R.D. Laing

From R.D. Laing, The Divided Self  (Penguin Books, 1990 | Tavistock Publications, 1959) pp. 196-205

Charles Blackman, The Birthday, 1953 | Inset: Doll

With Julie it was not difficult to carry on a verbal exchange of a kind, but without her seeming to have any overall unity but rather a constellation of quasi-autonomous partial systems, it was difficult to speak to ‘her’. However, one must not think primarily in terms of any mechanical analogy since even this state of near-chaotic nonentity was by no means irreversible and fixed in its disintegration. She would sometimes marvellously come together again and display a most pathetic realization of her plight. But she was terrified of these moments of integration, for various reasons. Among others, because she had to sustain in them intense anxiety; and because the process of disintegration appeared to be remembered and dreaded as an experience so awful that there was refuge for her in her unintegration, unrealness, and deadness.

‘Julie is a constellation of quasi-autonomous partial systems.’

Julie’s being as a chronic schizophrenic was thus characterized by lack of unity and by division into what might variously be called partial ‘assemblies’, complexes, partial systems, or ‘internal objects’. Each of these partial systems had recognizable features and distinctive ways of its own. By following through these postulates, many features of her behaviour become explicable. The fact that her self-being was not assembled in an allover manner, but was split into various partial assemblies or systems, allows us to understand that various functions which presuppose the achievement of personal unity or at least a high degree of personal unity could not be present in her, as indeed they were not. Personal unity is a prerequisite of reflective awareness, that is, the ability to be aware of one’s own self acting relatively unself-consciously, or with a simple primary non-reflective awareness. In Julie, each partial system could be aware of objects, but a system might not be aware of the processes going on in another system which was split off from it. For example, if, in talking to me, one system was ‘speaking’, there seemed to be no overall unity within her whereby ‘she’ as a unified person could be aware of what this system was saying or doing.

‘Each of Julie’s partial systems had recognizable features and distinctive ways of its own.’

In so far as reflective awareness was absent, ‘memory’, for which reflective awareness would seem to be prerequisite, was very patchy. All her life seemed to be contemporaneous. The absence of a total experience of her being as a whole meant that she lacked the unified experience on which to base a clear idea of the ‘boundary’ of her being. Such an overall ‘boundary’ was not, however, entirely lacking. Thus Federn’s term, ego boundary, is unsatisfactory. One needs another term for the total of which the ego is a part. Rather, each system seemed to have a boundary of its own. That is to say, to the awareness that characterized one system, another system was liable to appear outside itself. Within an overall unity, a diverse aspect of her being, if sufficiently ‘dystonic’ to the rest, would set up painful conflict. In her, however, conflict of this kind could not arise. It was only ‘from the outside’ that one could see that different conflicting systems of her being were active at the same time. Each partial system seemed to have within it its own focus or centre of awareness: it had its own very limited memory schemata and limited ways of structuring percepts; its own quasi-autonomous drives or component drives; its own tendency to preserve its autonomy, and special dangers which threatened its autonomy. She would refer to these diverse aspects as ‘he’, or ‘she’, or address them as ‘you’. That is, instead of having a reflective awareness of those aspects of herself, ‘she’ would perceive the operation of a partial system as though it was not of ‘her’, but belonged outside. She would be hallucinated.

‘All her life seemed to be contemporaneous.’

Together with the tendency to perceive aspects of her own being as not-her was the failure to discriminate between what ‘objectively’ was not-her and what was her. This is simply the other aspect of the lack of an overall ontological boundary. She might for instance feel that rain on her cheek was her tears. William Blake in his description of split states of being in his Prophetic Books describes a tendency to become what one perceives. In Julie all perception seemed to threaten confusion with the object. She spent much of her time exercising herself with this difficulty. ‘That’s the rain. I could be the rain.’ ‘That chair, that wall. I could be that wall. It’s a terrible thing for a girl to be a wall.’ All perception seemed to threaten mergence and all sense of being perceived by the other threatened her similarly. This meant that she was living in a world of constant persecution and felt herself to be doing to others what she dreaded as happening to her. Almost every act of perception appeared to involve a confusion of self with not-self. The ground was prepared for this confusion by the fact that, since large aspects of her person were partially outside her ‘self’, it was easy to confuse those split-off aspects of her being with other people, e.g. her confusion of her ‘conscience’ with her mother, and her mother with her ‘conscience’.

‘It’s a terrible thing for a girl to be a wall.’

To love was therefore very dangerous. To like = to be like = to be the same as. If she likes me, she is like me, she is me. Thus she began by saying that she was my sister, my wife, she was a McBride. I was life. She was the Bride of Life. She developed my mannerisms. She had the Tree of Life inside her. She was the Tree of Life. Or again: She is thinking thoughts a, b, c. I express closely similar thoughts a1, b1, c1. Therefore, I have stolen her thoughts. The completely psychotic expression of this was to accuse me of having her brains in my head. Conversely, when she copied or imitated me, she was liable to expect retribution from me for ‘coming out’ with a bit of me which she felt she had stolen. Of course, the degree of mergence fluctuated from moment to moment. Stealing, for instance, presupposes some boundary between self and not-self.

Photo: Markus Kahre, 1996

We shall now illustrate and elaborate the above points by examples. One of the simplest instances of the operation of a split of her being into two partial ‘assemblies’ is seen when she issued herself an order and proceeded to obey it. She was doing this continually, either under her breath, out loud, or by hallucinations. Thus ‘she’ would say, ‘Sit down, stand up’, and ‘she’ would sit down and stand up; or an hallucinated voice, the voice of one partial system, would issue the order and ‘she’, the action of another partial system, would obey it. Another common simple instance was when ‘she’ would say something which ‘she’ would greet with derisive laughter (incongruity of thought and affect). Let us suppose that the statement emanates from system A and the laughter from system B. Then A says to me, ‘She’s a Royal Queen’, while B laughs derisively. A good deal of what appeared to be something akin to ‘jamming’ went on. A would say something relatively coherently and then it would become jumbled up and B would start to speak. A would break in again to say: ‘She (B) has stolen my tongue.’

Magritte, Reproduction interdite, 1937

These various partial systems could be identified, at least to some extent after getting to know her, by reason of the consistency of the role each played in what one might call the intra-personal ‘group’ they comprised. For instance, there was the peremptory bully who was always ordering her about. The same peremptory voice would make endless complaints to me about ‘this child’: ‘this is a wicked child. This child is wasted time. This child is just a cheap tart. You’ll never do anything with this child.’ The ‘you’ here might be referring directly to me, or to one of her systems, or I could be embodying this system. It was evident that this bullying figure within her was for much of the time ‘the boss’. ‘She’ did not think much of Julie. ‘She’ did not think Julie would get well, nor that she was worth getting better. She was neither on her side, nor on my side. It would be appropriate to call this quasi-autonomous partial system a ‘bad internal mother’. She was basically an internal female persecutor who contained in concentrated form all the bad that Julie ascribed to her mother.

Jannis Lucas | Inset: Charles Blackman, Angry Young Girl, 1958

Two other partial systems could be readily identified. One fulfilled the role of an advocate on her behalf to me, and a protector or buffer against persecution. ‘She’ frequently referred to Julie as her little sister. Phenomenologically, therefore, we may refer to this system as ‘her good sister’.

Modigliani, Beatrice Hastings, 1915

The third partial system that I shall introduce was an entirely good, compliant, propitiating little girl. This seemed to be a derivative of what some years before was probably a system very similar to the false-self system I have described in schizoid cases. When this system spoke, she said, ‘I’m a good girl. I go to the lavatory regularly.’

Modigliani, Alice, 1918

There were derivations also of what seemed to have been an ‘inner’ self, which had become almost completely volatilized into pure possibility. Finally, as I remarked earlier, there were periods of precarious sanity in which she spoke in a pathetically scared, barely audible tone, but seemed to be more nearly speaking ‘in her own person’ than at any other time.

Inset: Modigliani, Girl with Pigtails, 1918

Let us now consider these various systems operating together. The examples I give are of her more coherent utterances. I was born under a black sun. I wasn’t born, I was crushed out. It’s not one of those things you get over like that. I wasn’t mothered, I was smothered. She wasn’t a mother. I’m choosy who I have for a mother. Stop it. Stop it. She’s killing me. She’s cutting out my tongue. I’m rotten, base. I’m wicked. I’m wasted time. Now, in the light of the foregoing discussion, I would offer the following interpretation of what is happening. She starts by talking to me in her own person to level the same accusations against her mother as she has persisted in for years. But in a particularly clear and lucid way. The ‘black sun’ appears to be a symbol of her destructive mother. It was a frequently recurring image. The first six sentences are spoken sanely. Suddenly she appears to be subject to some terrifying attack, presumably from this bad mother. She breaks off in an intrapersonal crisis. ‘Stop it, stop it.’ Addressing me briefly again, she exclaims: ‘She’s killing me.’ Then follows a defensive denigration of herself, couched in the same terms as her bad mother’s condemnations of her: ‘I’m rotten, base. I’m wicked. I’m wasted time.’

Charles Blackman, Angry Young Girl, 1958 | Reinhold Rossig (untitled, undated)

Accusations against her mother were always liable to precipitate some such catastrophic reaction. On a later occasion she made her usual accusations against her mother and the bad mother interrupted with her customary accusations against ‘that child’: ‘That child’s bad, that child’s wicked. That child’s wasted time.’ I interrupted these remarks to say, ‘Julie’s frightened of being killed by herself for saying these things.’ The diatribe did not continue, but ‘she’ said very quietly, ‘Yes, that’s my conscience killing me. I’ve been frightened of my mother all my life and always will be. Do you think I can live?’ This relatively integrated statement makes clear the remaining con-fusion of her ‘conscience’ and her real mother. Her bad conscience was a bad persecuting mother. As stated above, it may have been one of the schizophrenogenic elements in her life that she could not get her real mother in a real sense to accept her need to project part of her bad conscience into her. That is, for her mother really to admit some validity to Julie’s accusations and thus, by allowing her to see some imperfections in her mother, to relieve some of the internal persecution from her ‘conscience’.

Charles Blackman, Prone Figure, 1953

This child doesn’t want to come here, do you realize that? She’s my little sister. This child does not know about things she shouldn’t know about. Here her ‘big sister’ is speaking, making clear to me that Julie is innocent and ignorant and therefore blameless and irresponsible. The ‘big sister’ system, in contrast to the innocent and ignorant ‘little sister’ system, was a very knowing and responsible ‘person’, rather patronizing though kindly and protective. However, ‘she’ is not on the side of Julie, the little sister, growing up, and is always speaking ‘for’ the little sister. She wishes to maintain the status quo. This child’s mind is cracked. This child’s mind is closed. You’re trying to open this child’s mind. I’ll never forgive you for trying to open this child’s mind. This child is dead and not dead. The implication of this last sentence is that, by remaining in a sense dead, she can be not dead in a sense, but if she takes responsibility for being ‘really’ alive, then she may be ‘really ‘killed.

Charles Blackman, June, 1953

However, this ‘sister’ could also speak in this way: You’ve got to want this child. You’ve got to make her welcome. You’ve got to take care of this girl. I’m a good girl. She’s my little sister. You’ve got to take her to the lavatory. She’s my little sister. She doesn’t know about these things. That’s not an impossible child. This big sister contained experience, knowledge, responsibility, reasonableness, in contrast to the little sister’s innocence, ignorance, irresponsibility, and waywardness. We see here also that Julie’s schizophrenia consisted in the allover lack of integration, not simply in the absence of a locus in her of ‘sanity’. This ‘big sister’ component of her being could speak in a reasonable, sane, and balanced way, but it was not Julie who was speaking; her sanity was, if you like, split off and encapsulated. Her real sanity depended not on being able to speak sanely in the person of a ‘big sister’ but in achieving an overall integration of her total being. The schizophrenia is betrayed by her reference to herself as a third party, and in the sudden intrusion of the little sister while the big sister is speaking (‘I’m a good girl’).

Charles Blackman, The Shadow, 1953

When she did present words or actions to me as her own, this ‘self’ that was so presented was completely psychotic. Most of the really cryptic condensed statements seemed to belong to the remnants of her self system. When decoded they reveal that this system was probably the derivative of a phantasticized inner self, such as is found in sane schizoid states. We have already attempted to give an account of how it comes about that the experience of this self involves such extreme paradoxes of phantastic omnipotence/impotence and so on at the same time. The phenomenological characteristics of the experience of this self seem in Julie to be in principle similar. However, one must be prepared to paraphrase her schizophrenia into sane speech before one can attempt a phenomenological construct of the experience of this ‘self’. I must make it clear once more that in using the term ‘self’ in this context, I do not mean to imply that this was her ‘true’ self. This system did, however, seem to comprise a rallying point around which integration could occur. When disintegration occurred this seemed to be ‘the centre’ which could not hold. It seemed to be a central reference for centripetal or centrifugal tendencies. It appeared as the really mad kernel of her being, that central aspect of her which, so it seemed, had to be maintained chaotic and dead lest she be killed.

Charles Blackman, The Shoe, 1956

We shall attempt to characterize the nature of this ‘self’ by statements made not only by this ‘self’ directly but also by statements that appear to originate in other systems. There are not a great many of these statements, at least by the ‘self’ in person as it were. During her years in hospital, many of them probably had become run together to result in constantly reiterated short telegraphic statements containing a great wealth of implications. As we saw above, she said she had the Tree of Life inside her. The apples of this tree were her breasts. She had ten nipples (her fingers). She had ‘all the bones of a brigade of the Highland Light Infantry’. She had everything she could think of. Anything she wanted, she had and she had not, immediately, at the one time. Reality did not cast its shadow or its light over any wish or fear. Every wish met with instantaneous phantom fulfilment and every dread likewise instantaneously came to pass in a phantom way. Thus she could be anyone, anywhere, anytime. ‘I’m Rita Hayworth, I’m Joan Blondell. I’m a Royal Queen. My royal name is Julianne.’

Charles Blackman, Alice, 1956

‘She’s self-sufficient,’ she told me. ‘She’s the self-possessed.’ But this self-possession was double-edged. It had also its dark side. She was a girl ‘possessed’ by the phantom of her own being. Her self had no freedom, autonomy, or power in the real world. Since she was anyone she cared to mention, she was no one. ‘I’m thousands. I’m an in divide you all. I’m a no un’ (i.e. a nun: a noun: no one single person). Being a nun had very many meanings. One of them was contrasted with being a bride. She usually regarded me as her brother and called herself my bride or the bride of ‘leally lovely lifely life’. Of course, since life and I were sometimes identical for her, she was terrified of Life, or me. Life (me) would mash her to a pulp, burn her heart with a red-hot iron, cut off her legs, hands, tongue, breasts. Life was conceived in the most violent and fiercely destructive terms imaginable. It was not some quality about me, or something I had (e.g. a phallus = a red-hot iron). It was what I was. I was life. Notwithstanding having the Tree of Life inside her, she generally felt that she was the Destroyer of Life. It was understandable, therefore, that she was terrified that life would destroy her. Life was usually depicted by a male or phallic symbol, but what she seemed to wish for was not simply to be a male herself but to have a heavy armamentarium of the sexual equipment of both sexes, all the bones of a brigade of the Highland Light Infantry and ten nipples, etc.

Wedding Dress, V&A Museum | José del Castillo, Sister Maria Clara Josefa, 1769

‘She was born under a black sun. She’s the occidental sun.’ The ancient and very sinister image of the black sun arose quite independently of any reading. Julie had left school at fourteen, had read very little, and was not particularly clever. It was extremely unlikely that she would have come across any reference to it, but we shall forgo discussion of the origin of the symbol and restrict ourselves to seeing her language as an expression of the way she experienced being-in-her-world. She always insisted that her mother had never wanted her, and had crushed her out in some monstrous way rather than give birth to her normally. Her mother had ‘wanted and not wanted’ a son. She was ‘an occidental sun’, i.e. an accidental son whom her mother out of hate had turned into a girl. The rays of the black sun scorched and shrivelled her. Under the black sun she existed as a dead thing. Thus, ‘I’m the prairie. She’s a ruined city.’

Photo: Larry Schwarm, 1994 | Photo: Catacombe dei Cappuccini

The only living things in the prairie were wild beasts. Rats infested the ruined city. Her existence was depicted in images of utterly barren, arid desolation. This existential death, this death-in-life, was her prevailing mode of being-in-the-world. She’s the ghost of the weed garden. In this death there was no hope, no future, no possibility. Everything had happened. There was no pleasure, no source of possible satisfaction or possible gratification, for the world was as empty and dead as she was. The pitcher is broken, the well is dry.

Charles Blackman, Floating Schoolgirl, 1954 | Jiwon Kim, Mendrami, 2006

She was utterly pointless and worthless. She could not believe in the possibility of love anywhere. ‘She’s just one of those girls who live in the world. Everyone pretends to want her and doesn’t want her. I’m just leading the life now of a cheap tart.’ Yet, as we saw from earlier statements, she did value herself if only in a phantom way. There was a belief (however psychotic a belief it was, it was still a form of faith in something of great value in herself) that there was something of great worth deeply lost or buried inside her, as yet undiscovered by herself or by anyone. If one could go deep into the depth of the dark earth one would discover ‘the bright gold’, or if one could get fathoms down one would discover ‘the pearl at the bottom of the sea’.

Charles Blackman, Girl with Flowers, 1956 | Charles Blackman, Silence, 1959


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

In this novel, schizophrenia figures in the characterization of the hero, Sprague. R.D. Laing subtends the description.

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By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2021| All rights reserved