She became a productive and respected painter, not merely in the 'art of the insane' tradition, but in her own right, as an artist of the unconscious. The book contains several reproductions of her work, and they certainly have evocative power. One painting, 'The resurrection' seems clearly modelled on Munch's The Scream, but the embryo-like figure suggests the idea of rebirth which was a cornerstone of Laingian therapy. Roman Catholic iconography is strongly represented in her art, with the fingerpainted works on Peter, the Nativity, and The Blinding of Paul having a primal quality in both the colors and the interpretations of their themes.
Two Accounts of a Journey through Madness is at times a slow read. There is little evidence of professional editing, which may be a reflection of the Barnes' view that madness speaks directly, and should not be filtered through objective the frames of reference for the convenience of others. Whatever the reason for its publication in this form, the authentic voice of Barnes contributes in large measure to the book's appeal. While there are passages in which the tone of her writing is prosaic, there are others that show the poetic sensitivity that inspired her art. Her view of herself is that: 'Much of me was twisted and buried, and turned in on itself, like a tangled skein of wool, to which the end had been lost.' (p. 13).
Mary Barnes was never cured. Perhaps she was never ill. She lived a productive, fulfilled life, albeit one interrupted by her admissions to hospital and her sponsored descents into psychosis at Kingsley Hall. She contemplated death with equanimity. It is hard to imagine the events of her life being repeated. That is not to say that psychiatry has been reformed by the lessons of the antipsychiatrists. If anything, the ideological position of biological psychiatrists has been strengthened, rather than weakened over the past few decades. Psychiatry, especially State psychiatry, has redrawn its boundaries, and is now less concerned with dysfunctional families, and more with using narrow diagnostic criteria to limit access to services.
It is not at all clear that Laing's radicalism has made an enduring, independent contribution to psychiatry. His focus on understanding the experience distress is part of an interpersonal tradition that predates Kingsley Hall, reaching back to Tuke and other practitioners of moral therapy. Kingsley Hall folded in 1970, and so was never able to provide the sort of sustained programs of intervention that might have tested Laing's theories more fully In the years after Kingsley Hall Laing never recaptured the status he enjoyed as a counter culture figure.
A biography is a story of a life. While Barnes' book, especially the chapters by Berke, provides a critique of mainstream psychiatry, it is as biography that the book is most successful. From the intensely subjective descriptions of her childhood experiences, to the frank and at times naively honest recollections of her adulthood, Barnes' account is direct and compelling account of one woman's life.
© 2005 Tony O'Brien Tony O'Brien, M Phil., Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland