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Interview with writer Will Self part 2

Will Self interview by Prof Femi Oyebode (part 1 with me found here) in November 2010

WS: I’ve been very interested in the psychiatric profession and though out my fiction and my nonfiction and have written on visions related to psychiatry, so in a way when it comes to reading to you I’m presented with an embarrassment of riches. So I’m going to confine myself to my latest book, available in all good bookshops at the seductive price of £17.99. No one, not even the most exalted mental health professionals would see this for a second as being in any way analogous to £18 but will see it as significantly cheaper. It’s called Walking to Hollywood and it’s a sort of fictionalized memoir which in itself arouses some interesting questions about relationships between mental states and what philosophers call ontology, the nature of reality in a wider sense.

Just by way of an introduction to a couple of short readings, as it’s a fictionalized memoir and the ‘I’ in the fictionalized text and me are the same person.

(Reading – I’ve not transcribed this for copyright reasons, but extracts are legitimately  available here and here)

FO: Thank you very much for that Will. One of the intriguing things about that reading was how it is both fiction and autobiography, and I was wondering how far the fiction had in it ‘real life’.

WS: Well my grandfather was a relentless autodidactic who, whist working as civil servant gained eight degrees by studying during his daily train commute to London. He did write a thesis called ‘The Divine Indwelling’, which was an attempt to reconcile Existentialism, Christianity and Western science. That’s true.

I was prescribed those drugs; I did decide not to take them and tied a knot in the bag and threw them on top of a shelf. Indeed they were up there until I wrote that passage, when I finally got them down and disposed of them in a suitably irresponsible fashion.

FO: And Dr Busner?

WS: Dr Busner doesn’t really exist but is a character who exists in a number of my different narratives. He’s a consultant psychiatrist in a place called Health hospital which doesn’t exist either, although it’s quite easy to guess which hospital it might be modelled on. He doesn’t exist, but he acquires an existence by being present in different narratives appearing in my novels and short stories; I think that gives him perhaps a greater level of reality than a lot of fictional characters.

He’s based to some parts on R D Laing and the anti-psychiatrists of the 1960s. I was very influenced by books like Thomas Szasz’s the Myth of mental illness and Laing’s The Divided Self and most specifically by Szasz’s concept of the ‘therapeutic state’ and the idea of the psychiatric profession being responsible in our culture for policing behaviour in ways that perhaps neither the profession itself nor the wider society are actively aware of. He’s also based in some other aspects on the neurologist Oliver Sacks as well as people I’ve known over the years. Busner is a way for me to examine in fictional terms the role of the psychiatrist in our culture and what the psychiatrist represents. He’s described in one of my books as a kind of almost religious figure, almost like some kind of shaman or witch doctor.

FO: Can I draw you out a little bit about the question of characterisation. One of the things I find wonderful in your writing is the way in which you create these very strong characters. They could easily be in plays and I was thinking of Ibsen, for example, saying that when he is writing a play, he thinks during the first draft that he knows his characters like he might someone he has met once. When he writes the second draft he feels like he’s spent a month with them on his farm. Then when he writes the third draft, he thinks that he knows him as well as he knows his friends.

With characters like Shiva Mukti and Zac Busner, how do you create them? Because they do feel real. I know they are fiction, but there is a sense in which you feel that they are real.

WS: Shiva Mukti is a protagonist in a novella I wrote called Dr Mukti. The second protagonist in that novella is Dr Zac Busner and these two psychiatrists find themselves engaged in a duel – or at any rate Shiva Mukti thinks they are engaged in a duel – where they attack each other using psychotic patients as weapons, whom they send to each other for diagnoses, with the knowledge that having appended falsities in the case notes, their colleague may well make a mistake in terms of diagnosis and then reap the consequences which could potentially be fatal. It’s in many ways an engaging – or non-engaging – fantasia, but it’s based in reality like of a lot of what I write.

It’s interesting that you should pick on Shiva Mukti as a character. I don’t think of myself as a writer of character in particular at all. I would say that he’s probably one of the few characters I’ve created who has a more or less conventional depth psychology. I don’t know how many of you here today read much fiction. There are certain assumptions in naturalistic fiction about how and what you can convey in prose narrative of individual psychology.

What you said Femi about Ibsen, though he’s a playwright, applies to what conventional writers of fiction at times do. I’m not a naturalisitic writer and the reason I think that most people, if they read a lot of fiction, find characters in fiction believable as people is because they have constructed their own persona from reading fiction. In other words I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. However in that particular novella I needed a character to contrast with Zac Busner. We never really know Dr Busner in Dr Mukti except through Shiva Mukti’s perception and it becomes clear, without giving too much away, that Shiva Mukti is himself mentally ill. I needed him to have that kind of naturalistic humanity in that way. And how did I construct the character? I think that all fictional characters are kind of ‘us’. They are usually based on a number of people the writer knows, their characteristics cut up and sewn together into some sort of Frankensteinian figure.

FO: There’s a theme in your work where psychiatrists, I suppose through their patients, themselves have pathology in them. That’s quite an interesting way in which you’ve got the patients in the asylum but you’ve also created the similar problems in the psychiatrists I was wondering why you were doing that?

WS: Well, in terms of iatrogenic disease, psychiatry is well ahead of the pack. The phrase in the pharmaceutical industry I believe now is ‘conditioned branding’ whereby a certain psychiatric pathology is devised or defined in order to provide a market for a certain neuropharmaceutical product. That is an iatrogenic disease. This is going on all the time and it goes on more in psychiatry than arguably in any other branch of medicine. So in seeking to establish that the psychiatrists themselves are afflicted with a pathology I’m making a comment on the iatrogenic propensity of psychiatry itself. Primarily my use of psychiatry is supposed to establish what psychiatry is doing in our society which neither its practitioners nor the wider society may be aware of and then to satirise it.

Question from floor: You mentioned about Zac Busner that he can be a tool for exploring the role of psychiatrists in society today and their ‘policing’ of social behaviour, but what should be the role of psychiatrists be in society today?

WS: That’s a very interesting question. I started off at some point saying that when I was a young man I was very much influenced by RD Laing’s writings and very much viewed psychosis as a radical lifestyle choice. And then as a result of that I put my money where my mouth was and found myself living in my own version of Laing’s Kingsley Hall with a group of psychotic outpatients in a mental hospital and rapidly reached the understanding that in fact psychosis is not a lifestyle choice at all, it’s a mental illness. So don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who say that there shouldn’t be psychiatrists or that mental illness doesn’t exist, I know it does. I think the job of psychiatrists is to treat mental illness, pure and simple. Far be it from me to tell you your job in its practical application but I think that the criteria used and the way in which we understand what mental illness is is in question. And nor do I think that the psychiatric profession necessarily are the worst offenders of the problem we have in understanding what mental illness is. If you’ll forgive the extended pun, there’s a folie à deux between the wider society and the psychiatric profession in regard to that and that’s where the problem is and where I think the confusion sets in.

Let’s not forget that this is an evolving thing. In the 1950’s and 60’s there were 120 000 people in this country in total institutions in one kind or another. So we have changed in our attitudes and we continue to change our attitudes. I don’t want to demonize the psychiatric profession because in a way you get loaded with society’s dirty work. But put simply psychiatry’s job is to treat mental illness, nothing more and nothing less.

Question from floor: Critiques about medicalisation of normal life leave psychiatrists between a rock and hard place and in our culture. On the one hand we are criticized if we are paternalistic. On the other hand if we don’t attempt to define the diseases we treat then patients are given the ‘keys to the shop’, which also has its problems. Where do we draw the line?

WS: There have been some colossal howlers within living memory in your profession. There are many many thousands of people with extra-pyramidal side effects who were classed as catatonic schizophrenics and held in total institutions for many years. Nobody is responsible for that except for paternalistic psychiatrists.

You could argue that medical science had not advanced far enough for the diagnosis to be made, that’s not actually true. You could also argue that society wished for a total institution programme to exist. I’m not sure. Of course when you come to people who are, to use probably an expression that is outmoded in the profession, engaged in inadequate reality testing and to actually hand over to them the keys to their own sins on the face of it is an absolutely mad thing to be doing. But on the other hand I’m very concerned and have been concerned throughout my writing career with kinds of collusion that particularly affect who are placed in positions of professional expertise. I don’t think that the psychiatric profession is by any means unique in this but I do think that all professions need to be very alive to these tendencies. The tendencies to create forms of arcane knowledge that are not accessible to lay people and to hide behind that. In as much as I agree with you that there is a real difference of kind between serious mental illness and what could be regarded epiphenomenal forms of that: neuroses of various kinds. I think again there is an unconscious collusion between the profession and the wider society to allow the profession to police that boundary.

Question from floor: Medicine generally is responsible for some ‘real howlers’ in the past – and psychiatry as well – and will continue to do so to a large extent because of the relationship we have with society as doctors. One of the problems is that the brain should be an organ that gets diseased as well, it shouldn’t be protected but it’s not the liver and it’s not the kidneys, it’s who we are, it’s our very essence, it’s the human condition. We all find it a problem when it goes wrong and I think one of the bigger problems is that none of us, especially lay persons, are clear about what constitutes a mental illness and what constitutes the rough and tumble of normal life and we in a sense sup with the devil on that one because there are some psychiatrists who are willing to go down that route and profess to make comments about all sorts of human endeavours, activities and behaviours as if they’re psychiatric conditions. If you ask a cardiologist on something that’s got nothing about cardiology he’ll say ‘I can’t answer that as a professional, but I’ll answer it as a lay person’. But many psychiatrists are unwilling to do that and they medicalize all of human behaviour. My concern with psychiatry is around the areas of depravation of liberty and the perceptions of dangerousness which is primarily driven by the public and by commentators. Those are the areas that worry me because that determines how we work.

WS: Yes I would agree with where you paint the problem. Interestingly that’s another aspect of my psychiatrist Zac Busner; he’s a kind of media doctor. So that is exactly what I was satirizing. But it’s easy to understand as well why, that of all things psychiatry is seen to be the right profession to be doing that. Here you are, the people qualified in science but you’re treating not of the brain but of the mind, so you seem to represent the interface between the mechanistic, physical explanation of the world and whatever other meanings we wish to ascribe to our existence. So it’s very easy to understand that if one of your kind goes to the dark side it’s going to be that much more dangerous than it might be for a cardiologist or a podiatrist.

The other thing that I’ve been most concerned is about, and I’ve written about a lot in my fiction, is the impact of neuropharmacology. That concerns me a great deal. I don’t necessarily think – and I’m aware that I’m in a room full of psychiatrists and I’m not looking to make a swift exit out the back – that psychiatrists are the worst offenders in terms of what we described as ‘conditioned branding’, I actually think that the foot soldiers in that tendency are General Practitioners. And also what can you do when we have now reached the situation where the public collectively now know how to approach a dispensing doctor in such a way as to solicit an anxiolytic medication of some kind or another? I think we need to maintain a very critical view of all of this, and I think the profession in and of itself, and maybe goaded on by people like me, needs to be involved in a continuous and evolving discourse.

Question from floor: I think that it’s interesting the shift you made from writing fiction where you can be in control of your characters and be quite sheltered to then a fictionized memoir in which you leave yourself open and reveal a lot about yourself, but still retain the power to change whatever elements you like because it’s fictionalized. I just wondered what made you choose to do that? And I think it’s interesting given what Ruby Wax was saying before, talking about stigma, and making herself a poster person for mental illness. She said that she didn’t volunteer to be a face for Time for Change.

WS: What pathology does Ruby Wax cleave to? I only ask this as a point of information.

Floor: She was talking about her experience of bipolar disorder.

WS: Bipolar, that’s a corker isn’t it? There was a very good article in the London Review of books’ last issue on bipolar disorder. I mean again following on from what you were saying: this idea that there are, these quite dangerous people from the profession who adopt this role of medicalizing conditions that are just part of the hurley-burley of life. The celebrity authorities are equally dangerous for almost exactly the same reason. One thinks immediately of Alastair Campbell as I do – on waking – with the feeling of deep and numbing rage – or indeed Stephen Fry who can make me feel quite nauseous at almost any hour of the day. People who witting – or not – are doing exactly the same thing, they are placing expectations on you as a profession that you will be able to provide some sort of pill for every ill.

I’m not really answering your question because the answer is inadvertent in a sense. I wanted to write about various things and I found I couldn’t write about them within the established rubric of factuality. So, like a lot of things I write it was a form as on-the-job experimentation using my own psyche as the test bed. So I didn’t set out to reveal or not reveal particular things about myself. It’s actually on the public record anyway some of the things I’ve said about my own history of either what you might call ‘mental illness’ or of being diagnosed with mental illness. I’ve written about it and spoken about it before, so that wasn’t why I choose to use myself as the protagonist.

There’s a connection with a film I recently saw called Hancock. It’s about a superhero living in modern LA, and there were some scenes in that, as there are in quite a lot of contemporary Hollywood films, I thought were psychotic, that they were like people’s experience of psychosis must be. They had a sense of great believability and you could suspend disbelief in them but in fact what was happening in these scenes was suspension of all kinds of natural laws and so on and so forth. So it was an interesting exercise to write from a protagonist’s point of view about experiencing that. So as mental health professionals next time you see one of these extravagant CGI sequences in a Hollywood blockbuster try and think about it as really happening and what that might be like and then snapping back to reality. That might be quite a good way into the mental states of some of your patients. And of course that’s something one can only do fictionally.

FO: I wanted to finish with one or two words. Will Self’s writing is absolutely incredible and I think we ended on what is quite so important about his writing from a psychiatrist’s point of view. Of course he’s commenting on the world we inhabit, on a day to day basis, as psychiatrists and commenting on the hospital environment, commenting on people’s emotional experiences and commenting how people might depart from their sense of reality that we all take for granted.

But he does something else we haven’t talked about today which is that he bends language so that he to express the world that he’s created for that particular story, or for that particular novel. And of course as psychiatrists we also have a day to day contact with patients who use language in an awkward, novel, original kind of a way. So I think there’s a lot to learn from what Will Self does and it’s been marvelous listening to him talk with his exposition and also for him to challenge us in his usual subtle way.

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  1. There is something to discover in almost every sentence Will Self writes. He is a truth-teller like no other.