One of the things I most regret – and we tend to regret most deeply the things we haven’t done – is not talking as an adult to my schizophrenic grandmother, who was confined for many years to an asylum; not hearing her story.
In the hospitals where Laing had trained, it was axiomatic that doctors and nurses didn’t “talk to psychosis”. The patient was sick and generating nonsense, and you should not encourage it. Laing thought that, if you listened, the patient would tell you how her world worked; the language might be metaphorical, even surreal, but that was logical in a context where plain speech had been penalised and where children had been taught, as they grew, to distrust their own perception and memory, and give way to the memories and perceptions of others. In Laing’s families, there is always a version behind the version. There are truths one member is allowed to air, that another member is forbidden to utter. The weakest finds him or herself in a lose-lose situation, unable to please, locked in a circuit of invalidation. Madness may, in some circumstances, seem a strategy for survival.
Read what else Hilary Mantel has to say about how she became a writer.