It is potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.” Sometimes people who are mad need only be given the freedom to travel through it.

Nearly 20 years will pass before Ronnie writes, in a memoir, about an episode that took place during his last year in medical school. That year, Ronnie’s father, David, convinced that his boss was not going to give him the promotion he’d counted on, suffered a nervous breakdown. David lay in bed, unable to stop trembling. The family doctor neither committed him to a psychiatric ward nor prescribed him medication; he instead decided to wait, to check in on David occasionally to monitor his progress. Ronnie sat at his father’s bedside each day, watched over him gently, and talked to him about what else might be causing this stress—his memories of the war, his miserable marriage to Ronnie’s mother, his poor relationship with his own father. And after three months, the episode … passed. David came through. He returned to work. Decades later, when Ronnie writes about the breakdown and his bedside vigil, he refers to his father as “my first patient.”

IX. The Great Guru

At Kingsley Hall, Ronnie crosses decisively into a new phase in his life. He stalks the Hall barefoot, in loose pants and turtleneck sweater, hair grown closer to his shoulders; committed to yoga, his body is ultra-lean. He is developing a persona. Uninterested in conventional middle-class life, he now alternates between sleeping at his house, his private practice, the Hall, and his girlfriend Jutta’s flat.

Joe has begun to think of Ronnie as “The Great Guru”—and he’s only partly joking. When Morty later moves into the Hall full-time with his British girlfriend, Vivien, he’s also struck by the grand sense of purpose Ronnie lends their project, a sort of aura that gives people a reason to stay. Anyone on the inside with Ronnie must be special. Walking down the street in London, Morty catches himself thinking, “I’m superior to all these people. Because I know about things that they don't know about.” He feels as if living alongside madness has anointed him—he can’t help this feeling—as if he is living more intensely, seeing more of the extremes of the human experience than people just going about their day, heading to their office jobs. Years later, he will look back on this notion with contempt for himself. He will think, A lot of people in cults must feel the same way.

Laing, 1970s. Photograph by John Haynes/Bridgeman Images

Vivien, still in her early 20s and raised in the countryside, is not as impressed by the Kingsley Hall experiment as the others. The place is “a filthy, disgusting mess.” To her—and Morty, too—the residents are “extraordinarily strange … some of the craziest people that one could ever hope to meet.” A few of them seem to be speaking a parallel-universe variety of English. When her younger sister comes to visit, she pulls Vivien aside and tells her, “You are absolutely out of your mind.”

Dinnertime is when Ronnie holds court. Around 9:30 p.m., the residents and maybe a half-dozen guests sit at a long oak table decorated with flowers and lit only by white candles. There is always red wine. When Ronnie is in town, he assumes the head of the table, in front of the kitchen’s arched window. Throughout the meal, he rhapsodizes about psychology, philosophy, mysticism; he riffs on Freud, Heidegger, Sartre, Beethoven. To Joe, Ronnie can “synthesize a variety of complex ideas with the ease of a concert pianist demonstrating variations on a theme by Bach or Mozart.” He also holds forth on the Buddha’s parables, stories from the life of Christ, the persecution of the early Christians. He seems to be linking himself to the Buddha and Jesus, and everyone else around the table to the disciples. Morty notices that when Ronnie is stoned, which is often, he can “ramble in a way that made him seem like he was transcending normal ordinary experience.” Vivien, for her part, sees how the residents treat the man, gathering around Ronnie in silence, and she finds it suspect. She can see that he is very charismatic, very attractive—but Jesus Christ he is not.

“Madness,” he writes, “need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough. It is potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.”

Dinner lasts for hours. Major psychiatrists from the UK and the States may join in, and also artists, writers, philosophers, anthropologists, musicians, and actors. But here, it’s the mad who are special. Inside these walls is a kingdom that is the inverse of the outside world, a place where the indecipherable, the “loonies,” are prophetic and revered. Many visitors try to guess which residents have been diagnosed as schizophrenic and which are trained in psychiatry, and they’re often wrong. Morty takes a peculiar pride in passing for disturbed—“a kind of quiet, smug satisfaction of having made it, to be a professional in disguise to that extent … a double agent, or whatever. That meant you had turned the field on its head.”

Oftentimes, as the meal is winding down, someone puts on a record and turns it way up—maybe the Rolling Stones or flamenco. The residents push the huge table up against the wall and people start dancing every which way, in made-up styles. (These late-night parties are the reason for the plastic foam sheets tacked up over the windows in the games room.) Eventually, people wander off to bed, one by one; at some point, the music is switched off. And now Ronnie assumes the lotus position on the floor and continues holding court. Not until every last person has walked off or passed out around him—it’s likely 4 a.m. by now—does he finally go to sleep. He rises at 6 a.m. to leave for his office.

Cover of a vinyl recording of the 1967 counterculture conference “Dialectics of Liberation,” released by the Institute of Phenomenological Studies the following year.

Leon hadn’t been aware of the scene Ronnie attracted, the stream of intellectual dignitaries who wanted to stay up late with R.D. Laing, until he arrived in London and saw Ronnie in his element, at the heart of the whole swinging-’60s thing. Leon himself is “not a swinging character”; he hadn’t really experimented with drugs until moving into the Hall. At this point, Ronnie, who drinks a lot and smokes a lot of grass, is using drugs beyond his therapeutic sessions. LSD and mescaline and hash—there’s no design to it. One entry in his journal from this period reads: “The self you are trying to find is the you that is trying to find the self you are trying to find so you will never find yourself since you have never been lost yourself since the self you have lost is the you that has lost it.”

At any given moment, Ronnie may have 100 or 200 vials of LSD from Sandoz Laboratories. He gives them to patients at the office, strategically, and has also begun arranging trips for residents and visitors at the Hall. Joe assists him with some of these sessions in a white room decorated with flowers, music playing. Joe’s job is to sit there, bored, and make sure the person tripping doesn’t wander off, jump off the roof, et cetera.

In two incidents seemingly unrelated to LSD, however, people do jump off the roof: a South African man and an American woman. In both cases—two minor miracles—they merely break some limbs.

X. Trading Shit for Paint

Mary has been painting on the walls of her room with her shit.

Sperm—ovum—crucifix.

Mary goes through a period of painting breasts on walls, here and there, throughout the house. These, too, she paints with her shit.

When residents round the corner, they are taken by surprise: the smell is staggering. These breasts are foul, putrid, the gross inverse of what a baby needs from a mother. Mary was trained so well and so long to deny her feelings that her feelings are now poisoning the walls of her own home.

The fact that Mary’s bedroom is beside the dining room does not make the situation easier. Over dinner, the others complain about “the smell space” Mary takes up in the Hall. Joe’s level of tolerance is high; Mary is the unique creature in his care. “I marveled at the elegance and eloquence of her imagery, while others saw only her smells.”

Painting by Barnes, late 1960s. Courtesy of Nottingham Lakeside Arts, used with permission of Joseph Berke.

That said, Joe is looking for a solution. In New York, his former mentor, John Thompson, told him a story about his patient Barry, diagnosed catatonic schizophrenic. One day, after months of John’s one-sided conversations, the man finally spoke up: “Don’t give me that shit!” Barry said, waving a hand at him. Struck by this outburst, John, on an impulse, handed Barry a pen and paper to see what he would do—and Barry began drawing with incredible intensity, almost in a fever. He had been activated; this developed into his way of communicating. He eventually became a visual artist.

With this in mind, before heading out to run errands one Saturday, Joe forages in the Kingsley Hall closets and emerges with a round toffee tin of grease crayons and a load of paper. He sits Mary down at a table and presents her with the goods.

“Here,” he says. “Just scribble.”

So she does. For hours and hours, trying out all the colors. And when Joe returns, she presents him with a drawing in red: a woman on her knees, nursing a baby.

“That’s very nice,” he says. “Do some more.” And she does, holding on to every drawing, ferreting them away in her room. They are hers; she made them.

She has moved into one of the cells on the roof, and she begins to cover the walls. Some paint cans and brushes are still lying around the building, the detritus of a recent attempt at interior decorating, and she hauls them upstairs. She paints a mother nursing her baby, a baby as a flower bud, an image of Christ on the cross, in red, directly above her bed (she’d converted to Catholicism as an adult). She lights candles, lies down, and watches the walls.

The crucifixion Barnes painted above her bed in her cell on the roof of the Hall, 1966. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.
Barnes in her room at Kingsley Hall, circa 1968. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.

Mary continues painting—Madonna and child, a fetus in the womb—on wallpaper liner she buys from the store across the street. She is still struggling with It, and Joe suggests she use that feeling when she paints. She should focus on the crucifixion, he says. And so that is what she paints, over and over and over again. The crucifixion, and then the resurrection. Or, as Mary puts it, “Going down and in, coming up and out.”

She starts hanging up paintings—dozens of them, on paper or canvas—throughout the building. She is thrilled as she works, and once she gets going, she works in a great rush—five hours, six hours, until the painting is done. She never pauses, except to talk to, laugh with, or maybe berate one of her figures. When she finishes a new painting, she lies on the floor, paint in her hair, on her face, all over her pants. Then she drags herself into bed this way and passes out.

XI. Mary the Terrorist

For Joe, his time at Kingsley Hall has been exhilarating—but tough. Exhausting. Sometimes frightening. So he calls up his girlfriend, Roberta, in New York, a social worker in training, and asks her to join him in London. Hearing the stress in Joe’s voice, she arrives at the airport with a two-foot-long Hebrew National salami and a large cheesecake. The couple decides to split their time between the Hall and a flat near Primrose Hill.

As almost anyone could have predicted, Mary is not pleased with Roberta’s presence, and she is honest about it. When Joe and Roberta sit together, Mary tries to separate them; when they are asleep, she creeps into their bedroom and lies down between them. If they lock their door at night, she stands just outside it, wailing. Most emphatically: when they neglect to lock their door before leaving the building, Mary pees on their bed.

Joe continues encouraging Mary to work through her anger—through conversation, through artwork. His challenge is how to manage (and survive) Mary “without divorcing myself from her trip.” He is an ambitious man, he is here for a reason, and in this sense he is Mary’s hostage. Joe has appointments with patients at the clinic a few days a week, and many times when he starts to leave the house—despite how consistent and foreseeable his schedule, despite the many hours he’s just spent “chasing” her around the games room or perched at her bedside—Mary throws an epic fit. As draining as the ritual can be, he’s usually able to shut her down by shouting back. But Mary’s clinginess and controlling behavior finally come to a head.

Joe’s level of tolerance is high; Mary is the unique creature in his care. “I marveled at the elegance and eloquence of her imagery, while others saw only her smells.”

One afternoon, Joe is on his way to an appointment, walking down the stairs, when Mary rushes after him in her nightgown and begins grabbing at his coat, crying, begging him not to leave. He orders her back to bed, says he will see her later—she screams. He reasons with her, and she quiets down. He makes it to the foyer when Mary jumps between him and the front door. And now she tells him that if he doesn’t stay, she’ll throw off her nightgown, run into the street, and shout for someone to take her to a mental hospital.

This is when Joe balls up his fist and punches Mary in the face with everything he’s got. One. Strong. Blow.

It feels incredible. It feels so good. A release of months and months of frustration.

Then he sees it: blood running from her nose, down her face, onto her nightgown. He recoils, shocked. What way is this for a doctor to treat his patient?

But he is not a doctor here, and Mary is not a patient—right? And so, while he’s uneasy with the fact that he’s hit someone—and a person who, though physically aggressive, is abnormally vulnerable—he hasn’t violated a formal relationship. Besides, he is no Gandhi; he’s just a guy from the south side of Newark trying his best. And doesn’t Mary need to learn that she, too, can be abusive, has been abusive? She cannot live with people without recognizing that they have limits.

On the other hand, Joe is a doctor here. The therapists in the house cannot avoid communicating their outside-world status, vibing as doctors. And the residents with long histories of hospitalization, former careers as “patients,” often can’t help playing their part as well.

As these thoughts run through Joe’s head, Mary is absorbing the shock. And now she runs up the stairs calling out, “Look what Joe’s done! Look what Joe’s done!” Joe chases after her, wiping blood off the banister along the way. She makes it up three flights to the roof: “Look what Joe’s done!”

She will not take off her bloodstained nightgown. At dinnertime, she shows it off.

The next day, she tells Joe that the blow gave her a sense of relief, that she loves him now even more than before. For Joe, the guilt remains.

Others in the building are not particularly upset by Joe’s outburst. Nearly a year into the experiment, many have grown sick of Mary. The paintings Mary has hung up throughout the Hall, so admired by Joe and Ronnie and Leon, have created a general feeling of Mary Spreading Out Everywhere. When her outlook turns dark, so do her paintings, and that dark mood bleeds through the Hall. The Catholicism of the work—that alone is enough to set off some of the residents.

Barnes and her paintings. Courtesy of Nottingham Lakeside Arts, used with permission of Joseph Berke.
Used with permission of Joseph Berke.
Photograph by CJ Clarke. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.
Barnes and her paintings. Courtesy of Nottingham Lakeside Arts, used with permission of Joseph Berke.
Used with permission of Joseph Berke.
Photograph by CJ Clarke. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.

Mary’s outsize presence touches the central nerve of a conflict that’s arisen at Kingsley Hall. The place is splitting into two factions: those, led by Ronnie, who believe it’s running fine in an anything-goes, just-coexisting kind of way; and those, led by Aaron, who believe it needs clear rules, to be followed under threat of expulsion and enforced by a medical director. And so Mary’s mighty urge to paint the walls—she now wants permission to subsume the entire rear staircase in her oils—takes on a loaded significance. At dinner, a debate begins over whether or not she should be expelled. A decision is made: Mary must take down every single painting and confine her work to her room. Leon and Joe, in support of the truce, spend the rest of the evening helping her roll up her canvases.

This rejection has a heavy impact on Mary. A few weeks later, she dresses herself in it.

On that evening, when Joe steps into the games room, he discovers Mary “looking far worse than the creature from the black lagoon.” She is standing there, naked, entirely slathered in her shit.

Joe is immediately nauseated. He rushes out of the room. He wants to run from the building, to flee this upside-down kingdom where madness is the bridge to sanity, where your bare skin is as good as any suit, where night is equal to day and shit has currency. This is too much, too bloody much. She can damn well take care of herself from now on. I want nothing more to do with her.

And then he stops himself. What are you getting so worked up about? It’s just shit ... Ain’t going to hurt you none to go back and help her get cleaned up, and if you don't you will never have anything to do with her again. Is that what you want?

He turns back. He spends the next hour cleaning her off in the tub. Each of them, in their own way, needs the other.

XII. Gold Shoes

Between the summer of ’67 and the end of ’68, the influence of Ronnie and his inner circle continues to expand. Joe, Ronnie, Leon, and David Cooper host a major two-week counterculture conference, the “Dialectics of Liberation,” at the Roundhouse theater in London, and Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael, Gregory Bateson, and Herbert Marcuse are among the speakers. Sean Connery joins Ronnie at Kingsley Hall for dinner. The occasional documentary crew, from the BBC or abroad, shows up to film the “madness.”

As enormous as Ronnie’s reputation has become, the story of Mary Barnes has also taken on a mythic status. Mary is at the heart of almost any public conversation about Kingsley Hall, and along with her story, the name of her caregiver, Joe Berke, is repeated again and again. This diverting of public attention to Ronnie’s young American disciple has become a source of tension between the two men. For his part, Joe has come to see Ronnie as both “a great healer and a master manipulator.” When he shows Ronnie a draft of an article he’s working on, Ronnie thoroughly rewrites it, in way that strikes Joe as stemming more from a desire to dominate than to mentor. Joe and Mary eventually begin work on a joint memoir of her experience at the Hall—a process that does not involve Ronnie or the PA—and Joe does not ask his mentor for notes.

Guru and disciple seem on the verge of parting ways, and it hasn’t been easy for Joe, whose transference with Ronnie is “so intense.” For him, the man is a giant. Joe knows he viewed him, at least through the early days of Kingsley Hall, as a god, an alter ego, a father figure. (Morty, too, regards Ronnie with the intimacy of family, later saying, “I knew him as well as I knew my own mother.”) For a few years now, Joe has felt “tremendously jealous of anyone else who had his attention. Probably I was with him like Mary was with me.” Their imminent split will hit Joe very hard.

Laing, early 1970s. Photograph by John Haynes/Bridgeman Images

Ronnie himself, now 40, has arrived at a moment of personal crisis—a moment he writes of, in his journal, as “the transition from Icarus to Daedalus from Oedipus to Laius from enfant terrible to grand old man or everyman’s favorite uncle.” The dedication page of his recently published book The Politics of Experience reads, “For my children.” But by the time of publication, Ronnie is living with Jutta and has dropped contact almost entirely with his first family; his wife, Anne, and their five children moved to Glasgow without him. In finalizing the separation with Anne, Ronnie advised his attorney to give his family no more than the legal minimum in financial support. He has converted their former London house into a PA home for schizophrenics.

Tired of Kingsley Hall, Ronnie now shows up mostly for Friday dinners. He is less excited by his work—he’s cut short the research for the second volume of Sanity, Madness and the Family, which was intended to focus on “normal” families as a foil to those with a schizophrenic member. His apparent reason for abandoning the project: there’s no thrill to it. “Normal families—perhaps best call them ‘silent’ families in the sense of making no noise to the world outside to signal any distress; indeed no noise to signal special joy or sorrow,” he writes.

In January of 1969, Ronnie makes a rare visit to Glasgow to see his father, recently committed to a psychogeriatric ward. But Ronnie, who’s avoided his parents and children in Scotland for two and a half years now, has waited too long: his father is completely senile. He does not remember his son; he does not remember having a son. He refers to Ronnie as “the chap who lived with my wife.” For Ronnie, a man who has devoted much of his life to the relentless examination of human relationships, several of his own are dissolved or broken, damaged in part by his neglect.

Barnes, setting up her solo show at the Camden Arts Centre, 1969. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.
Berke and Barnes in the apartment she moved into after the closure of Kingsley Hall, 1971. Used with permission of Joseph Berke.

Once back in London, Ronnie helps select paintings for Mary’s first solo show at the Camden Arts Centre—the press around Kingsley Hall and its madwoman artist has also caught the attention of local curators. Ronnie chooses 20 paintings from about 200 in total. Mary’s canvasses are stretched and framed, and she makes a new triptych, six feet tall—of Adam and Eve and the serpent, Joshua leading the people of Israel out of the desert, and the Annunciation.

The night of the opening, April 1969: Mary wears a blue dress and cape, delicate stockings, and gold shoes. She wears a fine scarf, also gold and blue. This blue, she thinks, is Virgin Mary blue.

Ronnie arrives, and Leon with a huge bundle of flowers. Joe comes dressed in a robe decorated with gold dragons. Many people from the Hall are there. Mary has invited her family, former nursing friends, and at least three Catholic priests. There has been press in British Vogue, the Guardian, and the Sunday Times. (Soon her story will be syndicated by Newsweek’s wire service.) She speaks to the media and to gallery visitors without a problem—maybe it’s easy now because she believes she has something valuable to talk about.

Opening night passes quickly. Soon she’s saying goodbye to Leon and his wife, to Ronnie, to a friend from Paris, to Joe, to many others. And back at Kingsley Hall, she lights candles in her room and watches the light play across her murals, the Christ above her bed, the prayers she’s painted on the walls. The entire building is quiet, sleeping. And Mary Barnes is satisfied.

XIII. Outer Space

That summer, Mary sits in front of a television set and watches an American walk on the moon. She has been so consumed, for so long, with the exploration of inner space—but this, this is thrilling. To journey into the space out there.

Now she is able to cook for herself, to go out for walks in Victoria Park, to buy things in the shops, to paint only in her room (and only with paint). Now her affections have become lighter, spread across multiple people—Leon, Morty, even Roberta. She is able, for the most part, to save her strongest feelings for painting. And when It comes, as it sometimes does, she can lie down and let the sensation wash over her. It always has an ending—Joe taught her that.

Her timing is good because, by the end of 1969, it is clear that the Kingsley Hall experiment is coming to an end. By this point, over 100 people have lived in the building, for weeks or months or years at a time. Maybe a few thousand visitors have passed through—to talk, to gawk, to trip out, to be in the presence of R.D. Laing. But the core members are exhausted, Ronnie’s interest has wandered, and the place itself is a wreck. Around this time, in a series of taped conversations about the Hall for a book that would never materialize, Ronnie declares: “I wouldn’t live in that fucking place as it is just now ... Because it’s a miserable dump.”

For Ronnie, a man who has devoted much of his life to the relentless examination of human relationships, several of his own are dissolved or broken, damaged in part by his neglect.

The PA’s lease on Kingsley Hall runs out in May of 1970, and everyone must go. Mary, with some trepidation, sets out on her own. She finds an apartment, her first: an attic flat in North London, “unfurnished and marvelous,” above the home of another former nurse and her family. She moves in with a bed and some paints and canvas. Over the next few years, she will need help again; she will go down again. But she has Joe to talk to (as an official therapist now, whom she pays), and she has her work, and she does not think it’s bad to have the occasional breakdown.

Ronnie is eager to move on—but to what he does not know. The following spring, he leaves for an entire year of meditation in Sri Lanka and India, and returns to find himself, through poor financial planning, deeply in debt. In a panic, he turns to the manager of The Who to set up a tour of the States, where “R.D. Laing,” recently profiled in Life, Esquire, and The Atlantic, is still a star of the counterculture. In packed auditoriums at about a dozen universities, he speaks, often barefoot, in front of so many excited co-eds. Now and then, as he travels, he is asked to consult on particularly hopeless schizophrenic patients in the psych wards of major American cities.

But over the next several years, with the push behind newer drug treatments for schizophrenia, Ronnie loses much of his professional relevance. The physical effects of his serious drinking have begun to show: his eyes are sleepy, his mouth slips easily into a lazy grin. His second marriage, to Jutta, has become tense, and he is directionless. When Ronnie’s daughter Fiona has a nervous breakdown in Glasgow and is sent to Gartnavel Hospital—where, long ago, Ronnie worked on the women’s ward—his son Adrian calls from their house at Ruskin Place, terrified. Adrian demands to know what his father will do about the situation. The reply: “Ruskin Place or Gartnavel, what's the fucking difference?”

Photographs by John Haynes/Bridgeman Images
Laing, practicing yoga for a Life magazine photo shoot. The story referred to him as the “Philosopher of Madness” and “an oracle and prophet,” 1971.

Though he continues publishing and giving lectures, the next decade, for Ronnie, is an often dark and difficult one. In a Radio 4 interview in 1985, he chooses to confess to years of depression and heavy drinking. He describes waking up in the morning even more tired than the night before, mixing tranquilizers with alcohol, going through times when it takes an incredible effort “to raise a finger.” (At this point, he has not seen a therapist since the 1960s.) In 1986, Ronnie appears on a talk show with the blank face of someone playing sober, shoulders hunched, so clearly inebriated that the host asks why he’s chosen to come on TV “definitely slow” and smelling like booze. The following spring—after an inquiry ignited by both his Radio 4 confessions and an allegation of drunkenness during a session—the General Medical Council revokes his license. He is no longer a practicing psychiatrist.

Ronnie dies suddenly of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 61.

At the time of his death, R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self is on its way to selling more than 1 million copies internationally. He had been, for a time, the best-known psychoanalyst alive.

XIV. The Chapel

Back in 1970, with the shuttering of Kingsley Hall, Joe’s divorce from Ronnie was complete. For Joe, Ronnie had become “the God that failed.” When the two finally parted ways, the disciple from Newark felt he’d been rejected. (Joe was never invited to join the PA.) For a brief time, he had a fantasy of strapping Ronnie to a chair and lobotomizing him.

Instead, Joe and Morty struck out on their own. Without the PA, they created their own housing association—a collection of refuges that functioned outside R.D. Laing’s circus of charisma, with far fewer distractions, and with luxuries such as central heating and windows that weren’t broken. They called it the Arbours, to conjure up the image of a natural shelter. For their first location, Morty and Vivien bought a large house for cheap near Hampstead Heath and moved in with their young son and several schizophrenics. Leon, realizing that some Kingsley Hall residents, like his “bard” David Bell, would be left without prospects, opened his own place as well. He took over a series of houses in Archway—they were low-rent, scheduled for demolition—and the PA soon offered its support.

As Morty would later say, the Hall brought with it “the esteem of knowing that one was living on a frontier. But there was no treatment.” (Mary’s successful “voyage” was due, in great part, to Joe’s regular care—an anomaly inside Kingsley Hall.) Joe, Morty, and Leon now wanted to do something more than simply “leave people there to live.” At both the Arbours and Archway, staff was hired to be on call, and there were regular meetings. Over the coming years and decades, the PA and the Arbours opened many other “places of asylum” across London, nearly 20 in total.

In the mid-’70s Mary went back to visit Kingsley Hall—“back to a home of my childhood; really, my second childhood”—and found an empty, boarded-up, vandalized house with nothing on the walls save her last, enormous dining-room mural: Christ crucified, and at his feet St. John, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene.

Today the place, heavily renovated, is in use again as a community center. Mary’s Christ was painted over years ago. And of the many houses directly inspired by Kingsley Hall, only four remain.

For Joe, Ronnie had become “the God that failed.”

Yet so much has happened and still happens inside these houses. Someone cuts their arms and face and chest until they need medical help. Someone refuses to speak—until, one day, calm enough, they do. Someone decides, for the first time, to trust a therapist. Someone reduces their meds; someone cuts out their meds entirely. Someone goes back into hospital—for a day, for a few weeks or months—and then returns. Someone is removed from the house by family members who regret it later. Someone becomes a good cook. Someone is finally allowed to walk the dog. Someone becomes an artist. Someone gets their first job in years, maybe delivering newspapers. Someone trashes the living room and threatens other residents with their fists, or a broken bottle. Someone is held by another human being for the first time since they were a small child. Someone has their first regular conversation since they left the chronic ward. Someone is considered too dangerous to live outside of a locked room, to live unsedated, but here they stand in the kitchen, making tea. Someone will be mostly okay soon.

So much has happened outside of these houses, too. In both the UK and the States, the threat of an insulin coma, of a lobotomy, of involuntary committal to a grotesque institution, is over. There are drugs, many more than there were in the late ’50s and ’60s, that can temper symptoms of psychosis. But mental health care remains focused on producing a rigid diagnosis—one that is now met, whenever possible, with a pharmaceutical answer. And by the late ’80s, after most of the mental hospitals in both countries were closed and psychotic patients dispersed, many vulnerable people were left with little support. In the States, about 10 out of 11 psychiatric patients now housed by the government are incarcerated.

The need remains for true asylum for people who are distressed and in pain, for a form of treatment that arises more out of human solidarity than the drive to contain a disturbance. In talks about R.D. Laing in recent years, Leon has rephrased the same question again and again: “If you had a breakdown and suddenly found yourself vulnerable, confused, frightened, maybe hallucinating, maybe delusional … or if this happened to your husband, wife, son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother, neighbor, friend, lover—how would you want to be treated?”

Kingsley Hall was an experiment that is considered imperfect by all who took part in it, deeply flawed; to some on the outside, it was wildly irresponsible, perhaps a failure. Its clearest achievement may be the transformation of Mary Barnes.

A photo of Laing taken by a resident of Kingsley Hall, 1965. Photograph by Dorothee von Grieff

In the summer of 2001, Joe is informed of Mary’s death, at 78 years old. She had traveled Europe giving talks, mounted several more exhibitions of her work, and seen her memoir with Joe, Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Into Madness, translated into 17 languages. Mary spent her final years in a cottage in Tomintoul, the highest-altitude village of the Scottish Highlands. Once she developed trouble walking, she was often seen riding her wheelchair through the center of town—backward.

When Joe receives his invitation to the memorial service for Mary, to take place in Falkland, he is staggered: the memorial has been arranged by the Scottish lord who is the keeper of the Falkland Royal Palace, where Mary Queen of Scots spent her summers.

There, in the royal chapel, on the second floor of the south wing, people who knew Mary Barnes and cared for her and saw her grow up—maybe the first time, maybe the second time—sit in rows of modest wooden chairs, as if in a classroom. They are gathered to remember the woman who, in midlife, decided to be born again, to live in the dark without her clothes, to be wrapped in a blanket and bottle-fed, to re-learn, unsteady, how to walk and talk. The woman who smeared the walls of her room with excrement, primitive, and then transformed that instinct into a new language for herself, a way to finally say what she meant, through grease crayons and paint. Below the ornate carved-oak ceiling of the palace chapel, amid so many tapestries of Biblical scenes, are installed 12 of Mary’s paintings. Among them are two of her crucifixions, enormous and emphatic, the trails her fingers made through the paint still visible. The story of the crucifixion is the story of going down and in, coming up and out.

Laing, 1969–71. Photograph by John Haynes/Bridgeman Images
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