The Drama of Alice and Ronnie
The lives, efforts and legacies of two of the most influential researchers of family roots, what they symbolise as parents or children and how their own children have endeavoured to understand them, provide insight into the human condition.
Daddy, would you like Mummy to be your mummy?
—Natasha (R. D. Laing, 1978)
A language is a collection of symbols, and so is a large part of our relationships. Even before we are born, we are seen as representatives of a moral bond between mother, father and child in the light of a language. We are ‘the child’, like she who gives birth is ‘the mother’. Through our early years, we will be disregarded if we don’t feel such bonds are authentic, because nothing else is acceptable. Once the fact of our adulthood has materialised, now immersed in a symbolic life, one often feels divided because an important, bodily part seems to have been left behind. And not even by focusing on the body, therapeutically or otherwise, do we loosen the grip of the symbolic as we strive to be ‘someone’ who feels better, especially as a parent.
Two popular thinkers who have courageously dealt with this problem are Alice Miller and Ronald Laing. Where the first spoke about the drama of ‘the gifted child’ (A. Miller, 1979), the second, you could say, was that gifted child. In recent years, there has been an increased focus on both thanks to how the Internet has given a voice to their children. In seconds, we can see how their arguments have stood the test of time and the personal: Martin Miller, a Swiss therapist and son of the first, has published a book containing considerable criticism of his mother (M. Miller, 2013), and the retrospective accounts of Adrian Laing are relatively well known (Day & Keeley, 2008; A. C. Laing, 2006). Both tell us about the failure of a parent to live up to a parenting standard, including their own parenting standard. More accurately, though, what is finally conveyed is that those parents must be blamed for the suffering of ‘the child’ whom these authors now represent. This statement has the interesting, more traditional counterpart in that ‘the parent’ cannot be blamed for the suffering of particular children, which gives us a preliminary insight into what goes on with these situations.
Indeed, such conflation of the universal and the particular is a common misunderstanding and double standard (Maanmieli, 2018b, 2018c). It is our primary psychological armour. In my view, knowledge and healing take place when we do not mistake prescription for description, family member for person, role for actor, symbol for referent, and blame for analysis. This can sometimes come about by simply using our first names.
A gifted child
Ronnie went from being a war psychiatrist to a sixties icon of the counterculture. With his book The Divided Self (1960), he remains an influential character among those, like myself, who take a philosophical approach to mental illness because we cannot help but prioritise a causal force that seems overwhelming, namely, the emotional burden that culture and its symbols place upon the individual. Becoming acceptable in a society has a cost which is perhaps too big for some, and Ronnie might not have been an exception to this:
Almost finished N.S.[National Service] 4 months to go. What have I achieved?
Fuck all. Yet I have now a baby girl, I am married, I own a flat. A great deal of piss has been knocked out of me. I have retained my friends. I have done perhaps inestimable harm to one person. I have become more reconciled with my parents. I have been forced to my knees: forced back to the Bible, Plato, Kant. I can hardly say I have furthered my carreer. (Beveridge, 2011, p. 30)
Rather than being sent to hospital as ‘the patient’, Laing became ‘the doctor’. History was also ripe for the kind of thinker he was; one who would wake up a schizophrenic from a silence of months by joining her in the padded cell, naked (Day & Keeley, 2008). His personal troubles and eventual decline, along with the triumph of the biomedical model, could thus be considered as proof that he never lost sight of the personal, the authentic, the particular, however difficult it was to remain grounded.
This is why my favourite book by Ronnie is Conversations With Children (1978). As a collection of ordinary life exchanges with Adam and Natasha, it is perhaps his most vulnerable and underrated work, especially considering his extensive experience as a psychotherapist with individuals and families alike (eg R. D. Laing & Esterson, 1964). In its introduction, he writes, ‘our understanding of ourselves is enormously impoverished if we are out of touch with childhood … I suspect that children play as important a part in adult growth and development as we adults do in theirs’ (Laing, 1978). He also reflects on the linguistic warfare that families are sadly so accustomed to, and then presents us with dialogues like this:
Adam: (on hearing of fighting, shooting and killing in Kandy, 14 miles away).
I want to go to Kandy and kill people and cut them up and eat them for breakfast with a big steel gun and a stiff trigger
Adam: Because I want to shoot a lot of people and kill them so they’ll be dead. Like I did last time
Daddy: How do you mean last time?
Adam: Last time I was here
Adam: Last time I was alive
Daddy: How do you know?
Adam: I remember. I was a soldier. I killed a lot of people
Adam: dDd you kill a lot of people last time daddy?
Daddy: I don’t think so
Adam: Not recently?
Adam: But did you kill a lot of people a long, long time ago?
Daddy I may have but I can’t remember
Adam: You can’t remember! (incredulously)
Has the boy gone mad? Of course not, many would agree if they didn’t know the person who plays Daddy. Children sometimes say these things, as do mad people. Not many would rush into finding fault with this situation today, because this is ‘the child’. Ronnie however, whose alcoholism and multiple marriages make him an easy target for moralisers, is a different matter. But these people are bound to entirely miss the point they deny: Why would someone open his parenting to such a level of public scrutiny if he were not a good parent in some very fundamental way? Journaling probably helped Ronnie face the inevitable clash at home, as someone who was determined to grow, because he didn’t want to ‘spend time with them because I have to, or because I should, but simply because I want to’ (Laing, 1978, p. ix).
This is the ethical perspective from which we may understand the difference between ‘the gifted child’, who so easily becomes a blaming parent, and a gifted child. Language plays terrible tricks on us, confusing wants with shoulds even in the infant’s bodymind. The power of culture to shape our biology is well attested. Yet what we know today from evolutionary biology and the logic of cooperation is inconsistent with the idea that somehow shoulds come before wants in our nature (Slavin & Kriegman, 1992). Why then would Ronnie distance himself from his children the way he did if it weren’t for the power of morals, when such power is enough to cause even a mother’s rejection of her newborn child?
A gifted mother
Alice was of Polish-Jewish origins. She survived the holocaust thanks to a different identity, Alice Rostovska (M. Miller, 2013) and arguably, it was such mastery over her cultural origins that saved her life. She was always an intelligent and assertive child, who would outwit her parents and relatives. She studied, practiced and eventually rejected psychoanalysis because she found that it still contributed to what she would eventually call ‘society’s betrayal of the child’ (A. Miller, 1984). The moral quality of this reaction is evidenced by the word ‘betrayal’, not to mention the popular appeal of her books. However, at the same time this was undeniably a meaningful message because it vindicated our experience as children, bringing to the symbolic level a bodily truth that might be best left for the therapy room – something I myself am attempting to do here.
I can attest to the consequences of this. Giving personhood to children is explosive because personhood easily becomes a moral construct; we put our goodness ‘out there’ in those constructs because putting it where it belongs is too painful. In the case of people like Alice, who have had such an impact on our ethical consciousness, we should expect this to have left very deep marks in her personal life from the guilt of daring to question the elders and their societal ‘order’. This could explain why a newborn who supposedly wouldn’t nurse would break her heart, why she would rather give up her mother role than assume the responsibility she was pouring into it through her writings, and why she would go on to fail to protect Martin from the violence of his father, among other misfortunes.
The way that morality seizes upon this process of becoming aware, creating the confusion I outlined at the beginning, is also manifest in her work:
Because I do not place blame on the parents, I apparently create difficulties for many of my readers. It would be so much simpler to say it is all the child’s fault, or the parents’, or the blame can be divided. This is exactly what I don’t want to do, because as an adult I know it is not a question of blame but of not being able to do any differently (A. Miller, 1987/2002, p. 252)
You are allowed to abuse your child and call it education, but you are forbidden to see the crimes of your parents (A. Miller, 2009, p. 74)
These two passages reflect a profound incongruence, a lack of solution for an all-too-common problem where blame is simultaneously denied and affirmed: who is to blame? The mother or the child? The patient or the doctor? Nobody is to blame. What then is blame for? Why is it there? This confusion is understandable, insofar as it remains difficult for professionals – including myself and my therapist – to acknowledge today. Those two opposed perspectives, and the passive versus the active aggression they carry, continue to plague families and relationships. Yet from such comprehensive, ecological perspective of families and relationships, they are revealed as a false dichotomy in the interest of an ‘open society’ (Maanmieli, 2018a). Hence, for example, academics still dwell on dilemmas such as the ‘paradox of moral tolerance’ (Horton, 1994) or how the value of tolerance (the denial of blame) is incompatible with that of respect (the affirmation of blame). Again, these conflicts involve the idealised social role of persons. Through them ‘the mother’, ‘not being able to do any differently’, eventually becomes the target of her own defence of ‘the child’.
The gifted children
Martin Miller’s determination to find out the truth about Alice has earned him a precious freedom (Blohm, 2015). Digging into one’s past is very courageous, wise and relieving. But Martin still longs for a Jewish identity for himself and his mother (ibid), to the point of considering it a ‘deficit’ (sic) that he cannot feel really Jewish, a people he fears could have been made ‘extinct’. In this he affirms the drama of his childhood by identifying with objects of blame which are inevitably cultural: the Jewish mother, who shouldn’t have betrayed her culture by marrying a Nazi. The conflict between his parents and the root of the war is thus effectively kept alive, a conflict between a culture of ‘gifted fathers’ blaming a culture of ‘gifted children’ who couldn’t have done any differently. Suddenly, the above dialogue between Adam and Ronnie, in which soldiers who kill lots of people are put in a perspective of lifetimes, becomes meaningful. For such is the biological playing ground of cultural conflict and its mothers, fathers and children.
Undoubtedly Martin suffered immensely, in the light of which the vulnerability and rigour he has brought to the analysis of his mother is an immense feat. Improving on Alice’s work, yet further reproducing the incongruent treatment of blame, his account now leaves us completely disconcerted. Where she was ambiguous about it, at least few people would question that the finger was pointing at anyone who dared to bring children to the world. Now we can’t help but see those arguments undermined, the disappointment of her biggest admirers notably registered in the award-winning documentary, Who was Alice Miller? (Andersen, 2015). Those who recoil at the thought of having children are now legion (DiDomizio, 2015), especially if they explicitly criticise Alice Miller (Mackler, n.d.) Others are at war with their genetic endowment toward such end (Zucker, 2017), while the number of people who choose to live alone continues to increase (Jamieson & Simpson, 2013). Women, in particular, are left to deal with feelings of self-rejection (Kamalamani, 2016; O’Sullivan, 2015). To me, the implicit message is clear: what is wrong is not the truth, but its symbolic, moral exploitation.
Thus, the fact that Ronnie valued those salient dialogues between his generation and the next, and published them in a book, does have the power to upset many people who insist in doing what is culturally expected of them in one way or another, new or old, through their reaction or action. I am not aware that Adrian Laing’s biographical criticisms of his father include an honest account of his own nuclear family life, which would seem like a fair requirement. Instead, he refers to his childhood as ‘a crock of shit’ in the context of the death of a suicidal 41-year-old Adam (Day & Keeley, 2008), and to his twenty-four-year marriage as his ‘therapy’ (Stanford, 2013). There is now ‘the gifted child’ versus ‘the absent father’ and a constellation of comparatively saintly mothers. Blame. This almost inevitable conclusion contrasts with a beautifully written and invaluable work of research in which he has learned to use the word ‘Ronnie’, which verges on understanding (A. C. Laing, 2006). Adrian is Ronnie’s friend, no matter how much he has tried to deny it.
This makes me wonder where the little Natasha from the epigraph is. Adrian refers to Ronnie in the biography, but this is not always the Ronnie I have been talking about here. Sometimes it is a Ronnie who Adrian hopes will ‘behave himself’ at the latter’s wedding: ‘I have always made it clear to Ronnie that the day would come when I would write my own book’ (A. C. Laing, 2006). This happens right at the end of such book when, more appropriately, Dad dies, not Ronnie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is where Natasha makes her appearance and finds him finally dead. I hope I will be understood for, symbolically, bringing Alice into that scene along the lines of my epigraph.
In this article, I have tried to close a circle beginning and ending with the body, my own and your gifted child. I have made some hopefully constructive connections in view of the clear definition of morality on which my work is based. Morality is a linguistic, (self-)deceptive device for socialisation which is distinct from, distorts and encumbers our ethical nature. The keen reader might hear echoes of Nietzsche, Strauss or Kubrick. The offended reader might fear the demise of the family or the colourful aspect of culture. In reality, I don’t mean to be either so grandiose or so pessimistic. We are a species engaged in constant progress, which doesn’t come without fights and mistakes. There must be a reason we betray ourselves to the degree the stories of Ronald Laing and Alice Miller illustrate. And there must be a link between such personal dimensions and our highest aims which we are yet to fully grasp. In this the work of psychotherapists and the development of the discipline is key.
Jose Maanmieli is an independent scholar exploring the biological and personal roots of society. His work, co-authored by Karoliina Maanmieli, on the nature of mental illness has been published by Psykoterapia, the principal psychoanalytic journal of Finland, and presented at the latest conference of the International Network for Philosophy and Psychiatry in Madrid. He is originally from Spain.
A shorter version of this article was published in Finnish by Kirjallisuusterapia (Journal of Poetry Therapy) in May, 2018.
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