Barbara Taylor, author The Last Asylum (2014), in conversation with Alf McFarland of WMIP at the Birmingham Literature Festival Sunday, 8 October 2017 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. West Midlands Institute for Psychotherapy Journal
The Last Asylum is Barbara Taylor’s story of being lost in rage, alcohol and drug misuse, breakdown; “madness years”, from which she eventually recovered through twenty years of psychoanalysis, hospitalisation under the care of an intelligent (her word) psychiatrist, and the support of family and friends. It also recounts the ending of the asylum system and introduction of the insufficiently resourced and often dishonest policy of care in the community.
Barbara began the event by insisting on being able to see the large audience, that the house lights be put back on; the stage on which she and Alf McFarland sat having been brightly lit with the house lights dimmed. After she read passages from the book Alf asked her, amongst other questions, for her thoughts about how she arrives at being able to be responsible, in the sense of reflective, about, her feelings.
She described the arrival of being well half way through a long analysis, as the ‘getting’ free association, the discovery of her mind out of madness. “….I felt myself go rigid, I stopped breathing, my heart was thundering….My mind opened, and my neglected dream rushed in. A flood of memories, images, sounds: blue dress, sky blue…..” Excitement cascaded through her as she realised her dream was her living creation and her mind, “a flow, a mnemonic tide, awash with vitality.” In this she experienced the connection with her analyst and the recognition simultaneously of her analyst as his own person; realising the mind as an inter-personal and imaginal phenomenon.
On a personal level she tells of the healing of rage in a transference relationship; rage toxic to the un-held, insecurely attached child in the overwhelmed adult. In the event and the book, she owns her experiences, she does not generalise, she eschews any easy explanation of madness as creative. At the same time the book is a living, beautiful, burning testament to the personal as political, how maddened rage is a meaningful response to societal stupefaction in which the ‘well’ are out-raged.
Drawing on her experiences in the feminist movement in the 1970’s she writes of how appropriate rage could become toxic to those who experienced it. “There is a wild frustration that can afflict social movements like feminism. Whose equalitarian premises are so obviously true that their sheer banality can be maddening. It was enraging to find oneself arguing with beauty-contest defenders and ‘pro-lifers’ and other sexual reactionaries, and that rage became toxic, seeping into our relationships with each other. We dreamed of a radical unity of women…..there were too many inequalities among us – of class, ethnicity, cultural advantages, financial resources – for a lasting solidarity;”
Her gift to us, born from deep personal experience, is of anger as connective tissue, the need for sustained attention without knowingness to realise this, and the costs, both of the madness and its cure. She wanted us to leave the theatre angry, angry at the insanity of our unrelationality engrained into social and political behaviours, angry at our cowardice in relation to mental illness. There is a beautiful, subtle and inherent relationality in the book as well as the person, which is apparent in the language; the inequalities are “among” us, not “between” us.
In addition to Barbara’s story of her “madness years” and recovery, The Last Asylum, is a record of the closure of Friern Hospital, contains a chapter on psychoanalysis and psychiatry and the history of the treatment of psychoses in analysis; each usefully referenced.