The Prisoner in the Asylum: A B and C

The introduction and master post to this series of posts about The Prisoner can be found here.

Warning: this post includes mention of psychiatric treatments which some people might find distressing or controversial.

One of the remarkable things about watching this show while assuming that Smith/Number 6 is a patient in a psychiatric hospital is that it literally turns the whole show on its head. Rather than being a tale of evil governmental control and manipulation, the authorities are (generally speaking that is, the special nature of The Village can't be overstated) on the side of kindliness and want Smith to get better. Smith thereby becomes the villain of the story - he rejects this kindly help at every turn, creates havoc in the hospital and all this is in addition to something he has already done to Seltzman!

You may think that turning it round like this would be impossible with A, B and C because it is absolutely always seen as being about the authorities getting the reason for Number 6's resignation out of him. However the fact it is 'always' seen like that won't stop me turning this into a therapy encounter.

The reason I can do that is that much of the psychiatry of the middle of the twentieth century was dealing with the fallout of the Great and subsequent wars. The 'shellshock' which soldiers suffered after the Great War was truly bizarre and is one of the things which led to the development of modern psychiatry. Various techniques were developed to help people get over the effect of the incredible trauma they had experienced.

Here's the thing about A, B and C - the information sought is not a straightforward reason for resignation, it is about events which happened before Smith wound up in the Village, and I would venture to say that this is much more like the experience of dealing with previous trauma that I describe above. This is especially the case if you assume that the information they want here is to do with Smith's 'index offence' of the murder of Seltzman - that is the information they are getting at here. And I would suggest a particular technique is used to do so.

Much of the commentary on the internet places this episode into the late sixties, trippy milieu of LSD experimentation and indeed LSD therapy in psychiatry. I think that would certainly be a valid way to interpret this, however I intend to touch on LSD therapy in one of the later, more trippy episodes, so i would prefer to suggest that the treatment being given here is an old school treatment called abreaction. One of the things we tend to do with significant trauma is bury it which is when it gives trouble. Abreaction was very simple, really. You would give someone some medication (ether, I think) to bring down their inhibitions a bit and take them through the trauma again so that they would feel it and release it. 

This is William Sargent, another of the legendary psychiatrists of the sixties, talking about his experiences with abreaction:

'Nevertheless, we did not always find it essential, in abreaction, to make a patient recall the precise incident which precipitated the breakdown. It would often be enough to create in him a state of excitement analogous to that which caused his neurotic condition, and keep it up until he collapsed; he would then start to improve. Thus, imagination would have to be used in inventing artificial situations or distorting actual events - especially where the patient, while remembering the real experience which had caused the neurosis, or reliving it under drugs, had not reached the transmarginal phase of collapse necessary for disrupting the new morbid behavior pattern. Among the patients from whose cases the above important finding could be deduced was a soldier in a tank regiment whom we could bring to the point of emotional collapse, under ether, only by persuading him  that he was trapped in a burning tank and must try to get out at all costs.' William Sargant: Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing. Doubleday and Company, New York, 1957, p. 72.

If that's not describing what's going on here, I don't know what is! Obviously the Village's use of technology to feed the scenarios into Smith's mind is a development of the standard treatment and no doubt an abuse of him. But you have to love the way he turns it round to torment Number 2.

The most Village-like picture of Hollymoor I could find

True to form, although I have tended to depict Smith as purely a patient, I am going to back pedal a little and think it also possible that he would have a forces or intelligence background. And here I would like to introduce you to another actual hospital, Hollymoor Hospital in Northfield, right here in the Second City, which was used for psychiatric casualties in the Second World War and where a huge amount of work was done on understanding this in the first round of what were termed Northfield Experiments. I bring this up because while The Village clearly isn't a real hospital, Hollymoor in World War 2 is the closest I can find to what The Village would be like as a psychiatric hospital. In fact all the servicemen treated there were marked by great courage, had markedly more awards than most, were more intelligent than the general population and at least one holder of the Victoria Cross was treated there. Perhaps I should say that they were hand picked for the experimental group or community therapy to try to get them back into the war as soon as possible (all this information is from Tom Harrison and David Clarke: The Northfield Experiments. British Journal of Psychiatry (1992), 160, pp. 698 - 708). The one overriding impression you get of these experiments is of the sheer confrontation, resentment and conflict which is the common recollection of everyone involved in the military experiment at Northfield. The similarity to The Village struck me because of this quote which could actually be describing The Village (incidentally the confrontation and behaviour described here is another perfect example of the sort of institutional combative behaviour I wrote about two posts ago under It's Your Funeral):

'Initially, patients at Northfield were soldiers from bases in the UK. As the second front opened up, soldiers arrived from active combat duty in France and Germany, eventually followed by prisoners of war. There were, however, other patients - from the RAF, from other theatres of war, German escapees, and men deemed to have 'disciplinary problems'. Major Bion who, with John Rickman, conducted the first Northfield experiment, was particularly aware of the latter group: "it must of course be remembered that in a psychiatric hospital there are collected all those men with whom ordinary military procedures have failed to cope". 
'From December 1943, men were only admitted if it seemed probable that, after a short period of treatment, they would return to "high grade military duties (i.e. not merely simple administrative and domestic duties, or service in the pioneer corps)". That this was not always so is revealed by the views of one sergeant in charge of the locked ward in 1946: "the whole essence was containment, not treatment". Many of his patients regarded beating the system as their main task: "if one got away with anything, the others took great pleasure in it". On one occasion he organised a football match in an attempt to dissipate some of his charges' aggression. Two men absconded within ten minutes of the match starting.' Op. Cit. p. 689.

I don't have any evidence to suggest that the first Northfield experiments were an inspiration for The Prisoner (although I would love to be the first to suggest a so far undiscovered source), however it is certainly not impossible that they were among the inspirations. We all know how Markstein was inspired by the real village in Scotland for spies, and if you can hear about a village which was secret you can also hear about an experimental medical treatment for soldiers which was not secret, in fact it was extensively written about in the 1940s.

SInce you don't come here for normal blogging, I'm delighted to introduce you to a video of an actual abreaction session from a BBC documentary from 1957. Unfortunately I have had to put it in two bits because it's split up on my source which is this youtube channel. The rest of the video contains ECT, a man talking about his lobotomy and the utterly bizarre deep insulin coma therapy, which my own mother worked in in the fifties. Actually the nurses in her hospital used to fight each other to work on the insulin coma ward because putting people into a coma and waking them up is the definition of money for old rope. Once again, I am struck by how similar this is to A, B and C, and also by how utterly bizarre it is with the mask, the doctor dripping ether onto it, and his total absence of self consciousness in going onto TV to talk about it. The suitability or otherwise of these treatments being performed for real on TV is a matter which I am going to avoid at this point.


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