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.

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4 thoughts on “A strategy for survival

  1. Lee 12 years ago

    Hi John, I’ve now bought a second-hand copy too. I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  2. John Baker 12 years ago

    She was here last week, Hilary Mantel, at the University of York, talking about her work and her influences. Great evening. She didn’t mention Laing at all, which is a pity, as he was also one of my own influences and I would have welcomed the opportunity to discuss him with a mind as sharp as Mantel’s.
    Even stranger, dipping into the world of Jung for a moment, but between Mantel’s talk and your piece quoting her, I came across a copy of the book she was referring to in the local Oxfam shop. Bought it, too.

  3. Lee 12 years ago

    What a lovely idea to honour her in that way. My elder daughter is named after the great grandmother who also died in the asylum to which she was consigned.

  4. L.M.Noonan 12 years ago

    My maternal great grandmother was committed to an asylum as a very young woman after the birth of her only child and never left, dying there three decades later. I didn’t even know her name until about a decade ago. I sometimes use her name in artworks as a way of honouring her