The Philadelphia Association Community Houses: is it possible to offer asylum from Psychiatry?

In 1984, ‘M’ was living in the Philadelphia Association Community House on Shirland Road in Maida Vale. Having moved to London, partly to follow in the foot steps of her hero, the famous counterculturist and radical psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, M was drawn to the Philadelphia Association to seek therapy. When she fell acutely mentally ill she was invited to stay in a PA Community House.

First set up in 1965, these houses operated in a way that deliberately blurred the boundaries between doctor and patient.  These places of refuge were formulated on the principles developed by Laing and the Anti-Psychiatrist, David Cooper. While working as a psychiatrist in the 50’s, R. D. Laing was thrust into a jungle of traditional psychiatric remedies – drugs, electroshock., and insulin coma therapy – Laing began to question the wisdom of these so-called ‘treatments’ – treatment he believes is how one treats another person – and rather spent his time listening to and talking with his patients, thus commencing his thinking that real treatment (real therapy) is an interpersonal phenomenon.’ (Ticktin, S. & Laing, A., 1997)

pa_laing

Laing’s ‘hope was that the community would furnish evidence for his growing thesis that madness is not necessarily a breakdown, but may represent, potentially, a breakthrough into a more authentic way of being (i.e.- that it is a natural healing process with a beginning, middle, and end) re: the normal state of alienation to which the majority of us have succumbed.’ (Ticktin, S. & Laing, A., 1997)

M, subscribed to Laing’s beliefs and so persisted with her community therapy treatment in the absence of psychiatric drugs. Unfortunately her psychosis deepened to the point where she was a danger to herself. Assisted by her brother, M voluntarily went to the nearest psychiatric hospital where she was immediately sectioned and medicated.

pa_therapy

I am interested in examining the historical collisions between the early ideals of the Philadelphia Association when confronting the cultural/medical establishment’s perspective of mental illness and treatment. Now that psycho-pharmacology has a far more precise set of tools since 1965 when the PA was first set up, is there still a significant reasons to doubt dominant system of diagnosis and medication?

The PA has changed significantly in the past 52 years. Laing eventually became a disruptive figure and was forced to resign. Currently the association neither defines itself as either Laingian or as part of an anti-psychiatry movement.  Instead they are simply committed to reducing human suffering while not adhering to dogmatic theories or the disease model. I believe an exploration of the PA’s historical resistance to the pharmacological/diagnostic model will illuminate the wider debate regarding concerns about over diagnosis and over prescription in contemporary psychiatry.

It is my intention to continue my work interviewing people who have lived in the PA Houses. As the artist in residence at the Philadelphia Association I have access is a wealth of resources to help me get started. I’ve developed strong personal ties with several PA members and therapists some of whom currently work at the houses. They have also pointed me to several crucial texts; a collection of testimonies from past residence and in-depth examinations of the rocky history of the houses.

It is also important to balance sentiments of what used to be called “anti-psychiatry”, with research and testimony from those who believe in the medication based psychiatric system. The Wellcome Library will provide a strong foundation for investigating the medical establishments contemporary and historical approach towards treatment.

Feedback

On Monday 9th January I presented the Wellcome project to my documentary animation class along with Birgitta Hosea – program leader, Sylvie Bringas and Daniel Saul – visiting lecturers, and Hanna – a Movement Director, on placement from the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Much of the criticism I received in this session was focused on the absence of aesthetic development and the limited reach connections to the Wellcome Library collection. Both of these issues were in large caused by the short amount of time I had to prepare.

A day earlier my proposal was about an entirely different topic. Despite good intentions my ideas became irrevocably entangled in serious ethical concerns. During this crisis I met with a trusted adviser, Sara Thorsen Fredborg – RCA Curation MA student,  to discuss the issue. During that discussion we concluded that I must start from scratch and together weight up potential options. Quickly the PA Houses emerged as a strong prospect, building on my recent discussions with M and the excitement of recording her story.  While M had made it very clear she wished to not be involved, her testimony demonstrated that among the former PA Community House residence there was enormous potential for discovering meaningful narratives, which could illuminate a winder debate between the Philadelphia Association and the psychiatric establishment.

The initial feedback from Birgitta focused on the absence of tangible links to the Wellcome Library collection. Even though the bibliography I provided demonstrated strong a contextual foundation, I did not have the chance to search within the Wellcome Library for specific connections what would spark the interest of the Wellcome team. I am confident there will be a wealth of resources in the Wellcome library to support my subject matter. I am particularly confident as my chosen topic is relevant to the brief them of ‘Place’ and falls within the remit of the Wellcome Collections mission statement to ‘encourage new ways of thinking about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art’.

feet

Birgitta also noted a distinct lack of visual reference in my presentation, ‘the people you are pitching to need an indication of what it might look like’. It occurred to me that I had not had a chance to even think about the aesthetic of the documentary. However, during the process of explaining my project I realised how determined I was to continue with my experiments with replacement stop motion. Over the Christmas break I had completed the following animation test:

I was initially inspired by the work of Mikey Please’s use of foam in an advertisement he directed for Dragonframe animation software.

Sylvie Bringas also pointed me toward the Polish animator Piotr Kamler who had experimented with replacement stop motion in the 90’s.

During the same tutorial with Daniel Saul and Sylvie, in which we discussed Please and Kalmer, I develop the idea of constructing a series of these loops that loosely represent some of the dualities and tonal shifts in the film. Some of these shots may be abstract, others figurative, but none would literally illustrate or even sync directly with dialogue.

The following is a quick test which amalgamates abstract and figurative animation tests, created without the testimony in mind. The voice you hear is Will Self speaking two years ago at the Philadelphia Association’s 50th Anniversary.

In the interviews I plan to record with former and current PA House residence I anticipate the following types of dualities appearing; doctor vs. patient, psychotherapy vs. medication, the Philadelphia Association vs. mainstream psychiatry etc. In this test I have attempted to demonstrate how I could use figurative imagery, both to represent an individual emotive state and the wider discourses. I find it intriguing that the word figurative is defined as both ‘that which is symbolic’, as well as as ‘where reference is made the human body’.

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library
Generated by IJG JPEG Library

It is clear at this early stage that I will need to make some distinctions between the two sides of the dualities I reference. While I would like to avoid colour coding, I expect to create contrast using shape and movement. The studio I used to occupy in Brentford as next to the Glaxo Smith Kline headquarters. I was always struck GSK’s the cold glassy architecture and how it’s looming presence seemed to embody the power and ambivalence of “big pharma”. The headquarters of Eli Lilly, the manufacturers of Prozac, equality embody the aesthetic of corporate indifference. It is my aim to borrow some of these architectural tropes when designing the abstract forms that may represent connected themes in my film.

I was asked to consider why this project should be an animation. This is a powerful challenge to my proposal. It is very common for an animator to question weather or not their ideas could be more effectively created in live action. In my heavily interview based practice, I find myself constantly having to justify why I’m not creating a podcast. While there is some illustrative value to the sequence above, I feel it is not quite proof of concept. I have, therefore, not yet been able to answer the question ‘why bother animating this’? I am, however, excited about the prospect of developing a visual and verbal aesthetic language in tandem. If I start animating during the process of conducting interviews I anticipate the two aesthetics will inform and feed into one an other as the project takes shape. Such an approach may hold me back from being too illustrative, as I have been in with my previous work.

Appendix 1

Hungry has the highest suicide rate in the world, this is partly due to the genetic prevalence of Bipolar Disorder which makes an individual 18% more likely to take their own life. This phenomenon correlates with a diminished cultural taboo regarding suicide.  There is a common understanding in Hungary that the kind of medication taken to treat bipolar disorder changes one’s personality to such an extent that there may be more honour in taking one’s own life compared to becoming a stranger. (Dubner & Levitt, 2011)

Appendix 2

In 1950 Chlorpromazine the first antipsychotic was synthesised. Nicknamed the ‘chemical lobotomy’, Chlorpromazine (marketed as Thorazine) had the effect of emptying the asylums. While this panacea was akin in scale to the development of antibiotics, it was an incredibly blunt tool.*

*needs citation – see BA dissertation

Bibliography

Books:

Gordon, P., (2010) An Uneasy Dwelling: The Story of the Philadelphia Association Community Houses. PCCS Books.

Scott, B. (2104) Testimony of Experience: Docta Ignorantia and the Philadelphia Association Communities, PCCS Books.

Films:

Luke Fowler, (2011) All Divided Selves. LUX

Online Videos: 

Clatworthy, T., (2015), The Philadelphia Association’s 50th Anniversary. Avalible online at: https://vimeo.com/145327256

Unknown director, (2014) Psychiatrists and the pharma industry are to blame for the current ‘epidemic’ of mental disorders. Intelligence Squared. Avalible online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlFbuqunb1I Description: Will Self (writer) and Darian Leader (psychotherapist) debating over-diagnosing/over prescription in psychiatry with the Professor Sir Simon Wessely (President of the Royal College of Psychiatrist) and Dr. Declan Doogan (former Head of Worldwide Development at Pfizer)

Radio/Podcast: 

Dubner, S. & Levitt, S. (2011) The Suicide Paradox, from Freakenomics Radio, Dubner productions for WBEZ. Avalible at: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-the-suicide-paradox/

Self, W., (2013) The Prozac Economy. Falling Tree Productions for Radio 4. Online At: https://wn.com/the_prozac_economy_by_will_self

Webpages:

Ticktin, S., (1997) Biography of R.D.Laing, adapted from a review of R.D. Laing: A Biography,  A. Laing.  Online at: http://www.laingsociety.org/biograph.htm

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Author: Alex Widdowson

Artist / Animator / Documentary Maker

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