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History and philosophy

Looking back: The carnival of Kingsley Hall

Alison Torn on the colourful case of Mary Barnes.

18 September 2012

In 1963, Mary Barnes was a nurse working in London. After reading The Divided Self by the radical Scottish psychotherapist R.D. Laing, she wrote to its author and began therapy. Two years later, she became the first resident of Kingsley Hall at Bromley-by-Bow in east London, Laing’s experimental therapeutic community and a refuge for mentally ill people who were seeking an alternative to conventional psychiatric treatment.

Barnes lived at Kingsley Hall from 1965 to 1970. Under Laing’s direction, she was encouraged to give in to madness: to regress into a state of helpless infancy and then grow again into sanity. Demonstrating ‘regressive’ behaviours, Barnes was fed with a baby’s bottle, bathed, dressed, carried up to bed, and so on. She was preoccupied with her waste products, defecating and urinating, covering herself in her own faeces, and sculpting and painting with it. Mary screamed, raged, hit and bit.

During this period her primary carer was an American psychiatrist, Dr Joseph Berke. Mary left Kingsley Hall when Laing’s lease ran out. However, her relationship with both psychotherapy and Joseph Berke continued through therapy and through her involvement with mental health organisations aligned with Berke.

Mary Barnes died in 2001 aged 78. Her book Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey through Madness, co-authored with Berke, was published in 1971.

Barnes’s book is not an easy read for many reasons. It is difficult to empathise with her as a glutinous, defecating, urinating, regressive being. Moreover, it is hard, in the light of contemporary professional codes of conduct, to relate to the sometimes violent relationship between Barnes and her psychiatrist.

Part of the difficulty in understanding Barnes’s experiences lays in the fact that today’s readers encounter it from a different Zeitgeist. The mid-to-late 1960s witnessed a loosening of social mores, a space and time when institutions and ideologies were confronted, and government challenged at both family and political levels, themes reflected in the published works of Laing. Barnes’s narrative therefore needs to be interpreted within both her immediate timespace and the wider, cultural context. Bakhtin (1981, p.253) argues that even when author and reader are centuries apart, they are bound together in a fundamental and meaningful way:    

Of course these real people, the authors and the listeners or readers, may be (and often are) located in different time-spaces, sometimes separated from each other by centuries and by great spatial distances, but nevertheless they are all located in a real, unitary and as yet incomplete historical world set off by a sharp categorical boundary from the represented world in the text.

As Bakhtin implies in this quotation, there is a genuine dialogical interaction between the author and their reader/listener. Moreover, reading Bakhtin’s writings on ancient literary genres provided a means of engaging with Barnes’s self-consciously stylised psychodynamic text (Bakhtin, 1984a, 1984b). Approaching her narrative as an example of the medieval carnival genre enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of how Barnes embraced her experiences. By doing so she was able to transcend social and medical definitions and frameworks of her experiences and engage with new possibilities for being.  

The carnival genre identified by Bakhtin culminates in the 16th-century novels of Rabelais. The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel tells the amusing, satirical and crude story of the adventures of a giant, grotesque father and son (Bakhtin, 1984a). The carnival is characterised by:
I    Eccentricity, whereby the carnival permits and encourages the sensuous latent sides of human nature to be expressed.
I    Profanities, the debasing acts of the carnival seen in its obscenities, blasphemies and parodies (Bakhtin, 1984b).
I    The suspension of hierarchies and associated social etiquette, so those who were previously separated by such barriers can enter into familiar contact in the carnival arena and new forms of relationship can be negotiated.
I    A dispersion of this familiarisation, so that everything is brought together – high and low, sacred and profane, wise and stupid – through ridicule, mockery and satire.

At the heart of this orgy of physical excess, was a process of rebirth or renewal for the people. What follows in this article is an examination of Barnes’s narrative through these elements, exploring first the eccentricities and profanities within the text and, second, the suspension and inversion of hierarchies.  

Regarding the carnival’s eccentricities and profanities, an essential feature of the grotesque body is its ability to outgrow itself, seen in the protuberances (nose, ears, breasts, phallus) and the orifices. Bakhtin argues that it is through the orifices that the body transgresses its boundaries, conceiving new bodies, which are, for Barnes, faeces. These are a product of her body, but also a body in their own right, as she sculpts and makes a shrine out of figures of faeces, describing these as her ‘babies’. To self and others, Barnes embodies her madness and therapy  through the grotesque.  

One evening when Joe [Berke] was out with David [Cooper], I put shits from my pot all over myself and in my hair. When Joe came I was frightened to touch him because of my shits. He went up on the roof. I followed him. Joe was not afraid. He bathed me. I dreamt of being in a big sink with all my shits. It was being cleaned off me. (Barnes & Berke, 1971/2002, p.164)

Berke’s description of this encounter is a page long and refutes Barnes’s account of the incident. He refers to it as the ultimate test of his love: ‘Her account of the incident amuses me because of her blind confidence that her shit could not put me off. I can assure you the reverse was true’ (Barnes & Berke, 1971/2002, p.249). For Berke, this episode almost ended their relationship, such was his abhorrence and anger: ‘I stalked away as fast as I could. Fortunately she didn’t try to follow me. I would have belted her’ (Barnes & Berke, 1971/2002, p.249).   

A second feature of the grotesque in Rabelais is that the body is not just characterised by its function, but also by its size. The grotesque is a defecating, feasting, devouring, expelling giant, and often a fractured body with dismembered parts that have a life of their own. Barnes epitomises the grotesque body in not only painting her own body in faeces, but producing paintings of dismembered body parts in faeces. As Barnes describes, these faecal paintings were not private, but part of the carnivalesque public space that was Kingsley Hall. Berke describes her painting of a gigantic pair of breasts painted in excrement:
Ah yes, but the breasts she scrawled, dabbed, smeared, and splattered throughout Kingsley Hall were not ordinary breasts. They were black and made of shit, so smelly that people gasped upon entering the room…. These breasts so omnipresently hung about her home were not good and nourishing, they were bad and poisonous. They rode the walls like storm-tossed waves across a demonic sea. They proclaimed the orgy of hate and destruction which lay lightly concealed beneath the pale skin of baby Mary. (Barnes & Berke, 1971/2002, p.223–4)

Berke captures well the indulgent nature of this act: it was an ‘orgy’ where the carnivalesque profanities, debasement and obscenities are revelled in. For Barnes, as for Rabelais, excrement is ‘gay matter’ (Bakhtin, 1984a, p.335), a bodily product related to regeneration and renewal, where the orifices mark old and new life, death and rebirth, in a cyclical process.  

In the suspension and inversion of hierarchies, Barnes becomes a pivotal, powerful figure in Kingsley Hall from the first day of her arrival as she describes, ‘In my mind, at this time, I, not Ronnie, was running Kingsley Hall’ (Barnes & Berke, 1971/2002, p.99). She remains central to the Kingsley Hall community, as her behaviour dictates the activities and emotions of others. Barnes’s relationship with Berke is central to her story. Whilst Laing is the authoritative father in the Oedipal set-up of Kingsley Hall, coming home from the office for meals in the evenings, the man Mary reveres, Berke, becomes Barnes’s Mother. He bottle-fed her, allowed her to suck his breast, cleaned up her wet, shitty sheets, clothes and body, bathed her, fed her egg, carried her to bed, negotiated between her anger and her desire to please. For both parties, the relationship is one of physical and emotional entanglement. For Berke, this was not a doctor/patient relationship, but an equal relationship between two people, where status was left outside of the house:

I, like the others, endeavoured to embody the proposition that once we entered the doors of the place, we functioned simply as equal members of a community. (Barnes & Berke, 1971/2002, p.233)

However, as Sedgewick (1982) argues, whilst conventional roles may have been dropped, this did not mean that all roles and structures were abandoned.  

The issue of Berke’s and Barnes’ identities in the house is brought to a head when Berke hits Barnes, making her nose bleed. He was running late for an appointment, she wanted him to stay with her. From the accounts of both parties, this is a violent episode Barnes describes being ‘slashed’, whereas Berke states he ‘hauled off as hard as he could’. Both parties felt extreme anger leading up to the incident, and both experienced the great relief brought about by the punch and the pouring of blood.

Forty years on, such episodes are incomprehensible as an interaction between doctor and patient, and read more like an incident of domestic abuse. Mary is blamed, her behaviour provokes Berke, Berke cannot control his frustration and rage. He is immediately sorry and shamed, not for his action, but because of what others may think of him as a doctor. He is rescued from his shame by Barnes’s apologetic, subservient response, leaving Berke relieved.

Berke’s violence transgressed the boundaries of doctor/patient relationships, highlighting three issues. First, the fragile nature of identity, as Berke slipped from abusive partner to doctor in a split second. Second, whilst Berke and his contemporaries believed they were equal to the residents, they were blind to the power culturally invested in them through medicine. Third, whilst Berke attempted to impose his own timespace on Barnes (he had an appointment to keep), she resisted and in a sense this could be construed as a victory for her timespace (the incident made him miss the appointment). Barnes reduces Berke’s authoritative position by resisting both his medical identity and the power inherent in it.   

Applying this example to Bakhtin’s carnival, we can see that hierarchical structure is suspended as social barriers are inverted and undermined. The carnival is a place that has the potential to work out ‘a new mode of interrelationship between individuals’ (Bakhtin, 1984b, p.123). This was certainly true for those in Kingsley Hall, where different relationships between doctors and patients were explored and certain barriers, such as formal address, were removed. The positioning of Barnes by both herself and others as a dominant voice in Kingsley Hall culminates in her becoming its star attraction. Her artwork is featured in the national papers, becoming the focus of a BBC documentary. She writes her story with Berke, becoming Laing’s only complete case study. Barnes achieves the notoriety and attention she craved as a child through her painting, and more memorably, as an iconic figure, a heroine of the anti-psychiatry movement. She becomes the star attraction within the psychiatric carnival of Kingsley Hall, just like the staged demonstrations of Charcot a century before.

However, carnival time does not last for ever. It is limited, a bounded temporal space when people can throw off the social shackles and rail against authority. Once the carnival is over, the hierarchical structure returns, so that the carnival exists to simultaneously subvert and reinstate these social hierarchies.

Alison Torn is a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Trinity University College [email protected]  


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The dialogical imagination: Four essays (Trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. Bakhtin, M.M. (1984a). Rabelais and his world (Trans. H. Iswolsky). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Bakhtin, M.M. (1984b). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics (Trans.
C. Emerson). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Barnes, M. & Berke, J. (2002). Two accounts of a journey through madness. New York: Other Press. (Original work published 1971)
Sedgewick, P. (1982). Psycho politics. London: Pluto Press Ltd.