Book Review: Scandal

Scandal, by David Boyle, looks back at the time when Victorian society decided that homosexual behaviour should be criminalised and investigates why. ┬áThe research was inspired by the author’s great-great-grandfather, a respected banker and Justice of the Peace living with his wife and children in Dublin, who fled beyond British jurisdiction in 1884 when several of his known associates where put on trial in what became known as the Dublin Scandals. At that time sodomy was a crime but proving such a private act had occured was difficult. The Dublin Scandals were significant because they reported the facts of homosexual behaviour in newspapers and thereby whipped up public indignation.

The time frame was also a factor. Feminists were campaigning against child abuse, citing examples of pre-teen girls being sold by their poverty stricken families to brothels. Sexual behaviour was being discussed as never before and a prurient readership was agog. The perceived decadence of the arts, personified by those who circled Oscar Wilde, engendered moral outrage in their detractors. With public feeling behind the influentials who wished to drag down a bohemian elite, the stage was set to amend the law in regard to sexual behaviour, and to make gay sex a crime.

The details of the history are fascinating. These are wrapped around the author’s analysis of the life of his great-great-grandfather, Richard Boyle. Within the Boyle family archives, Richard had been erased and the author did not know why. What emerged when he went looking were links to the Dublin gay scene and a subsequent warrant issued for Richard’s arrest.

The known facts of Richard’s life are presented with gaps filled in by suppositions based on his contemporaries and their reported behaviours. I found some of these sections a touch too whimsical. Nevertheless, what emerges is an idea of the impact the change in the law had at the time.

“Society in the 1890s was caught in the tension between the drive, not perhaps so much for purity, but for the possibility of innocence – and the drive for some kind of self-determination, self-definition. We are too: they are the two sides of any kind of gender or sexual politics – part demanding to take part, part demanding the right to refuse. These are not contradictory causes, but they tend to attract different kinds of people to the campaign.”

The desire to protect children from adult sexual proclivities was taken advantage of by those who hated homosexuals. Examples are cited of the unintended consequences, personal and political.

The writing style is patchy in places as it jumps between the investigative reporting and family history. This is still though an interesting read.

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Book Review: Ronald Laing

Ronald Laing, by David Boyle, is a short biographical study of the Scottish psychiatrist, who enjoyed a brief period of fame and notoriety in the 1960s and 70s before the existentialism of the era gave way to the monetarism of the Thatcher years. Straplined The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist, the author explores what drove the doctor to work towards changing the way patients with mental illnesses are treated. Laing was not alone in this endeavour but his work was influential.

In the 1950s, when Laing first started to practice medicine, the mentally ill were incarcerated in large institutions run for the benefit of their staff and society rather than patients. The traumatised inmates were routinely drugged, subjected to ECT and, occasionally, lobotomised in an attempt to control and then standardise their behaviour. They were often treated with contempt by those tasked with deciding on treatment.

“When cruelties are permitted on people or animals, it seems to lead to active dislike among those charged with their care.”

Laing’s approach favoured cutting back on drugs, improving accommodation and autonomy, and listening to what patients had to say. He believed that mental healing could occur with minimum intervention given time and the right conditions. He questioned the definition of madness arguing for greater acceptance of difference. Such radical notions were frowned upon by the medical establishment but fitted well with emerging societal tolerance for individualism and freedom.

The decades in which Laing lived were pivotal to the acceptance and then rejection of his ideas. His personal development was also a factor. Laing took LSD and suffered from alcoholism. He was volatile and something of a philanderer. His fall from grace was exacerbated by his personal behaviour.

The book is divided into sections charting the milestones in Laing’s career and the context in which these occured. With my interest in psychology and sociology I found it fascinating.

“For Laing and his closest collaborators, we are all isolated individuals. He used to speak of trying to divest himself of all forms of collective identity. It was the collective categorisation that Laing raged against, especially of those in mental distress.”

Laing died aged sixty-one having fathered ten children and published numerous books. His work continues to influence psychiatric thinking even if aspects have been discredited. The author mulls what he would have made of the standardisations imposed today on medical diagnosis and treatment, as well as on other areas of life such as education.

A film about Laing’s life titled Mad to be Normal and starring David Tennant has recently gone on general release. This book would provide an excellent introduction and background for interested viewers.