Treating Mary Barnes (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

In the book that she would later write about her experiences at Kingsley Hall (co-written with her therapist Joseph Berke), Mary Barnes candidly described her experiences with "regression therapy" and how this made her  revert to a child-like state.   This allowed her to overcome her inhibitions and simply behave as she wished.    Since Laing believed that mental illness was rooted in early childhood experiences, regression allowed patients to work through childhood issues and reinvent themselves.   Mary's enthusiasm led to her taking her regression to extremes.  Not only did she refuse to eat at times, she often smeared her own feces on the walls of her room as well as smearing herself.    Through it  all, Berke and the other staff members helped  her with the various "ups and downs" her stay at the centre.  

While the book mainly focused on Mary's journey through mental illness, the chapters written by Joseph Berke also described how the Kingsley Hall experiment actually worked.  Mainly run along democratic lines, the distinction between staff and patients could be a bit blurred at times and many residents would later say that it was run more like a hippie commune than a psychiatric hospital.   With no locks on the doors, marathon dinners on Friday night (hosted by Laing), and round-the-clock therapy sessions, the atmosphere at Kingsley Hall was more like an extended fraternity rather than a hospital.  There were also famous visitors and admirers dropping in at all times due to the popularity of Laing's ideas.   This included actor Sean Connnery, a fellow Scotsman and a fan of Laing's.

800px-Mary_Barnes_painting_(detail)[1]Even more controversially, Laing also encouraged staff and residents to experiment with various mind-altering drugs, including LSD.  Still legal at the time (though this would change in just a few years), Laing argued that acid trips would allow patients to "release their inner demons" and work through trauma.  Unfortunately, this had some unintended consequences including two people jumping off the roof of the building while they were high.   There was also the negative relationship with the neighbouring community to consider and Kingsley Hall  gained a reputation as a drug den (it was even raided at one point).   Local residents regularly complained about the noise and the odd-looking people who were coming and going from the place.  Some disgruntled locals made it a habit to smash windows at the centre (usually after a night of drinking at the nearby pub).  

Despite these distractions, Mary Barnes discovered that she had a talent for painting.  Ironically,  it was her habit of smearing feces during her regression therapy episodes that inspired Joseph Burke to suggest that she try actual painting.   Mary embraced this suggestion wholeheartedly.   As she later reported, "I scribbled all day with crayons and pictures emerged.  I went and got some tins of paint that had been left over from decorating.  I got old pieces of wallpaper and I painted furiously.  Six or seven hours seemed like two minutes, and I would go to bed every night with paint on me."  

In many ways, painting was a mystical experience for Mary.  Joseph Berke provided a memorable example of this in a moving tribute to his patient and friend written after her death:

Soon after she started to paint in colour, she asked the Kingsley Hall community whether she could paint the 25' by 15' wall of the dining room. Somewhat to my surprise, the community agreed. Mary did not waste time in starting the painting for she feared, with good reason, that people might change their mind. Mary began to the painting at two o'clock in the afternoon and finished at ten in the evening. But to her, the whole experience only lasted a few minutes. It was not that she painted 'Christ Triumphant,' but she was Christ and the angels and other figures in this huge wall creation. Her face scintillated as she painted and I felt exhilarated just watching her. The painting was her epiphany.

She would later say that painting was a part of her life which had been "buried for forty-two years" and only emerged because of her therapy experiences at the Hall.  Ironically, she was one of the very few people to stay at Kingsley Hall from beginning to end.  Most of the staff, Laing included, found the atmosphere too intense and often left after only a year or two. 

Within just a few years, Mary Barnes had become a widely recognized artist and her book would become a  best-seller.   As Joseph Berke himself commented about her painting, "It is her idiom.  Her way of making contact with the world.  Everyone had to have some direct line between himself and the world, and painting gave Mary the direct line she could not establish in any way."   By the time Kingsley Hall closed in 1970, she had become the most well-known psychiatric patient in the U.K. and was often regarded as being living proof of R. D. Laing's anti-psychiatry movement (leaving aside the fact that she had been Joseph Berke's patient, not Laing's).   Despite her fame, Mary was never really "cured" of her schizophrenia and she would experience intermittent episodes for the rest of her life.   Still, she managed to function without medication and continued her career as an artist.  

Not long after Kingsley Hall closed, Mary helped Joseph Berke establish the Arbours Crisis Centre in London and she continued to hold regular showings of her art as well as giving frequent lectures on mental health and psychotherapy.   In 1979, she and playwright David Edgar co-wrote a script for a radio play based on her book which has been repeatedly broadcast on the BBC every since.

Six years later, Mary Barnes moved to Scotland and eventually settled down in the town of Tomintoul ("the highest village in the Highlands").   She continued to paint and exhibit which releasing her final book, Something Sacred, in 1989.   Despite being crippled by arthritis to the point of needing a wheelchair, she remained active throughout her remaining years and became a familiar sight in her adopted village (she often preferred to pedal her wheelchair backwards in the street as it was easier to get around that way).  

 When she died on June 29, 2001 at the age of 78, her obituary described Mary as an "extraordinary person, full of humour and vitality, exhibiting and encouraging younger painters well into her 70s."   Though she had successfully managed without medication since leaving Kingsley Hall,  David Edgar later wrote of her that she  was "never, and could never, be cured in the sense of returned to normal."  He also described her as "passionate, intense, demanding and self-obsessed,"  but also "generous, funny and kind.   It was a privilege to tell her story."  

What final thoughts can I make about Mary Barnes?   Despite her success in coping with schizophrenia on her own terms, she also attracted her share of criticism as well.   Many of R.D. Laing's fiercest attackers seemed determined to discredit her story as part of their assault on Laing's theories.   Thomas Szasz, who condemned Laing's "obsession" with schizophrenia, called Mary Barnes Laing's "Wolf-Woman" (after the famous "Wolf-man patient" of Sigmund Freud).    Though she was never actually Laing's patient, Szasz still dismissed many of the details of Mary Barnes' story as unrealistic and accused Laing (and Barnes) of falling into the trap of conventional psychiatry.   Many of Laing's other critics did much the same though her reputation as a pioneer in mental health remains strong.

Through it all, Mary Barnes continued to produce her art up until her death.  Many of her paintings are still on display in galleries throughout the U.K. and shows featuring her art continue to be held.   Would she have become such a gifted artist if she had never come to Kingsley Hall and learned to rediscover herself?  You be the judge.


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  • Treating Mary Barnes (Part One of Two)
  • Exposing Australia's History of Bizarre "Ex-Gay" Conversion Therapy
  • When Children Assault Their Parents


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