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205. Approach (II)

“And if you tell anybody about this, I’ll throw you over that cliff.” This was what a psychiatric nurse said to one of his female charges, a female charge he had raped and beaten. At their lunchtime breaks he would take her for walks on the cliffs—part of the therapeutic exercise regime—and it was there, so he told her, he would kill her if she gave the game away. In the meantime, in the land of the sane, he threatened his partners with knives and tracked his ex-girlfriends down to their new homes to scrawl sinister declarations on the paths they jogged on. This is what they call “gross professional misconduct” and that was what was discussed in his case that day—before he went for his real trial.

So Nurse Ratched is real; actually, it is much worse than Nurse Ratched: it is men like this psychiatric nurse—the lunatic in charge of the asylum. It was men like this who made friends with the old devil Jimmy Savile and granted him access to many a secure ward. “And who is going to believe you, anyhow? You’re screwed in the head! A fuckin’ nutter!” The final sneer; they get right into your face to say it. Prisons and psychiatric hospitals draw the lowest of the low, too stupid to even be policemen.

So those conservatives who think we should reopen psychiatric asylums are quite wrong. On the other hand, I am not with Foucault, Szasz, and Laing, the so-called anti-psychiatric contingent who thought that the mentally disturbed should wander the streets—and end up, like one man I passed every day, encamped under a busy London overpass and surrounded by signs of prophetic warning. The left always tells half-truths: the asylums, products of Enlightenment reason, were sterile hells; but the viable alternative was non-existent. In the organic society every village had a tolerated idiot; and, as the Egyptian Muslims used to say of the insane, “Be kind, he is with God!” The role of the madman was always close to that of prophet—a role partly inhabited by the poet, always a little mad—a person in direct contact with the divine reality, if you like.

Aside from Laing, who finally took a spiritual turn, the anti-psychiatrists had no spiritual direction; and, a little like Marx—correct to say factories alienated man from his nature—they opposed an atomised and cruel system with what amounted to another kind of atomisation; yet conservatives who want to jump back to the asylum are no better. The asylum is also Hell; and people who think that three square meals a day and shelter constitute “good conditions” have no interest in, nor do they understand, human malevolence.

I read an account by a conservative journalist—an advocate of “muscular” asylums, though he was weak enough himself—of a boy on the streets of Portland; he was covered in Hindoo tattoos and maintained that a white Rubick’s Cube he held granted him access to the entire cosmos. The police wanted to lock him up. Yet his talk was consistent with Hindoo symbolism: the white cube is analogous to the rosary or the dice, it represents the many dimensions of reality—white is Prakriti, a primal aspect of the cosmos. The boy, addled on drugs, had undergone a distorted spiritual experience, for those who knew the signs; yet the society he was is in had no way to process this information.

“I cured you of an infection!” He said to the policeman. What nonsense, the policeman was never ill—we have the blood work. The infection was a spiritual affair; the boy spoke the indirect, metaphorical, and semi-poetic language of the schizoid state. The cop, who knew the man as a prisoner, claimed he was a different person—quite unrecognisable—in prison: doubtless true, he was probably spiritually dead in prison; and who knows what malevolence the supposedly benevolent cop intended him—the infected man who thought himself well.

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